“Some people call me an idiot, but I know who I am. I am The Killer.”
– Jerry Lee Lewis
Last weekend I watched all six episodes of The Jinx, HBO’s documentary on millionaire real estate heir Robert Durst. No doubt, you’ve heard about this guy in recent days. He is a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathleen; in 2003, he was acquitted of murder charges in Texas, despite that he admitted dismembering the victim; and Saturday in New Orleans he was arrested in connection with the 2000 execution-style murder of his friend Susan Berman here in Los Angeles. It’s an engrossing story, and in a warped sort of way, Durst is a highly interesting person.
What is it about killers that fascinates us so? Macbeth, Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Charles Manson, Hannibal Lecter, and my all-time favorite, Dexter Morgan – fictional or real, we love ‘em. Can’t get enough of their stories. Perhaps it is because they commit the foulest of all deeds, the taking of life. Whatever it may be, I am not going to try to analyze it here. Instead, I would like to recount for you briefly the story of the Buddha and a murderer named Angulimala.
The story of Angulimala (“finger garland,” or “necklace of fingers”) comes from the early sutras. Angulimala’s father was the Brahmin minister to the king of Kosala. The story goes that when Angulimala was born, a “constellation of thieves” appeared in the sky, prophesying he would become a robber. And as it often happens in tales like this, the prophesy was fulfilled, in a manner of speaking.
Angulimala was sent to study in Taxila, in present day Pakistan, where one of the earliest universities in the world existed. He became the student of a Brahmin teacher and he excelled at his studies. Other students resented Angulimala’s brilliance and they made up stories that caused the teacher to believe Angulimala was evil. The teacher demanded that Angulimala provide him with a gift before he would be allowed to “graduate.” The gift the teacher requested was 1,000 fingers, each taken from a different victim. The teacher figured that that Angulimala would get himself killed during the course of collecting the fingers and thus he would be rid of this evil student.
Evidently, Angulimala had no problem accepting this grisly assignment. He became a highwayman, hiding in the forest and robbing travelers of their fingers. Unfortunately, the travelers died as a result of these holdups.
The people in the area asked the king of Kosala to capture Angulimala. Angulimala’s mother went out to find him and warn him that the king had vowed to hunt him down. The Buddha set out to find Angulimala, too. Buddha had divined that Angulimala had collected 999 fingers and needed only one more.
When Angulimala saw the Buddha enter the forest, he rushed out to murder him and take his 1000th finger. He took out his sword, raised it and chased after the Buddha but could not catch him even though the Buddha was walking at a slow pace. Eventually, Angulimala became wore out and shouted for the Buddha to stop. Buddha turned and calmly said, “Angulimala, I have stopped for all time, forsaking violence; but you have not stopped, you have no restraint towards living beings; that is why I have stopped and you have not.” So moved was Angulimala by the words the Buddha spoke to him that he immediately renounced his murderous ways and became a bhikkhu.
The story is about the transformative power of compassion as well as the redemptive power of the Buddha’s teachings. Transformation is always possible. Any person, regardless of how many negative acts they have committed, can change and live a more positive life. Compassion is more powerful than punishment. Angulimala could have been captured, imprisoned or executed. Instead, he changed and thus was able to benefit far more beings than those he previously harmed. If you accept the doctrine of karma, there is also the notion that he was able to change his karma and improve his circumstance in future lives, so he would not come back to kill again.
Most importantly, we should always remember that every life matters. There is an old Buddhist saying that even a murderer loves his mother, meaning that every person, no matter how wretched and depraved, has some good in him or her somewhere. Even Charles Manson is entitled to the basic dignity of life.
It’s a safe bet that most people who know Robert Durst or know about him believe he is guilty of at least three murders. Whether he is or not, it doesn’t alter the fact that even Robert Durst has a Buddha-nature.