The Buddha never encouraged his followers to seek retribution, i.e., punishment for old wrongs. The conflict between retributive justice and true happiness is well illustrated by the famous story of Aṅgulimāla (MN 86). Aṅgulimāla was a bandit who had killed so many people—the Canon counts at least 100; the Commentary, 999—that he wore a garland (māla) made of their fingers (aṅguli). Yet after an encounter with the Buddha, he had such an extreme change of heart that he abandoned his violent ways, awakened a sense of compassion, and eventually became an arahant.
The story is a popular one, and most of us like to identify with Aṅgulimāla: If a person with his history could gain awakening, there’s hope for us all. But in identifying with him, we forget the feelings of those he had terrorized and the relatives of those he had killed. After all, he had literally gotten away with murder. It’s easy to understand, then, as the story tells us, that when Aṅgulimāla was going for alms after his awakening, people would throw stones at him, and he’d return from his almsround, “his head broken open and dripping with blood, his bowl broken, and his outer robe ripped to shreds.” As the Buddha reassured him, his wounds were nothing compared to the sufferings he would have undergone if he hadn’t reached awakening. And if the outraged people had fully satisfied their thirst for justice, meting out the suffering they thought he deserved, he wouldn’t have had the chance to reach awakening at all. So his was a case in which the end of suffering took precedence over justice in any common sense of the word.
Aṅgulimāla’s case illustrates a general principle stated in AN 3:101: If the workings of kamma required strict, tit-for-tat justice—with your having to experience the consequences of each act just as you inflicted it on others—there’s no way that anyone could reach the end of suffering. The reason we can reach awakening is because even though actions of a certain type give a corresponding type of result, the intensity of how that result is felt is determined, not only by the original action, but also—and more importantly—by our state of mind when the results ripen. If you’ve developed unlimited goodwill and equanimity, and have trained well in virtue, discernment, and the ability to be overcome neither by pleasure nor pain, then when the results of past bad actions ripen, you’ll hardly experience them at all. If you haven’t trained yourself in these ways, then even the results of a trifling bad act can consign you to hell.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from, Wisdom Over Justice, pp. 2-3.