Buddhist
Philosophy 387   
Early Buddhist Philosophy 9
BACKGROUND

Because of his Greek heritage, the King of Bactria asks many of the questions that occur to Western readers but are normally not raised in the Indian context. This makes the work particularly valuable to Western readers.

CONTENTS:

Why Nagasena Went to Bactria

The Role of Lay People and Monks

Adoration of Relics

Five Cardinal Virtues

There is no Self

No Continuous Personal Identity

Liberation and Nirvana

The Nature of Nirvana

The Realization of Nirvana

The Arhats and their Bodies

Conversion of   King Milinda


THE QUESTIONS OF KING MILINDA
Translated from the Milindapańha

 

Image of Buddha with inscription on Coin of Kanishka. British Museum. London.  coin.gif (88243 bytes)

As a consequence of the conquest of the Persian empire, the Greeks gained control of Bactria, modern Afghanistan, together with northern India. The local Greek rulers managed to establish their independence from the Seleucid empire which first held control over the area. Greek rule of Bactria continued until about 165 BC when the Shakas destroyed the Bactrian kingdom. Greeks continued to rule, however, in southern Afghanistan and northwestern India for another 150 years. The most important of these kings was Menander, known as Milinda in Buddhist sources, who ruled about 115-90 BC. Buddhism had reached the area as a consequence of the missionaries which the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka had sent more than a century earlier.

Why Nagasena went to Bactria

In the land of the Bactrian Greeks there was a city called Sagala, a great center of trade. Rivers and hills beautified it, delightful landscapes surrounded it, and it possessed many parks, gardens, woods, lakes and lotus-ponds. Its king was Milinda, a man who was learned, experienced, intelligent and competent, and who at the proper times carefully observed all the appropriate Brahminic rites, with regard to things past, future and present. As a disputant he was hard to assail, hard to overcome, and he was recognized as a prominent sectarian teacher.

One day a numerous company of Arhats, who lived in a well-protected spot in the Himalayas, sent a messenger to the Venerable Nagasena, then at the Asoka Park in Patna, asking him to come, as they wished to see him. Nagasena immediately complied by vanishing from where he was and miraculously appearing before them. And the Arhats said to him: "That king Milinda, Nagasena, constantly harasses the order of monks with questions and counter-questions, with arguments and counter-arguments. Please go, Nagasena, and subdue him!" But Nagasena replied: "Never mind just this one king Milinda! If all the kings of India would come to me with their questions, I could well dispose of them, and they would give no more trouble after that! You may go to Sagala without any fear whatever!" And the Elders went to Sagala, lighting up the city with their yellow robes which shone like lamps, and bringing with them the fresh breeze of the holy mountains.

The Venerable Nagasena stayed at the Sankheyya hermitage together with 80,000 monks. King Milinda, accompanied by a retinue of 500 Greeks, went up to where he was, gave him a friendly and courteous greeting, and sat on one side. Nagasena returned his greetings, and his courtesy pleased the king's heart.

Said the king, "Bhante Nagasena, will you converse with me?"

"Your majesty, if you will converse with me as the wise converse, I will, but if you converse with me as kings converse, I will not."

"Bhante Nagasena, how do the wise converse?"

"Your majesty, when the wise converse, whether they become entangled by their opponents’ arguments or extricate themselves, whether they or their opponents are convicted of error, whether their own superiority or that of their opponents is established, nothing in all this can make them angry. Thus, your majesty, do the wise converse."

"And how, bhante, do kings converse?"

"Your majesty, when kings converse, they advance a proposition, and whoever opposes it, they order his punishment, saying, ‘Punish this fellow!’ Thus, your majesty, do kings converse."

"Bhante, I will converse as the wise converse, not as kings do. Let your worship converse in all confidence. Let your worship converse as unrestrainedly as if with a monk or a novice or a lay disciple or a keeper of the monastery grounds. Be not afraid!"

"Very well, your majesty," said the elder in assent.

 

Lay People and Monks

King Milinda said: "Venerable Nagasena, the Lord has said: ‘Right spiritual progress is praiseworthy for householders and homeless wanderers alike. Both householders and homeless wanderers, when progressing rightly, can accomplish, because of their right progress, the right method, the Dharma, that which is wholesome.’ If, Nagasena, a householder, dressed in white, enjoying the pleasures of the senses, inhabiting a house overcrowded with wife and family, using the sandalwood of Benares, as well as garlands, perfumes and unguents, owning gold and silver, wearing a turban ornamented with gold and jewels, can, if he progresses rightly, accomplish the right method, the Dharma, the wholesome; and if a homeless wanderer, bald-headed, clad in the saffron robe, dependent on begging for his livelihood, careful to fulfil correctly the four Sections of monastic morality, submitting to the 150 Pratimoksa rules, and observing all the thirteen Austere Practices, without omitting any one, can also, if he progresses rightly, accomplish the right method, the Dharma, the wholesome; then, Venerable Sir, what is the difference between the householder and the homeless wanderer? Fruitless is your austerity, useless is the homeless life, barren is the observation of the Pratimoksa rules, in vain do you observe the austere practices! What is the use of your inflicting pain upon yourself if you can thus while remaining at ease win the ease of Nirvana?"

Nagasena replied: "You have quoted the Lord's words correctly, your majesty. To make right progress is indeed the most excellent thing of all. And if the homeless- wanderer, in the consciousness of being a homeless wanderer, should fail to progress rightly, then he would be far from the state of an ascetic, far from a holy life; and still more so would that apply to a householder dressed in white. But both the householder and the homeless wanderer are alike in that, when they progress rightly, they accomplish the right method, the Dharma, the wholesome. And nevertheless, your majesty, it is the homeless wanderer who is the lord and master of the ascetic life, and to be a homeless wanderer has many, has numerous, has infinite virtues. To measure the virtues of being a homeless wanderer is not at all possible. It is as with a jewel that fulfils all one's wishes; one cannot measure its value in terms of money, and say that it is worth so much. Or it is as with the waves in the great ocean, which one cannot measure and say that there are so many. All that the homeless wanderer still has to do, he succeeds in doing rapidly and without taking a long time over it. And why is that so? Because the homeless wanderer, your majesty, is content with little, easily pleased, secluded from the world, not addicted to society, energetic, independent, solitary, perfect in his conduct, austere in his practice, skilled in all that concerns purification and spiritual progress. He is like your javelin, your majesty. Because that is smooth, even, well polished, straight and shining dean, therefore, when well thrown, it will fly exactly as you want it to. In the same way, whatever the homeless wanderer still has to do, he succeeds in doing it all rapidly and without taking a long time over it"

"Well spoken, Nagasena. So it is, and so I accept it."

And Nagasena continued: "But, in any case, your majesty, all those who as householders, living in a home and in the enjoyment of sensuous pleasures, realize the peace of Nirvana, the highest good, they have all been trained in their former lives in the thirteen Austere Practices peculiar to monks, and through them they have laid the foundations for their present sanctity. It is because then they had purified their conduct and behavior by means of them, that now even as householders, living in a home and in the enjoyment of sense-pleasures, they can realize the peace of Nirvana, the highest good.

"But whosoever enters the Order of monks from bad motives, from covetousness, deceitfully, out of greed and gluttony, desirous of gain, fame, or reputation, unsuitably, unqualified, unfit, unworthy, unseemingly—he shall incur a twofold punishment, which will prove ruinous to all his good qualities: in this very life he shall be scorned, derided, reproached, ridiculed and mocked; he shall be shunned, expelled, ejected, removed, and banished. And in his next life, like foam which is tossed about, up and down and across, he shall cook for many hundreds of thousands of eons of years in the great Avici hell, which is a hundred leagues big, and all ablaze with hot, scorching, fierce, and fiery flames. And when he has been released thence, his entire body will become emaciated, rough, and black, his head swollen, bloated and full of holes; hungry and thirsty, disagreeable and dreadful to look at, his ears all torn, his eyes constantly blinking, his whole body one putrid mass of sores and dense with maggots, his bowels all afire and blazing like a mass of fire fanned by a breeze, helpless and unprotected, weeping, crying, wailing, and lamenting, consumed by unsatisfied longings, he that once was a religious wanderer shall then, now a large hungry ghost, roam about on the earth bewailing his fate.

"But if, on the other hand, a monk enters the Order suitably, qualified, fit, worthy and seemingly, content with little, easily pleased, secluded from the world, not addicted to society, energetic and resolute, without fraudulence and deceit, not gluttonous, not desirous of gain, fame, or reputation, devout and from faith, from a desire to free himself from old age and death and to uphold the Buddha's religion, then he deserves to be honored in two ways by both gods and men. He is dear and pleasing to them, they love him and seek after him. He is to them as fine jasmine flowers are to a man bathed and anointed, or good food to the hungry, or a cool, clear, and fragrant drink to the thirsty, or an effective medicine to those who are poisoned, or a superb chariot drawn by thoroughbreds to those who want to travel fast, or a wishing jewel to those who want to enrich themselves, or a brilliantly white parasol, the emblem of royalty, to those who like to be kings, or as the supreme attainment of the fruit of Arhatship to those who wish for Dharma. In him the four applications of mindfulness reach their full development, the four right exhorts, the four roads to psychic power, the five cardinal virtues, the five powers, the seven limbs of enlightenment, and the holy eightfold path; he attains to calm and insight, his progressive attainments continue to mature, and he becomes a repository of the four fruits of the religious life, of the four analytical knowledges, the three kinds of knowledge, and the six superknowledges, in short, of the whole Dharma of the religious life, and he is consecrated with the brilliantly white parasol of emancipation."

 

The Adoration of Relics

King Milinda asked: "The Tathagata has said: ‘Do not occupy yourselves, Ananda, with worshipping the bodily remains of the Tathagata!’ And, on the other hand, we have been told:

Worship the relics of Him who is worthy of worship!
By doing so you'll go from here to paradise.

Now if the first injunction were right, the second must be wrong, and if the second be right the first must be wrong. This is another dilemma, which I now put to you, and which you must solve."

Nagasena replied: "The sentence, "Do not occupy yourselves, Ananda, with worshipping the bodily remains of the Tathagata!" was not addressed to everyone, but only to the Conqueror's sons, the monks. For worship is not their work. But the thorough understanding of all conditioned things, wise attention, the consideration of the applications of mindfulness, the seizing-of the real essence of all objects of thought, the battle with the passions, and the pursuit of the highest good—that is what the Conqueror's sons have to do. Worship, however, is the task of the other gods and men. So, your majesty, it is the business of the princes of this earth to know all about elephants, horses, chariots, bows, swords, edicts, and seals, to be well versed in the textbooks of statecraft, in its tradition and customs, and to lead people into battle, whereas agriculture, trade, and the care of cattle are the tasks of other people, of ordinary traders, cultivators, and servants. The Tathagata therefore urged the monks to devote themselves to their own work, and not to that of others, when he said, ‘Do not occupy yourselves, Ananda, with worshipping the bodily remains of the Tathagata!’ If the Tathagata had not said this, the monks might have taken his bowl and robe, and made it their business to worship the Buddha through them."

"Very good, Nagasena! So it is, and so I accept."

 

The Five Cardinal Virtues

The king said: "Is it through wise attention that people become exempt from further rebirth?"

"Yes, that is due to wise attention, and also to wisdom, and the other wholesome dharmas."

"But is not wise attention the same as wisdom?"

"No, your majesty! Attention is one thing, and wisdom another. Sheep and goats, oxen and buffaloes, camels and asses have attention, but wisdom they have not."

"Well put, Nagasena!"

The king said: "What is the mark of attention, and what is the mark of wisdom?"

"Consideration is the mark of attention, cutting off that of wisdom."

"How is that? Give me a simile!"

"You know barley-reapers, I suppose?"

"Yes, I do."

"How then do they reap the barley?"

"With the left hand they seize a bunch of barley, in the right hand they hold a sickle, and they cut the barley off with that sickle."

"Just so, your majesty, the Yogin seizes his mental processes with his attention, and by his wisdom he cuts off the defilements."

"Well put, Venerable Nagasena!"

The king said: "When you just spoke of "the other wholesome dharmas", which ones did you mean?"

"I meant morality, faith, vigor, mindfulness, and concentration."

"And what is the mark of morality?"

"Morality has the mark of providing a basis for all wholesome dharmas, whatever they may be. When based on morality, all the wholesome dharmas will not dwindle away."

"Give me an illustration."

"As all plants and animals which increase, grow, and prosper, do so with the earth as their support, with the earth as their basis, just so the Yogin, with morality as his support, with morality as his basis, develops the five cardinal virtues, i.e. the cardinal virtues of faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom."

"Give me a further illustration."

"As the builder of a city when constructing a town first of all clears the site, removes all stumps and thorns, and levels it; and only after that he lays out and marks off the roads and cross-roads, and so builds the city. Even so the Yogin develops the five cardinal virtues with morality as his support, with morality as his basis."

The king said: "What is the mark of faith?"

"Faith makes serene, and it leaps forward."

"And how does faith make serene?"

"When faith arises it arrests the [Five] Hindrances, and the heart becomes free from them, clear, serene and undisturbed."

"Give me an illustration!

"A universal monarch might on his way, together with his fourfold army, cross over a small stream. Stirred up by the elephants and horses, by the chariots and infantry, the water would become disturbed, agitated and muddy. Having crossed over, the universal monarch would order his men to bring some water for him to drink. But the king would possess a miraculous water-clearing gem, and his men, in obedience to his command, would throw it into the stream. Then at once all fragments of vegetation would float away, the mud would settle at the bottom, the stream would become clear, serene and undisturbed, and fit to be drunk by the universal monarch. Here the stream corresponds to the heart, the monarch's men to the Yogin, the fragments of vegetation and the mud to the defilements, and the miraculous water-clearing gem to faith."

"And how does faith leap forward?"

"When the Yogin sees that the hearts of others have been set free, he leaps forward, by way of aspiration, to the various Fruits of a holy life, and he makes efforts to attain the yet unattained, to find the yet unfound, to realize the yet unrealized."

"Give me an illustration!"

"Suppose that a great cloud were to burst over a hill-slope. The water then would flow down the slope, would first fill all the hill's clefts, fissures, and gullies, and would then run into the river below, making its banks overflow on both sides. Now suppose further that a great crowd of people had come along, and unable to size up either the width or the depth of the river, should stand frightened and hesitating on the bank. But then some man would come along, who, conscious of his own strength and power, would firmly tie on his loin-cloth and jump across the river. And the great crowd of people, seeing him on the other side, would cross likewise. Even so the Yogin, when he has seen that the hearts of others have been set free, leaps forward, by aspiration, to the various Fruits of the holy life, and he makes efforts to attain the yet unattained, to find the yet unfound, to realize the yet unrealized. And this is what the Lord has said in the Samyutta Nikaya:

By faith the flood is crossed,
By wakefulness the sea;
By vigor ill is passed;
By wisdom cleansed is he."

"Well put, Nagasena!"

The king asked: "And what is the mark of vigor?"

"Vigor props up, and, when propped up by vigor, all the wholesome dharmas do not dwindle away."

"Give me a simile!"

"If a man's house were falling down, he would prop it up with a new piece of wood, and, so supported, that house would not collapse."

 

The king asked: "And what is the mark of mindfulness?"

"Calling to mind and taking up."

"How is calling to mind a mark of mindfulness?"

"When mindfulness arises, one calls to mind the dharmas which participate in what is wholesome and unwholesome, blamable and blameless, inferior and sublime, dark and light, i.e. these are the four applications of mindfulness, these the four right efforts, these the four roads to psychic power, these the five cardinal virtues, these the five powers, these the seven limbs of enlightenment, this is the holy eightfold path; this is calm, this insight, this knowledge and this emancipation. Thereafter the Yogin tends those dharmas which should be tended, and he does not tend those which should not be tended; he partakes of those dharmas which should be followed, and he does not partake of those which should not be followed. It is in this sense that calling to mind is a mark of mindfulness."

"Give me a simile!"

"It is like the treasurer of a universal monarch, who each morning and evening reminds his royal master of his magnificent assets: 'So many elephants you have, so many horses, so many chariots, so much infantry, so many gold coins, so much bullion, so much property; may your majesty bear this in mind!' In this way he calls to mind his master's wealth."

"And how does mindfulness take up?"

"When mindfulness arises, the outcome of beneficial and harmful dharmas is examined in this way: 'These dharmas are beneficial, these harmful; these dharmas are helpful, these unhelpful.' Thereafter the Yogin removes the harmful dharmas, and takes up the beneficial ones; he removes the unhelpful dharmas, and takes up the helpful ones. It is in this sense that mindfulness takes up."

"Give me a comparison!"

"It is like the invaluable adviser of a universal monarch who knows what is beneficial and what harmful to his royal master, what is helpful and what unhelpful. Thereafter what is harmful and unhelpful can be removed, what is beneficial and helpful can be taken up."

The king asked: "And what is the mark of concentration?"

"It stands at the head. Whatever wholesome dharmas there may be, they all are headed by concentration, they bend towards concentration, lead to concentration, incline to concentration."

"Give me a comparison!"

"It is as with a building with a pointed roof: whatever rafters there are, they all converge on the top, bend towards the top, meet at the top, and the top occupies the most prominent place. So with concentration in relation to the other wholesome dharmas."

"Give me a further comparison"

"If a king were to enter battle with his fourfold army, then all his troops— the elephants, cavalry, chariots, and infantry-would be headed by him, and would be ranged around him. Such is the position of concentration in relation to the other wholesome dharmas."

The king then asked: "What then is the mark of wisdom?"

"Cutting off is, as I said before, one mark of wisdom. In addition it illuminates."

"And how does wisdom illuminate?"

"When wisdom arises, it dispels the darkness of ignorance, generates the illumination of knowledge, sheds the light of cognition, and makes the holy truths stand out clearly. Thereafter the Yogin, with his correct wisdom, can see impermanence, ill, and not-self."

"Give me a comparison!"

"It is like a lamp which a man would take into a dark house. It would dispel the darkness, would illuminate, shed light, and make the forms in the house stand out clearly."

"Well put, Nagasena!"

 

There Is No Self

Then drew near Milinda the king to where the venerable Nagasena was; and having drawn near, he greeted the venerable Nagasena, and having passed the compliments of friendship and civility, he sat down respectfully at one side. And the venerable Nagasena returned the greeting, by which, verily, he won the heart of king Milinda.

And Milinda the king spoke to the venerable Nagasena as follows:—

"How is your reverence called? Bhante, what is your name?"

"Your majesty, I am called Nagasena, my fellow-monks, your majesty, address me as Nagasena: but whether parents give one the name Nagasena, or Surasena, or Virasena, or Sihasena, it is, nevertheless, your majesty, but a way of counting, a term, an appellation, a convenient designation, a mere name, this Nagasena, for there is no self here to be found."

Then said Milinda the king,—

"Listen to me, my lords, you five hundred Yonakas, and you eighty thousand monks! Nagasena here says thus: ‘There is no self here to be found.’ Is it possible, pray, for me to assent to what he says?"

And Milinda the king spoke to the venerable Nagasena as follows:—

"Bhante Nagasena, if there is no self to be found, who is it then furnishes you monks with the monkly requisites, —robes, food, bedding, and medicine, the reliance of the sick? who is it makes use of the same? who is it keeps the precepts? who is it applies himself to meditation? who is it realizes the Paths, the Fruits, and Nirvana? who is it destroys life? who is it takes what is not given him? who is it commits immorality? who is it tells lies? who is it drinks intoxicating liquor? who is it commits the five crimes that constitute ‘proximate karma?’1 In that case, there is no merit; there is no demerit; there is no one who does or causes to be done meritorious or demeritorious deeds; neither good nor evil deeds can have any fruit or result. Bhante Nagasena, neither is he a murderer who kills a monk, nor can you monks, bhante Nagasena, have any teacher, preceptor, or ordination. When you say, ‘My fellow-monks, your majesty, address me as Nagasena,’ what then is this Nagasena? Pray, bhante, is the hair of the head Nagasena?"

"Nay, verily, your majesty."

"Is the hair of the body Nagasena ? "

"Nay, verily, your majesty."

"Are nails . . . teeth . . . skin . . . flesh . . . sinews . . . bones . . . marrow of the bones . . . kidneys . . . heart . . . liver . . . pleura . . . spleen . . . lungs . . . intestines . . . mesentery . . . stomach . . . faeces . . . bile. .. phlegm . . . pus . . . blood . . . sweat . . . fat . . . tears . . . lymph . . . saliva . . . snot . . . synovial fluid . . .urine . . . brain of the head Nagasena?"

"Nay, verily, your majesty."

"Is now, bhante, form Nagasena?"

"Nay, verily, your majesty."

"Is sensation Nagasena?"

"Nay, verily, your majesty."

"Is perception Nagasena?"

"Nay, verily, your majesty."

"Are the psychic constructions Nagasena?"

"Nay, verily, your majesty."

"Is consciousness Nagasena?"

"Nay, verily, your majesty."

"Are, then, bhante, form, sensation, perception, the psychic constructions, and consciousness unitedly Nagasena?"

"Nay, verily, your majesty."

"Is it, then, bhante, something besides form, sensation, perception, the psychic constructions, and consciousness, which is Nagasena?"

"Nay, verily, your majesty."

"Bhante, although I question you very closely, I fail to discover any Nagasena. Verily, now, bhante, Nagasena is a mere empty sound. What Nagasena is there here? Bhante, you speak a falsehood, a lie: there is no Nagasena."

Then the venerable Nagasena spoke to Milinda the king as follows:—

"Your majesty, you are a delicate prince, an exceedingly delicate prince; and if, your majesty, you walk in the middle of the day on hot sandy ground, and you tread on rough grit, gravel, and sand, your feet become sore, your body tired, the mind is oppressed, and the body-consciousness suffers. Pray, did you come afoot, or riding?"

"Bhante, I do not go afoot: I came in a chariot."

"Your majesty, if you came in a chariot, declare to me the chariot. Pray, your majesty, is the pole the chariot?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Is the axle the chariot?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Are the wheels the chariot?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Is the chariot-body the chariot?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Is the banner-staff the chariot?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Is the yoke the chariot?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Are the reins the chariot?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Is the goading-stick the chariot?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Pray, your majesty, are pole, axle, wheels, chariot-body, banner-staff, yoke, reins, and goad unitedly the chariot?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Is it, then, your majesty, something else besides pole; axle, wheels, chariot-body, banner-staff, yoke, reins, and goad which is the chariot?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Your majesty, although I question you very closely, I fail to discover any chariot. Verily now, your majesty, the word chariot is a mere empty sound. What chariot is there here? Your majesty, you speak a falsehood, a lie: there is no chariot. Your majesty, you are the chief king in all the continent of India; of whom are you afraid that you speak a lie? Listen to me, my lords, you five hundred Yonakas, and you eighty thousand monks! Milinda the king here says thus: ‘I came in a chariot;’ and being requested, ‘Your majesty, if you came in a chariot, declare to me the chariot,’ he fails to produce any chariot. Is it possible, pray, for me to assent to what he says?"

When he had thus spoken, the five hundred Yonakas applauded the venerable Nagasena and spoke to Milinda the king as follows:—

"Now, your majesty, answer, if you can."

Then Milinda the king spoke to the venerable Nagasena as follows:—

"Bhante Nagasena, I speak no lie: the word ‘chariot’ is but a way of counting, term, appellation, convenient designation, and name for pole, axle, wheels, chariot-body, and banner-staff."

"Thoroughly well, your majesty, do you understand a chariot. In exactly the same way, your majesty, in respect of me, Nagasena is but a way of counting, term, appellation, convenient designation, mere name for the hair of my head, hair of my body . . . brain of the head, form, sensation, perception, the psychic constructions, and consciousness. But in the absolute sense there is no self here to be found. And the priestess Vajira, your majesty, said as follows in the presence of The Blessed One:—

Even as the word of "chariot" means
That members join to frame a whole
So when the Groups appear to view,
We use the phrase, "A living being."

"It is wonderful, bhante Nagasena! It is marvelous, bhante Nagasena! Brilliant and prompt is the wit of your replies. If The Buddha were alive, he would applaud. Well done, well done, Nagasena! Brilliant and prompt is the wit of your replies."

1Translated from the Sarasangaha, as quoted in Trenckner’s note to this passage:

"By proximate karma is meant karma that ripens in the next existence. To show what this is, I [the author of the Sarasangaha] give the following passage from the Atthanasutta of the first book of the Anguttara-Nikaya:—"It is an impossibility, O monks, the case can never occur, that an individual imbued with the correct doctrine should deprive his mother of life, should deprive his father of life, should deprive a saint of life, should in a revengeful spirit cause a bloody wound to a Tathagata, should cause a schism in the church. This is an impossibility."’

 

No Continuous Personal Identity

"Bhante Nagasena," said the king, "is a person when just born that person himself, or is he some one else?"

"He is neither that person," said the elder, " nor is he some one else."

"Give an illustration."

"What do you say to this, your majesty? When you were a young, tender, weakly infant lying on your back, was that your present grown-up self?"

"Nay, verily, bhante. The young, tender, weakly infant lying on its back was one person, and my present grown-up self is another person."

"If that is the case, your majesty, there can be no such thing as a mother, or a father, or a teacher, or an educated man, or a righteous man, or a wise man. Pray, your majesty, is the mother of the kalala embryo one person, the mother of the abbuda embryo another person, the mother of the pesi embryo another person, the mother of the ghana embryo another person, the mother of the little child another person, and the mother of the grownup man another person? Is it one person who is a student, and another person who has finished his education? Is it one person who commits a crime, and another person whose hands and feet are cut off?"

"Nay, verily, bhante. But what, bhante, would you reply to these questions?"

Said the elder, " It was I, your majesty, who was a young, tender, weakly infant lying on my back, and it is I who am now grown up. It is through their connection with the embryonic body that all these different periods are unified."

"Give an illustration."

"It is as if, your majesty, a man were to light a light;—would it shine all night?"

"Assuredly, bhante, it would shine all night."

"Pray, your majesty, is the flame of the first watch the same as the flame of the middle watch?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Is the flame of the middle watch the same as the flame of the last watch?"

"Nay, verily, bhante."

"Pray, then, your majesty, was there one light in the first watch, another light in the middle watch, and a third light in the last watch?"

"Nay, verily, bhante. Through connection with that first light there was light all night."

"In exactly the same way, your majesty, do the elements of being join one another in serial succession: one element perishes, another arises, succeeding each other as it were instantaneously. Therefore neither as the same nor as a different person do you arrive at your latest aggregation of consciousnesses."

"Give another illustration."

"It is as if, your majesty, new milk were to change in process of time into sour cream, and from sour cream into fresh butter, and from fresh butter into clarified butter. And if any one, your majesty, were to say that the sour cream, the fresh butter, and the clarified butter were each of them the very milk itself—now would he say well, if he were to say so?"

"Nay, verily, bhante. They came into being through connection with that milk."

"In exactly the same way, your majesty, do the elements of being join one another in serial succession: one element perishes, another arises, succeeding each other as it were instantaneously. Therefore neither as the same nor as a different person do you arrive at your latest aggregation of consciousnesses."

" You are an able man, bhante Nagasena."

 

Liberation and Nirvana

The king asked: "Is cessation Nirvana?"

"Yes, your majesty!"

"How is that, Nagasena?"

"All the foolish common people take delight in the senses and their objects, are impressed by them, are attached to them. In that way they are carried away by the flood, and are not set free from birth, old age, and death, from grief, lamentation, pain, sadness, and despair-they are, I say, not set free from suffering. But the well-informed holy disciples do not take delight in the senses and their objects, are not impressed by them, are not attached to them, and in consequence their craving ceases; the cessation of craving leads successively to that of grasping, of becoming, of birth, of old age and death, of grief, lamentation, pain, sadness, and despair - that is to say to the cessation of all this mass of ill. It is thus that cessation is Nirvana."

"Very good, Nagasena!"

The king asked: "Do all win Nirvana?"

"No, they do not. Only those win Nirvana who, progressing correctly, know by their superknowledge those dharmas which should be known by superknowledge, comprehend those dharmas which should be comprehended, forsake those dharmas which should be forsaken, develop those dharmas which should be developed, and realize those dharmas which should be realized."

"Very good, Nagasena!"

The king asked: "Do those who have not won Nirvana know how happy a state it is?"

"Yes, they do."

"But how can one know this about Nirvana without having attained it?"

"Now what do you think, your majesty? Do those who have not had their hands and feet cut off know how bad it is to have them cut off?"

"Yes, they do."

"And how do they know it?"

"From hearing the sound of the lamentations of those whose hands and feet have been cut off."

"So it is by hearing the words of those who have seen Nirvana that one knows it to be a happy state."

"Very good, Nagasena!"

 

The Nature of Nirvana

King Milinda said: "I will grant you, Nagasena, that Nirvana is absolute Ease, and that nevertheless one cannot point to its form or shape, its duration or size, either by simile or explanation, by reason or by argument. But is there perhaps some quality of Nirvana which it shares with other things, and which lends itself to a metaphorical explanation?"

"Its form, O king, cannot be elucidated by similes, but its qualities can."

"How good to hear that, Nagasena! Speak then, quickly, so that I may have an explanation of even one of the aspects of Nirvana! Appease the fever of my heart! Allay it with the cool sweet breezes of your words!"

"Nirvana shares one quality with the lotus, two with water, three with medicine, ten with space, three with the wishing jewel, and five with a mountain peak. As the lotus is unstained by water, so is Nirvana unstained by all the defilements. As cool water allays feverish heat, so also Nirvana is cool and allays the fever of all the passions. Moreover, as water removes the thirst of men and beasts who are exhausted, parched, thirsty, and overpowered by heat, so also Nirvana removes the craving for sensuous enjoyments, the craving for further becoming, the craving for the cessation of becoming. As medicine protects from the torments of poison, so Nirvana from the torments of the poisonous passions. Moreover, as medicine puts an end to sickness, so Nirvana to all sufferings. Finally, Nirvana and medicine both give security. And these are the ten qualities which Nirvana shares with space. Neither is born, grows old, dies, passes away, or is reborn; both are unconquerable, cannot be stolen, are unsupported, are roads respectively for birds and Arhats to journey on, are unobstructed and infinite. Like the wishing jewel, Nirvana grants all one can desire, brings joy, and sheds light. As a mountain peak is lofty and exalted, so is Nirvana. As a mountain peak is unshakable, so is Nirvana. As a mountain peak is inaccessible, so is Nirvana inaccessible to all the passions. As no seeds can grow on a mountain peak, so the seeds of all the passions cannot grow in Nirvana. And finally, as a mountain peak is free from all desire to please or displease, so is Nirvana."

"Well said, Nagasena! So it is, and as such I accept it."

 

The Realization of Nirvana

King Milinda said: "In the world one can see things produced of karma, things produced from a cause, things produced by nature. Tell me, what in the world is not born of karma, or a cause, or of nature?"

"There are two such things, space and Nirvana."

"Do not, Nagasena, corrupt the Conqueror's words, do not answer the question ignorantly!"

"What did I say, your majesty, that you speak thus to me?"

"What you said about space not being born of karma, or from a cause, or from nature, that was correct. But with many hundreds of arguments has the Lord proclaimed to his disciples the way to the realization of Nirvana—and then you say that Nirvana is not born of a cause!"

"It is true that the Lord has with many hundreds of arguments proclaimed to his disciples the way to the realization of Nirvana; but that does not mean that he has spoken of a cause for the production of Nirvana."

"Here, Nagasena, we do indeed enter from darkness into greater darkness, from a jungle into a deeper jungle, from a thicket into a denser thicket, inasmuch as we are given a cause for the realization of Nirvana, but no cause for the production of that same dharma (i.e. Nirvana). If there is a cause for the realization of Nirvana, we would also expect one for its production. If there is a son's father, one would for that reason also expect the father to have had a father; if there is a pupil's teacher, one would for that reason also expect the teacher to have had a teacher; if there is a seed for a sprout, one would for that reason also expect the seed to have had a seed. Just so, if there is cause for the realization of Nirvana, one would for that reason also expect a cause for its production. If a tree or creeper has a top, then for that reason it must also have a middle and a root. Just so, if there is a cause for the realization of Nirvana, one would for that reason also expect a cause for its production."

"Nirvana, O king, is not something that should be produced. That is why no cause for its production has been proclaimed."

"Please, Nagasena, give me a reason, convince me by an argument, so that I can understand this point!"

"Well then, O king, attend carefully, listen closely, and I will tell you the reason for this. Could a man with his natural strength go up from here to the Himalaya mountains?"

"Yes, he could."

"But could that man with his natural strength bring the Himalaya Mountains here?"

"No, he could not."

"Just so it is possible to point out the way to the realization of Nirvana, but impossible to show a cause for its production. Could a man, who with his natural strength has crossed in a boat over the great ocean, get to the farther shore?"

"Yes, he could."

"But could that man with his natural strength bring the farther shore of the great ocean here?"

"No, he could not."

"Just so one can point out the way to the realization of Nirvana, but one cannot show a cause for its production. And what is the reason for that? Because that dharma, Nirvana, is unconditioned."

"Is then, Nagasena, Nirvana unconditioned?"

"So it is, O king, unconditioned is Nirvana, not made by anything. Of Nirvana one cannot say that it is produced, or unproduced, or that it should be produced; that it is past, or future, or present; or that one can become aware of it by the eye, or the ear, or the nose, or the tongue, or the body."

"In that case, Nagasena, you indicate Nirvana as a dharma which is not, and Nirvana does not exist."

"Nirvana is something which is. It is cognizable by the mind. A holy disciple, who has followed the right road, sees Nirvana with a mind which is pure, sublime, straight, unimpeded and disinterested."

"But what then is that Nirvana like? Give me a simile, and convince me by arguments. For a dharma which exists can surely be illustrated by a simile!"

"Is there, great king, something called 'wind?'"

"Yes, there is such a thing."

"Please, will your majesty show me the wind, its color and shape, and whether it is thin or thick, long or short."

"One cannot point to the wind like that. For the wind does not lend itself to being grasped with the hands, or to being touched. But nevertheless there is such a thing as 'wind.'"

"If one cannot point to the wind, one might conclude that there is no wind at all."

"But I know, Nagasena, that there is wind, I am quite convinced of it, in spite of the fact that I cannot point it out."

"Just so, your majesty, there is Nirvana, but one cannot point to Nirvana, either by its color or its shape."

"Very good! Nagasena. Clear is the simile, convincing is the argument. So it is, and so I accept it: there is a Nirvana."

 

The Arhats and Their Bodies

The king asked: "Does someone who is no more reborn feel any unpleasant feelings?"

The Elder replied: "Some he feels, and others not."

"Which ones does he feel, and which ones not?"

"He feels physical, but not mental pain."

"How is that?"

"The causes and conditions which produce feelings of physical pain have not ceased to operate, whereas those which produce feelings of mental pain have. And so it has been said by the Lord: "Only one kind of feelings he feels, physical, and not mental." "

"And when he feels a physical pain, why does he not escape into final Nirvana, by dying quickly?"

"An Arhat has no more likes or dislikes. Arhats do not shake down the unripe fruit, the wise wait for it to mature. And so it has been said by the Elder Sariputra, the Dharma's general:

It is not death, it is not life I cherish.
I bide my time, a servant waiting for his wage.
It is not death, it is not life I cherish.
I bide my time, in mindfulness and wisdom steeped."

"Well put, Nagasena!"

The king asked: "Is the body dear to you recluses?"

"No, it is not."

"But why then do you look after it, and cherish it so?"

"Has your majesty somewhere and at some time in the course of a battle been wounded by an arrow?"

"Yes, that has happened."

"In such cases, is not the wound anointed with salve, smeared with oil, and bandaged with fine linen?"

"Yes, so it is."

"Is then this treatment a sign that the wound is dear to your majesty?"

"No, it is not dear to me, but all this is done to it so that the flesh may grow again."

"Just so the body is not dear to the recluses. Without being attached to the body they take care of it for the purpose of making a holy life possible. The Lord has compared the body to a wound, and so the recluses take care for the body as for a wound, without being attached to it. For the Lord has said:

A damp skin hides it, but it as a wound, large, with nine openings,
All around it oozes impure and evil-smelling matter."

"Well answered, Nagasena!"

The king asked: "What is the difference between someone with greed and someone without greed?"

"The one is attached, the other unattached."

"What does that mean?"

"The one covets, the other does not."

"As I see it, the greedy person and the one who is free from greed both wish for agreeable food, and neither of them wishes for bad food."

"But the one who is not free from greed eats his food while experiencing both its taste and some greed for tastes; the one who is free from greed eats his food while experiencing its taste, but without having any greed for it."

"Very good, Nagasena!"

The king asked: "For what reason does the common person suffer both physical and mental pain?"

"Because his thought is so undeveloped. He is like a hungry and excited ox, who has been tied up with a weak, fragile and short piece of straw or creeper, and who, when agitated, rushes off, taking his tether with him. So, someone whose thought is undeveloped, gets agitated in his mind when a pain arises in him, and his agitated mind bends and contorts his body, and makes it writhe. Undeveloped in his mind he trembles, shrieks, and cries with terror. This is the reason why the common person suffers both physical and mental pain."

"And what is the reason why Arhats feel only one kind of feelings, physical and not mental?"

"The thought of the Arhats is developed, well developed, it is tamed, well tamed, it is obedient and disciplined. When invaded by a painful feeling, the Arhat firmly grasps at the idea of its impermanence, and ties his thought to the post of contemplation. And his thought, tied to the post of contemplation, does not tremble or shake, remains steadfast and undisturbed. But the disturbing influence of the pain, nevertheless, makes his body bend, contorts it, makes it writhe."

"That, Nagasena, is indeed a most wonderful thing in this world, that someone's mind should remain unshaken when his body is shaken. Tell me the reason for that!"

"Suppose, your majesty, that there is a gigantic tree, with trunk, branches, and leaves. If it were hit by the force of the wind, its branches would shake, but would the trunk also shake?"

"No, Venerable Sir!"

"Just so the thought of the Arhat does not tremble or shake, like the trunk of the gigantic tree."

"Wonderful, Nagasena, most admirable, Nagasena!"

 

Conversion of the King

The king, as a result of his discussions with the Venerable Nagasena, was overjoyed and humbled; he saw the value in the Buddha's religion, gained confidence in the Triple Jewel, lost his spikiness and obstinacy, gained faith in the qualities of the Elder -- in his observation of the monastic rules, his spiritual progress and his general demeanor -- became trusting and resigned, free from conceit and arrogance. Like a cobra whose fangs have been drawn, he said: "Well said, well said, Nagasena! You have answered my questions, which would have given scope to a Buddha, you have answered them well! Apart from the Elder Sariputra, the supreme general of the Dharma, there is no one in this religion of the Buddha who can deal with questions as well as you do. Forgive my transgressions, Nagasena! May the Venerable Nagasena accept me as a lay-follower, as one who takes his refuge with the Triple Jewel, from to-day onwards, as long as I shall live!"

 

These passages come from Henry Clark Warren, Buddhism in Translation and Edward Conze, Buddhist Scriptures, with modifications.

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John Knoblock
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Last revised 12/02/04

To go to the Readings Pages click button .

To go to the Life of Buddha Page, click button .

To go to the Schools of Buddhism Pages, click button .

To return to John Knoblock's Professional Page, click button .

John Knoblock
Department of Philosophy
University of Miami
P.O. Box 248054
Coral Gables, FL 33124
Office: Ashe 723D
Messages: (305) 284-4757
Fax: (305) 284-5594
email: knoblock@umiami.ir.miami.edu

© John Knoblock
Last revised 12/02/04