Of all the monks and nuns who awakened under the guidance of the Buddha, none was more notorious than the author of these verses, the robber and murderer Aṅgulimāla. Originally named Ahimsaka (the harmless one), he was the son of the brahmin chaplain to the Kosala king and became a brilliant student in the medical school at Takkasilā. On account of a number of intrigues perpetrated by his jealous classmates, he set upon a course of ambushing victims on the road and cutting off their thumbs in order to asssemble a “garland of thumbs” which is the translation of his monastic name Aṅgulimāla.
The Buddha fearlessly confronted the robber and helped him to see the error of his ways. Then, in the face of tremendous opposition from the population, he allowed Aṅgulimāla to join the Sangha, and in due time he became an awakened Arahant. The karma of his previous deeds still followed him, however, and he was later stoned in the street by an angry mob. Coming into the teachers presence “with blood running from his cut head, with his bowl broken, and with his outer robe torn,” the Buddha simply said, “Bear it, brahmin, bear it! You are experiencing here and now the result of [your] deeds…”
It is within this context that the above verses were composed. The author is clearly referring to his own emergence from negligence and unwholesome deeds into a wiser and more wholesome understanding. I cannot help but feel this story is timely, whether referring to individuals who have committed terrible deeds yet being capable of radical transformation, or to a nation looking more closely at its impact in the world. The goodness that fills our world may well be poised to emerge, like the bright moon, from behind the clouds which far too often obscure it.