Come, come, whoever you are.Rumi
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.
At the dark fringes of the human story the killers who take life with glee snake the grounds. They elude notice in night’s cover. They stack bodies in basements, stuff freezers full with appendages. These are the serial killers—the nightmares who haunt even devils’ dreams. They are the most depraved of the profane, and as it stands, our culture is obsessed with them.
Countless hours of podcasts, biographies, documentary series, dramatizations, YouTube postulations, and speculative fictionalizations are prolifically produced on the subject. The genre that’s come to be known as “true crime” has catapulted over the past decade. The phenomenon of the serial killer bewitches the psyche with unique power.
We are drawn and repelled by the undertaking of killing in serial, by the psyche of the rare one who does. We choose to witness and dissect their crimes and stories. We bravely scout the dark forests growing in the shadow-field around them. We’ve shown the fortitude to face the terrors found there; but, are we courageous enough to ask why it’s so easy to whisper us in, to the heart of these forests which grow only horror and savagery?
Even if at first we stumbled in like naive Hansels and Gretels, having later made escape with our souls intact, why have we kept going back to look deeper? Having faced the unthinkable reality of cold-blooded killing, cannibalism, human dismemberment, necrophilism, and a laundry list of monstrosities that ask to be peered at through fingers—why would we turn back to face it? How can we give such raptured attention to those who are worst among us, to the movers of unspeakable depravity? Could this mean that in actuality there’s something disturbingly wrong… with us?
Perhaps. It may be that we’re all rotten, after all the cosmic calculus is carried out. Regardless, we have to take the question of why we’re so obsessed with the serial killer seriously. It may be just the thing that keeps a rotten seed from sprouting a dark forest within ourselves.
If we are to dare to understand our own psyches, we must turn to face this deepest strain of darkness and march forward flashlights in hand. How do we know where to shine those lights? Well, if we want to understand the root of our obsession, we can begin nowhere else but the beginning. By examining the oldest account we have of a serial killer, one that still lingers heavy in the cultural consciousness, we will unveil how his story holds the key to understanding our dark obsession. And then, when we have journeyed to the proper vantage point, we will be able to uncover where redemption may lie for the wrongs that we’ve committed in our own lives.
Let us start with that ancient account. I speak of a single murderer with a kill count in the uppermost hundreds—perhaps the most successful and brutal killer in history—whose story has been told, dramatized, and re-examined more than Jeffrey Dahmer’s, Ted Bundy’s, and Jack the Ripper’s all combined. He is the killer Angulimala, known for stringing the fingers of his victims around his neck to wear as a garland of death.
There are many tellings of this killer’s story. The following is my telling.
Angulimala, the Garlander of Fingers
Thus have I heard. At the time of the Buddha, in one of the great kingdoms of ancient India, on a cloudless, crisp night, a child was born. He breached fully into the world, and the moment he did, a brilliant light emerged from every weapon in each home in the kingdom. It was momentary, but it was ubiquitous. It was a remarkable occurrence to say the least, and the child’s father—the grand chaplain of the king—hoped that it carried a favorable omen.
The following day, the chaplain consulted the royal astrologer. The astrologer’s eyes were bright and calm, but as he gave his reading, his voice strummed chords of worry. “This flash of weapons,” he explained, “augurs for your son a life as a killer and bandit.” What’s more, the newborn’s astrological chart signified that he was born under the “bandit constellation,” and that he would end up being well-known and feared. There appeared to be cosmic agreement. The child’s fate, it seemed, was written.
A heaviness weighed on the chaplain with solemn intensity. At once he traveled to the king to share his news. The chaplain carried a sunken heart as he explained the situation. Trembling, he asked, “Sire, must I take the life of my son to prevent the pox on the kingdom that it promises?”
The king was a follower of the Buddha and possessed a benevolent heart. “No,” he answered, “rather raise him soundly with the principles of virtue to thwart this calling of ill fate.” The chaplain vowed graciously to follow the king’s entreaty. He gave the name Ahimsaka—harmless one—to his new child. He would make certain that his son turned out proper and good.
Ahimsaka’s mother and father raised him with great affection and guidance, and he developed into a joyful, gentle, and loving boy. In time, he proved himself intelligent, diligent, and sturdy of body and mind. He was especially kindly and exceptionally bright. He possessed a calm air and his thoughts settled sweetly on the sacred.
The years turned, and the time came for him to leave home to continue his studies. Ahimsaka was selected into the University of Taxila—the pinnacle of learning in ancient India. He was chosen to study under the most renowned sage at the school. Ahimsaka felt an important shift had occurred. He resolved to achieve the highest state of spiritual understanding through total mastery of his lessons.
At university, Ahimsaka excelled beyond his peers, quickly demarcating himself as an outstanding sun among stars. Within a few years, his studiousness, virtue, charm, and great intellect led him to become the star pupil of the teacher. The elder had taught hundreds of students and had never met one who excelled like Ahimsaka. He was so impressed that he took Ahimsaka as a guest in his home. Their relationship grew to resemble that of a father and son, and each of them wore that resemblance with delight.
Of course, as such things go, this special treatment didn’t go unnoticed by Ahimsaka’s peers. Each of them was used to being top student in his or her previous school, and to be so outclassed academically felt untoward. Their teacher’s obvious preferencing was a finish of coarse salt in their egos’ wounds. The students grew jealous and conspiratorial. Ahimsaka was regarded by and large as an enemy whose downfall was theirs to mastermind. Knowing they could not challenge Ahimsaka on academic grounds nor find fault in his character, they devised a plan to guarantee his expulsion from the school.
One after another, the students started planting sour seeds in their teacher’s mind, first by oblique implication, and gradually by direct reference. The culmination of their strategy was telling their teacher that Ahimsaka was philandering with his wife. The teacher refused to entertain the thought and admonished his students for their rumor-making. But as always, pernicious thoughts pushed down find their way to fester upward.
Doubt crept in. Then bitter rumination. Ahimsaka was strikingly attractive, after all, and the teacher’s wife was greatly the junior of her husband. What’s more, she and Ahimsaka would often spend long hours speaking excitedly on philosophy and spirituality. The ground for suspicion swelled as if after a downpour of biting rain.
The teacher soon succumbed to his own insecurities, and though in fact no more than rumor, he became convinced about Ahimsaka’s usurpation of his wife. The bitter students got their desired end. “He will certainly be expelled,” they gloated. But as with all plans colored by the taint of revenge, the chaos of hatred forks lightning anarchically. The students’ plotting worked too well. Their rumors completely unhinged their great teacher.
The next time he saw Ahimsaka talking to his wife, the teacher exploded. His eyes’ glare surged with hellfire dancing. Molten fury spewed hot from his mouth. In his madness, the teacher took a drastic step; he invoked an ancient rite that sealed Ahimsaka’s fate. In the tradition of this time, one sacred dictate could be delivered from a teacher to his student that had to be obeyed without exception under spiritual law. The teacher’s demand was this: “You must leave this school to go collect one thousand small fingers from the right hands of one thousand people.”
Ahimsaka froze in horror. His world shattered into 10,000 shards, pain gushed from a hundred holes in his heart. What had he done to deserve such punishment? As a student and surrogate son, he had behaved as close to immaculately as was possible. Even caught in the chaos of madness, the clever teacher knew that a student as serious as Ahimsaka would obey this ancient rite rather than risk dishonoring his teacher and desolating his own chance of attaining spiritual mastery; still, to be certain he warned that if it were not carried out, Ahimsaka would be ruined by a curse.
Ahimsaka, who had never harmed a living thing, who had only ever honored and revered his teacher, was being demanded by sacred rite to perform the unspeakable. Ahimsaka begged his teacher to reconsider, but his mind was blinded by fury and could not be opened to reason. The teacher was certain his unfaithful student would be killed in short order attempting such a task. Ahimsaka set off with no choice in his heart but to savage his soul for his teacher’s honor.
Envisioning no other way, Ahimsaka set right to task. The fire of turmoil flamed up within him, but he was a perfect student to fault, and even under the circumstances could not disobey this sacred rite. He made his way deep into the forests that edged the kingdom’s land and made camp along a popular trade route. It was there he would undertake his gruesome duty, albeit carried out with incalculable remorse.
One foggy dusk, a merchant traveling the trade route came upon Ahimsaka seated cross-legged in the road—now weeks out from a hot meal or bath, and very much presenting as such. The merchant stopped to offer bread and water. Without speaking, Ahimsaka struck like a viper. He slayed the merchant swiftly, between beats of his heart. In the next breath, he cut the smallest finger from the dead man’s right hand and went off to bury the corpse. Death’s shadow had fallen over him. Ahimsaka did not sleep or touch food for a week.
He was in the beginning overwhelmed by plagues of guilt. Sleepless nights. Bouts of vomiting followed by sobbing. His own actions were unimaginable to himself, to the boy who was raised so generously with virtue and compassion, to the young man who held his spiritual studies higher than anything else.
Still, despite a lifetime of momentum pushing toward the good, as Ahimsaka tallied more killings, he carried in his heart less and less remorse. It did not take long for Ahimsaka to discover another in his litany of gifts—his incredible strength and swiftness, compounded with genius intellect, made him a horrifically effective killer. With each kill, he collected the small finger off the right hands of his victims, seeding his count toward his goal of one thousand.
It was not long before he became fully enraptured by his single-minded quest for one thousand fingers to the brutal exclusion of all moral consideration. He forgot that the world could be lovely. The now brutal murderer killed men, women, and children with merciless ferocity, all the while accumulating fingers for his teacher’s macabre demand.
There came a time when Ahimsaka fumbled with his sick bounty of little fingers, too cumbersome to carry, too tempting to insects and scavengers to leave unattended. One thousand was the goal, and he refused to lose a single finger to accident or fate. To this end, Ahimsaka crafted a garland on which he strung every finger in a continuum of decay—a band of gruesome jewelry that he hung around his neck. It was this symbol that made him infamous as the serial killer known as “Angulimala”—one wearing a garland of fingers. He reeked of death. His tattered rags were black and thick with layered stains of blood. Ahimsaka was no more. Angulimala was all that remained.
Fearsome stories of the crazed killer Angulimala spread throughout the kingdom. In time, fewer and fewer travelers opted to journey the trade route he prowled. By this time, he had harvested hundreds and hundreds of little fingers and had become completely deranged—a wild-haired, wild-eyed madman wearing a devil’s garland of death.
Having devolved into a state of single-minded murderous obsession, the now Angulimala began forcibly entering homes and killing all who resided inside. Before long, the menace of Angulimala reached the concern of the king. He moved decisively, ordering an elite contingent of soldiers to bring the killer into the kingdom to be put to death.
Being an advisor of the king, Angulimala’s father was among the first to know of the proclamation. Something in him stirred up the astrologer’s prophecy that foresaw his son’s destiny as a dangerous killer bandit. With nausea and horror, he was struck with a bolt of intuitive certainty. The killer Angulimala was his son Ahimsaka, who left for university and never returned.
Angulimala’s father confided this admission with his wife. She also knew in her heart that the murderer was her son. She could not bear this understanding. Her boy, who had grown from such pure gardens, whose soul had sung sweet lullabies of heaven, had grown hideous and ruthless beyond recognition.
She also carried the knowing that as his mother, she was the only one who could persuade his bleak soul back to righteous life. She envisioned him alone in the forest. How he must be suffering a life of privation and terror. It was too much for her. She lay weeping for hours alone. Beneath the tears was a tender longing and courage for what must be done.
In the still night, she stole away without informing her husband, carrying with her a bundle of her son’s favorite cooking. She would not let her son be executed. She would find him, and she would revive him. She would convince him to return to the virtue and light he embodied so dazzlingly as a boy.
At that same moment, Angulimala crouched awake with eyes wide, at home in the blackness of the forest. He could not sleep, for he was stricken with an anxious glee that for all its fogginess was irrepressible. Around the killer’s neck lay nine hundred and ninety nine fingers derived from right hands. He had counted scores of times; there was no mistaking the number. To complete his task, to reclaim his honor, satisfy his teacher, escape his perpetual lonesomeness, and ascend in scholastic and spiritual apotheosis, Angulimala had only to murder one more person and take his or her smallest finger. It was ending, the nightmare dreamed by his former self.
The next morning, he awoke to the sound of small feet striding the forest floor. Peering from his hiding, he saw an old woman. She was walking alone, with what looked like a bundle of food. Angulimala felt blessed by luck, as people rarely traveled the trading path he lived by anymore. He drew a deep breath and inhaled the host of phantoms that had haunted his every moment these last gruesome seemingly endless months. At last, he would complete his quest and free himself from his teacher’s decree.
Angulimala grasped his knife. An uncommon sweat slicked the handle. He had not felt nerves like this before a kill since early on. Slight and humble, the old woman traipsed between the hushed trees. She stopped and sat with bent knees to rest; the kill was guaranteed. A lone bird whistled a solemn song, and as it did she turned her head to glimpse it. This brought her face in full view, and Angulimala’s heart stopped. His jaw fell loose toward his chest. How could he not recognize his own mother? His calloused heart had forgotten the feel of love. A hint of compassion and longing arose within him like a distant light at a tunnel of briars’ escape.
But all of the remembrance of his mother’s gentle grace couldn’t matter. There was a force beyond parentage that had mastery over Angulimala, and procuring the thousandth finger was the prize that force demanded. There was nothing that could stop him now. His mother or another stranger could be no more than growths from the end of one finger. He closed his eyes and his countenance became again dispassionate. His mother would die that day. The one-thousandth finger would be drawn from her hand.
The Killer Within
The tragic story of how Ahimsaka the righteous turned into Angulimala the monstrous evinces the unconscious presence of the killer in an ordinary person. The tale of Angulimala has endured over thousands of years and is portrayed regularly in books and films even today. It must be the most recounted serial killer narrative there is. It should be no wonder then that this story holds the key to our peculiar obsession with the serial killer archetype. Through understanding his story, we will come to understand what our killer obsession says about the human psyche at large.
The serial killer fills a unique psychological role in the collective unconscious. To kill without remorse, persistently, and with seeming or obvious pleasure, represents the pinnacle of abhorrent projects a human can undertake. It is the ne plus ultra of egregious paradigms. In other words, the serial killer stands as the archetype of the heinous.
To the psyche, the serial killer is so much like the snake of wild nature: a being devoid of morals who cannot be reasoned with, whose eyes house a long stare absent of soul, who will kill for no reason and is capable of striking anywhere, without notice, fatally, at any time. In the Genesis myth, the snake is the whispering devil, the cunning embodiment of the bitter end. One is reminded of Charles Manson—who laid not a finger on a victim but commanded proxy killers through insidious speech. The snake in the garden spoke the right words to bring Eve and Adam to disobey God himself.
Our culture obsesses over killers, and yet we are shy to ask why that is so. Why might it be that so many of us draw to the snake like a moth to fire? Many partial reasons can be given, and here are a handful:
- We want to feel prepared: We want to believe that in the worst situation imaginable we could outthink our perpetrator and escape gruesome death at his hands. The same impulse leads to our shouting at the screen all the glaring means of escape to the horror protagonist trapped in the house with the killer. If we can understand the patterns or approaches of the serial killer, we can maneuver ourselves to his blind spots and slip out the back.
- We are curious: We want to understand the ununderstandable, to fathom the killer psyche, to try on the skin, so to speak, of he who would try on skin. It is our nature to be curious. And like the cat of lore, we will sometimes step fatally close to a crumbling ledge. The more we make sense of the killer, the more he begins to make sense, and this is where the danger lies.
- We seek moral indignation: Our culture teaches us that this is the proper stance of being. To some degree, indignation must be the proper stance because of the severely intolerable state of the world—of nature, politics, economics, interrelation, art, culture, COVID, and so on. To some other degree, indignation is inappropriate, or unhelpful, or a mask for one’s own darkness, and we are not taught to seek where that line of degree should be drawn. Signaling our purity through outrage slicks the culture’s ubiquitous targeting system off our own back momentarily. By pointing a finger or ten at the serial killer, we underscore our relative sainthood in the sight of the Other and of our surface selves.
- We want to be surprised: Living in the internet age, we’ve seen everything there is and are bored with it. Our minds are overloaded with imagery, data, light, noise, sexual impressions, commercial impositions, ideological intoxications, scents, tastes, takes, and distractions. We are bombarded at all times with a sensory onrush of overwhelm. Living this way, we have become numbed to extremity and violence. The serial killer phenomenon represents a rare gem of intrigue set in the embrace of the extreme. After all, the more extreme the stimulus, the greater the chance for surprise.
Each of these reasons speaks a truth of our inner motivations. Yet each rests like the ocean’s surface above the great fathoms of depth that reside beneath. There where the light does not reach and the creatures turn gruesome and strange hides our central, and most severe, inner motivation. Here and there we may have glimpsed it in dream or in our most raw moments of reflection. Let us beware.
The reason we obsess over the killer is because we can’t see the killer in ourselves, and we’re desperately trying to. In other words, deep down each human being has a knowing that within us there lives a latent killer. And in the workings of our unconscious minds, we are yearning to know how to keep it from manifesting.
This requires some explanation. To begin with, the human being’s potential for depravity is categorically unparalleled. In the rest of the animal kingdom, the most savage displays of big cats, bears, chimpanzees, wolf packs, orcas, and crocodiles are distant stars to the sun that is human brutality. Combined with technology, reach, might, vengeance, and will, we can inflict pain—psychic and physical both—beyond measure.
The genocidal authoritarian movements of the 20th century revealed that our capacity for depravity was capped only by the limitations of technology, will, and logistics. In the same era, the mapping of the unconscious through the work of psychiatrists like Freud and Jung opened a new lens through which to parse that depravity.
The unprecedented access into the extent of depravity that the intersection of these genocidal and psychological movements provided left us with a fuller understanding of the human psyche. The soldiers and camp guards who were the arms and legs of the murderous regimes showed that there are circumstances in which common people can become piloted by the killer-at-large, rebuffing the simple notion that there are “good people” and “bad people.” Some prominent survivors of the tyrannical camps of these movements emerged with a nuanced psychological understanding that further rebuked this simple notion.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—a Russian philosopher and novelist who survived the Gulag system— famously mused, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Viktor Frankl—an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the death camp system of the Nazis—iterated this idea writing, “The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths[…].”
It is crucial to acknowledge that the line between good and evil runs through your own heart. You know this to be true through accounting your own acts: you know well the darkness you’ve perpetuated, the love and care you’ve flowered, the times you’ve felt torn between what you should do and could. At the same time, most of us still behave as if there’s a special class of “bad people” that is distinct from us. These “bad people” are the perpetrators of the world’s evil, and the serial killer—the sociopath devoid of moral capability—sits at the pinnacle of that paradigm.
As Solzhenitsyn implied, we have a tendency to draw a line around that which we condemn and separate it from ourselves, as if to perform a surgery in attempt to remove a malignant growth. Only once it is safely sequestered can we please our curiosity and examine it from a safe distance. The growths of the relatively more benign stripe (e.g. the impulse to steal, the impulse to cheat or to harm another person) don’t need to be examined because we have analogues from our own life and can understand their occurrence. When it comes to the serial killers, however, we can’t resist sliding them under the moral microscope to find what conditions brought this rare and malignant growth to bear. This is because when we look within ourselves, we don’t see the possibility of such a growth occurring—we don’t see the desire to kill massively, deliberately, meticulously, horrifically, and in an ongoing manner, so we think it’s not there.
So we remain the moth flitting to the fire, unable to stay away from that which would kill us the moment we entered its reach. The problem is that the layer at which the inner serial killer lives in us is also the layer we’re least enticed to examine, and which we would hardly even perceive if we weren’t alerted to it. But it is crucial to examine it, lest it manifests in ways we aren’t prepared for. We must learn to give the part of ourselves that flirts with evil its due, because it’s part of us, and if we shove half of ourselves into the shadow, we will split.1 This is one way people dis-integrate and live in a state of perpetual self-insurrection.
1 A thorough examination of this concept can be found in my essay, “The False Sun at High Noon: Examining Culture’s Shadow”.
This is why Frankl emphasized that in a human being the good-evil dynamic “reaches into the lowest depths.” In our killer fascination, there’s a part of us that is calling us downward to meet it. If we can steel ourselves and proceed carefully, we can discover there not grim death and madness, but full life and wholeness. The abyssal plain of the ocean unconscious holds the most rare and exquisite monsters whose fearsome duty is to save our souls. Jung highlighted the old alchemical dictum, “in filth it shall be found.” That which we most need will be discovered where we want least to look. Nietzsche wrote, “I am a forest, and a night of dark trees: but he who is not afraid of my darkness, will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.” That which is most precious is accessed through the darkness. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said, “Show me the stone which the builders have rejected. That one is the cornerstone.” That which we cast out is the most necessary of all.
In the story of Angulimala, the Buddha saw a cornerstone for peace and healing in the visage that all others recoiled from in terror. Darkness does not carry on without its sister light. As we will see, with the eyes of a Buddha, one can see wholeness amidst an immersion in shadow.
Ahimsaka, the Harmless One
Angulimala had collected 999 fingers from victims of his murders. The wildest creature in the forest he inhabited could not have made a challenge to his fearsomeness. He had become more animal than man, and in his ruthlessness more devil than animal. His gracious mother, who had traveled to the forest in compassion and sorrow to save her only son, was to become his 1000th victim.
Weariness was written upon Angulimala’s face. He had made his choice. His mother would die, her finger would be severed, and he would at last be free. Silently, Angulimala stalked like a jungle leopard, priming to leap for the kill. But at the moment of springing forward, a lone monk appeared on the path.
Although not known to Angulimala, this monk was Gautama the Buddha. Fate’s hand, or perhaps a weeping angel, had pulled him into Angulimala’s affair. For the tale of Angulimala the killer had reached the Buddha’s ears, and he saw a vision that he must be helped, that he could be saved. So at the same time as the killer’s mother, and in the same spirit, the holy one had departed to reach his loving hand into the large darkness that held Angulimala like a captor in the night.
Once Angulimala spied the Buddha he halted his lunge. An alternate victim, a lone monk; how fortuitous, he thought. Now he could make his thousandth kill while also sparing his mother. At this point he was frenzied and could not wait. Not one breath more could be wasted. Someone had to die.
Angulimala sprinted at top speed, the lone wanderer square in his sight. The Buddha walked calmly not far ahead. Angulimala huffed, lurching with his tremendous might. The Buddha walked. Angulimala ran full bore. Miraculously, no ground was gained between the killer and his prize. In fact, it seemed that no matter how hard he ran, and how willfully he forced his body, Angulimala could gain no ground. This astonished and enraged him. He had killed so many, his goal was so near. None had defeated him in combat nor escaped. But now, fury, fervor, will—all failed him. Angulimala could not come closer to the aged man walking casually before him.
Giving into frustration and exhaustion, Angulimala stopped and screamed to the man, “Stop, ascetic! Stop!” At this, the Buddha paused. He cast his gaze behind his shoulder. It was soft and sweet, yet it pierced like a needle through cloth. Angulimala staggered, at once engulfed. The monk’s eyes poured a cascade of intransigent peace, his gentle smile petrifying in all of its quietude. The Buddha spoke. “I have stopped,” he answered the killer. The breeze fell calm. “Now it is time for you to stop, Angulimala.”
The words lit Angulimala aflame like a burst of hot lightning; something of his true self awakened at their hearing. Still he was confused and could not grasp the speaker’s meaning. “I don’t understand, ascetic,” he replied, “I have already stopped running. I stand still now as we speak. What do you mean you have stopped and I have not?”
The Buddha turned gently around to meet his would-be killer face-to-face. The forest seemed to fall to silence, and when the Buddha spoke, it was somehow with more than his voice. He said, “Angulimala, I stopped long ago. In fact, I have long been standing still. For I have stopped bringing harm to the beings of this world. You cannot say the same. You are unrestrained, without mercy, and have brought many beings great harm. Therefore, I say the truth: I have stopped. You have not.”
Angulimala jolted, then froze still. In one moment, all of his malice and violence evaporated just like a water bead dropped on a scorching pan—all of it, all at once, impossibly, and completely. He could no longer hold himself to stand and fell to his knees. Looking upon the Buddha, he was all at once like a child all over. Where long fury, rage, and confusion swirled, light, loving-kindness, and truth recapitulated. He widened his eyes and looked around him. A smile overtook his face. As if brought out of a dream by a splash of cold water, he came back into himself. In that instant he could think of nothing else: he would enter the Buddha’s Sangha and devote his life to the good.
In a moment of instantaneous awakening, Ahimsaka was reborn. The Buddha understood at once that his transformation was sincere. He agreed to allow him to enter service as a monk, and so Ahimsaka returned with the Buddha and his mother to the kingdom.
It caused a tremendous stir, of course—the renowned serial murderer Angulimala was being brought into civilization, and welcomed in monkhood at that? It seemed a preposterous thing. Many protested in fear and contempt, calling for the killer to be put to death at once. The king himself objected; the order to capture and kill the killer had been decreed, and it must be carried through. However, the Buddha attested to his transformation and was venerable but resolute. Over a long discourse, the king, whose trust in the Buddha was unshakeable, relented. Ahimsaka would not be killed. When this news came down, many in the kingdom expressed outrage and harbored great vengeance.
Ahimsaka’s transformation was true, despite the great doubts and fears of the populace. The violent aspects of his being that he had wielded in his past had disappeared entirely. He carried those memories like hot coals that burned daily in his soul with the heat of great remorse. He spent long weeks in self-directed penance, and he had difficulty squaring the horrific acts he perpetrated with the state of mind he now inhabited. However, forever the gifted student, Ashimsaka excelled in monkhood, taking in the teaching of the Buddha as fully as the breath he drew to chant the sacred Om.
With time and dedication, Ahimsaka became a great monk gifted in the art of healing. On one of his visits into town, Ahimsaka was alerted by great cries of pain, and he rushed to come upon a woman in agonizing labor. Her family surrounded her, draped with concern. They explained to the monk how they believed something terribly wrong was occurring and how they did not think the child would survive. The tortured cries of the birthing mother rose in support of their claim. The horrific pain evident on her countenance cut to the core of Ahimsaka. He had seen such agony many times, and always at his hands. He vowed to help this woman, he knew he must.
Ahimsaka excused himself and sprinted to the Buddha to ask what he could do. The Buddha provided Ahimsaka a verse, and told him to speak it, and mean it. The verse was this: “Since being born of noble birth, I have not intentionally harmed another. With the truth of this verse, I heal.” Ahimsaka cried to the Buddha that he could not speak this verse earnestly given the incalculable harm he had plainly caused. Kindly and politely, the Buddha reminded the junior monk that his noble birth began when he joined the Sangha, and that because the verse was true, it would work to heal.
Ahimsaka returned at once to the ailing mother and recited the verse exactly as it had been gifted. All at once, her labor pains dramatically lessened. Soon after, her baby was born, healthy and without complication. The exhausted mother glowed with relief. The family burst with joy and thanked Ahimsaka exuberantly. He quaked with radiant love. He never imagined he could bring such healing, and doubted he could bring much at all, but he witnessed firsthand the restorative power that his directed love could carry. In that instance, he was awakened to his true power; he found what he had been seeking all those years ago when he left to become a student of the spiritual path.
The tale of his miraculous easing of the birthing mother’s pain spread through the town and out to neighboring kingdoms. In short order, pregnant women were traveling to visit Ahimsaka to prevent complications of birth and salve pain. He wielded his healing power nobly and generously. He became known as a protector of pregnant mothers and over time assisted hundreds of women as a healer.
Now he saw it. Ahimsaka came to understand that his power for easing pain and preventing harm reached further even than Angulimala’s capacity for defilement and degradation. He had reached a state of equanimity, impenetrable, tranquil, benevolent, and whole.
The Buddha Within
A serial killer nearly a thousand corpses deep, with an obsession for killing, in the very act of charging forward for his most significant kill, fell to his knees, broke his murderous hypnosis, and vowed himself to a life of monkhood—which he went on to live with immaculate excellence. What in the world can we make of this?
The answer to that question is the skeleton key to the lesson the serial killer phenomenon holds for us. On our way to disinter that key, it is first necessary to address a potential sticking point before swinging open the door.
One may very well say, “It’s just a story. It has no bearing on the real world. No one could kill a thousand people and reform. It’s just not realistic.” This is a logical response. It is also a criticism that needs to be taken seriously, for its refutation is the juncture upon which the Angulimala story’s real-world pertinence hinges.
I ask you to follow me down this path I now lay before you and allow yourself to dream along the way. Only from the vantage point we arrive at will you see what this writing is pointing you toward, and not miss the moon at the expense of the finger.
The truth is, stories of this sort—which have disseminated across vast time and transcended boundaries of culture—can be said in a real sense to be more real than any individual’s lone experience of reality. In other words, the story of Angulimala is a true story, and it is more true than the telling of how I spent my yesterday.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell explained the distinction in this way: “[I]n the dream the forms are quirked by the peculiar troubles of the dreamer, whereas in myth the problems and solutions shown are directly valid for all mankind.” In essence, the narrow applicability of one individual’s accounting is eclipsed by the universal immediacy and profundity presented by myth.
Another way of framing this distinction is to say that the story of Angulimala is alive. It breathes in the archetypal realm where the themes of myth are perennial. The distillation of millennia of stories, archetypes, and social and psychological undertakings forms the basis of how we understand the world. In contrast, my lone understanding absent of these things would be just that. This is what Plato meant when he said, “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”
Still, perhaps Angulimala’s story isn’t only myth and it happened exactly as told. We can’t be sure. Nor should we have to be. And it doesn’t matter at all. The truth is that the story’s historicity is unimportant; what matters is the immutable theme the story has carried to the hearts of the untold millions it has captured and awed. A story could not survive and spread for thousands of years if it did not maintain a taproot to vital truth. It is through the channel of such a root that psychic nutriment can flow. Campbell argued, “It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”
If you have followed me this far, we can now loop around the path to the question posed above—What can we make of Angulimala’s transformation? What does it signify that such a barbarous killer could transform himself into a wholesome healer?
This is the key. Just as there is a killer within each of us, there also is a Buddha—the archetype exists in all of us, always present, awaiting activation. This is true, whether or not Angulimala was based on historical fact, and whether or not the Buddha himself existed, because it is vital truth, not history. The promise of a blossomed Buddha lies within us all, and like the killer within us, he’s crying to be looked at, to be held and embraced.
The story of Angulimala shows that even the serial killer—the most far gone of the far gone—is not too far gone. And, crucially, that when graced with the Buddha’s presence, he will in fact come back.
Can we hold this in our hearts in true gnosis? Or is there part of us that cannot release our grasp on the lever that releases the trap door into the dungeon? As we will see in the final turn of the story of Angulimala, the grip of retribution will sometimes turn knuckles ghost-white with unrequited fury.
Ahimsaka had become known across the kingdom as a great healer and protector of expectant mothers. The animosity and resentment that many of the townsfolk held in their hearts had melted over time as the evidence of his transformation mounted undeniably. Nevertheless, many others remained who saw him as a devilish person in disguise. They had lost loved ones at the hands of the killer Angulimala, and they ached for retribution in light of his pardon by the king. Since returning to civilization, Ahimsaka regularly faced public ridicule and castigation, which he always bore with quiet nobility, understanding why people might hold such disdain for him.
On one occasion, Ahimsaka walked through the village asking for alms, as was the way of monks. A throng of agitators had been waiting and quickly formed around him. They launched debasements, threats, and harsh ridicule like spears at cornered game. Ahimsaka had come to expect such treatment. He closed his eyes and stood in meditation. He could bear whatever condemnation they could dispense.
Suddenly, a rock cracked the side of his head and he fell to his knees and hands. One of the crowd had thrown it. Blood streamed from Ahimsaka’s split flesh. A moment of stunned silence lingered on the soft wind. And then it broke.
Seeing the man they had harbored such resentment for fall to the ground in fragility, the angry crowd swooped on him like sharks sensing blood from hurt prey. They flurried kicks to his stomach and skull. Some in the crowd wielded sticks that cracked ribs and tore flesh from the monk lying fetal and still.
When it became clear he wasn’t moving, the trance of the crowd broke. Many scattered in fear and confusion. Some lingered there for a moment, uncertain how to act. Eventually Ahimsaka was left alone, bloody and broken. When he came to, he could hardly lift an arm to crawl. But he did, void of hatred or remorse, back to the monastery that had become his home.
The alarmed monks who discovered him rushed him to the Buddha, who held Ahimsaka gently and shone love from his smiling eyes. Ahimsaka had a painful yearning to speak, but was prevented by a rib-punctured lung and broken jaw.
The Buddha knew these were his last moments. He explained to Ahimsaka that this was the way of Karma, that he would now die, and that there was nothing to fear. Ahimsaka understood. A final tear rambled down his bloody cheek. A final breath passed his failing lungs. Ahimsaka, the harmless one, died cradled in the arms of the one who had saved him, the one who had seen the inextinguishable light within when no one else could strain to imagine its existence.
“A strange thing, our punishment! It does not cleanse the criminal, it is no atonement; on the contrary, it pollutes worse than the crime does.”Friedrich Nietzsche
The story of Angulimala begs us to ask some searching questions. Was Ahimsaka the sole mover of that killing force which overtook him? Could the blame be laid at the feet of his teacher, who grievously tasked with sacred force a child to commit horrendous acts? Or the students, whose envy and status-seeking corrupted their teacher with lies? Can the murders be laid at the feet of the culture which reared those students, or the parents who raised them? Can we as appreciators of the story be certain we would not behave just the same as Ahimsaka were we placed in his precise set of circumstances, all the way back to his birth?
The desire for justice is as human as singing and story. But along the way we’ve convinced ourselves that justice is synonymous with retribution. It’s an old story—the eye for the eye. We can imagine how useful it was at one time in its pithiness. Now it has become a story that’s outlived its usefulness. A reader of Dostoevsky understands thoroughly that equanimity can never come by means of retribution, and that what awaits one who travels that path to the end is only further annihilation of the soul.
Resentment and vengeance have long masqueraded as rectitude and justice. We see this plainly in our culture today. The pretense of these masks obscures and distracts—ourselves and others—from the killer who leers out someplace deep behind our eyes.
When we pretend that we are truly and only on the path of good, we become as dangerous as young Ahimsaka, who’s virtuous adherence to his teacher’s will and ego-driven longing for spiritual mastery prevented him from declining to step on a fatally slicked slope. When we sit in the story that justice is blow for blow vengeance, we become one rock thrown from sealing the death of the killer.
Do we want our culture to be one of stone throwing, killing off those who have killed? There are hardly the stones on the planet to finish the job. Can we touch on the Buddha who patiently sits within and source a path to proper justice, true redemption, transformative love? If we can sense the Buddha within the Other, there can be no other way. Imagine the world that awaits us if we could integrate the killer within, manifest the smiling Buddha, and give what we can to assuring the Other walks the true path right beside us.
“The mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.”Viktor Frankl
To view the serial killer, in full knowledge of the horrific acts he’s undertaken, and see light and love reflected in him, is a demanding task. However, if we were to view that same being taking his first steps at 12 months old, we wouldn’t imagine even a whisper of evil within him. At what point did Ahimsaka become an “evil person”? Was it when he took his first life? Or when he set his mind to? Was it once he stopped feeling remorse for his killings? At what point did Bundy or John Wayne Gacy transform into “evil people”?
The enduring mistake we make in the space of Ethics is confusing people with their actions. We mistake bad actions or comments for evidence of failed character. A look at our current cultural and political climate reveals this mistaking as default behavior. It’s common to take to social media and call this person “evil,” or that person “trash” or “shit,” and yet each of us has done things we regret or lament, or perhaps even obsess over with shame—things that if put full bloom on public display would attract to our heads modern stones cast with righteous fury. We confuse people with their actions, and hence we condemn ourselves to lose sight of the beautiful human spirit within.
How do we thread the needle of accountability for grievous acts and honor for the light of the human spirit? This is what is asked of us in the question of justice. The Buddha canonically spoke to this question directly, saying, “He, who by good deeds covers the evil he has done, illuminates this world like the moon freed from clouds.”
In the Buddha’s formulation of justice, covering evil deeds with good is the path to illumination. Notably, he is not suggesting covering evil up like so much asphalt over poisoned earth, left to remain just as sick under the surface. This is what the evil deeds’ clouds do to the moon. It is in fact what we do when we don’t admit the killer within to the roundtable of the psyche. To cover up past misdeeds to obscure them from view is to fatally miscarry justice. What is spoken of in the Buddha’s message is not covering up, but making right out of what’s been made wrong. It is to cover the evil deeds with a layer of rich compost, generated out of goodwill, in recognition that all earth is fertile in the domain of the human spirit, so that something more beautiful, helpful, and true can emerge. It is to cover misdeeds as if a shivering child, with a blanket, so as to warm her back to health.
The formulation of justice we see in our culture centers on pointing fingers and shaming the Other (Quietly, we do the same to ourselves.). In behaving this way, we cover misdeeds with further poisons, layering hurt upon hurt.
In our hearts we yearn for justice, for accountability, but we are not taught what that means, or what it could look like if we dreamed. The Buddha understood that justice for Angulimala was to cover him with the robes of a monk and bring him into the Sangha. Can we dream this dream of justice? Of accountability? What’s stopping us? What better accountability could there be than to conscript the killer into the service of the good—for life—and provide an infrastructure of ongoing accountability, coupled with grace, through communion with others dedicated to the same service? There is no truer justice than this.
For divine light to shine, the moon must be freed from the clouds. Not everyone so far gone as Angulimala will be blessed by a visit from the Buddha—very few will indeed—which is ever the more reason for each of us to assume the Buddha’s nature. What transformations might be possible if we try? Imagine resting in a place of humble grace, and calling out from the heart to all those we’ve cast out, “You are welcome. You are needed. You are beautiful. Your potential for good swells with abundance. Please, allow me to prepare your seat in the Sangha.” This is medicine that we deserve to give ourselves too: “To all the parts of myself I’ve cast out in shame, or in fear, you are welcome, you are needed, you are beautiful. Thank you.”
Yes, even the killer within us is beautiful. We need to let that part of ourselves into the center, so that we can integrate it, and by doing so transmute it into something wholly beneficent and healing, like Ahimsaka was able to do. Which is not the same as saying that we must follow the path he took to get there—far from it. His story is the lotus flower we can admire, permitted we acknowledge the root that keeps it tethered to the murk below. We can examine the serial killer’s depravity, permitted we use a portion of our attention to peer in the mirror his depravity presents. We never have to fully go there, and in fact we must not. But we need to enter the dark wood and come out the other side with an understanding of what we’re capable of, of what might await us if we become fully lost and give up on finding home.
The tragic result awaiting those who fail to explore the dark forest was forewarned by Carl Jung: “Because you separated good from evil according to your best appraisal and aspired only to the good and denied the evil that you committed nevertheless and failed to accept, your roots no longer suckled the dark nourishment of the depths and your tree became sick and withered.”
In synergy, Campbell presaged what awaits us if we take up the task of plumbing the dark forest: “Destruction of the world that we have built and in which we live, and of ourselves within it; but then a wonderful reconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and fully human life—that is the lure, the promise and terror, of these disturbing night visitants from the mythological realm that we carry within.”
It’s not enough to examine the darkness and accept it in ourselves while we continue to lock the Other in an oubliette and throw the sullied key out to sea. In the same way that an individual cannot attain wholeness if she eliminates parts of herself, the human collective can’t become whole until we build the conditions into our culture of redemptive salvation through radical acceptance. In other words, what we must offer the Other is an unyielding invitation straight from the heart of the good.
In order to build the proper cultural conditions, we must humble ourselves to boldly own our misdeeds while simultaneously granting amnesty for the misdeeds of others. We don’t need to keep trying to convince ourselves that we are good by avoiding what we’ve done, by highlighting the wrong the Other has committed. As Don Miguel Ruiz said, “You don’t need to be good; you just have to stop pretending to be what you are not.”
We are not engines of self-loathing and profound mistrust. This is what our culture has convinced us to behave as if we are. The collective unconscious of the world is begging for us to love ourselves. In order to love ourselves fully, we must love the most abhorrent Other, because that one is also in us. We love that which is abhorrent in our potential, and by loving it we prevent it from manifesting destructively. And we can and must abhor the acts of great evil and malice that have been perpetrated, and will continue to be, but we must love the perpetrator. It is so much to ask, and so necessary for our collective healing and transcendence. Love is the proper prison for darkness, and it is indeed no prison at all.
I imagine we can all understand those people who attacked Ahimsaka because we know what it’s like to be hurt by a person, and they were hurt terribly by him. Imagine it: “He killed my lover, my child, my mother. And now I have the chance to exact my punishment upon him.” We can call up a semblance of the wounding they were feeling. And at the same time, they were actors in his murder. And Ahimsaka was also hurt; he was told by the person he most revered and trusted to commit the most heinous compound of actions one could imagine. Can we understand him as well? Can we see why someone with childlike naiveté might, if hurt in the right way, transform that hurt into hurting someone else? We’re living in a world of traumatized people, and we’re actively hurting each other all of the time. But we don’t need to be.
In the novel Siddhartha, the writer Hermann Hesse laid out the challenge before us beautifully when the titular protagonist states, “The sinner that I am and that you are, he is a sinner but he will again be a Brahma, one day he will attain nirvana, will be Buddha—and now look: this ‘one day’ is an illusion, it is only a metaphor! The sinner is not on the path to Buddhahood, he is not in a process of development, although our thoughts have no other way to imagine these things. No, in the sinner, now and today the future Buddha already exists, his future is already entirely there, you must revere the becoming, the potential, the hidden Buddha in him, in yourself, in everyone.”
We have to stop. Like Ahimsaka had to stop. I believe what the Buddha meant when he told Ahimsaka that he had already stopped long ago is that he had stopped living out of alignment with his Self. He had stopped pretending to be what he was not. Once the pretense was dropped, Buddhahood naturally emerged. That’s what’s being asked of us by the teetering position of our world. If we can stop living out of alignment, and achieve harmonious integration, the world will shift to meet us there. I could not doubt this if I tried.
Imagine what’s possible if we can operate from this worldview: No one is too far gone, and the most far gone will come back—not only can, but will—when nurtured with the proper circumstance, graced with the numinous, in the presence of conditionless love.
In the end, you may still be tempted to say that the serial killer is simply beyond healing. To that, I say to you this: That is the story that’s keeping the serial killer in existence. That story perpetuates the behavior through reinforcing the conditions through which the behavior bursts like a seedling from the earth. Let us imagine a better way, and it will be.
No one’s too far gone. If one believes that, then it means he believes he is too far gone himself.
But no, ours is not a caravan of despair. No matter how many times you have broken your vow, rejoin us. We love you. We need you. Come, yet again. Come. Come.