ENLIGHTENMENT OF A TERRORIST
The mythic story of the terrorist who wore 999 fingers of his victims as a necklace is one of the most familiar Buddhist stories, although its meaning is subject to interpretation and the story has many variations to conform it to one or the other of these interpretations.
The story has two parts. In the first part a privileged child turns into a feared terrorist intent on killing 1000 people, keeping track by cutting on a finger from each victim and wearing them on a string. He has one to collect when his mother tries to save him from being hunted down as the terrorist he is. In his demented desperation he thinks of killing his mother to complete the quest, but then he sees the Buddha and sets off after him instead. His race toward the Self-Enlightened One is unsuccessful because he can never seem to close the gap between himself and the serene One. He calls on the Buddha to stop, but Gautama replies, “I’ve already stopped, you stop, too.” This leads to a conversation in which the terrorist, Angulimala (องคุลิมาล ) realizes that his intention could be achieved by ceasing his murderous rampage. The Buddha expounds a way of release that does not accrue horrendous kharmic consequences. Thus begins the second part of the story. Angulimala accepts this advice, gives up his quest, becomes a disciple and then an arahant (an enlightened one on the threshold of Nirvana/Nibbana). In a further episode the converted terrorist, utilizing his profound experience of pain and advice from the Buddha, assists in a childbirth, leading to his being venerated in that regard.
Scholars have written extensively on how to make coherent sense out of this myth. The popular view is that the story shows that no one is totally beyond salvation. Other scholars insist that nuances are valuable to help us see how this mythic example applies to such conundrums as Buddhist justification of violence in the name of justice. I am particularly attracted to an article by Paisarn Likhitpreechakul who argues that this mythic story is a rebuttal of “karmic determinism” that “is used to rationalize inequality and justify prejudices.”*
Above all, the Buddha was a masterful teacher. Each of his lessons was precisely designed for his intended audience. To focus on aspects of narratives about him that seem to contravene natural law is to miss the point of the metaphorical action being described. Many religious narratives contain seemingly supernatural aspects that would best be thought of as parabolic.
Christians tell the story of “Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac” (the demented man who lived among the tombs and terrorized the neighborhood). The legion of demons pleaded to be released into a flock of swine and were dispatched, setting the man free to re-enter society and be a disciple of Jesus.*
“Legion” and Angulimala have a lot in common, but it fades in comparison to what Gautama and Jesus have in common as masterful teachers of peaceful living in society.
How one gets from being an adversary to an advocate of peace, wholeness, and fulfillment depends on one’s starting point. Few of us are possessed by 5000 demons or on a quest to murder a thousand victims, but all of us have need of transformative advice before it’s too late. The best teachers are those who enter their students’ zeitgeist and discern the distorted images of God submerged within. Teachers who fail are those, like the villagers in both Gergesa and Kosala, who see no more than hopeless scoundrels causing havoc.
* Paisarn Likhitpreechakul, “Decoding Two ‘Miracles’ of the Buddha,” in Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, Vol. 2, May, 2012. And see my blog on the Demoniac named Legion: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/John
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.