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Open Theology

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

John Thompson
Published Online: 2015-06-03 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/opth-2015-0005

Abstract

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.

Keywords: ahiṃsā; ambiguity; Aṅgulimāla; Asoka; interpretation; narrative; violence

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About the article


Received: 2015-02-12

Accepted: 2015-03-18

Published Online: 2015-06-03


Citation Information: Open Theology, Volume 1, Issue 1, ISSN (Online) 2300-6579, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/opth-2015-0005.

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©2015 John Thompson. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. BY-NC-ND 3.0

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