Long ago, in ancient India, Angulimala - "the one wearing a garland of fingers" - struck terror in the hearts of all. He virtually controlled the whole forest. Once, the Buddha set off on the route frequented by Angulimala.
"Please do not go on this route. Angulimala does not spare anyone," people begged, but the Buddha merely smiled and told them to be at ease.
As soon as the Buddha had traversed a little distance, he could hear thundering footsteps. Angulimala had seen him and was trying to catch up. The Buddha walked steadily while Angulimala ran desperately. Strangely, Angulimala was just not able to do catch up with the Buddha. Utterly frustrated, he cried out, ''O Bhikkhu (monk), stop, stop!'' though he did not really expect the monk to stop, thinking there was some magical power in the monk.
To his surprise, the Buddha stopped, turned around, and replied calmly: ''I have stopped. It is you who have not stopped.'' Totally bewildered, Angulimala looked on as the Buddha continued, ''I say that I have stopped because I have given up killing all beings. I have given up ill-treating all beings, and have established myself in universal love, patience and knowledge through reflection. But you still have not given up killing or ill-treating others and you are not yet established in universal love and patience. Hence, you are the one who has not stopped. You could, however, stop anytime you wish to.''
Nobody had ever spoken to Angulimala in such a calm and compassionate manner. The peace that he felt just by being in the Buddha's presence was overwhelming. With tears in his eyes, he threw away the necklace of fingers and his weapons. Choked with emotion, he pleaded with the Buddha to admit him to the order of the bhikkhus. The Buddha willingly did so.
Many in the order were aghast. Bound by Buddha's order, they did not oppose the decision but avoided interacting with Angulimala, the dreaded bandit. Observing this, the Buddha counselled Angulimala: "Be patient. Your bad karma will cease to haunt you if you remain calm and composed.''
Angulimala understood and continued serving in the community patiently and lovingly.
Over a period of time, he realised he was especially skilled in helping women in labour as blood, pain and shrieks did not unnerve him. Gradually, his past identity dropped and he became known as the person who was very skilled in helping women deliver babies.
This tale reveals many truths. The statement of the Buddha, "I have now stopped", that was crucial in effecting Angulimala's transformation, is a wonderful message of compassion and empathy. It says: "I have been there and I understand what you are going through." There is no fear or pity, just deep understanding.
Once transformed, Angulimala struggled to earn the respect of others. The Buddha counsels him to keep going, for, in due course, by following the path, he is sure to gain acceptance of the community. This shows us that penitence may be tested severely but, if it is genuine, there is acceptance at the end of the struggle. Redemption happens only with time and sincere effort.
At the societal level, this tale is eternally relevant in showing us that even a hardcore criminal can turn into a socially responsible and caring individual if he is approached with understanding and empathy. Buddhahood is within reach if only we take the path of love and compassion.
Published in Times of India's Speaking tree, 01 August, 2009