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.’