‘I’ve Stopped–Now You Stop’

The Story

In Middle Discourse 86, “With Aṅgulimāla,” the Buddha says, “I’ve stopped, Aṅgulimāla—now you stop.”

What is the Buddha talking about?

The story goes that Angulimala was once the favorite student of his teacher, but his jealous peers found a way to set his teacher against him. “In an attempt to get rid of Aṅgūlimāla, the teacher sends him on a deadly mission to find a thousand human fingers to complete his studies” (Wikipedia).

We can presume that this is the backdrop to MN 86, which simply begins:

Now at that time in the realm of King Pasenadi of Kosala there was a bandit named Aṅgulimāla. He was violent, bloody-handed, a hardened killer, merciless to living beings. He laid waste to villages, towns, and countries. He was constantly murdering people, and he wore their fingers as a necklace.

What ensues sounds like something from Aesop’s Fable:

The bandit Aṅgulimāla saw the Buddha coming off in the distance, and thought, “It’s incredible, it’s amazing! People travel along this road only after banding closely together in groups of ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty. Still they meet their end by my hand. But still this ascetic comes along alone and unaccompanied, like he had beaten me already. Why don’t I take his life?”

Then Aṅgulimāla donned his sword and shield, fastened his bow and arrows, and followed behind the Buddha. But the Buddha used his psychic power to will that Aṅgulimāla could not catch up with him no matter how hard he tried, even though the Buddha kept walking at a normal speed.

Finding it impossible to catch the Buddha, Angulimala exclaims, “Stop, stop, ascetic!”

And now the stunning reply: “I’ve stopped, Aṅgulimāla—now you stop.”

Now, what is the Buddha talking about?

Wandering Mind and Self-effort

Ostensibly, MN 86 is about Angulimala’s violence. He must learn to show compassion and lovingkindness for all sentient beings. This is no doubt true.

Yet from a Zen point of view, the story is about the nature of wandering mind and the limits of self-effort.

For the nature of finite mind just is to (a) wander and (b) objectify. By “wander,” I mean that mind is the placing of attention on this or that. By “objectify,” I mean that the “this or that” is taken as ‘something.’ The mind is that which is always looking at or for ‘something.’ Mind is no other than this restless searching.

Ever vibrating, ever restless, ever anxious, mind can never, by dint of self-effort, come to rest. This much is revealed in seated practice, especially as one goes deeper and deeper. Deeper and deeper–there too is subtler and subtler vibration and agitation!

Therefore, it can truly be said: “I, ego-self, cannot stop. I, ego-self, cannot make myself stop, no matter how hard I try. I, ego-self, am, in this sense, like Angulimala, who tries and tries to catch Buddha (Buddha nature) yet somehow cannot. For me, ego-self, Buddha nature is unattainable!”

Where does this leave the seeker?

The Objectification Approach and the Great Leap Below

Here, helpfully, is Matsao Abe from Zen and Western Thought (1985):

[T]he true Self recedes, step by step, as we repeatedly ask about ourselves. This process is endless–it is an infinite regress. And yet, while increasingly compelled to engage in this endless process of grasping, we are also forced to realize that that which can be grasped is never anything more than an objectified, dead self.

This is the reason why, referring to the realization of the true Self, Nan-ch’uan (Ja: Nansen) says: ‘If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it.’ Lin-chi (Ja: Rinzai) also says: ‘If you seek him, he retreats farther and farther away; if you don’t seek him, then he’s right there before your eyes, his wondrous voice resounding in your ears.’ The endless regression implied in the ‘objectification approach’ indicates the futility and inevitable collapse of this approach.

Thus the true Self as a genuine Subject cannot be attained through this type of approach, no matter how rigorously we pursue it. Faced with infinite regression, therefore, we cannot help but realize that the true Self is unattained. No matter how many times we may repeatedly ask ourselves [Who am I? etc.–AT], our true Self always stands ‘behind’ [or ‘beneath–AT]; it can never be found in ‘front’ of us. The true Self is not something attainable, but that which is unattainable. When this is existentially realized with our whole being, the ego-self crumbles. (Zen and Western Thought, p. 7)

Accordingly, practice needs to go deeper and deeper into restfulness (Great Trust), sinking further and further ‘back’ into samadhi. Wandering mind will never ‘find “it.”‘ Period. And the Zen koan provides ‘the final push’ because becoming one (samadhi) before the arising of wandering mind is still not enough. The ground must ‘reach up’ into this relative rest and subsume everything and ‘me.’

Pascal, Beauty, And Covid-19

Pascal once wrote, “All of man’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I’ve appreciated this quote for a while, but now I absolutely love it.

Or rather what I love is how wonderful it is to sit quietly in a room. Alone. Many times daily. Sometimes throughout the entire day. It’s beautiful.

Many have remarked upon how much uncertainty Covid has created and upon how much suffering people are experiencing. To be sure. Some, in my circles, continue to “geek out” about the meta-crisis we’re in. Also to b sure. What goes unmentioned, however, is the possibility of finding immense inner peace during this time and really during any time. And in no time at all because in no time at all.

I love sitting alone in a room. I do so for 3 or 3 1/2 or 7 hours a day or longer. While I philosophize, I sit alone in a crosslegged position and while I meditate I do the same. Over the years, in fact, my Rinzai Zen practice has become more and more concentrated, yet only recently have I gotten the pith and point of Rinzai. It’s starting to make intuitive sense, the koan beginning to grab a hold of me.

And there is an immense stillness, a groundedness I feel these days; I feel that way as I write to you now. It’s nice just to sit and contemplate the nature of reality and the self. It’s especially nice not to feel any pressure to fulfill social obligations or to have to go anywhere. What’s nicest is to dwell in and on the ultimate.

I told a conversation partner and friend this morning something, owing to practice and to the Buddha, that I finally got. I told him: “I realized that I’m never going to find ultimate answers to ultimate questions via email.” Email is fine as is social media, but in some more basic sense I don’t care; I do what’s needed and that’s it. Both, being temporal concerns, can never get the inquiry into ultimate concerns underway. Which is what really matters.

It’s hard to convey here what I’ve taken to calling “salience urgency.” While I feel great peace, I also find the great matter of life and death–more Zen language–more salient than ever. Great, or full, enlightenment has become at once salient and urgent. Worldly affairs, by contrast, are now very “low resolution” (as technologist conversation partners would say).

The strange–you might say paradoxical–thing is that the intenser this salience urgency in connection with ultimate things becomes, the more expansive and peaceful it becomes. It is, therefore, not like an obsession or like a fixed idea. It’s like just starting to be engulfed by, enveloped in, or encompassed by what there really is.

Simple beauty, like aspen leaves shimmering in the breeze, shines forth. What Pascal could also have said is that all of man’s simple, beautiful joys stem from man’s acquired ability to sit quietly in a room alone or with others but especially, initially, alone.

Confronting This Impossible Situation With Blood On Your Hands

Sometimes you’re faced with an impossible situation and you don’t know what to think and there’s really no right thing to do.

Wait, let’s back up.

Because well before there’s the metacognitive awareness, “I see that this is an impossible situation,” you have to do your best to remember what it was like before. Back in the nebulosity. Already “how it was before” has begun to fade in light of the clear understanding that “here is an impossible situation.”

How, roughly, was it then before? From what you can remember, it was like a fog. This something was at the edge of your consciousness, sometimes coming into it and at other times going out of it. Occasionally, you wrangled with it or came–too quickly–to years’ long detente. Maybe the hope was that it would “just simply go away,” but you doubt that you ever voiced that thought or even had that feeling.

Evidently, you now see, for quite a while you had no idea how to really be with this, yet you also didn’t know that each way of relating to it was inadequate, incomplete, ill-conceived, or somehow else.

We are trying, right now, to remember how it was now that the fog has lifted. You don’t know in what ways you were blind or why exactly you were blind, but needless to say you were. Nor were you able to register how much what you now call “the impossible situation” irked, niggled, nibbled away at the edge of your consciousness. It hurt.

Now the ache, coming with the understanding, is here and clear: you’re in an impossible situation. If you consider it deeply and if you feel your way into the felt sense too, then soon you also come to see: “It’s just wanting too much from me: I can’t bear it any longer, but I’ll never be free of it.”

The more you think of what to do, the more you recognize that there is nothing you can do that won’t leave blood on your hands. No peace to be found and no way to disentangle the whole thing without its blowing up.

This realization too is unsettling and, for a time, may make you feel powerless, as if your hands are really tied. But then as the pressure from this unbearable something mounts (realization has a tendency to fast track what had been sorta fine, sorta not for sorta a while), you come to know that you must act. You can’t not.

The situation is impossible. It is unbearable. You’ll never be free of it. And you have to do something about it.

You now see that you’re left only with the least wrong option as the thing that you must do. And you know that when you act to effectuate the least wrong option, the impossible situation, as it dissolves, will be temporarily worse because visibly and feelingly explosive. The detente has ended, the long winter somehow experiencing, right now, the damned hottest days of summer.

So? So, forget about drumming up consolation for yourself (self-mollification will do you no good), and simply do your very best to accept that you’re confronting the tragic dimension of human life. Accept that blood is on your hands, no matter what. Embrace the least wrong option. And see that sometimes life falls into tragedy, and we, unknowingly until too late, are its pained protagonists. This happened to be that time for you.


I wish I could tell you that there is something you can “learn from all this,” but I’m afraid that even the wisest among us are subject, now and again, to blindnesses that sneak up on us until, much, much later, they’re bold enough to announce their presence as this impossible situation. And this announcement, remember, always comes long after you’ve been playing the part in a play that began some unspeakably long time ago…