As the national conversation falls victim to what I think of as the “politics of enragement,” I am reminded of the Angulimala Sutta (discourse). It’s a story from the Pali Canon, the earliest written text of the Buddha’s teachings, about a gruesome serial killer named Angulimala – “he with the garland of fingers.”
For years, the physically formidable bandit ambushed travelers and killed them, cutting off their little fingers. He earned his “Angulimala” moniker by keeping his trophies on a garland around his neck, a practical alternative to his previous method of hanging them from a tree line only to see them eaten by birds. His fearsome reputation was such that most people avoided the forest he inhabited, and not even large groups of well-armed men were able to do anything to stop him.
One day, his mother heard of the terrible criminal and knew, in her heart, that it was her son. She went out to the forest in the hopes of redeeming him of his evil ways. As it happened, the Buddha also set out to meet Angulimala, despite warnings of the criminal’s merciless blood thirst. When faced with the choice of killing the woman who happened to be his mother, thereby gaining his 1000th finger, or the monk, Angulimala chose to pursue the monk.
Mythical embellishments have the Buddha performing a rather nifty feat; no matter how fast Angulimala ran, he could never catch up to the strolling monk. Exasperated, he called out for the Buddha to stop. “I have stopped, Angulimala,” was the reply, in reference to being liberated from the cycle of suffering. “Have you?”
“While walking, contemplative,
you say, ‘I have stopped.’
But when I have stopped
you say I haven’t.
I ask you the meaning of this:
How have you stopped?
How haven’t I?”
Says the Buddha:
“I have stopped, Angulimala,
once & for all,
having cast off violence
toward all living beings.
are unrestrained toward beings.
That’s how I’ve stopped
and you haven’t.”
At this encounter, Angulimala renounced his violent ways and became a monk in the Buddha’s community. In the end, Angulimala became an arahant – an enlightened one – and lived a virtuous life.
The story’s lesson that even the worst among us can be redeemed is in itself an inspiring contrast to the damnation our culture is so quick to proclaim. But the story takes on a greater significance when we consider what it means in terms of how we confront evil in the world. (Not just evil, but also what we perceive as wrong; the hurtful, insulting, and “lesser” day-to-day forms of cruelty we inflict on each other.)
Where we typically tend to think of evil as some sort of immutable force or intrinsic personality, the Buddha’s teachings (as I understand them) point to evil as the product of very human choices that arise from our suffering in the form of greed, hatred, and delusion. The distinction is critical, because it defines whether we resolve or perpetuate malicious tragedies such as mass shootings, terror attacks, and warfare. Enabled by the media and opportunistic politicians, the tendency is to label a horrific event as the action of an evil or crazy person, as if the labels “evil” and “insane” offer some definitive sort of explanation in and of themselves. No further thought required. Just bombs away and be done with it, then act surprised when more conflict, more division, and more suffering arise. Given history, how is this helpful?
The point isn’t to exonerate or excuse the harm that results from the evil choices people make. Even after becoming a monk, Angulimala had to endure everything from closed doors to sticks and stones thrown at him by those who clung to his past – and the Buddha didn’t relieve him of his obligation to bear his karmic consequences. Instead, the point is to understand how and why evil happens, something we can’t do in a political climate that reduces people to stereotypes. Equipped with insight, we can follow the Buddha’s example and act with skill instead of reactionary alarm – put out fires with water rather than fight with more fire. That’s the message and hope, I believe, the Angulimala Sutta points to.
This means acting from a foundation of compassion rather than fear. It means rejecting xenophobia, the toxic inference that all X (fill in the blank) are bad in some way. It means rejecting the worst form of identity politics, which resents stereotyping – except when it’s done to some Other, less favoured identity. That’s just the sort of reasoning that creates a climate of violence, an example of which is provided by Max Fisher over at Vox in relation to American Muslims and illustrated by the beating of a Muslim store owner in Queens, New York.
Thus, just as we wouldn’t tolerate anti-Semitic generalizations that would label Jews as Christ-killers, usurers, and other sinister stereotypes, and we wouldn’t accept generalizations of Christianity as a genocidal mania on the basis of past history (read: the slaughter of Native Americans, or nuclear bombs over Japan), we shouldn’t accept generalizations of any broadly constituted group. Our fear of extremists, whether professing to be Muslims or not, should not blunt our compassion for all victims of violent extremism. And our condemnation of evil acts should not blind us to the context that gives rise to these acts.
Of course you’ve heard all this before. The question isn’t so much whether we know what to do – because we do know – but why we struggle so much to do it.
Entangled with Ourselves
It isn’t enough to consider the perpetrators of atrocities like the recent shooting in San Bernardino, or those deemed responsible for this or that social ill. In resisting the reactionary calls to broadly demonize entire groups of people, we should also strive to understand the suffering that gives rise to those calls. At the Washington Post, for instance, VP Joe Biden’s former chief economist Jared Bernstein offers the interesting observation that Donald Trump’s supporters are rightly angry about challenges that Congress is both unwilling and unable to address. Although he doesn’t call it by name, he refers to the class warfare that subjugates people’s interests to those of the country’s wealthy elites. Mr. Bernstein’s argument is that Trump supporters are rightly angry, only they’re directing their anger towards the wrong people. Xenophobia is a useful way for the elites to channel that anger away from them onto a scapegoated Other, a maneuver Howard Zinn describes in A People’s History of the United States in relation to elites pitting poor whites against blacks and Native Americans to prevent an alliance between disenfranchised groups.
This isn’t to suggest that all problems are equal when considered impartially. Nevertheless, we are invariably caught up in ourselves, fueling an endless cycle of demonizing the Other. Other people might have cancer, but we don’t feel any less miserable for having the flu. Our own suffering tends to blind us to the suffering of others.
If America can be said to have a spiritual crisis, to use a loaded term, it lies in overcoming this self-inflicted blindness and embracing compassion as more than a clichéd feel-good buzzword. But we can’t simply be selective in who benefits from that compassion. Whether it’s Syrian refugees escaping the horrors of ISIL, African-Americans being shot by police as a higher rate than whites, angry people ready to ban all Muslims from the country, or anyone else, our challenge is to acknowledge and ease ALL the suffering we encounter. Easier said than done, of course, but when it seems as if the country has given up and given in to rage, surely it’s worth the effort to make compassion something meaningful rather than glib?
For more on the Angulimala Sutta, see here.
Frédérik Sisa is the Page’s Assistant Editor and Resident Art Critic. He can be reached at fsisa@thefrontpageonline or through social media via www.kimtag.com/writer.