Skip to content
BY-NC-ND 3.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access June 3, 2015

Ahimsā and its Ambiguities: Reading the story of Buddha and Aṅgulimāla

  • John Thompson
From the journal Open Theology


This paper focuses on the story of the Buddha’s encounter with Angulimāla, a vicious brigand who, subdued by the Buddha, renounces his outlaw ways for the monastic life, eventually attaining arahant status. The tale of Angulimāla has proven quite popular in Buddhist history and is often cited as evidence of how under the Dhamma no one is beyond salvation. Yet this story poses problems for our understanding and as such, has been repeatedly (sometimes radically) re-interpreted over the years. Taking my cue from literary theorists, I maintain that these retellings encourage us to read the story in its various incarnations as an on-going narrative struggle with issues surrounding violence, suggesting a fundamental ambivalence towards violence (and the much-touted virtue of ahiṃsā). Such struggles become even clearer when we compare Aṅgulimāla to another storied Buddhist figure, Asoka Maurya. While perhaps discomforting to those seeking for those seeking a Buddhist basis for rejecting violence, it may be that embracing such ambivalence points towards a more realistic ethic for our world.


“Aṅgulimāla: The Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy.” Accessed October 10, 2014, Search in Google Scholar

Armstrong, Karen. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. Search in Google Scholar

Asma, Stephen T. Why I am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey. Charlottesville: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2010. Search in Google Scholar

Bangkok Post. “Movie Based on Buddhist Teachings needs New Title.” April 2, 2003. Search in Google Scholar

Bareau, Andre. “Le Bouddha et les rois.” Bulletin de l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, 80:1 (1993), 15-39. 10.3406/befeo.1993.2187Search in Google Scholar

Beal, Samuel, trans. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang. Reprint edition. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2003. Search in Google Scholar

Bruner, Jerome. “The Narrative Construction of Reality.” Critical Inquiry, 18:1 (1991), 1-21. 10.1086/448619Search in Google Scholar

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959. Search in Google Scholar

Carroll, James. Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited our Modern World. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2011. Search in Google Scholar

Dalton, Jacob P. The Taming of Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Search in Google Scholar

Derry, Ken. “Believing is Seeing: Teaching Religion and Violence in Film.” In Teaching Religion and Violence, edited by Brian K. Pennington, 185-217. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2012. Search in Google Scholar

Drekmeier, Charles. Kingship and Community in Early India. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962. Search in Google Scholar

Fisher, Walter R. Human Communication as Narration: Towards a Philosophy of Reason, Value and Action. Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 1989. Search in Google Scholar

Geiger, Wilhelm, trans. The Mahāvaṃsa or Great Chronicle of Ceylon. London: Pali Text Society, 1980. Search in Google Scholar

Gombrich, Richard F. “Who was Aṅgulimāla?” In How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings, by Richard F. Gombrich, 135-164. London & Atlantic Highlands, NJ: The Athlone Press, 1996. Search in Google Scholar

Gross, Rita M. “Historical consciousness and traditional Buddhist narratives.” International Journal of Dharma Studies 2013, 1:5. Accessed January 15, 2015, 10.1186/2196-8802-1-5Search in Google Scholar

Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Hecker, Hellmuth. “Angulimala: A Murderer’s Road to Sainthood.” The Wheel, No. 312. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1979. Available from Access to Insight, 2007-2012.Accessed June 6, 2012, Search in Google Scholar

Houben, Jan E. M., and Karel R. Van Kooj. Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History. Boston, Leiden, Cologne: E. J. Brill, 1999. Search in Google Scholar

Jenkins, Stephen. “Buddhist Ethics of Violence.” In Oxford Bibliographies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Accessed October 13, 2014, 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0124Search in Google Scholar

Jerryson, Michael K. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. Oxford/NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2011. 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199793235.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

________. “Introduction.” In Buddhist Warfare, edited by Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, 3-16. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Search in Google Scholar

Jones, James W. Blood That Cries Out From the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195335972.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Kleine, Christoph. “Evil Monks with Good Intentions? Remarks on Buddhist Monastic Violence and Its Doctrinal Background.” In Buddhism and Violence, edited by Michael Zimmermann, 65-98. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2006. Search in Google Scholar

Kumar, Satish. The Buddha and the Terrorist. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006. Search in Google Scholar

Kumarasiri, G. K. Ananda. Angulimala. Malaysia: Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc., 2004. Accessed June 15, 2012, Search in Google Scholar

Legge, James, trans. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms: Being an account of the Chinese monk Fa-Hien of his travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414) in search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1965. Search in Google Scholar

Lewis, Todd L. Popular Buddhist Texts from Nepal: Narratives and Rituals of Newar Buddhism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Search in Google Scholar

Nikam, N.A., and Richard McKeon, ed. and trans. The Edicts of Aśoka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959. Search in Google Scholar

Polkinghorne, Donald E. “Narrative and Self-Concept.” Journal of Narrative and Life History, 1: 2 & 3 (1991), 135-153. Search in Google Scholar

Ricoeur, Paul. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976. Search in Google Scholar

Robinson, Richard H., Willard L. Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction, 5th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, Inc., 2005. Search in Google Scholar

“The Story of Aṅgulimāla.” Accessed January 10, 2015, Search in Google Scholar

Strong, John S. The Legend of King Aśoka: A Study and Translation of the Aśokāvadāna. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2008. Search in Google Scholar

Thanissaro Bhikkhu., trans. Aṅgulimāla Sutta: About Aṅgulimāla. Accessed December 9, 2012, Search in Google Scholar

Thompson, John M. Understanding Prajñā: Sengzhao’s “Wild Words” and the Search for Wisdom. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2008. Search in Google Scholar

Thurman, Robert A. F. “Edicts of Asoka.” In The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism, edited by Fred Eppsteiner, 111-119. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988. Search in Google Scholar

Victoria, Brian Daizen. Zen at War. 2nd edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006. Search in Google Scholar

Westerhoff, John H., III. A Pilgrim People: Learning through the Church Year. New York: Seabury Books, 1984. Search in Google Scholar

Zimmermann, Michael. “Only a Fool Becomes a King: Buddhist Stances on Punishment.” In Buddhism and Violence, edited by Michael Zimmermann, 213-242. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2006. Search in Google Scholar

________. “War.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism, edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr., Volume 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. Search in Google Scholar

Zin, Monika. “The Unknown Ajanta Painting of the Aṅgulimāla Story.” In South Asian Archaeology 2001 – Proceedings of the Sixteenth International Conference of the European Association of South Asian Archaeologists, held in College de France, Paris, 206 July 2001. Volume II, Historical Archaeology and Art History, edited by Catherine Jarrige and Vincent Lefever, 705-713. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 2005. Accessed January 10, 2015, Search in Google Scholar

Search in Google Scholar

Received: 2015-2-12
Accepted: 2015-3-18
Published Online: 2015-6-3

©2015 John Thompson

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License.

Downloaded on 28.3.2023 from
Scroll Up Arrow