February 17, 2019; revised March 7, 2020
1. Angulimāla had killed 999 people but was able to attain the Arahanthood within a few weeks after meeting the Buddha. His life story can help us understand how and why even vipāka for such highly immoral deeds can be overcome.
- Even though the laws of kamma play an important role in Buddha Dhamma, one can overcome the consequences of such highly immoral actions. That is by comprehending the more fundamental principle of causality: one can bypass all such kamma vipāka (all future suffering) by getting rid of avijjā and taṇhā (the root causes).
- The following two posts also discuss kamma and kamma vipāka: “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?” and “How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kamma.”
2. I highly -recommend a good account of the life story of Angulimāla here: “Angulimāla – A Murderer’s Road to Sainthood.”
- Reading that account first will help with the discussion below.
Brief Summary of Angulimāla’s Life
3. To summarize the critical points in the story of Angulimāla:
- He was called Ahimsaka (“Harmless”) as a boy and was an excellent student. He was the best in class at the premier learning institute of that day in Takkasila (Taxila). His peers were jealous and tried to convince the teacher that Ahimsaka was plotting to take his job.
- The teacher finally believed those false accusations and came up with a way to get Ahimsaka killed. When Ahimsaka finished his studies and asked how he can pay for his education, the teacher said: “You must bring me a thousand human little fingers of the right hand.”
- That is how Ahimsaka became a killer and came to be known as “Angulimāla” because he started wearing some of those cut fingers in a garland around his neck.
4. Angulimāla had killed 999 people and was about to kill his mother to get the last finger when the Buddha intervened.
- The quick-witted Angulimāla was able to comprehend a few verses that the Buddha uttered and asked the Buddha to ordain him right there.
- Ven. Angulimāla became an Arahant soon afterward.
- Later on, the Buddha reminded Ven. Angulimāla that he had now been “born” a Āriya (Noble Person), even though he had killed so many people when he was a murderer. This concept of changing “bhava” even during a given existence discussed below.
First Observation – Importance of Gati and Environment
5. The first thing we can see is that obedient and well-behaved Ahimsaka became a murderer because of his teacher’s influence. External influences (family, friends, etc.) can be a crucial factor in changing one’s gati (pronounced “gathi”) loosely translated as “character.” (Note that Pāli words are written not in “standard English,” but with an adopted “Tipiṭaka English” convention. See, ““Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1” and ““Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 2.”)
- That is why parents must always be on the lookout on what kind of friends a child has. Friends can have a considerable influence on a child.
- That is also true for adults. One must get away from those who pull in wrong directions and make new associations along “good directions.”
- Gati are discussed in many posts at this site. One can find a list of relevant posts by entering “gati” in the “Search” box on the top right
Second Observation – There is no “unchanging self“
6. The second thing we can see is that there is no “unchanging self.”
- Harmless Ahimsaka became a violent murderer in Angulimāla and killed almost 1000 people.
- Then that violent Angulimāla, the murderer, became a Noble Person within a short time after meeting the Buddha and within weeks Ven. Angulimāla became an Arahant too!
7. In the “bigger picture” of the “three lōkas” and “31 realms”, we saw that the “lifestream of any living being” can change from “good to bad,” “bad to good,” “good to bad again,” etc an uncountable times in the beginning-less rebirth process.
- We all have been in the highest Brahma realm and the lowest apāya too. But we all have spent most of that time in the suffering-filled apāyā.
- The only way to get out of this “ceaseless wandering in the rebirth process (sansāra or samsāra)” is to become an Arahant, as Ven. Angulimāla did.
- The first step is to attain the Sōtapanna stage to be free of at least the four lowest realms (apāyā).
Third Observation – There is a Causal Link (“Sort of a Self”)
8. However, as we discussed in the previous post, it is not possible to say that “there is no-self” either.
- Nothing happens without a reason or a cause (at least one, but usually many causes).
- A human is reborn an animal or a Brahma due to a reason. There is a CONNECTION between two adjacent “bhava” or existences.
- Ahimsaka did not become Angulimāla without causes. One cause was the influence of his peers on the teacher. Then Ahimsaka blindly followed the instructions of the teacher.
- But then all that reversed due to the influence of the Buddha.
9. That is why it is also incorrect to say, “there is no-self.” There is always a “self” — living at least momentarily — that is responsible for how that “self” evolves in the future.
- But that “changing self” can and will change between “good’ and “bad” based on many factors. Key factors are self’s deeds and external influences on that “self” at any given time.
Fourth Observation – Two Types of “Bhava” or Existence
10. Another critical point is that one could be born in a “temporary bhava” or “temporary existence” DURING this life. As we saw, Angulimāla switched “temporary bhava” from an innocent boy to a murderer, and back to an Arahant!
- For example, a person who drinks habitually is not drunk all the time. He is in a “drunken bhava” or “drunken existence” while he is intoxicated. The next day he is sober and would not be in a “drunken bhava” until he drinks again.
- In the same way, one is in an “angry bhava” when she gets angry. But after the anger subsides, she is not in that “existence” or “bhava” anymore.
- Temporary bhava (or transient existences) explained via “Idapaccayātā Paṭicca Samuppāda” processes (those operate during a given life). Even though only one type of Paṭicca Samuppāda is presented in the textbooks today, there are different types.
11. When one habitually gets into such a “temporary bhava” repeatedly, then that becomes a cultivated gati or habit/character.
- In that case, it could lead to a new “uppatti bhava” (or “bhava associated with rebirth”) too. For example, when one gets angry all the time and then one day kills another human, that could lead to rebirth in an apāya. That is a “more permanent bhava” that can last a long time.
- That is the more common Paṭicca Samuppāda cycle, i.e., the “uppatti Paṭicca Samuppāda.”
- The section on “Paṭicca Samuppāda” is a must-read.
Fifth Observation – Going Back and Forth in the Rebirth Process
12. So, there could be some periods in the rebirth process where one mostly does “good deeds,” cultivates “good gati,” and thus gets “good bhava” and therefore “good births” (jāti). We discussed the difference between bhava and jāti in the post: “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.”
- Then, one’s gati may change to “bad gati,” especially when one comes under “bad influences and associates.” In that case, one may start on a “downward path” and eventually one’s gati will become harmful to the extent that one will get a “bad bhava.”
- We can see such examples around us. We all have seen good children becoming drug addicts and then becoming even murderers due to evil associations. The opposite happens too, when a violent person may change those bad gati and become a “good citizen” under the right influences.
- That is what we all have been doing (going back and forth between good and bad existences), in this beginning-less rebirth process.
Sixth Observation – Angulimāla’s Realization
13. When Angulimāla was chasing the Buddha and could not get even close to the Buddha. To quote from the account referenced above, Angulimāla stopped and called out, “Stop, monk! Stop, monk!”
“I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop, too.”
- That got Angulimāla to thinking, and he started asking why the Buddha — while still walking — said that he had stopped. The Buddha explained that he had stopped his samsāric wandering (rebirth process) and had overcome all suffering.
- That is when Angulimāla gained insight and became Ven. Angulimāla.
14. Therefore, the critical point to understand is that it is NOT ENOUGH just to do “good deeds,” even though that is a must.
- One MUST take another step and realize that we have been trapped in this rebirth process filled with (mostly) suffering due to two reasons.
- Let us briefly discuss those two CRITICAL points.
Seventh Observation – The Critical Discovery of the Buddha
15. First, until a Buddha comes to the world (meaning a human attains the Buddhahood by purifying the mind to the greatest extent), humans are unaware of the “wider world view” with “three types of lōkas” and 31 realms.
- Even though one could be occasionally born in “good realms” at or above the human realm, beings are reborn mostly in the lowest four realms (apāyā) due to misdeeds done in seeking sense pleasures.
- Of course, there is suffering in any realm, but it is less in higher realms.
- Therefore, most of rebirths lead to much suffering. That is the essence of the First Noble Truth.
16. Secondly, until a Buddha comes to the world, it is not known how to escape from this endless rebirth process filled with suffering.
- There have been, and there will always be teachers who realize that misdeeds lead to unfortunate rebirths and good deeds lead to good rebirths, and teach that to others.
- But it is only a Buddha that can figure out that doing good deeds is not enough. One needs to see the anicca nature of this world of 31 realms. That means even if one gets a rebirth in the highest realm with long lifetimes of billions of years, one will end up in despair and eventual death.
- Then one gets back to the same cycle of rebirths, where one will inevitably do evil deeds (due to cravings or sense temptations) and will be born in the apāyā.
Eighth Observation – The Root Cause for Suffering
17. Therefore, the key is to realize that one needs to REMOVE the tendency to be tempted by sense desires.
- One needs to “see” that anicca nature, i.e., it is a waste of time to seek happiness in this world. That will sooner or later lead to rebirth in the apāyā (dukkha). Therefore, in the end, one will become helpless (anatta), when born in an apāya.
- It is not possible to forcefully suppress cravings under “strong sense temptations.” When one sees the “anicca nature,” cravings are automatically removed (in four stages of Nibbāna).
- That is the Second Noble Truth, the cause of future suffering.
Ninth Observation – The Way to Nibbāna
18. Once the “big picture” of the 31 realms — together with how one WILL BE born among them due to one’s actions (kamma) — is understood, one would have removed the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi.
- That is because that “complete picture” requires the rebirth process, laws of kamma, etc.
19. Then one can begin to understand the “unfulfilling and dangerous nature of the wider world of 31 realms” or the “anicca nature.”
- That “anicca nature” explains how “dukkha” or suffering arises, and one will become helpless (anatta) in the rebirth process. Those are three main characteristics (anicca, dukkha, anatta) that are called Tilakkhana (and they are inter-related).
- That is when one attains the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna.
20. That is why anicca has nothing to do with “impermanence,” and “anatta” has nothing to do with a “self” or a “non-self.”
- That knowledge about Tilakkhana or the “true nature of this world” is available only in Buddha Dhamma.
- Until a Buddha comes to this world and DISCOVERS that “bigger picture,” no one will be able to see that “bigger picture.” Thus humans are unaware of the dangers in remaining in this cycle of rebirths filled with suffering.
Tenth Observation – Kamma Vipāka Will be Effective Until Death of an Arahant
21. Even though Ven. Angulimāla had attained the Arahantood, he was getting injured by “stone-throwers” regularly. Most of the time, those stones were not directed at him, but he was getting hit accidentally.
- As described in the above essay, “with blood running from his injured head, with his bowl broken, and with his patchwork robe torn, the venerable Angulimala went to the Blessed One. The Blessed One saw him coming, and he told him: “Bear it, brāhmanā, bear it, brāhmanā! You have experienced here and now the ripening of kamma whose ripening you might have experienced in hell over many a year, many a century, many a millennium.”
- If Angulimāla died without being saved by the Buddha, he would have suffered in the apāyā for an unimaginable time!
22. As we had discussed before, even a Buddha cannot avoid some of kamma vipāka. The physical body in this life arose due to past kamma, and many aspects associated with that body cannot be changed.
- At the death of the physical body, there are no more rebirths anywhere in the 31 realms. Then, there is no way for any kamma vipāka to materialize (come to fruition). That is why the physical death of an Arahant is called “Parinibbāna” or “complete Nibbāna.”
- There will be absolutely no suffering after the Parinibbāna.
23. Therefore, we can see that there are many insights in the accounts of notable personalities in the Tipiṭaka. They are all consistent with the core teachings.