The Journey Toward Wholeness

The Journey Toward Wholeness: Personal Growth, The Angulimala Sutra, and Therapeutic Interventions for Men

Bruce Scavuzzo, University of Toronto

angulimala-chases-the-buddha.jpeg

Angulimala chases the Buddha. Painting in Srilangka Buddhist temple in Sravasti, India.

The Angulimala Sutra tells the story of a murderous bandit who has a transformative encounter with the Buddha. Through the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha, Angulimala comes to renounce violence from that day forward. The mythic quality of this sutra not only demonstrates the extraordinary power of the Buddha, but also offers a lesson that any person, no matter the quality of their transgressions, is still capable of transforming themselves.

In the Angulimala Sutra, the title character encounters transformation through facing the harsh realities of his past. In some iterations, it is revealed that prior to his use of violence, Angulimala faced a crisis in the form of a loss of community, loss of a spiritual teacher, and betrayal. Angulimala was also told by a fearful spiritual teacher that he had to collect the fingers of 1000 people in order to complete his spiritual attainments, which led to Angulimala’s misguided violent behaviour. However, when the Buddha encounters Angulimala, The Buddha knows him exactly as he is without judging him. Even as Angulimala chases the Buddha as fast as he can and tries to kill him, the Buddha, who is walking slowly, cannot be caught. The Buddha, with compassion and a deep awareness of Angulimala’s existential pain, simply asks him to stop. For me, this is where Angulimala reaches rock bottom. At this moment Angulimala observes all the pain he has experienced and caused. Held within the compassionate awareness of the Buddha, Angulimala is able to safely reassess his life and make a change. It is said that from that moment forth, Angulimala never harmed another living being.

I believe that this sutra encourages the reader to discover that latent within themselves they have the qualities of both the Buddha and Angulimala. It offers a good case study for Carl Jung’s archetypes of the Self and the Shadow, which are said to live within us all. The Self is a central guiding force within the psyche that is deeply interconnected with and aware of all conscious and unconscious reality.[1] The Shadow is the nature of ourselves that we reject, or push away due to its dark or unfavourable qualities.[2] According to Jung, in order for one to experience the wholeness of the Self, they must integrate their shadow.[3] Angulimala represents integration of the shadow in that he learns to observe his fear, shame, anger, and sadness and acknowledge the depth of harm that he has caused to others. The Buddha is representative of the Self in that he acts as a transcendentally aware guiding force that facilitates Angulimala’s observation and transformation.

As someone who is currently training in psychotherapy, I often observe that while many of us seek wholeness, we struggle to integrate our pain, trauma, shame, and particularly, the memory of our misdeeds. I notice this in my vocational practice as a facilitator in a Partner Assault Response (PAR) program, where I work with men who have been court mandated to attend one-on-one or group counselling sessions because they have received domestic violence charges. Many PAR participants struggle to be present with the pain they have lived through and the pain they have caused. However, time and time again I am inspired by how certain participants demonstrate a willingness to see into themselves with a piercing honesty, and reveal a more actualized capacity for empathy, humility, and vulnerability.

In the PAR program, I often invite clients to empathize with a new perspective that challenges their worldview. During this aspect of the practice, I am reminded of our shared humanity, no matter the quality of one’s transgressions. As human beings, it is painful to face the shameful realities of our past, especially if it involves rediscovering and redefining events in our lives that continue to shape our choices. But in moving through these experiences with honesty and the support of a compassionate environment, individuals can develop an awareness that can simultaneously hold both the pain and the growth of their experience.

In the sutra, the Buddha facilitates the development of Angulimala’s awareness. Numerous interpersonal interactions similar to this have led some scholars to refer to the Buddha as the world’s first psychotherapist.[4] This encounter seems to illustrate the Buddha’s capacity for what Carl Rogers believed to be an essential quality of a psychotherapist, their “unconditional positive regard.”[5] Yet the Buddha continues in his psychotherapeutic intervention later in the tale. After Angulimala has embraced a non-violent life, he is still mistrusted and harmed by local villagers who remember the actions of his violent past. When Angulimala approaches the Buddha with this news, he is told to “bear with it… the fruit of [his] karma... in the here-and-now.”[6] In other words, the Buddha identifies that witnessing how Angulimala’s past actions continue to have consequences upon himself and others is fundamental to his process of growth toward wholeness.

While the PAR program is not explicitly spiritual in nature, much of the personal work done by participants is similar to bearing the fruit of their karma. Observing this process in my clients has taught me much about myself. My accountable clients teach me about what it means to see the Angulimala that lives within me; a person who has been hurt, who has hurt others, who has healed, who has grown, and who is still learning to hold space for others in their process of healing.

Furthermore, my clients also teach me about the Buddha that lies dormant within us all. I am often deeply inspired by how some clients hold a compassionate awareness for one another in group sessions as they discover their own capacity for empathy. In a group full of men who have abused women, many of whom are not accustomed to openly sharing their feelings, the conversations do not always flow with grace. Yet, in nearly every session there are moments of light wherein they hold each other accountable, present healthy models of caring for others, demonstrate a healthy rediscovery of their masculinity, listen to one another with interest, and mutually discover healthier patterns of communication.  

As my own process of self-discovery is inspired by the lived spiritual wisdom of both Buddhism and my clients, I have found myself translating these encounters through the practice of song-writing. I often find it difficult to express such encounters in words alone, but through writing songs I can more accurately emote the spiritual profundity of the insights that emerge. Many of my recent songs have been written from an integrated perspective of my clients. However, through empathizing with my clients’ experience of transformation I observe my own growth as well, and I begin to see myself in the song. It has become a self-care practice that has enabled me to make sense of encounters with my clients, with my shadow, and my own journey toward wholeness.

While not everyone will use song-writing or psychotherapy as their vehicle of choice, we all have the capacity for integrating our shadows and growing toward wholeness. The beauty of our individuality is that this process is uniquely expressed in all of us, and we have the opportunity to discover this for ourselves. And, as I have learned, the beauty of our interconnectivity is that we can always learn from one another about how we move through the process of growth.

[1] C. G. Jung, Mandala Symbolism, trans. R.F.C. Hull, 1st Princeton/Bollingen paperback ed, Princeton/Bollingen Paperbacks, 266 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972); C. G. Jung, “Aion: Phenomenology of the Self,” in The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell, trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1971), 139–62; C. G. Jung, “On Synchronicity,” in The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell, trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1971), 505–18.
[2] Jung, “Aion: Phenomenology of the Self.”
[3] Ibid.
[4] Tony Toneatto, “New 232 Buddhist Psychology - Lecture 3, Analysis of Subjective Reality: Noble Truth 1 the Nature of Suffering” (Lecture, University of Toronto, September 25, 2019).
[5] Gerald Corey, Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy, Tenth edition (Australia ; United States: Cengage Learning, 2017), 173.
[6] Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bikkhu, “Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala" (MN 86), Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2013, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html.

 

Corey, Gerald. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Tenth edition. Australia ; United States: Cengage Learning, 2017.

Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bikkhu, "Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala" (MN 86).  Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2013. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html.

Jung, C. G. “Aion: Phenomenology of the Self.” In The Portable Jung, edited by Joseph Campbell, translated by R.F.C. Hull, 139–62. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1971.

———. Mandala Symbolism. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. 1st Princeton/Bollingen paperback ed. Princeton/Bollingen Paperbacks, 266. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

———. “On Synchronicity.” In The Portable Jung, edited by Joseph Campbell, translated by R.F.C. Hull, 505–18. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1971.

Toneatto, Tony. “New 232 Buddhist Psychology - Lecture 3, Analysis of Subjective Reality: Noble Truth 1 the Nature of Suffering.” Lecture, University of Toronto, September 25, 2019.

Bruce Scavuzzo is a Masters of Pastoral Studies student in the Buddhism stream at the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College. He works as a PAR program facilitator at Counterpoint Counselling & Education Cooperative. He is currently receiving clinical training in psychotherapy and spiritual care at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health. Bruce’s music can be found at the following link: https://brucemusic.bandcamp.com/