Angulimala, kamma of killing need to be expiated

Dear Bhante,
I did finish reading Gombrich’s article on Angulimala, and it is a much more believable account of his background (tantric Siva, etc) than the accepted Buddhist version from the commentaries. However Gombrich doesn’t address the issues relevant to this thread of whether some or all of the kamma of killing needs to be expiated before arahantship is possible. Going by the suttas, in theory one only has to acknowledge wrong doing, that is, really understanding why it was wrong, and not do it again because of that understanding. Excessive remorse is not helpful. In theory, one could kill and attain arahantship in this life. I have a much easier time believing that Milarepa could attain arahantship in the same lifetime that he killed many people out of revenge, than Angulimala. Regardless of whether he was a Tantric channelling Siva or the student of corrupt Brahman who thinks its a good idea to kill 1000 people to please their teacher to learn higher spiritual teachings (isn’t the very definition of spiritual teaching antithetical to killing??). Any being who is ripe, in their last lifetime, close to becoming an arahant, I believe is going to exhibit many virtues and behaviors of a noble one. I believe Angulimala was fabricated to be an inspiring story of redemption. In my case, it has exactly the opposite effect, like the jataka tales. Instead of being inspired, I’m (somewhat) de-spired, and wondering exactly what else in the suttas is fabricated, distorted, etc. The Angulimala paritta just further increases skepticism and seems to confirm my suspicion of the human nature’s desire to create inspiring fiction.

In a way, that’s a very good thing. It’s forced me to really make sure to check everything against the four great references and not take anything for granted until it’s truth as a result of direct experience. I’m comfortable in coping with a reality where even in the EBT some small percentage of it is likely (in my opinion) to be corrupt, fabricated, etc. But it saddens me to see the effect on other Buddhists whose confidence in the Buddha Dhamma is not as strong. I think that’s why they so vehemently maintain Angulimala and Jataka tales are literal truth, because the scriptures say so and their teachers say so. If it turned out Jataka tales were not true, they would probably have doubts about the entirety of Buddha Dhamma.

Well, it’s meant to be an amazing story. The point, ultimately, is that redemption is possible. Even in the other cases you mention, the tradition says that they will find redemption, just not in this life. It might sound extreme to say they have gone to hell, but remember that in Buddhism, we’ve all been there, as have the great arahants.

This is very true, and kind of annoying. It is so obvious that these are late texts, yet even such basic insights, universally taken for granted by scholars for 150 years, seem to be too much for otherwise intelligent and educated people to accept. Literalism is the scourge of Theravada.

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This is true. I’ve even had one, very intelligent and learned, monk say that when he heard of comparisons between the Pali and Chinese, he felt nervous, like a hovering threat. But this is surely nothing more than a sign of weakness of faith. The real antidote to doubt is inquiry. And the day we admit that our religion is threatened by facts; well, that’s a sad day.


Dear Frankk,

I think it is unlikely that such a story has been fabricated out of thin air, and I would rather see it as a story with a kernel of truth, with a fair amount of “faith-based” elaboration, although the exact dividing line between the core of truth and the later expansion would be hard, perhaps impossible, to pin down. I believe this because this seems to be a trend in all Buddhist literature. The suttas may give a simple version of a story, which is then expanded in the commentaries. I can see no reason why this process of expansion did not already start with the suttas themselves. In fact, Ven. Analayo has shown that commentarial material occasionally has found its way into the suttas.

There is also another important factor at work here. It is, I believe, important to distinguish between core material which consists of the actual words of the Buddha and the more peripheral material found in the narrative sections that introduce and conclude each sutta. This narrative material must in all cases have been added after the sutta was spoken, and the Vinaya specifically says that this material (or at least some of it) was added at the first communal recitation (often called council). Now the Angulimala Sutta is mostly narrative material, and as such it is quite likely that it was finalised later, perhaps quite a bit later, than the core doctrines spoken by the Buddha. This suggestion is supported by comparative research, which shows, by and large, that the are greater discrepancies between the narrative material of the different versions of the same sutta, than there is for core doctrinal material. This distinction, then, provides a useful tool for what aspects of the Dhamma we can regard as more authentic and better preserved.

Yeah, this is the danger of not doing proper historical analyses. If you properly distinguish between the different layers of text, and you use the available tools of text critical research, then your confidence in the core teachings should really increase, because you can actually base that confidence on some reasonably solid foundations.

With metta.


From my study of mythology, it has become clear that there is a gradual evolution from what we might call “pure myth”— creation mythologies and the like— through “historical myth”, before we arrive at what we would recognize today as “history”.

It is tempting to dismiss historical myth as nothing other than fantasy; and this was the tendency in older generations of scholars who, for example, decided that the Trojan War was pure fantasy. Until, of Troy was dug up and, well, there it is. Today it is recognized that the Illiad is a fantastic retelling of an actual conflict, and by careful sifting we can, in some cases, discern what is based in history and what is not.

I agree with Ven Brahmali, and would say the story of Angulimala is most likely a case of historical myth. What may or may not be true is, of course, hard to say, but it should not be simply dismissed out of hand.

One thing to be wary of, though: as soon as you can distinguish between “myth” and “history”, that is, as soon as you start to evaluate your stories with something resembling a modern notion of the “truth”, people will start to deliberately fabricate stories to create an authorization for themselves.

These myths, or rather “pseudo-myths”, can be seen, for example, in the Hebrew story of exile among the Egyptians, which was a sheer invention.

In the Buddhist sphere, the same thing happened in the post-Ashokan literature, as the schools invented mythic authentications for themselves, for example in the opening chapters of the Dipavamsa/Mahavamsa, where the Buddha is said to have predicted the spread of the Dhamma to Sri Lanka. Such pseudo-myths are, in my opinion, the oldest ancestor of what today we call “fundamentalism”: inventing a past to control the present.


In my case, even if this was fabricated, it rather inspires me, just a regular knucklehead experiencing the many tendencies of having a mind and physical form. From what I gather from reading the suttas the Lord Buddha was a person who equally gave everyone the benefit of a doubt and kindness (even to those people who tried to harm him). What I learn from this is, how important forgiveness and compassion really is to the spiritual path, especially to one’s own self. Who can go wrong with forgiveness and compassion, especially with the support of wisdom? I know it’s been helping me in along this great path :smile:
This is one of the many great aspects of Buddhism that stand’s out from the rest of the world’s belief systems.

Anjali :pray:

with respect,


First of all, apologies as I’ve not read Gombrich’s article on Angulimala… So this is just a reflection after having read this very interesting thread.

I think the bit I liked best in the story of Angulimala is the part where he says, (paraphrasing here), ‘but I can’t say that, I’ve killed loads of people’ and the Buddha says (paraphrasing again), ‘not since your “conversion”, you haven’t…so say that…’ …Well…something like that. It’s just such a strong statement. A statement on forgiveness, letting go and completely turning your back on the past. A statement on the power of new understanding and new virtue - however dreadful past, remembered kamma may have been. And I love how the past concern with killings and (forgive the understatement) a total lack of consideration for others, is juxtaposed with the concern for a mother in labour and the child to be born and also with a concern for preserving life - rather than taking it.

When I first started reading the suttas, I just loved the narrative sequences. I mean, you just felt like someone was painting a picture and you could see the Buddha in your head. After I did the pilgrimage in India, it was even cooler. I could see him, there on top of Vulture’s Peak, or meditating in his kuti at Jeta’s Grove. It was delightfully inspiring and led me into wanting to read the suttas even more.

It’s ocurred to me that whilst the Sangha kept the Suttas and Vinaya alive, they would not have been the only ones to remember the Buddha and his times. I imagine every lay person He, or one of his great disciples, touched would’ve had an amazing tale to tell. Perhaps as these tales circulated amongst the Buddhist communities, they came to be incorporated into the Suttas - not out of an intention to falsify them, rather as a way of preserving the tales - knowing that by incorporating them, they would be passed down, they wouldn’t be lost.

Great teachers generally use story to get their teachings across. The Buddha appeared to have used this and appears to have had an absolute genius for the use of this technique in, for example, the construction of many a robust similie. In a sense, to specify, in a pedagogic sense, it doesn’t matter about a story’s veracity; what matters is that it’s a teaching tool, a learning tool; what matters is asking myself, “what is this story trying to teach me?” For example, one could say that one reason for the Angulimala narrative is that we are asked to question whether or not we should blindly follow a teacher, or to highlight the fact that we should encourage ourselves to have more compassion towards those who seem to make stupendously bad decisions - not to externalise them but to see that we too are capable of such harmful stupidity. Personally (and it has to always come back to the personal in Dhamma practice, doesn’t it?) I find that the more I practice, the more appreciation I gain for the depth of my capacity to be stupid and cruel and selfish! It’s really very frightening and is a great encouragement to keep present, to keep practising!

The tales are essential and I think well done to whomever thought of this particular technique - back in the day, before print or blogs or discussion forums! Also, the telling of tales teaches most of us, better than a reciting of a list. I suggest, this story is like that; little Dhamma treasures, hidden in the narrative, waiting to be found and wondered at. But, like it was for me in “the beginning”, the tales can also be a form of utter inspiration; they led me to, eventually, pay those seemingly dry and boring lists a little more attention. So those narrative bits at the beginnings and endings of many other suttas, might also just be plain old inspiration, scene setting, getting one in the mood for the good stuff in the middle. And anyway - at some point, it would’ve happened - I mean, at some point, the Buddha would’ve been giving a Dhamma talk at, for example, the Jetavane. So it really doesn’t hurt (another understatement - perhaps considerably milder than the last one) me to visualise him doing so on a repeated basis in sutta after sutta…it just gets me all inspired and high on this Path, this Practice, this rather lovely Triple Gem.

It’s interesting that, from what I could see, there wasn’t a confession scene in this sutta. In other stories, someone says something like, “I did such and such a bad thing cos I didn’t see clearly and I’m confessing it so that I have more sati later on and I don’t do it again.” And the Buddha says something like, “yup, you did transgress cos you didn’t see clearly but it’s really good that you’re confessing it and acknowledging it so that you encourage yourself to let that way go and go on a more wholesome way. That’s growth in Dhamma and virtue…” I kinda like that whole confession scene as I find it meaningful and useful to me. I wonder why it wasn’t in this sutta?

Thanks to all and metta.


I agree completely about the importance and everything of the narratives and similes, but there is, I think, a mystery here that has not yet been properly explained. And that is: why so few?

If you look at the Buddhist traditions, they make up one of the world’s great storytelling traditions; so many hundreds of Jatakas, takles, and all kinds of things. Yet in the EBTs there are very few. Almost all the suttas are straight doctrinal teachings, with little elaboration beyond the frequent similes and rarer short parables. There are hardly any extended narratives, and those that are there are typically a) not spoken by the Buddha (eg DN16 Mahaparinibbana) or b) of dubious authenticity (eg DN17 Mahasudassana), or both (eg MN86 Angulimala).

What’s going on? Did the Buddha not tell stories? Or were they left out for some reason? Why is there such a radical difference between the treatment of story in the EBTs and the later texts?


Could it be cos those who first recited them in order to preserve them, were beyond ‘stories’…in a manner of speaking… I mean, part of the delusion we carry around is that ‘our story’ and therefore, all stories, are incredibly important. Is it possible, that the recitations were kept streamlined because of the nature of the reciters?

And then, the actual recitation wasn’t meant to be for teaching purposes per se… they were, I’m guessing, primarily for the purpose of preservation. The teaching might come when some one picked a section and then talked further around it…? I mean they didn’t have icloud back in the day…

But Bhante, what do you and Ajahn Brahmali think about this?

With metta

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I doubt it, I am suspicious of explanations that invoke some mysterious spiritual attainments to explain a historical phenomenon.

Maybe. Perhaps the doctrinal passages were felt to be the crucial part, and narrative was left to be expanded by the teller, and gradually came to be formalized. But it still feels like an insufficient explanation to me.

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My guess is that stories and narratives were deliberately not transmitted to put the focus on the distilled, compact, and crucial core teachings. To ensure fidelity, and keep the emphasis locked in on core principles. One of the things that strikes me about the EBT is that as many suttas that there are, they mostly seem to be themes and variations on the same set of very basic principles. Perhaps if there was an attempt to record and transmit personal narratives and more stories, dhamma vinaya would degenerate more quickly as later generations have more material to shift their focus to.

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You may be right. But it is, I hope you agree, an interesting detail that would benefit from closer study.

Hi Bhante,

That’s a fair point. Though, I wasn’t intending to refer to anything particularly mysterious… Though I suppose, in that I have no personal knowledge of such spiritual attainments, then it’s certainly very mysterious to me!

I was making an assumption about the nature of an Awakened being (and how they might speak/teach) and I was thinking about that story of the first council and how they were all supposed to have been arahants. Which brings me to ask if that story, including the tale of Ananda’s attainment of arahantship (which Ajahn Brahm often tells) is an EBT?

Also Bhante, do you and/or Ajahn Brahmali have a theory around why the EBTs tend to be ‘straight doctrinal teachings’?



Yes, it is very interesting. I was thinking about this issue again, and it occurred to me that there are actually tons of stories and narratives all over the place in EBT, they’re just really really short. Theragatha, Therigatha, Maha Moggallana visiting tavatimsa heaven causing Sakka’s mansion to shake by just touching his toe to the floor. By “extended narrative or story”, I take it you mean when the Buddha and disciples would actually teach the sutta, such as the maha moggallana toe shaking story, it would be delivered with more dramatic flair and include funny details. Yet, when they recorded the teaching for posterity, it’s just a very terse and clinical summary of the events.

One of my favorite suttas is the Vesali sutta in anapana samyutta, also in the vinaya. This is a story I would have expected more of an extended narrative and more detail. I was stumped by this story for many years. Why would the Buddha allow this event to happen, surely his selective omniscience, or friendly devas would catch his attention and clue him in on what’s going on? Why didn’t Ananda disobey the Buddha and interrupt his personal retreat to let him know these mass suicides were happening, and maybe they should put a stop to it?

Recently, I had an insight. All over the EBT, asubha practice is praised. For a long time, I’ve had doubts about how theravada meditation is taught nowadays, and in particular the lack of asubha+corpse contemplation practice when the suttas praise it so often. So exactly how much asubha should be practiced? This is my insight, based on Vesali sutta. Asubha is powerful, it should be done frequently. But if you’re feeling suicidal, then don’t do asubha. Do anapanasati instead. That’s the lesson from the sutta. If it were an extended narrative, perhaps those personal details could have distorted meaning over time from being in a different culture, time, and place. But by just having a very brief summary of the story, I believe I drew the proper conclusion and lesson the buddha and transmitters of the Dhamma had intended.

The Vesali suttas is one of my favorites because to me it shows the Buddha, chief disciples, arahants of the first council were fearless, perfect in virtue and integrity by disclosing full truth and trusting the future generations of disciples could handle truth. Any other religion I think would try to hide those skeletons in the closet.


Dear Kay,

Ok, I’ll add my two cents worth.

The main point of the Buddhist teachings is to teach a path to the end of suffering. This path is very specific, and very precise teachings are required to elucidate it well. Stories may not be the best tool for this, since they need to be interpreted and do not normally allow for precise instructions. In fact, it may be the case that the Buddha was wary of stories for precisely this reason: they might detract from the clarity of the rest of his message. It is difficult enough to agree on what the Buddha said as it is, but this difficulty may have been compounded if a large number of stories had been added to the corpus. Instead of stories, the Buddha uses similes to get his message across. And these similes are one of the outstanding features of the EBTs. They are almost invariably very beautiful and meaningful.

The purpose of teaching a practical path to the end of suffering is quite different from the purpose of most other religions, where faith is much more central. And with faith stories would seem to have a very natural place.

With metta.



One thing I admire about the Bhagava was that he rarely used his psychic abilities (did he really have psychic abilities one may ask but I have confidence that he did). He openly gave the opportunity for each individual to develop by him/herself through guidance. How inspiring is that? I mean WOW LOL.

My take on asubha is to only practice it when one has tasted the fruits of samma-samadhi. The mind has to have tasted and understood the dhamma to really get something out of asubha. The mind has many subtle tendencies and it’s very easy to assume that one can handle the practice but I just can’t see a lay person easily doing that and not even monastics openly encourage it. There are exemptions but I could only foresee negative results from practicing asubha without having the right foundations to support the mind.


May you be free,

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Dear Ajahn Brahmali,

Once again your remarks have been clear and completely sensible! Thanks so much. This makes a lot of sense.

With metta

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Dear Russ,

My take on asubha is to only practice it when one has tasted the fruits of samma-samadhi.

I definitely agree that Asubha has to be practiced cautiously, but many places in the EBT asubha is not just something you do after you have jhanas, but as a preliminary practice to attenuate lust and desire for sensual pleasures, and also as a satipatthana practice to enter the jhanas. For example, in samvara sutta, AN 4.13(?), part 4 says, (quoting from memory with no diacritics)

uppannam bhaddakam samadhi-nimittam anu-rakkhati.
One should protect/maintain/guard an auspicious “nimitta” of samadhi that has arisen, such as:
perception of skeleton.
perception of worm infested corpse
perception of blue colored corpse
perception of corpse that has cracks and fissures
perception of corpse bloated

This sutta is to samma padhana and samma vayamo in a way that satipatthana sutta gives highly recommended exercises for samma sati.

It’s quite an interesting passage I quoted because one might have expected the Buddha would have for example recommend metta or brahmaviharas for the samma padhana function of maintaining/ protecting kusala dhammas that have arisen. But that he specifically recommends corpse contemplation in this sutta really highlights the importance of asubha practice.

Also, anyone who hasn’t read “history of mindfulness”, you definitely should at some point. It really opened my eyes on many issues and cleared up so many doubts and confusions about the satipatthana sutta.

If you compare satipatthana mula sutta, which is Bhante Sujato’s reconstructed earliest version of satipatthana sutta, with the samvara sutta I quoted above, you’ll notice some very interesting features. They recommend extremely similar meditation exercises, just that under satipatthana it highlights the functions of samma sati and under samvara sutta it highlights the functions of samma vayamo. Satipatthana mula only has one exercise for kaya-anupassana: asubha, 31 body parts. Samvara has the 5 stages of corpses. This again really underscores the importance of asubha.

I never really look at the suttas from a perspective of a lay person or monastic. I just look at myself as a victim of suffering, fed up with dukkha, sick of rebirth, and don’t want to go through this crap again. When the EBT places such strong emphasis on asubha, I’m definitely going to start incorporating it much more into my personal practice. As Ajahn Brahm says in his book, “art of disappearing(?)”, “make this the last time.” Sure there are some who could do it without asubha, but I’m not taking that chance.


Dear Ajahn

So that story of the First Council, is it pre-Ashokan? And is the story of Ven Ananda’s Full Enlightenment (the head on the pillow story) also an EBT?

With metta

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There’s definitely some sectarian elaboration going on there, as each version of this story, of which there are several in the various Vinayas, tells it from the perspective of their own school. On the other hand, the overall idea of the First Council is pretty much the same, so my feeling is that there was a Council, which gathered after the Buddha died to collect the texts, but many of the details were added later, in some cases as late as the time of Ashoka.

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Sadhu! I rejoice that you can incorporate asubha into your practice :smile:

I don’t know when my mind will be ready to use asubha but I do use a combination of maranussati and karuna bhavana. I find it much more useful to my practice.

May you be free.