The Questions of King Milinda  

Translation by Edward Conze, from Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin Classics, 1959)

 

See my Buddhism and Self for commentary.

 

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.

 

The Doctrine of Not-Self

 

2a.  The Chariot

 

And King Milinda asked him: “How is your Reverence known, and what is your name, Sir?”

 

Nagasena: “As Nagasena I am known, O great king, and as Nagasena do my fellow religious habitually address me.  But although parents give such names as Nagasena … nevertheless this word ‘Nagasena’ is just a denomination, a designation, a conceptual term, a current appellation, a mere name.  For no real person can here be apprehended.”

 

Milinda:  (addressing the assembly) “Now listen, you 500 Greeks and 80,000 monks, this Nagasena tells me that he is not a real person.  How can I be expected to agree with that?”  (Turns to Nagasena) “If, most reverend Nagasena, no person can be apprehended in reality, who, then, I ask you, gives you what you require by way of robes, food, lodging, and medicines? What is it that consumes them? Who is it that guards morality, [and] practices meditation?  Who is it that kills living beings, takes what is not given, commits sexual misconduct, tells lies, drinks intoxicants?  Who is it that commits the Five Deadly Sins?  For, if there were no person, there could be no merit or demerit; no doer of meritorious or demeritorious deeds, and no agent behind them; … and no reward or punishment for them.  If someone should kill you, O Venerable Nagasena, he would not commit any murder…. What then is this ‘Nagasena’?  Are perhaps the hairs of the head ‘Nagasena’?”

 

Nagasena:  “No, great king!”

 

Milinda: “Or perhaps the hairs of the body?”

 

Nagasena:  “No, great king!”

 

Milinda:  “Or perhaps the nails, teeth, skin, muscles, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, serous membranes, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, stomach, excrement, the bile, phlegm, pus, blood, grease, fat, tears, sweat, spittle, snot, fluid of the joints, urine, or the brain in the skull – are they this ‘Nagasena’?”

 

Nagasena:  “No, great king!”

 

Milinda:  “Or is form this ‘Nagasena,’ or feeling, or perceptions, or impulses, or consciousness?”

 

Nagasena:  “No, great king!”

 

Milinda:  “Then is it the combination of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness?”

 

Nagasena:  “No, great king!”

 

Milinda:  “Then is it outside the combination of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness?”

 

Nagasena:  “No, great king!”

 

Milinda:  “Then, ask as I may, I can discover no Nagasena at all.  Just a mere sound is this ‘Nagasena,’ but who is the real Nagasena? Your Reverence has told a lie, has spoken a falsehood!  There really is no Nagasena!”

 

Nagasena: “As a king you have been brought up in great refinement and you avoid roughness of any kind.  If you would walk at midday on this hot, burning, and sandy ground, then your feet would have to tread on the rough and gritty gravel and pebbles, and they would hurt you, your body would get tired, your mind impaired, and your awareness of your body would be associated with pain.  How, then did you come:  on foot, or on a mount?”

 

Milinda:  “I did not come, Sir, on foot, but on a chariot.”

 

Nagasena: “If you have come on a chariot, then please explain to me what a chariot is.  Is the pole the chariot?”

 

Milinda: “No, reverend Sir!”

 

Nagasena:  “Is then the axle the chariot?”

 

Milinda:  “No, reverend Sir!”

 

Nagasena:  “Is it then the wheels, or the framework, or the flag-staff, or the yoke, or the reins, or the goadstick?”

 

Milinda:  “No, reverend Sir!”

 

Nagasena:  “Then is it the combination of pole, axle, wheels, framework, flag-staff, yoke, reins, and goad?”

 

Milinda:  “No, reverend Sir!”

 

Nagasena:  “Then is this ‘chariot’ outside the combination of pole, axle, wheels, framework, flag-staff, yoke, reins, and goad?”

 

Milinda:  “No, reverend Sir!”

 

Nagasena:  “Then, ask as I may, I can discover no chariot at all.  Just a mere sound is this ‘chariot’. But what is the real chariot? Your Majesty has told a lie, has spoken a falsehood!  There really is no chariot!  Your Majesty is the greatest king in the whole of India.  Of whom then are you afraid, that you do not speak the truth?”

(To Assembly) “Now listen, you 500 Greeks, and 80,000 monks, this king Milinda tells me he has come in a chariot.  But when asked to explain to me what a chariot is, he cannot establish its existence.  How can one possibly approve of that?”

 

The five hundred Greeks thereupon applauded the Venerable Nagasena and said to King Milinda:  “Now let your Majesty get out of this if you can!”

 

Milinda:  “I have not, Nagasena, spoken a falsehood.  For it is in dependence on the pole, the axle, the wheels, the framework, the flag-staff, etc., that there takes place this denomination ‘chariot,’ this designation, this conceptual term, a current appellation, and a mere name.”

 

Nagasena:  “Your Majesty has spoken well about the chariot.  It is just so with me.  In dependence on the thirty-two parts of the body and the five Skandhas there takes place this denomination ‘Nagasena,’ this designation, this conceptual term, a current appellation, and a mere name.  In ultimate reality, however, this person cannot be apprehended.”

 

Milinda:  “It is wonderful, Nagasena, it is astonishing, Nagasena! Most brilliantly have these questions been answered!  Were the Buddha himself here, he would approve what you have said. Well spoken, Nagasena, well spoken!”

 

 

 

2b.  Personal Identity and Rebirth

 

Milinda: “When someone is reborn, Venerable Nagasena, is he the same as the one who just died, or is he another?”

 

Nagasena: “He is neither the same nor another.”

 

Milinda:  “Give me an illustration!”

 

Nagasena: “What do you think, great king: when you were a tiny infant, newly born and quite soft, were you then the same as the one who is now grown up?”

 

Milinda: “No, that infant was one; I, now grown up, am another.”

 

Nagasena: “If that is so, great king, you have had no mother, no father, no teaching, and no schooling!  Do we then take it that there is one mother for the embryo in the first stage, another for the second stage, another for the third, another for the fourth, another for the baby, another for the grown-up man?  Is the schoolboy one person, and the one who has finished school another?  Does one commit a crime, but the hands and feet of another are cut off?”

 

Milinda:  “Certainly not!  But what would you say, Reverend Sir, to all that?”

 

Nagasena:  “I was neither the tiny infant, newly born and quite soft, nor am I now the grown-up man; but these comprise one unit depending on this very body.”

 

Milinda:  “Give me a simile!”

 

Nagasena:  “If a man were to light a lamp, could it give light throughout the whole night?”

 

Milinda:  “Yes, it could.”

Nagasena:  “Is not the flame which burns in the first watch of the night the same as the one which burns in the second?”

 

Milinda:  “It is not the same.”

 

Nagasena: “Or is the flame that burns in the second watch the same as the one which burns in the last one?”

 

Milinda:  “It is not the same.”

 

Nagasena: “Even so must we understand the collocation of a series of successive dharmas.  At rebirth one dharma arises, while another stops; but the two processes take place almost simultaneously (i.e., they are continuous).  Therefore the first act of consciousness in the new existence is neither the same as the last act of consciousness in the previous existence, nor is it another.”

 

Milinda:  “Give me another simile!”

 

Nagasena: “Milk, once the milking is done, turns after some time into curds; from curds it turns into fresh butter, and from fresh butter into ghee. Would it now be correct to say that the milk is the same thing as the curds, or the fresh butter, or the ghee?”

 

Milinda:  “No, it would not.  But they have been produced because of it.”

 

Nagasena:  “Just so must be understood the collocation of a series of successive dharmas.”

 

 

NOTE:  The use of “Dharma” here is meaningful.  “Dharma” often means something like “duty”, the right thing to do, or the law.  But it is more: the word comes from Sanskrit for “to hold together” or “to bear, support, or sustain”.  Dharma is the universal cosmic law that holds things together.  Dharma is how things are held together; there is no right or wrong way for things to be, since dharma is lawful and controls change, and causes things to unfold the way the do. One dharma is the law of karma. Another is the unity of all sentient beings. 

 


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