Once, in the time of the Buddha, there lived a robber named Angulimala. He lived in a forest and ambushed travelers on the roads in and around the forest, and killed them.
Soon, people were afraid to travel. Trade ceased, the economy suffered, pilgrimages stopped, temples were abandoned and fell into disrepair. But Angulimala was not satisfied with this. With the roads empty, he started to go into villages, seeking more victims. And he massacred villagers. Pretty soon refugees fled the region and whole villages were abandoned. The area was depopulated.
Angulimala, he never took money or anything from his victims. He only took, from each of them, one finger. He wore the fingers of his victims in a necklace. That’s how he got his nom de guerre, Angulimala. A mala is a bracelet or a necklace, and Angulimala is “finger necklace.”
Angulimala’s parents lived in the area, but all they heard about was a murderer with this nickname. They had no idea that it was their own son. But one day, his mother, through divine omens, realized the truth and went to go find him.
Now, Buddha and his followers were camping nearby, and Buddha through his superpowers knew that Angulimala’s mother was going to find him, and that if she did, Angulimala would kill her. And if you kill your mom, you will be reborn in hell for innumerable lifetimes. So, Buddha set off briskly to reach Angulimala before his mom did.
Imagine the scene: Buddha, a thin little man, arrives in an empty village. The smell of corpses everywhere. He’s wearing a thin robe and he’s holding a stick, and that’s all he has. He stands in the middle of the dusty main street, barefoot.
Suddenly Angulimala leaps from an alleyway! He’s huge, and armored. He’s carrying a gigantic sword. He charges toward the Buddha.
But, even though Angulimala is running at top speed, the earth between them stretches so that he can’t actually reach the Buddha. He shouts, “You, stop!”
Buddha says, “I am standing still. I have put down the sword for all beings. You are unrestrained toward beings. Therefore I am standing still, you are not standing still.”
Angulimala is impressed. He’s astounded by the Buddha’s courage. He’s never seen anybody respond to him like this before, and he asks for an explanation.
Buddha says monks who follow him control themselves. They restrain their greed and their desire. And this liberates them.
Buddha was so persuasive—I really wish we had somebody like this today. Whenever Buddha talked to anybody, they woke up. Angulimala woke up. He repented for what he’d done and he asked to be a monk. Buddha shaved his head and accepted him into the sangha immediately.
So, the monks and nuns of the early sangha had a criminal in their midst. I wonder how they felt about that. Wider society certainly did not accept that Angulimala had been transformed. When he went begging for food they threw rocks at his face.
And Buddha’s own followers, they’d taken vows, but they were ordinary people. I wonder if they had some fear, or resentment that this guy would go unpunished and would become one of them, one of the noble ones.
But we all have to trust each other in this sangha. I mean, you don’t know what I’ve done. I don’t know what you’ve done. But in this case, the sangha knew exactly what Angulimala had done. It had been on the evening news. I wonder what they thought about having him as one of them.
What would you do in their situation? Would you be afraid? Would you welcome such a person?
We meet people like this sometimes because the zendo has a meditation program at Sing Sing. So we have a sangha there and some of our sangha members have killed people. When I started going 10 years ago, I was very interested in what crimes these men had been convicted of. And it really interested and excited me to wonder about that. That’s not true anymore. You know, I’ve never asked anybody, and now it’s not important to me anymore. I don’t even wonder.
We meet where we meet because of what they’ve done in the past, but it’s clear to me that who I’m meeting is a person who is an event happening in the room at that moment when we meditate there. And so that’s where we meet. I don’t need to know what happened in the past. Although in the cases where I have heard the stories, I wish I could tell you because they are incredible men, and their stories are devastating. But that’s their story to tell.
Every few years one of our sangha members is released and sometimes they come here. One guy did the summer retreat and took Jukai, he was part of my class. More often they might come to sit with us a few times. And most often we just don’t see them at all. We lose touch. Because their lives are very complicated. Being on parole is incredibly complicated and coming to the zendo just does not work for them in their lives on the outside. But they’re welcome here and I hope sometimes they will come.
The reason that Buddha welcomed Angulimala into the sangha was because, from Buddha’s perspective, as soon as Angulimala woke up, he was a different person. Buddha gave him a different name: Ahimsaka, meaning “harmless.” And now he’s a monk, one of the noble ones, and so he belongs with the monks in the community.
That makes sense because even if you take a snapshot of us at one moment, we’re not one thing. Even now. Nothing in the universe is ever a single thing. Like, if you pick a floorboard. It’s both composed of parts and of a larger whole. The floorboard contains the cells that grew when it was part of a living tree, and it’s also part of something larger: the floor. And that’s part of something larger still: the room. All beings in existence are like this, because this slicing up that we do, it’s a product of our perception. And we can break apart or stick together infinitely.
I am also composed of parts and I am also part of a larger whole. I usually perceive myself as my skin and everything inside of it. But if you’ve been following along for any time at all, you know that this is a delusion and that the falseness of this delusion leads to anxiety and suffering.
Because it’s a fact that existence is fractal. If you zoom in, there is just as much detail, and if you zoom out there is also just as much detail. My liver is just as complex as I am. And my society is also just as complex as I am. It’s arbitrary where you say “here is a person.”
The Buddha said that for each of us, our consciousness is composed of five parts.
- One: Form, which is the body, stuff.
- Two: Sensation.
- Three: Perception, which is the process of labeling the things that we’re sensing.
- Four: Conception, which is the process of conceiving intentions or desires, or making plans.
- Five: Consciousness, which is the process of experiencing of being.
And these five “heaps”—in Sanskrit they are skandhas—these five skandhas of processes are all interacting together. And briefly forming something like a person.
I don’t usually see myself this way, though. I see myself as “I’m me, and I am in control of myself.” And that’s why it’s such a shock to sit down and meditate and see what a chaotic and dynamic system is going on in my head all the time. And how little influence what I think of as “me” has over this set of processes. And that’s a large portion of the point of meditation, is to experience that and to see through the delusion that we are single people in charge of ourselves.
Given how dynamic and chaotic this whole system is, wouldn’t it make sense that at one moment it could all change completely? That each of us could be transformed at any moment?
I’ve been arrested only once. I was about 16 and my buddy and I liked to dare each other to shoplift. We would set goals for each other like, “Let’s go into this Barnes & Noble and you have to steal every book by Anne Rice.” I would go in with a big trench coat and just pocket them all. And the clerk doesn’t care because she’s my age. And it’s easy.
So we got more ambitious. One day we went to a shopping center with about a dozen stores and we said each of us has to steal one thing from each of them. We started from the east end and hit every store, all the way west. The last store was a big grocery store and I lifted, I think, a box of colored lightbulbs that I wanted for my room. I can’t remember what my buddy stole.
Of course they had security cameras and the security guard was just calmly waiting for us at the exit.
He took us upstairs to the surveillance room where we could see just how obvious and stupid we must have been. He called the cops and the cops came and cuffed us, and picked us up and took us to the station. We waited there on the bench while the cops called our parents. I was picked up first by my mom and I have completely blanked out what happened when she arrived.
After a few weeks I got a letter. The city had declined to prosecute. They just said I’ve got a record until I turn 18, so I better be on my best behavior. That was that. And of course, I never shoplifted again.
The city, the justice system of our little suburb, saw me as complex, as capable of being transformed. They figured: Nice white boy from the neighborhood, I would probably grow out of it. And they were right.
A lot of 16-year-olds are not treated this way. I’m thinking right now of Kalief Browder. In 2010 he was 16 years old. He was accused on extremely flimsy evidence of stealing somebody’s backpack, and he was arrested and thrown into Rikers. And he waited there for three years for trial. There is a technicality in the New York City justice system that allows them to show up every few months, say they’re not ready to prosecute and throw you back in jail indefinitely. There is no right to a speedy trial here. He was beaten by guards and he spent two of those three years in solitary. Finally the city just said they weren’t going to prosecute him after all, and released him. He insisted the entire time that he was innocent, and he refused therefore to accept any plea bargain that would require him to lie and say that had done it.
He went home. Got a degree. Tried to hold down a job. Spoke out against the system. And he was severely psychologically damaged. Two years after he was released, he killed himself. He died in 2015.
It was his activism and those who remember him that led to the #CloseRikers movement. He’s the reason why City Council voted to close Rikers this year.
But if you look at how the justice system treated him, they saw him as one solid thing, as simple, as probably guilty of the thing he’d been accused of and incapable of being transformed. And that’s why they decided to just throw him away.
It’s a common attitude in the U.S., I think, stemming from our puritanical founders, that if you’re convicted of a crime or maybe even accused of a crime, then you are beyond redemption and you served to be thrown away.
Early Buddhism kind of tilted in the other direction, which is very interesting. The question is, if we’re not unitary individuals, if we’re changing all the time, are we responsible for anything we do? If I hit my jisha, can I just say, “Don’t blame me, man. I’m not the same person I was five seconds ago”?
Even the person I am right now is just this heap of interacting processes—there’s nobody even here to blame! So why practice the precepts? How could we possibly be responsible for any of our actions?
In the first few centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha, a dozen, two dozen schools all arose with competing answers to this question of, “If there is no self, what does karma cling to? What is reborn?” Clearly, harmful or skillful actions have consequences for us in the future, but how is that possible if there’s no self and it doesn’t propagate from moment to moment?
There were lots of different, often rather technical answers to this question. The one that really makes sense to me was by Vasubandhu, who was one of the founders of the Mahayana branch that we practice today. He lived around the 4th Century CE in India.
Vasubandhu says, “Karma is a process that is an interaction among beings.” Just like beings are, ourselves, interactions of our parts. Karma’s real and we’re responsible for it. But it doesn’t exist separate from anything else. It’s part of the flow that is continued by interactions from moment to moment among all of the processes that we are.
Karma doesn’t have to be abstract. I think it actually makes a lot of sense if you think of this analogy:
Think of the United States. The United States is not a person. The United States has innumerable parts. You can’t point to it and say it’s here but not there. You can’t point to one person and say that’s the United States and that isn’t. And yet, the United States does things and we’re responsible for those things.
In the Trump administration, the United States has abandoned our allies, turned away refugees, supported dictators, weakened democracies, started trade wars that have ruined people’s livelihoods, and abandoned climate agreements, which makes it that much harder to prevent climate crisis. Not that our country was ever perfect, but the last few years I think would impress even Angulimala.
So, who is responsible for this? The United States is responsible for this.
And that’s true, even though the United States is a complex system composed of hundreds of millions people and sort of a vague territory. Individual people in the United States are responsible for different parts of this event, and yet the United States is still responsible. It can and must transform and repent and repair—hopefully soon.
So that’s actually pretty simple. We’re used to reasoning about responsibility in this way. And so it’s also true of us. I’m a little nation. I have billions of parts. I have arguments with myself. And yet, what I do is my responsibility. I can and must transform, resolve all my evil karma, repair the damage that I’ve done.
If anybody was here for David Loy’s talk about climate justice a week or two ago, I’m kind of riffing on the same idea he has that nations, like people, suffer a delusion of self and yet are responsible for what they do.
Next Saturday the 14th, Judy Clark is coming to speak here along with members of an activist group called Release Aging People in Prison. Judy Clark is a prison reform activist. She was incarcerated in the state system for 38 years.
She was an accomplice in a robbery in 1981 that left four people dead. At the time of her trial, she was completely unrepentant, but over the course of her years in prison, she really transformed and became an exemplary person. The zendo and many other groups have been advocating intensely for her. This spring she was finally paroled.
I wish I could be here to meet her, but Keishin and I are going on an errand that day, we’re going to go visit a prisoner on the jail barge that the city runs. There’s a barge moored off the Bronx with 800 people. I think it’s probably completely miserable. And there’s a Buddhist man there who wants to talk with somebody about his practice. So we’re going to go see what we can do for him.
So we won’t be here for Judy Clark. I’m sure that she and her fellow activists are going to have a much more forceful and personal way of saying this, but here’s how I would say it.
Everyone deserves the opportunity for redemption, because it’s in our nature that everybody has the ability to transform.
And everybody has the responsibility to transform.
That’s why we practice, to atone for our evil karma, to transform ourselves, to redeem and repair. And that’s why we welcome everyone, even Angulimala, to practice with us.
Angulimala chasing the Buddha, from a temple in Sravasti, India.