Have you heard the story of Angulimala? He was a very bright student in India, so bright that he caused jealousy among the other pupils. The students managed to get their teacher to turn on him, and as a grisly test, at the completion of his studies, the teacher asked Angulimala to bring back 1,000 fingers from people he had slain.
So off went Angulimala, killing people wherever he met them, and collecting the fingers in a chain, or mala, around his neck.
The local king heard about these murders, and sent his army out to kill Angulimala. The man's mother learned of the king's plan, and set out to warn her son. But at that point, having collected 999 fingers, and thoroughly twisted by his violent pursuits, Angulimala would even have killed his own mother to reach his goal.
This is where Buddha enters the picture. He sensed the situation, and decided to go and save Angulimala from his own fate. He appeared before Angulimala, and the criminal thought, "Oh, here is my last victim!" He rushed towards Buddha, ready to kill him and cut off his finger. But although Angulimala ran as fast as he could, the Buddha was always just one step ahead of him, gliding along effortlessly. Finally, exhausted, Angulimala demanded to know what kind of man this monk was.
And, the texts say, Buddha answered in this way:
"I stand still Angulimala evermore,
For I am merciful to all living beings;
But you are merciless to living beings.
Therefore I stand still and you stand not still."
Hearing these words, Angulimala threw down his sword and became a disciple of the Buddha, donning the monk's robe and achieving nirvana.
So what's the lesson? Being an avid student, so eager to please that he lost his own moral compass, Angulimala serves, I guess, as an exaggerated example for all students of the dharma. And I also surmise that even when you're that far gone, you're still capable of recognizing the Buddha when you see him, and nirvana is still within your reach.
Having read this story, though, I will never look at my mala the same way again. Thank goodness Buddhist tradition decreed strings of beads instead of fingers. I'm not sure I could meditate while counting knuckles.