Thursday, February 20, 2014

on innocence and Angulimala

I first started wondering about innocence thanks to a student I had taught recently at Antioch University in Seattle, WA.  She wrote quite eloquently about her renewed interest in innocence, about wondering where it had gone, and about how it might be found again.

She got me thinking.  The thought of innocence just in itself brought to me a physical impression that is hard to describe.  Childlike is a word that comes to mind.  Open?  Vulnerable perhaps.  Maybe curious. These words come close individually but more so in combination.  And especially when considered in association with their only "coming close." (The transition from felt sense to cognitive description is an interesting endeavour in the exploration of meaning, but not always fully satisfying.)  But they only come close, they don't really capture for me the feeling that I felt.  To describe it more accurately, I'm thinking… no, I'm feeling, that my body was saying with a quiet joyfulness,  "aaaahhhhhhh."  Innocence.   Aaahhhhhh.

I'm recalling of a story from the life of the Buddha.  He was walking toward a forest when some local villagers approached him and asked him to not go any further.  They informed him that a man by the name of Angulimala made the forest his home and that this was a dangerous man who had taken many lives.  In fact, his name, Angulimala, translates as "garland of fingers."  As a young man, Angulimala was once a student whose teacher instructed him to kill 1000 people and wear a finger from each person around his neck, as a garland.  As you can imagine, this part of the story is pretty complicated.  You can find a very good retelling at

The Buddha listened patiently to the villagers but, to their great consternation, continued on his way.  As he walked evenly and serenely along the forest path, Angulimala caught sight of him and began to follow him, thinking, "Here is one more finger to adorn my neck."  Angulimala kept trying to get closer to the Buddha in order to kill him, but due to the superhuman powers of the Buddha, no matter how hard he tried, the distance between him and the Buddha remained the same.  Finally, exasperated, frustrated, angry, he called out the Buddha, "STOP!"

The Buddha, remaining serene and calm, turned to Angulimala and replied, "I have stopped long ago.  I've stopped treading on the path of samsara, I've stopped harming others.  I've stopped killing others.  It is you who now must stop."

Angulimala was deeply struck by this statement, and falling to his knees asked the Buddha if he could follow him as a monk.  The Buddha granted him this permission and it is said that Angulimala attained his enlightenment in that very lifetime.

So…  What does this have to do with innocence?  After reading the student's paper I began to wonder, "Maybe the reason Angulimala was transformed so deeply was that the words the Buddha spoke came from such a place of deep and abiding innocence that it struck Angulimala in a forgotten place of innocence abiding deeply within his own heart."  How especially potent would an encounter with such innocence be when experienced by someone who had murdered a large number of people.  This enounter, so direct, so immediate, so expressly innocent and loving, was of such power that it brought him to his knees.