Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
More options …

Open Theology

Editor-in-Chief: Taliaferro, Charles

Covered by:
Elsevier - SCOPUS
Clarivate Analytics - Emerging Sources Citation Index

CiteScore 2018: 0.37

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.275
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.975

Open Access
See all formats and pricing
More options …

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


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


  • “Aṅgulimāla: The Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy.” Accessed October 10, 2014, http://www.angulimala.org.uk/ Google Scholar

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

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

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

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

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

  • Bruner, Jerome. “The Narrative Construction of Reality.” Critical Inquiry, 18:1 (1991), 1-21. Google Scholar

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

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

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

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

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

  • Gross, Rita M. “Historical consciousness and traditional Buddhist narratives.” International Journal of Dharma Studies 2013, 1:5. Accessed January 15, 2015, http://www.internationaljournaldharmastudies.com/content/1/1/5 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, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/hecker/wheel312.html. 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. Google Scholar

  • Jenkins, Stephen. “Buddhist Ethics of Violence.” In Oxford Bibliographies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Accessed October 13, 2014, http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195393521 Google Scholar

  • Jerryson, Michael K. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. Oxford/NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2011. Google Scholar

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

  • Jones, James W. Blood That Cries Out From the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 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. Google Scholar

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

  • Kumarasiri, G. K. Ananda. Angulimala. Malaysia: Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc., 2004. Accessed June 15, 2012, http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/angulimala6.pdf 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. Google Scholar

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

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

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

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

  • “The Story of Aṅgulimāla.” Accessed January 10, 2015, http://www.clear-vision.org/Schools/Students/Ages-4-7/story-of-Angulimala.aspx. Google Scholar

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

  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu., trans. Aṅgulimāla Sutta: About Aṅgulimāla. Accessed December 9, 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html. Google Scholar

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

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

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

  • ________. “War.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism, edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr., Volume 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 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, http://www.indologie.uni-muenchen.de/personen/2_professoren/zin/publ_zin/zin_2001_angulimala.pdf Google Scholar

  • Google Scholar

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.

Export Citation

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

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in