U Wirathu: ‘There is a jihad against Buddhist monks’

wirathu6

As reported by Al Jazeera the controversial Burmese Buddhist monk U Wirathu addressed 5000 monks and laymen in a packed sports stadium in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on Sunday 28 September.

In his usual rhetoric he argued that Buddhists are being threatened by Muslims and he suggested a possible a union between the Sri Lankan Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), and the Burmese 969 movement:

To protect and defend the threatened Buddhist the world over, my 969 movement will join hands with the BBS…Buddhists are facing a serious threat today from jihadist groups…The patience of Buddhists is seen as a weakness. Buddhist temples have been destroyed. There is a jihad against Buddhist monks.

The wider issue being considered by the Sangha convention is the proposal to create a ‘Sinhala Buddhist State’ and Buddhist monks and Hindu representatives from several countries were due to take part.

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wirathu 5

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Buddhist monks caught riding on broomsticks

 

Monks

As reported in the Bangkok Post two Buddhist monks were caught on camera over the weekend pretending to fly, and seemingly race (or play Quidditch in the style of Harry Potter), on broomsticks. It is reported that the monks were pictured during a break from sweeping the temple grounds. The picture has since gone viral.

There is not much to add to the image aside from the suggestion that some find their conduct to be inappropriate. Going through the 227 rules of the Pātimokkha  (which govern the monastic discipline of the monks) it is difficult to see which rule is being broken. However, 26 of the minor rules (the 75 sekhiya rules) do suggest moderation, decorum and etiquette in monastic behaviour. For example: ‘To behave decorously when going to inhabited areas'(susaṃvuto antaraghare gamissāmīti sikkhā karaṇīyā). I imagine it is a question of the decorum of flying on a broomstick.

The Phuket News has reported that the National Office of Buddhism in Thailand are investigating the antics of the monks in the picture. Its director, Nopparat Benjawattananan is quoted as saying that the monks in the picture ‘acted inappropriately and lack discipline. The organization will identify them. They deserve punishment.’

Director Nopparat Benjawattananan
Director Nopparat Benjawattananan

 

Riots between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay

riots

As  reported in the Democratic Voice of Burma and other news outlets riots have broken out in Mandalay between Buddhists and Muslims. They originated in a blog post by a blogger called Ko Di, a US resident who blogs with the name Thit Htoo Lwin:

‘The violence kicked off after a blogger, who writes under the name Thit Htoo Lwin (the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog), posted an article on 30 June accusing two Muslim owners of the Sun Teashop of raping a Buddhist woman, who he said was their maid…The story was picked up by several websites, and nationalist monk Wirathu posted it to his Facebook page.’ It has been reported that the wife of one of the accused Muslim men has said that they do not in fact have a maid. Whatever the facts behind the story, tensions are clearly high, rumours spread quickly on social media, and U Wirathu appears to have help spread the story on his very popular Facebook page.

The story itself originally appeared under the title ‘Sun Teashop owners, two Muslim brothers, raped a Buddhist maid’. The website is popular with Burmese and it seems that the story was completely fabricated. However, it quickly spread through social media. It is reported that Buddhist monks attempted to calm the rioting Buddhist crowd. Galoneni Sayadaw is reported to have said:

‘We tried our best, but they would not listen. Some of them were drunk and hard to control. Whatever happens to them depends only on their own behavior. We just don’t want to see Mandalay burn because of racial and religious hatred.’

It was reported on 2nd July that the the original blog post on the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog was taken down without explanation.

From M-Media:

‘It was not the first time of posting such fabricated news at Thit Htoo Lwin and it used to blog religious and racial hatred made-up stories and news, which might lead a sectarian conflict. For instance, on 18th Jun 2013, it posted fabricated false news, “Declaration of 2nd Jihad”, with a very clear intention of causing a sectarian conflict.

The founding blogger of the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog is believed to be living in the United States currently. He worked for several foreign-based Burmese Language broadcasts such as BBC, VOA, DVB from 1998 to 2006 according to Irrawady News Magazine’s interview with him.’

A great post has appeared on this entire episode by Kenneth Wong ‘Mandalay: From Mouse Clicks to Mob Rule in 24 Hours’

Buddhism in Burma and Sri Lanka: Ethnocentric Buddhism

Another short interview by Dr David Webster of the University of Gloucestershire with myself, this time about Buddhism in modern Burma. It appears on the University of Gloucestershire’s Video Resources for Philosophy and Religion Students.

I have previously written about the phenomenon of Ethnocentric Buddhism:

‘“Ethnocentric Buddhism” is a term I have begun to use to describe a particular phenomenon in the history of Buddhism, although I suspect it is not a recent one. The term points to the notion that Buddhist identity is intrinsically linked to national identity. It also denotes the idea that other factors will be apparent in creating Buddhist and national identity in different Buddhist cultures. For example, in Thailand there is the idea of “nation, religion and monarch” (chat-sasana-phramahakasat) and in Burma “nation, language and religion” (amyo-barthar-tharthanar). In both of these examples the idea of the Buddhist religion (sasana/tharthanar) is linked to other factors in the formation of national and cultural identity. Further, in both cases the defence of one’s religion is linked to these other themes of national identity — to defend one is to defend the other.’

 

 

On Buddhist monks proposing ‘interfaith marriage laws’

buddha

There is some debate in Burma about proposed laws that would prohibit interfaith marriage. The laws have been proposed by members of the Burmese Buddhist Sangha. If passed, the laws would prohibit marriage between a Buddhist woman and a man of another faith, unless he ‘converts’ to Buddhism (I am not at all clear of how one ‘converts’ to Buddhism’).

The laws are being proposed on the premise that Buddhism is under threat from other religions. The ‘Interfaith Marriage Act’ is one of the ‘National Race and Religion Protection Bills’ that have been proposed by ‘Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion’ (OPNRR), headed by Ashin Tilawka Biwuntha. It is clear from the context of the monastic debate that the monks wish to prohibit marriage between Buddhist women and Muslim men – it is then highly discriminatory with undertones of racism and Islamophobia.

There are a few obvious points that should be made about these proposed laws. Buddhism is a monastic tradition – it usually has little concern with secular affairs – and this historically most definitely includes marriage. It is commonplace in Buddhism to observe that there are no Buddhist marriage ceremonies. The monastics might in some ways ‘bless’ a couple after a secular marriage ceremony, and modern Buddhists might have replicated marriage ceremonies from other religions, but it can be stated quite categorically that the Buddhist monastic is not concerned with any type of marriage ceremony. It is this that makes the Burmese monastic debate such an odd phenomenon.

It needs to be stated that, traditionally, the Buddhist monastic is concerned with three things. First, the notion that all actions have consequences; that these actions are causing us to be reborn in an endless cycle of rebirths; and that, given the opportune conditions, the person should strive to end this cycle of rebirths which is pervaded by suffering. In short the monastic is concerned with Karma, Saṃsāra and Nibbāna.

What then is the concern of the monastic with laws prohibiting marriage between different religions? It seems to me that these are the questions that need to be asked by those protesting against the bills proposed by ‘Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion’. It is reported that some of the monks are disagreeing with various organisations who dare opposed to the Interfaith Marriage Bill, calling overseas NGO’s ‘traitors‘ for their opposition. Clearly, this secular rhetoric is startling in that monastics are debating issues outside of their usual supramundane narrative of traditional Buddhist discourse. The mundane world (lokiya), of secular affairs has become disjointed and mixed with the supramundane world (lokuttara) of Buddhist preaching.

 

Is the idea that Buddhism has a political message ‘wishful thinking’?

thich

In the study of Buddhism it has often been noted that the teachings do not point to the changing of the world, but to changing our perception of it – there is nothing wrong with the world but the way we perceive the world. The problem of ‘suffering’ (dukkha) is not ultimately to do with the world, but with the fact that people tend to grasp and become attached to all sorts of things. The world is seen with greed, hatred and delusion. This aspect of Buddhist teachings suggests that Buddhist doctrines should not be used to change the world, but to change the way we view the world.They should be used to lessen greed, hatred and delusion and, in so doing, solve the problem of dukkha. What is needed is a way of seeing that reduces and eradicates craving. I would like to consider these ideas and conclude with some comments on how this might affect our understanding of socially engaged Buddhism.

Let me use the Abhidhamma to explore these ideas. Throughout book three of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, an evaluation is given of certain ways of apprehending the world. In the following I would like to focus upon one aspect of what I think the text is describing. Put simply this is that the world can be apprehended with or without craving. This aspect of Buddhist thought has been noted by Steven Collins, who has suggested that this reflects something of a dichotomising tendency within early Buddhism:

 

‘Anything with conceptual or experiential content was to be assimilated to the impersonal, non-valued side of the dichotomy; since in this sphere everything was dominated by desire and grasping, anything with content became potentially graspable. Against this stood the empty unconditioned nibbāna, susceptible neither to conceptualising nor grasping.’[1]

 

Buddhism is, at it were, concerened with different orders of seeing, between the graspable, and the ungraspable, between concepts and emptiness, beteen attachment and non-attachment, between craving and calmness. I would like to look at the Dhammasaṅgaṇi to see how it considers this apparent dichotomy. Book three of the Dhammasaṅgaṇi,the Nikkhepa-kaṇḍaṃ, begins with the following question:

 

‘Which ‘things’ (dhammas. I leave the term untranslated in the following) are wholesome?
The three roots of the wholesome:Absence of greed, hatred and delusion;The four ‘aggregates’ (khandhas)[2] of feeling, apperception, volitional formations and consciousness when they are associated with these roots;Actions of body, speech and mind when they come from these three roots.These are wholesome dhammas’.[3]

 

With reference to the khandhas, I take this to imply that, when they are seen in their true nature, i.e. as not-self, they are wholesome (this is sammā-diṭṭhi).

 

The next question asked is:

 

‘Which dhammas are unwholesome?
The three roots of the unwholesome:Greed, hatred and delusion;The defilements (kilesā) united with them;The four khandhas of feeling, apperception, volitional formations and consciousness when they are associated with these roots;Actions of body, speech and mind when they come from these three roots.These are unwholesome dhammas.’[4]

 

The Dhammasaṅgaṇi is clearly stating that the four mental khandhas are unwholesome when they are associated with ‘greed’, ‘hatred’ and ‘delusion’ (lobha, dosa, moha). [5] In this analysis it must be remembered that in the Nikāya and Abhidhamma analysis the term khandha is a neutral term, but the khandhas can become associated with (are indeed prone to), corruption. Primarily they are prone to give rise to the corruption of ‘wrong-view’ (micchā-diṭṭhi) which distorts the way things really are. Rupert Gethin has commented on the nature of the khandhas in the Nikāyas and Abhidhamma:

 

‘The term upādānakkhandha signifies the general way in which the khandhas are bound up with upādāna; the simple khandha, universally applicable, is used in the nikāyas and especially the Abhidhamma texts as a neutral term, allowing the specific aspects of, for example, upādāna’s relationship to the khandhas to be elaborated.’[6]

 

The Dhammasaṅgaṇi is using the khandhas in its explanation of two ways of apprehending the world, one ‘wholesome’ (kusala), and one ‘unwholesome’ (akusala). These ideas suggest that the text is attempting to explain two attitudes to the world found in the dichotomy suggested by Collins. The same reality is seen, but the one based on non-attachment is wholesome, and the other, based on attachment, giving rise to corruptions, is unwholesome.

 

One could state that in this particular understanding of the Buddha’s teachings the entire engaged Buddhism agenda appears fundamentally flawed. Socially engaged Buddhism begins with the premise that suffering is not only caused by mental reactions to external events, but that external events – social, political and economic, for example – can be the cause of suffering. For the engaged Buddhist suffering is not only psychological, to be overcome by such techniques as meditation, but finds its causes in a wide variety of factors. Political struggle, among other things, can then be used as a technique to overcome suffering. I’m not suggesting that either interpretation is correct. They appear to me to both be valid and to have support from different parts of the tradition. I would suggest that the teachings I am considering here offer a criticism, and one that perhaps needs to be addressed, of socially engaged Buddhism. As I have heard it suggested – to think that Buddhism has a political message is ‘wishful thinking’.

 

Notes

[1] Steven Collins, Selfless Persons, p. 113.

[2] I shall return to the use of four khandhas below.

[3] katame dhammā kusalā? tīṇi kusalamūlāni: alobho adoso amoho taṃsampayutto vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, taṃ samuṭṭhānaṃ kāyakammaṃ vacīkammaṃ manokammaṃ, ime dhammā kusalā, Dhs 180, :981. All references to the Dhs are given by page then paragraph numbers.

[4] katame dhammā akusalā? tīṇi akusalamūlāni: lobho doso moho, tadekaṭṭhā ca kilesā taṃsampayutto vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, taṃsamuṭṭhānaṃ kāyakammaṃ vacīkammaṃ manokammaṃ, ime dhammā akusalā, Dhs 180, :982.

[5] The text finally defines those dhammas that are indeterminate (avyākatā), which is not essential for the present discussion: katame dhammā avyākatā kusalākusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ vipākā kāmāvacarā rūpāvacarā arūpāvacarā apariyāpannā, vedanākkhandho saññākkhandho saṃkhārakkhandho viññāṇakkhandho, ye ca dhammā kiriyā n’ eva kusalā nākusalā na ca kammavipākā, sabbaṃ ca rūpaṃ, asaṃkhatā ca dhātu. ime dhammā avyākatā, Dhs 180, :983.

[6] Rupert Gethin, ‘The Five Khandhas: Their Treatment in the Nikāyas and Early Abhidhamma’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, 14 (1986), 35-53 (p. 39).

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

angulimala-boeddha

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.