The Buddhist Alma the Younger and Forgiving the Unforgivable

While Saul/Paul and Alma the Younger were arguably committing the worst kind of sins by fighting against God, in both narratives they were sincere and possibly even well-meaning, albeit theologically wrong. They weren’t, say, torturing or killing people en masse as far as we know, and it seems like if there is a textbook case for something you could do that crosses the line into never being able to achieve forgiveness in this life, that’s what it would involve. (In the excellent Latter-day Saint film Brigham City *spoiler alert* the person you later find out is the killer asks the protagonist whether he thinks people can be forgiven for committing horrendous murders, with the bishop/detective character simply stating that he doesn’t know. *End spoiler alert*.)

In the course of some other reading I’ve been doing, I stumbled across the story of Angulimala (sorry, WordPress is awful at rendering accent marks, so apologies to the spelling purists), a sort of Buddhist Saul figure with a touch of Hannibal Lecter. While well-known in Asia, with several movies made about him in Buddhist countries, to the West he is much less familiar. In a modern moral paradigm where we would see the torturing murderer as being darker and more beyond hope than somebody who has a sincere theological disagreement a la Saul (not to downplay his culpability in throwing people in jail for their sincere theological disagreements), the message of redemption becomes all the more pointed. 

(As an aside, some have often seen the Alma the Younger story as a sort of fan fiction version of the Saul/Paul conversion, but Angulinala shows that the archetype of the dire sinner who undergoes a miraculous conversion is found across time and place. Also, in an episode that is comparable to the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, he casts his weapons into a pit).

The name Angulimala means “he who wears fingers as a necklace.” That’s right, the Buddhist Saul is a Jeffrey Dahmer-type serial killer (minus the cannibalism) that collected body parts as trophies, and literally depopulated the countryside until he tries to kill Buddha himself. He draws his sword and runs towards his next victim, but finds, Zeno paradox-like, that he cannot close the distance between them.

This supernatural event triggers a numinous conversion experience where he not only renounces his past violent life but becomes an ascetic monk. In a moving scene after his conversion he tries to help a woman during childbirth, and the Buddha tells him to invoke his own innocence and history of not harming people to provide the healing power needed. Angulimala, somewhat bemused, pushes back and points out that given his past this is obviously false, but the Buddha says that he has been completely pure in that regard since his new birth. Angulimala dully pronounces the blessing, which has since become a common Buddhist prayer for childbirth, and since then the gratuitous bringer of death has paradoxically become a saint-like figure for women who are bringing new life into the world.  

Of course, there was a lot of bad blood still between him and the family members of his victims. Killing family members and mutilating their bodies as trophies is not the kind of thing one can easily forgive and forget, so he is brutally attacked and bloodied, but the Buddha encourages him to bear his assaults with equanimity, so in another moving conversion he goes from the worst of killers to somebody who will not even raise his hand in defense against his attackers. 

Unknown to many, this is also another way that he mirrors Jeffrey Dahmer. After his conviction Dahmer converted to Christianity, which I imagine is not unexpected for a killer trying to appeal to a parole board, but in this case I think he was sincere, as he took the “turn the other cheek” verse literally, and would refuse to report the fellow prisoners who would assault him in prison. Going from the worst killer possible, somebody who ate his victims, raped them after they were dead, and stored their body parts in his fridge, to somebody who would not raise a hand even in self-defense against his attackers. He knew where this would eventually lead and he accepted his fate, ironically being bludgeoned to death by weight lifting equipment, the same way he killed his first victim. 

I don’t know where Dahmer will end up in the hereafter, but the same question arose in regards to Angulimala and some of the monks were surprised when the Buddha informed them that Angulimala had successfully obtained Nirvana; even a Dahmer was not beyond the pale of redemption. 

1 comment for “The Buddhist Alma the Younger and Forgiving the Unforgivable

  1. I believe that Alma the Younger was committing a grievous sin that, for some reason, is downplayed today even though it is one of the 10 commandments: Bearing False Witness. Many people believe that it is no more than telling a lie, but it is actually much more insidious and devastating than telling your teacher that your dog ate your homework. Bearing false witness involves purposeful deception designed to destroy individuals, relationships, families and communities; both in the present and for generations not yet born.

    Even Alma saw his deceptions as a form of murder. And even though he and the Mosiah boys didn’t share a secretive pact with the Gadianton Robbers, they were performing similar work. I differ from you in the belief that they were sincere and possibly well-meaning in the way an over-zealous Pharisee like Saul of Tarsus might be seen. I see no indication of that in the text. And this can hardly be seen as boys acting out because their daddies were busy trying to save a nation and a fledgling church and didn’t show them enough attention. This was a bad-to-the-bone attempt to take down the Kingdom of God from the inside.

    The Book of Mormon is filled with people bearing false witness in order to achieve despicable results. Unfortunately, the practice succeeds – at least in the short run – in many BOM stories. I’m glad that, like Paul, the Lord was “proactive” in pulling the young men out of the pit.

Comments are closed.