angulimala and the price of belonging

Every so often, I come back to the story of Angulimala.  There’s a well-written version here and it is one of the most beloved Buddhist stories of salvation.  Angulimala was a brilliant student of a well-known teacher who turned against him when other students became jealous.  The teacher set a task to test Angulimala’s dedication to his teachings: he was to collect a thousand human little fingers.  In some versions, Angulimala was set the task to prove his unquestioning loyalty to the teacher.  In others, the teacher believed Angulimala had slept with his wife and set him up to commit these crimes so that he would be punished by the law, a rather passive-aggressive move on the teacher’s part.

There’s the obvious cautionary message about what teachers can do when caught in their own tangles of desire.  I would say it’s regardless of enlightenment because I don’t believe true enlightenment is a permanent condition anyway.  There’s also the obvious moral call to be one’s own lamp in matters of principled action.   But that’s not really where the power of the story lies.

At its heart, this is a story about the restrictions we place on our vision of others.  We need them be a certain way, to act a certain way, to meet our needs a certain way.  We believe certainty is a scripted safety net which makes life safe within margins.  When that script is challenged it doesn’t matter if the challenge is real or not; the ripples of fear are immediate and cannot be calmed easily.  

It’s also a story about our need to belong and what we are willing to forfeit to have that place where we are accepted as trusted and valued members of a community.  It’s easy to fall into the mind-trap that gives precedence to a felt sense of belonging over principled action because the former “feels” more real, has more “real” correlates with safety than the latter.  We all need something we can hold onto; a dharma name, a robe, a shawl, a jacket.  Nothing wrong with that unless we look away from the coin we’ve used to purchase it.

I don’t claim to know what the teacher and his student should have done or might have done.  I need to spend a bit of time counting the little fingers I’ve collected while thinking I was truly practicing.