The Turning of the Wheel

Tradition says that the Buddha was tempted to stay under the tree on his awakening, and enjoy the experience of Nirvana for himself. But instead he got up and he walked to a town in the outskirt of the city of Benares, the great Hindu pilgrimage site in the bank of the Ganges river. He taught about his awakening to a group of ascetics.

This event is called his first turning of the wheel of the law and it represents in many ways the beginning of Buddhist tradition.

The First Sermon

From this point the Buddha had a long and fruitful monastic career, walking the roads of Northern India, teaching to kings, merchants, peasants, converting monks and nuns and eventually presiding over a thriving and complex monastic order.

The Story of Angulimala

There are many wonderful stories about this phase of the Buddha’s life. For its combination of psychological vividness and a dose of the miraculous, I particularly like the story of Angulimala. A monk whose name means "garland of fingers".

When the story starts Agulimala was an aplied student eager to please a demanding teacher. Agulimala was a wonderful student and he arouse the jealousness of his classmates. They go to the teacher and begin to tell him stories that are not entirely attractive, “poisoning his mind”.

The teacher decides to get revenge on Angulimala by calling him and saying: “Listen, there is one more payment I expect from you before I give you my final teaching”. Angulimala of course agrees to do anything. “I want you to bring me the fingers of a thousand people you have killed , and then I will give you my final teaching.”

And Agulimala begins to kill people and collect their fingers. At first, he just hide them in the forest but eventually he begins to loose them, so he collects them together in a garland around his neck.

The villagers tell about this to the king and he sends a squad out to do something about Agulimala, to put him out of business. Angulimala’s mother knows about this and she of course is protective about her son. She goes out and warns him that the king enforcers where coming to arrest him.

The Buddha also hears about it. He realizes that by this time Angulimala is so far gone that he would kill his own mother to get her fingers. So the Buddha goes into the forest to somehow lead him away from this life that he had fallen into.

I Have Stopped, Angulimala

At this point the story becomes really charming. The Buddha walks slowly on a path through the forest. Angulimala is out there and sees him coming. He starts running to catch him and steal his fingers, but as he chases the Buddha through the forest, somehow the Buddha manages to glide just a step ahead of Angulimala.

Agulimala says: “Stop! Stop!” in wonderful elaboration. Then the Buddha turns around and says to him: “I have stopped, Angulimala. Why don’t you stop?”. Agulimala says: “You haven’t stopped, every time I try to catch you, you slip away into the underbrush”.

Angulimala chasing The Buddha

“I have stopped all of the causes of death and rebirth. Why don’t you stop?”. And at this point Angulimala reverts back to the old student that he once was. He falls down at the feet of the Buddha, and tears, and asks to be taught about the meaning of death and rebirth. How himself can begin to unravel that cycle of suffering that he has inadvertently cast himself into. He goes on to become one of the remarkable early followers of the Buddha.

Stories like this are typical of the career of the Buddha. I won’t say that they are all unusual as the story of Angulimala. Many of the conversion experiences follow a much more typical religious form, something that would be familiar from other religious traditions.

But they point to a certain way in which the Buddha was able to tune in to the particular religious needs of his followers and crystallize some kind of religious transformation that was deeply personal for them. He oriented them in a powerful way in the path of Nirvana that he himself had followed.

This article is part of the series about The Life of the Buddha.

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