During the time of the Buddha there was a young man by the name of Ahimsaka (lit. “Harmless One”) who was such an excellent student that his classmates came to resent him and convinced their teacher that he had ambitions to take over the school and drive out the teacher. Knowing Ahimsaka to be an exceptionally reverent and obedient student, the teacher instructed him to bring a gift of 1,000 human fingers each taken from a different body, perhaps in the hope that he would be captured or killed in the process of trying to collect all the fingers.
Despite his reservations, Ahimsaka felt such loyalty to his teacher that he set out to fulfill the grisly request. He chose a high place in a dense forest where he could spot his victims approaching and easily ambush them. In time, he came to be called Angulimala, which literally means “Garland of Fingers,” because he wore the fingers taken from his victims on a string around his neck. As word spread of the murders he was committing, people avoided that forest all together.
When the Buddha passed through that area on a journey, the local people repeatedly warned him to stay away from the forest to avoid being attacked by Angulimala. The Buddha listened to their warnings in silence and carried on his way. When Angulimala saw the Buddha enter the forest he rushed to pounce on him. He chased the Buddha running as fast as he could, but he could not catch up to him. In frustration, Angulimala stopped running and called out to the Buddha, ordering him to stop. The Buddha replied, “I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.” Perplexed, Angulimala demanded that the Buddha explain how he could claim to have stopped when he was still moving and how could he claim that Angulimala was still moving when it was he who had stopped. The Buddha responded with the following verse:
“I have stopped, Angulimala, 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.”
(Angulimala Sutta, Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html)
When Angulimala heard these words of truth spoken by the Buddha, he immediately cast his sword and weapons into a pit and humbly asked to be admitted into the Sangha. The Buddha accepted him as a disciple and Angulimala became a living example of the power of the Buddha’s teachings to transform violence into peace. From time to time, people who remembered Angulimala’s past deeds would attack him, but rather than fighting back, Angulimala wished peace and goodness for those who would harm him.
The Buddha teaches that the things we do, say and think are greatly influenced by the force of karma, the vast web of causes and conditions that propel us along on our journey through life. Our true teacher Shinran explained the working of karma to his close Dharma companion Yuien:
. . . the Master [Shinran] once asked, “Yuien-bo, do you accept all that I say?”
“Yes I do,” I answered.
“Then will you not deviate from whatever I tell you?” he repeated.
I humbly affirmed this. Thereupon he said, “Now, I want you to kill a thousand people. If you do, you will definitely attain birth [in Amida Buddha’s realm of peace and bliss].”
I responded, “Though you instruct me thus, I’m afraid it is not in my power to kill even one person.”
“Then why did you say that you would follow whatever I told you?”
He continued, “By this you should realize that if we could always act as we wished, then when I told you to kill a thousand people in order to attain birth, you should have immediately done so. But since you lack the karmic cause inducing you to kill even a single person, you do not kill. It is not that you do not kill because your heart is good. In the same way, a person may not wish to harm anyone and yet end up killing a hundred or a thousand people.”
(Collected Works of Shinran, pg. 670-671)
Viewed in the light of the Buddha’s wisdom, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as an inherently good or evil person. People commit harmful acts when their minds are clouded by delusion. Likewise, people are able to practice genuine kindness when they see the light of wisdom. No matter how far astray I have been led by the force of my past karma, a single encounter with the compassion of the Buddha has the power to transform my life. Angulimala had the good fortune to live in a time and place where he could meet Sakyamuni Buddha in person. Living in this age 2,500 years after Sakyamuni dwelled in our world, I encounter the great compassion of the Buddha in the Nembutsu. Just as Angulimala turned his life around when he heard the true words spoken by the Sakyamuni Buddha, my life is transformed in the words “Namo Amida Butsu” the voice of great compassion calling me to take refuge in the light of wisdom.