During the time of the Buddha’s summer retreat in Nyenyoe (present-day Shravasti, India), one of Buddha’s friends, King Saggya, had a clever minister. At that time, the minister’s wife became pregnant. In the Indian tradition, the child to be conceived would be named before birth. The naming depended on signs and customs and was also based on consultation with various learned sages and astrologers. The minister’s family went and consulted with such a learned sage for their child’s name. When asked if they had any signs as the child was conceived, his wife said that upon conceiving the child, she felt very joyous and happy and not the slightest form of sadness. The sage, upon hearing this, told them to name the child Midungwa, which means someone with no suffering.

The child was born and from the moment of birth, he displayed extraordinary qualities. He grew faster than any other child and, at a young age, received training in various sports and arts, including archery, horsemanship, elephant riding, and swimming. In all these disciplines, he excelled and far surpassed his peers. As he matured, his exceptional good looks and strength became evident. He demonstrated remarkable feats, like fighting elephants, catching birds mid-flight, and outperforming countless men in sporting events.

He received his education from an Brahmin, spending most of his time studying under his Guru’s guidance. This led to the Guru’s wife becoming attracted to Midungwa due to his youth and charming looks. Despite this, Midungwa remained deeply devoted to his Guru and held great respect for all of his friends. His brilliance in studies was unparalleled; he could grasp in a day what took others a month to learn, eventually becoming as skilled as his master. Despite the growing attachment from the Guru’s wife, Midungwa’s loyalty to his master never wavered.

One day, the Guru had to take some of his students to a distant place for teaching. He informed his wife that he would be away for a prolonged time, resulting in their temporary separation. The Guru suggested that during his absence, she could choose someone from his group of students whom she trusted to protect and watch over her. Upon hearing this, she was overjoyed and, without hesitation, selected Midungwa, expressing her desire to be cared for by him. The Guru agreed, acknowledging that Midungwa was his best student and reassured his wife that he would return after completing his work.

Within less than a month, the Guru departed for his teaching assignment. The Guru’s wife, who had already been captivated by Midungwa’s charm, adorned herself with fine clothes and jewelry one day, and initiated conversations filled with flirtation when she went to him. Midungwa was taken by surprise and promptly reminded her of his ascetic vows, emphasizing that he could not entertain any romantic involvement, be it with his master’s wife or any woman. He asked her never to speak to him in such a manner, that he would protect her and serve her just like his Guru but if she would bring such a thing again, he would be better off dying. Despite Midungwa’s firm refusal, the wife persisted and even questioned if she wasn’t good looking enough for him. Unswayed, Midungwa stood his ground, warning her that he would leave if she mentioned it again. This response distressed the wife.

As the time of the Guru’s return approached, the wife resorted to deceit. She tore her clothes, scratched her face with her nails, let her hair down, and began crying. When the Guru, her husband, saw her in this state, he inquired about what happened. The wife falsely accused Midungwa, claiming that since the master left, he had treated her badly and even raped her.  The Guru was enraged but he could not do anything at once because he knew that Midungwa was strong and powerful enough to defeat anyone. The Guru knew the could not challenge him directly, so he resorted to deceitful methods.

One day, the Guru called upon Midungwa and asked him if he desired a special instruction. Midungwa eagerly replied that he did. The Guru then instructed him to go out and kill one thousand humans within a week and bring back their thumbs. He claimed that by doing so, Midungwa would attain the level of Brahma, a Hindu god and the creator of the universe. The Guru’s malicious motive in doing so was that, in the process of killing one thousand people, someone was bound to kill Midungwa, no matter how strong he was. Doubting the ethics of such an action, Midungwa questioned his master, expressing his reservations about taking lives as a means of spiritual attainment. In response, the Guru gave him an ultimatum, commanding him to follow the instruction or leave immediately. As a symbol of his seriousness, the master struck his dagger into the ground, imbuing it with a mysterious dark power that influenced Midungwa.

Influenced by the power of the dagger, Midungwa’s demeanor changed drastically. He seemingly lost control of himself and reluctantly agreed to the master’s command, vowing to kill one thousand humans within a week or not return at all. From then on, he roamed and took the lives of every person he encountered, collecting their thumbs and earning the gruesome reputation as the bearer of a garland made of a thousand thumbs, earning the title Aṅgulimāla, which roughly means ‘rosary of fingers’. This transformation turned him into an entirely different man, far removed from the well-known gentle and kind Midungwa that everyone had once known, instilling fear in all who crossed his path.

In the final week, after killing 999 humans, Angulimala was exhausted and couldn’t find the last target, so he lay down. His grief-stricken mother came to bring him some food, and upon seeing her, he picked up his dagger, almost ready to harm her. Confused, his mother asked why he was doing this, and he explained that he had to fulfill his Guru’s wish to receive special instructions and attain the realm of Brahma.

In response, his mother suggested that instead of killing her, he could cut her thumb and add it to his garland. As they spoke, Buddha approached them in the distance. Buddha never walked in the forest without a reason and Angulimala was elated to see him, his last victim. Angulimala did not recognize the Buddha, and figured he was just a random ascetic Sadhu. Deliberating whether he should cut his mother’s finger or kill the monk, he decided to ambush the Sadhu. Angulimala sprinted after the Buddha and to catch up to Buddha, even though he was very fast and the Buddha seemed to be walking, no matter how quickly he ran, he couldn’t reach him. He couldn’t close the distance, so Angulimala shouted at Buddha. “You! Slow down! Relax!” At that Buddha turned gently to him with his beautiful face and said to him, “I am always slowed down and relaxed”. Buddha meant that he was never under the influence of afflictions and constantly in meditation, always in peace. The Buddha then said to Angulimala, “You, on the other hand, are not relaxed, and always on the run, full of anger.” Angulimala then said that he would kill him and Buddha asked why.  Angulimala replied that he was fulfilling his Guru’s wish and doing so to receive special instructions.  Buddha explained to Angulimala that he didn’t need to kill anyone because all living beings were subject to death anyway. This realization mesmerized Angulimala, and he was taken aback with Buddha’s radiance and presence, and he understood the true meaning of being relaxed. Curious, Angulimala asked Buddha who he was, and Buddha introduced himself as Bikshu Gautama, the realized/enlightened one. The dagger slipped from Angulimala’s hand as he realized he had been led astray by someone he met earlier. He understood that meeting a true Teacher like Buddha was the right path. At that moment, Buddha gave him the sutra of repentance, advising him to acknowledge his actions, self-reflect sincerely, and make amends to purify himself. From that moment, Angulimala cut his hair and became a Bikshu, following the Buddha’s teachings. Angulimala eventually became an accomplished monk, and also attained Arahatship.

This story has three lessons that we could take away. First, following a false teacher endangers one to turn down the mistaken and wrong path which can lead to much suffering and negative karma. Second, even those who have accumulated much negative karma in this life, through like Angulimala or Jetsun Milarepa, can, through meeting a genuine Teacher, change and even attain high realization in the same lifetime. Buddha nature is ever present, albeit the dross of negative karma and ignorance. Lastly, lust and perversion are great dangers to both laypeople and the ordained, and can have serious negative consequences. The biographies of great practitioners have great wisdom and should be reflected upon and considered how these lessons can be applied to our own life.
This story was dictated by Khenpo Karten Rinpoche, and transcribed and translated by Dechen Baltso through a series of conversations and audio recorded messages.