Through a long and engaged career I have had contact with a diversity of different individuals; from a habitual liar to an abuser, from a fraudster to a bank robber, from a rapist to a murderer and the only common denominator that I could isolate in these individuals, the only real conclusion that I could draw from my working with them, was reduced to this – I could not detect any difference between them and the population at large. There were no ‘ signs ‘ or ‘ characteristics ‘ that I could recognize that gave me any ideas about their past. No obvious attributes or clues surfaced to signify any suggestions of misdeeds or transgressions. All of them seemed reasonably polite, well-presented and well-mannered individuals – just like you and me….
What makes individuals ‘ deviant ‘ is a complex interplay of psychological and sociological factors that come together, in unique circumstances, to find abnormal, behavioural expression. Often the behaviour, in its worse excesses, is incomprehensibly complex. So complex in fact that searching for adequate explanations to feed our curiosity, to satisfy our need to know why, could seem quite inappropriate and futile. For despite the vast body of psychological and sociological knowledge that we have developed over the years, we may have to admit that we do not know exactly why some individuals act in the way they do.
Even at the other end of the behavioural scale, where only minor infringement of rules take place, there may not always be an adequate explanation available to take us further into some kind of understanding. We can act irrationally and foolishly at times, completely out of character and not really fully know why. We are all incredibly complex individuals, situated in an ever changing, social dynamic that can elicit such a diversity of responses from us all. How we react today, in a given situation, may not necessarily be how we will react tomorrow.
A TALE OF A MURDERER: ANGULIMALA
Angulimala was a desperado known as ‘ Finger Necklace ‘ because, when he assaulted his victims, he severed their fingers and strung them around his neck.
One day he saw the Buddha walking down a lonely stretch of road and decided to attack him, but despite all his chasing he just could not catch up. In frustration he called out: “ Stop monk! “ whereupon the Buddha stopped, turned around, looked Angulimala directly into his eyes and replied: “ But I have stopped, and isn’t it time that you stopped too?” Angulimala was shocked AND awakened. He knew exactly what was meant and that this ascetic could see right through him. He also knew that the Buddha was not afraid. This made him feel so ashamed of himself that he asked to be forgiven and to be allowed to follow the Buddha, as his disciple, so that he could also acquire this precious gift of spiritual presence.
Angulimala later wrote the following words about his conversion to the spiritual life.
“ Some creatures are subdued by force,
Some by hook, and some by whips,
But I by such a one was tamed,
Who needed neither staff or sword.”
Despite his persistence and determination to follow the Dharma ( Buddhist teachings ) Angulimala found it enormously difficult to settle down into serious, spiritual practice. His past misdeeds constantly presented themselves to him in a complex array of sinister images and voices that disturbed his meditation and sleep. He eventually sought guidance from the Buddha and was told that he was simply reaping the karmic harvest that he had previously sowed. However, the Buddha did reassure him that if he continued to engage with his practice, gathering up strength, gathering up determination of purpose to serve the Dharma, then he would eventually burn off this bad karma. Angulimala, with renewed vigour and resolve, then threw himself back into his practice. With painstaking determination and effort he finally neutralized his bad karma. Later he went on to achieve the status of an arahant ( Buddhist saint ).
The case of Angulimala is not unique in the Buddhist canon, Milarepa also left behind a deviant past to eventually become a Tibetan saint. In other religions there are similar figures. In the Christianity there is Paul and Dismas, in Hinduism there is Valmiki. All unskilful individuals who, through their engagement with a religious path, achieved a personal transformation
MAKING PROGRESS IN OUR PRACTICE
The spiritual life presents us with a constantly shifting and challenging dynamic that we must confront if we are to make progress. It’s all too easy to rest complacently and let things go, avert our gaze from what needs our attention, what needs our consideration. When was the last time we seriously asked the questions: “ What more do I need to change within myself in order to be closer to my spiritual ideals?” What more can I do to effect a better change for others? “ “ What more can I do to make the world a better place?” If we have forgotten about asking these basic questions can we really say we are growing spiritually? Can we really say that we are committed to pursuing a journey of awakening?
“ Great faith, reliance on a wise and strict teacher, good discipline, solitude in a hermitage, determined practice and meditation – these are the six ways that lead to liberation.”
There may be other ways – keep searching