Miracles, Protection, and ‘getting away with murder’ in Buddhism?


The story of Angulimāla operates on a number of levels. On the one hand it shows how a Buddha would not abandon even the most despicable creature, and that the Dhamma can help all sentient beings. On another level it shows how the Dhamma is apotropaic – it has the power to protect those who hear it, particularly, in this case, those who are pregnant. Finally, the story suggests how the law of karma is not as straightforward as one might suppose and how one might get away with murder.

In the Majjhima-nikāya it is described how Angulimāla is ‘brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings’, and that ‘having repeatedly killed human beings, he wore a garland (mala) made of fingers (anguli)’, hence his name. The sutta describes how the Buddha one day set out along the road where Angulimāla was lived. The Buddha is warned by various people not to go along this road, for Angulimāla is there. However, the Buddha does not heed their warnings, and keeps going, in silence. The villagers explain how groups of ten, twenty, thirty and forty men have gone along the road and have all fell victim to Angulimāla. In the commentary Angulimāla’s strength as a young man is actually due to his past actions – in a previous life he had made a fire by which a so called ‘solitary Buddha’ (paccekabuddha) dried his clothes.

Angulimāla sees the Buddha approaching and decides to kill him. In the Majjhima-nikāya version of the story no mention is made of how many people Angulimāla has killed, though in the later tradition it is told how the Buddha will be his thousandth victim. He now intends to kill a Buddha. This is clearly the intention to perform one of the so-called ‘five immediately effective heinous crimes.’ (pancanantariya karma: matricide, patricide, the murder of an Arahant, the wounding of a Buddha and the creation of a schism in the Sangha).

With Angulimāla following behind him, the Buddha uses his iddhi (iddhābhisaṅkhāraṃ). This is the use of any of the standard list of ten ‘psychic powers’, though it is difficult to see which one is being used here. With Angulimāla running to catch him as fast as he could, he could not, with the Buddha walking at his usual pace.

In a famous episode Angulimāla stops running and asks the Buddha to stop:

‘Stop, contemplative! Stop!’

The Buddha’s famous reply ‘I have stopped, Angulimāla. You stop.’

This clearly confuses Angulimāla. He reasons that these ‘Sakyan contemplatives, are speakers of truth, and asserters of truth (saccavādino, saccapaṭiñño), so, how can there now be truth in the words of this contemplative? The truth of the Buddha is expressed in the following verse:

‘I have stopped, Angulimāla,

once & for all,

having cast off violence

toward all living beings.

You, though,

are unrestrained toward beings.

That’s how I’ve stopped

and you haven’t.’

(thito ahaṃ ‘aṅgulimāla sabbadā

sabbesu bhūtesu nidhāya daṇḍaṃ,

tuvañca pāṇesu asaññatosi

tasmā ṭhitohaṃ tuvamaṭṭhitosī’ti.

cirassaṃ vata me mahito mahesī

mahāvanaṃ samaṇoyaṃ paccupādi,

sohaṃ cirassāpi pahassaṃ pāpaṃ

sutvāna gāthaṃ tava dhammayuttaṃ, M II 99-100)


This verse causes the conversion of Angulimāla. The Buddha is a savior in this episode. He acted for the sake of Angulimāla, who abandons all that is destructive (pāpaṃ), and requests the going forth (to become a monk), which is granted by the Buddha. It is clear that someone who has killed many has joined the Sangha. He has been converted by the miraculous qualities of the Buddha, by his ethical conduct, by his charisma.


Protection and Childbirth

The famous episode, for which the Sutta is perhaps best known as a paritta (protection) text is the passage in which, Angulimāla, while on his alms round, sees a woman in breach birth (mūḷhagabbhaṃ), and begins to reflect upon the nature of suffering.

He informs the Buddha of this, and is advised:

‘In that case, Angulimāla, go to that woman and on arrival say to her, ‘Sister, since I was born I do not recall intentionally killing a living being. Through this truth may there be well-being for you, well-being for your fetus.’

Angulimāla clearly cannot do this for he has’ intentionally killed many living beings.’

‘Then in that case, Angulimāla, go to that woman and on arrival say to her, ‘Sister, since I was born in the noble birth, I do not recall intentionally killing a living being. Through this truth may there be well-being for you, well-being for your fetus.’

(yatohaṃ bhagini, ariyāya jātiyā jāto nābhijānāmi sañcicca pāṇaṃ jīvitā voropetā. tena saccena sotthi te hotu sotthi gabbhassā’ti).

He did this, and on uttering these words, there was well-being for the woman and the fetus. This is the Angulimālaparitta, and, as reported by Gombrich, (Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon,1971, p. 224), is still used in modern Sri Lanka (and in Southeast Asia – often a version of the Sutta is memorized and recited by a pregnant woman).

One could reflect here that this is, in the Nikāyas at least, an unusual episode in which the power of the word, of the dhamma is displayed in a distinctive way, which is rarely found in the Pali Canon. The teachings have power, they are protective. The utterance of ‘truth’ can have miraculous consequences. Although the term paritta is not found in the Suttas, and only a few times in the Vinaya, this seems a clear example of a Sutta as protective, mentioned in the Visudhimagga at 414 (also S I 218, D III 195). It is the beginning of (or at least part of) the cult of amulets and other charms common throughout Buddhist Asia. The Angulimāla-sutta is distinctive for this reason. We have already seen how the Buddha converts in a particular way, using his iddhi, now this passage is suggestive of the power of the dhamma in and of itself.

The Sutta continues that, in a very short time, Angulimāla realized ‘birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world,’ and so became another of the Arahants

(tadanuttaraṃ brahmacariyaṃ pariyosānaṃ diṭṭheva dhamme sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā upasampajja vihāsi. khīṇā jāti, vusita brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyāti abbhaññāsi. aññataro ca kho panāyasmā aṅgulimālo arahataṃ ahosi, M II 103-4).


Getting away with murder?

Angulimāla has clearly killed many times but his karmic slate is about to be wiped clean. Like others in Buddhist history (the karmic consequences of Ashoka, of Dutthagamani are considered by Michael Zimmerman, ‘Only a Fool Becomes a King: Buddhist Stances on Punishment’) Angulimāla will alter his karmic load through enacting an ethical short circuit. In the commentarial tradition his murderous acts have accounted for 999 victims. His karmic account should be severely in the red, with a number of kalpas of excruciating pain lying ahead of him.  However, it is told how, Angulimāla, is wondering around Sāvatthi for alms, early one morning. A ‘clod’ is thrown by one person and hits him on the body; a stone thrown by another person and also hits him on the body; a potsherd [a fragment of broken pottery] is thrown by another person. Angulimāla’s head is broken and bleeding, his alms bowl broken and his out robe in shreds.’


The Buddha who informs him:

‘Bear with it, brahmin! Bear with it! The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for many years, many hundreds of years, many thousands of years, you are now experiencing in the here-&-now!’

(adhivāsehi tvaṃ brāhmaṇa, adhivāsehi tvaṃ brāhmaṇa, yassa kho tvaṃ kammassa vipākena bahūni vassāni bahūni vassasatāni bahūni vassasahassāni niraye pacceyyāsi. tassa tvaṃ brāhmaṇa, kammassa vipākaṃ diṭṭheva dhamme paṭisaṃvedesī’ti).


He is then experiencing a type of kamma that is experienced in the here and now. Is Angulimāla getting away with murder? Actions have consequences, but can the law of karma be subverted in some way? Richard Gombrich has discussed Angulimāla in the final chapter of How Buddhism Began. Gombrich suggests that Angulimāla was most likely to have been a follower of Shiva and to be an example of some form of early tantric practice. According to Gombrich, who sees the Pali text as corrupt, and through his restructuring of it, the collection of the fingers is the result of a Shaivistic vow (p, 152). Gombrich terms this a sanguinary (accompanied by bloodshed) vow: a devotee decorating himself with parts of a person, often taken from a living victim. The Buddhist narrative then could be being imposed upon an earlier historical one? Does this in turn lead to a certain clumsiness?  A recent paper by Anālayo, ‘The Conversion of Angulimāla in the Samyutta- āgama (Buddhist Studies Review 25 (2) 2008, 135-48), is a comparison of a number of versions of the Angulimālasutta, the Pali being one among several, focusing upon the actual conversion of Angulimāla. In this analysis the we find that the ‘problem’ with Angulimāla’s kamma simply does not occur in many of the various Chinese and āgama versions. Finally a PhD thesis by Danya Furda in 2005 from McMaster titled ‘Karma and Grace in the Legend of Angulimāla’ focuses upon the redemptive and grace like quality of the Angulimāla legend.


Types of Kamma

Our mass murderer, Angulimāla, or is he also an ascetic of some description, presents us with rather large issues. The Nikāyas, in other places are obviously quite unambiguous about the consequences of killing living beings:

‘Here, student, some man or woman kills living beings, and is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to loving beings. Because of performing and undertaking such action, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. But if on the dissolution of the body, after death, he does not reappear in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell, but instead comes back to a human state, then wherever he is reborn he is short-lived.’

(idha māṇava, ekacco itthi vā puriso vā pāṇātipātī hoti luddo lohitapāṇi hatapahate niviṭṭho adayāpanno sabbapāṇabhutesu so tena kammena evaṃ samantena evaṃ samādinnena kāyassa bhedā parammaraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinipātaṃ nirayaṃ upapajjati. no ce kāyassa bhedā parammaraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinipātaṃ nirayaṃ upapajjati, sace manussattaṃ āgacchati, yattha yattha paccājāyati, appāyuko hoti, M III 203).


In the light of such unambiguous statements, I think the Pāli Angulimāla-sutta is aware of this question of what happened to Anglulimāla’s kamma, or more correctly the fruit of his actions:


‘Bear with it, brahman! Bear with it! The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for many years, many hundreds of years, many thousands of years, you are now experiencing in the here-&-now!’

(adhivāsehi tvaṃ brāhmaṇa, adhivāsehi tvaṃ brāhmaṇa, yassa kho tvaṃ kammassa vipākena bahūni vassāni bahūni vassasatāni bahūni vassasahassāni niraye pacceyyāsi. tassa tvaṃ brāhmaṇa, kammassa vipākaṃ diṭṭheva dhamme paṭisaṃvedesī’ti),


The Abhidhamma, in its discussion of kamma sometimes elucidates four ways in which there is the occasion for the results of kamma:


‘To be experienced here and now, to be experienced subsequently, to be experienced variously, and has-been kamma.’ Abhidhammatthasangaha. Gethin, p. 173.


Angulimāla’s ‘murders’ appear to be of the first type. Indeed this is the interpretation of Buddhaghosa in the commentary to the Angulimāla-sutta. The Abhidhamma also speaks of kamma by way of giving results, and one of these categories is weighty, such as killing ones mother or father. By way of giving result, the category need not just be akusala, unwholesome, but the kamma could be a great splendor ‘incapable of being overcome by some other kamma,’ (Gethin, p. 174). Thus there is no fruit, vipāka, of certain actions if a greater good (or a greater bad), has been performed. For example, absorption in the Jhanas is considered a very wholesome action.   We may infer that such attainments were practices by Angulimāla.  Angulimāla’s kamma is ‘to be experienced here and now’ (diṭṭhadhamma). As the Abhidhamma explains:


‘The here and now is one’s immediately present existence; [kamma] that will be experienced by virtue of experience of its result during this [existence] is [kamma] to be experienced here and now. Gethin, trans, 175-6.


The text suggests that this result is often in the present life because it does not have the power of repetition (surely this cannot be the case with the repetition of repeated murders) – the idea appears to be however that repeated performance over many lifetimes life times of wholesome or unwholesome actions has more power, which would appear to be perfectly coherent. (Gethin, p. 176). So, according to this Abhidhamma interpretation, Angulimāla experiences the results of his actions ‘here and now’ (diṭṭhadhamma ). The fruit of his actions (kammassa vipākaṃ) are experienced here and how (diṭṭheva dhamme paṭisaṃvedesī), which, in many ways, raises more questions than answers.


On a simple level the Angulimāla-sutta can be read as a discourse on how the Buddha will even not condemn a mass murderer. It tells of how the dhamma can save all beings, even those who have murdered many. It suggests the transformative power of following the teachings, of taking refuge, and even more, the power of going forth. It suggests the power of the monastics, who is the embodiment of a ‘truth’ that can protect a mother and her unborn child and ensure health for both. Angulimāla, as an ascetic figure and contemporary of the Buddha, could be an example of another ascetic, saved by the Buddha. The idea of protection is a strong theme in the Sutta – not only can converting to Buddhism save Angulimāla, but Anglulimāla himself can in turn protect those in painful childbirth, and, indeed, this power extends to Angulimāla being saved from many of the consequences of his actions. Some, notably Peter Masefield, have suggested that the Buddhist Path, or, more exactly, the lokutarra magga, the supramundane path has a transformative ‘grace like’ quality, and that entry upon the Buddhist path, in terms of stream-entry, can nullify past kamma. Indeed, other examples are available, such as the bhikkhuni, Bhadda Kundalakess, who had previously murdered a robber, but, becomes a Jain nun, then eventually achieves Nibbāna under the Buddha – there is no explanation of the results of her previous actions. The Dhamma subverts immutable laws, such as that of kamma. Such aspects of the teachings, it appears, are often overlooked in the rational discourse about Buddhism, particularly the Buddhism of the Pali Canon, but are given prominence in Northern and East Asian Buddhist schools. It seems that a closer reading of Pali sources suggests miraculous aspects are an important part of the Buddha’s teachings. It is not so much that Angulimāla gets away with murder but that the notion of the power and protective quality of the Dhamma is more pronounced, and that the Dhamma operates in a less rational way, than is often supposed. It is not so much Angulimāla getting away with murder, but modern readings of Buddhism getting away with an entirely logical reading of the notion of karma and its understanding of key themes in Buddhism.