Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

10.1: Nagasena Replies to the Questions of King Milinda

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    The way of reasoned inquiry, like that of mystical quest, has received high priority in most (though not all) subtraditions of Buddhism, at least as a fundamental aspect of the way to Enlightenment. Its speculative tendencies are curbed by a pragmatic insistence (1) that it contribute directly to the goal of Enlightenment and (2) that it does not feed the delusive craving of the ego for autonomous existence by postulating metaphysical entities that might serve to rationalize that craving. Nevertheless, rational philosophical inquiry has for the most part been given free rein in Buddhism (except in cases where the tradition has simply degenerated into unthinking repetition of traditional teachings). Mere quieting of the mind in concentrative absorption is insufficient by itself for Enlightenment; there must also be insight into, and reasoned understanding of, the impermanence, insubstantiality, and turmoil that characterize all things in mundane existence. As much or more than anything else, it is lack of insight into and misunderstanding of these matters that is believed to keep a person trapped in an unenlightened state. In this respect, the example of Buddhist mystical quest already given has an aspect of the way of reasoned inquiry already built into it. In other subtraditions of Buddhism, especially in Mahayana, this aspect plays a greater role, though a role that varies depending on the subtradition in question. In some subtraditions, notably the Gelukpa sect of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism and the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism, a serious systematic study of Buddhist philosophy is a requisite, major part of communal monastic life. To be a Buddhist in these traditions is to have one's understanding of basic Buddhist teaching developed and refined through intense and rigorous debate, as well as through renewed encounter with the great Buddhist philosophers of the past by way of their writings and courses of study with master teachers in the present. The point is not to rethink and imitate what others have thought in a secondhand manner but to make for oneself the mental connections, inferences, and leaps of insight that acquaint one mentally with the thinking that leads to, and is, Enlightenment.

    The excerpt that follows is taken from a recent translation of a classic work in Theravada Buddhist theologyo,1 The Questions of King Milinda (Milindapanha), which was probably composed in the first century B.C.E. The Milindapanha has served over the centuries as a model of theologicalo inquiry and debate in Theravada Buddhism and in some Mahayana traditions as well. It is composed as a dialogue between King Milinda, a Greek king (Menander) who ruled the northeast of India (Bactria) in the latter part of the second century B.C.E., and a learned monk called Nagasena. Milinda is portrayed as very bright, knowledgeable about Buddhism, inquisitive, philosophic-minded, skilled in debate, but skeptical-raising a host of serious questions and puzzlements about Buddhism, questions and puzzlements that, according to the story, most monks at the time were incapable of answering. Only the formidable Nagasena-miraculously born for this very purpose-was equal to the task. In the dialogue itself, Nagasena plays a part akin to the Platonic Socrates, overcoming one by one each of King Milinda's misgivings by rational argument and apt simile. In the end King Milinda is converted to Buddhism, establishes a great monastic center, and ultimately attains Enlightenment.

    The few selections chosen here2 focus on the nonexistence of the soul and the nature of nirvana, here called by its Pali name, nibbana. One could just as well say that the selections seek to demonstrate the systematically misleading character of ordinary language in attempting to speak of ultimate realityo. For Buddhism, there is no individual soul or self as a linguistically identifiable, enduring metaphysical entity. The difficulty in saying just what it is that a person ultimately is should not, however, be taken to imply that it does not exist. And similar to the way God in Christianity is said to transcend the categories of human comprehension, here nirvana/nibbana is said to transcend mundane categories of understanding. While full comprehension to the unenlightened mundane intellect lies beyond reach, aspects of nirvana/nibbana may nevertheless be intimated by means of analogy with familiar things. The point is not to rest content with the limited intimations of a mundane understanding but to allow such reasonings provoke a breakthrough of insight to a higher level, intuitive comprehension that will itself be Enlightenment.

    The Questions of King Milinda

    The Soul and Rebirth

    King Milinda went to Nagasena and after exchanging polite and friendly greetings, took his seat respectfully to one side. Milinda began by asking:

    "How is your reverence known, and what sir, is your name?"

    "0 king, I am known as Nagasena but that is only a designation in common use, for no permanent individual can be found."

    Then Milinda called upon the Bactrian Greeks and the monks to bear witness: "This Nagasena says that no permanent individual is implied in his name. Is it possible to approve of that?" Then he turned to Nagasena and said, "If, most venerable Nagasena, that is true, who is it who gives you robes, food and shelter? Who lives the righteous life? Or again, who kills living beings, steals, commits adultery, tells lies or takes strong drink? If what you say is true then there is neither merit nor demerit, nor is there any doer of good or evil deeds and no result of kamma [Pali for the Sanskrit karma]. If, venerable sir, a man were to kill you there would be no murder, and it follows that there are no masters or teachers in your Order. You say that you are called Nagasena; now what is that Nagasena? It it the hair?"

    "I don't say that, great king."

    "Is it then the nails, teeth, skin or other parts of the body?"

    "Certainly not."

    "Or is it the body, or feelings, or perceptions, or formations, or consciousness [the Five Aggregates of Being, i.e., five kinds of phenomena into which the samsaric life of a human being can be exhaustively analyzed according to Theravada]? Is it all of these combined? Or is it something outside of them that is Nagasena?"

    And still Nagasena answered: "It is none of these."

    "Then ask as I may, I can discover no Nagasena. Nagasena is an empty sound. Who is it we see before us? It is a falsehood that your reverence has spoken."

    "You, sir, have been reared in great luxury as becomes your noble birth. How did you come here, by foot or in a chariot?"

    "In a chariot, venerable sir."

    "Then, explain sir, what that is. Is it the axle? Or the wheels, or the chassis, or reins, or yoke that is the chariot? Is it all of these combined, or is it something apart from them?"

    "It is none of these things, venerable sir."

    "Then, sir, this chariot is an empty sound. You spoke falsely when you said that you came here in a chariot. You are a great king of India. Who are you afraid of that you speak an untruth?" And he called upon the Bactrian Greeks and the monks to bear witness: "This King Milinda has said that he came here by a chariot but when asked 'What is it?' he is unable to show it. Is it possible to approve of that?"

    Then the five hundred Bactrian Greeks shouted their approval and said to the king, "Get out of that if you can!"

    "Venerable sir, I have spoken the truth. It is because it has all these parts that it comes under the term chariot."

    "Very good, sir, your majesty has rightly grasped the meaning. Even so it is because of thirty-two kinds of organic matter in a human body [distinct parts of the body specifically identified for the purpose of meditation in Theravada] and the five aggregates of being [see above] that I come under the term Nagasena. As it was said by Sister Vajlra in the presence of the Blessed One [Gautama Buddha], 'Just as it is by the existence of the various parts that the word "Chariot" is used, just so is it that when the aggregates of being are there we talk of a being."'

    "Most wonderful, Nagasena, most extraordinary that you have solved this puzzle, difficult though it was. If the Buddha himself were here he would approve of your reply."

    Then the king said, "Venerable sir, will you discuss with me again?"

    "If your majesty will discuss as a scholar, yes; but if you will discuss as a king, no." "How is it then that scholars discuss?"

    "When scholars discuss there is summing up, unravelling; one or other is shown to be in error and he admits his mistake and yet is not thereby angered."

    "And how is it that kings discuss?"

    "When a king discusses a matter and he advances a point of view, if anyone differs from him on that point he is apt to punish him."

    "Very well then, it is as a scholar that I will discuss. Let your reverence talk without fear."

    "It is well your majesty."

    ... Thinking, "This monk is a great scholar, he is quite able to discuss things

    with me," the king instructed Devamantiya, his minister, to invite him to the palace with a large company of monks and went away muttering, "Nagasena, Nagasena."

    ... [A]fter the monks had arrived at the palace and finished their meal, the king sat down on a low seat and asked, "What shall we discuss?"

    "Let our discussion be about the Dhamma [Pali for the Sanskrit Dharma, the true nature of reality (according to Buddhism) and the Buddha's teaching of it]."

    And the King said, "What is the purpose, your reverence, of your going forth [a reference to the action of taking on the condition of a Buddhist monk, reenacting the great going forth of Gautama Buddha] and what is the final goal at which you aim?"

    "Our going forth is for the purpose that this suffering may be extinguished and that no further suffering may arise; the complete extinction of grasping without remainder is our final goal."

    "Is it, venerable sir, for such noble reasons that everyone joins the Order?"

    "No. Some enter to escape the tyranny of kings, some to be safe from robbers, · some to escape from debt and some perhaps to gain a livelihood. But those who enter rightly do so for the complete extinction of grasping."

    The king said, "Is there anyone who is not reborn after death?"

    "Yes there is. The one who has no defilements is not reborn after death; the one who has defilements is reborn."

    "Will you be reborn?"

    "If I die with craving in my mind, yes; but if not, no."

    "Does one who escapes from rebirth do so by the power of reasoning?"

    "He escapes both by reasoning and by wisdom, confidence, virtue, mindfulness, energy, and by concentration."

    "Is reasoning the same as wisdom?"

    "No. Animals have reasoning but they do not have wisdom."

    "What, Nagasena, is the characteristic mark of reasoning; and what the mark of wisdom?"

    "Taking hold is the mark of reasoning, cutting off is the mark of wisdom." "Give me an illustration."

    "How do barley reapers reap the barley?"

    "They grasp the barley into a bunch with the left hand and, with a sickle in the right hand, they cut the barley."

    "Just so, 0 king, the recluse takes hold of his mind with reasoning and cuts off the defilements with wisdom."

    "Is cessation nibbana?"

    "Yes, O king. All foolish worldlings take pleasure in the senses and their objects; they find delight in them and cling to them. Hence they are carried down by that flood [of passion-translator's interpolation] and are not set free from birth and suffering. The wise disciple of the noble ones [i.e., Buddhas] does not delight in those things. And in him craving ceases, clinging ceases, becoming ceases, birth ceases, old age, death, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow and despair cease to exist. Thus it is that cessation is nibbana."

    The Bliss of Nibbana

    "Is nibbana entirely blissful or is it partly painful?"

    "It is entirely blissful."

    "But that I cannot accept. Those who seek it have to practise austerity and exertion of body and mind, abstention from food at the wrong time, suppression of sleep, restraint of the senses, and they have to give up wealth, family and friends. They are blissful who enjoy the pleasures of the senses but you restrain and prevent such pleasures and so experience physical and mental discomfort and pain."

    "O king, nibbana has no pain; what you call pain is not nibbana. It is true that those who seek nibbana experience pain and discomfort but afterwards they experience the unalloyed bliss of nibbana. I will tell you a reason for that. Is there, 0 king, such a thing as the bliss of the sovereignty of kings?"

    "Yes there is."

    "Is it mixed with pain?"


    "But why is it then, 0 king, that when the frontier provinces have revolted kings have to set out from their palaces and march over uneven ground, tormented by mosquitoes and hot winds, and engage in fierce battles at the risk of their lives?''

    "That, venerable Nagasena, is not the bliss of sovereignty. It is only the preliminary stage in the pursuit of that bliss. It is after they have won it that they enjoy the bliss of sovereignty. And that bliss, Nagasena, is not mixed with pain."

    "Just so, O king, nibbana is unalloyed bliss and there is no pain mixed· in it."

    Description of Nibbina

    "Is it possible, Nagasena, to point out the size, shape or duration of nibbana by a simile?"

    "No it is not possible; there is no other thing like it."

    "Is there then any attribute of nibbana found in other things that can be demonstrated by a simile?"

    "Yes that can be done.

    "As a lotus is unwetted by water, nibbana is unsullied by the defilements.

    "Like water, it cools the fever of defilements and quenches the thirst of craving. "As the ocean is empty of corpses,3 nibbana is empty of all defilements; as the ocean is not increased by all the rivers that flow into it, so nibbana is not increased by all the beings who attain it; it is the abode of great beings [those who have attained enlightenment], and it is decorated with the waves of knowledge and freedom.

    "Like food which sustains life, nibbana drives away old age and death; it increases the spiritual strength of beings; it gives the beauty of virtue, it removes the distress of the defilements, it drives out the exhaustion of all sufferings.

    "Like space, it is not born, does not decay or perish, it does not pass away here and arise elsewhere, it is invincible, thieves cannot steal it, it is not attached to anything, it is the sphere of ariyans who are like birds in space, it is unobstructed and it is infinite.

    "Like a wish-fulfilling gem, it fulfills all desires, causes delight and is lustrous.

    "Like red sandalwood, it is hard to get, its fragrance is incomparable and it is praised by good men.

    "As ghee is recognizable by its special attributes, so nibbana has special attributes; as ghee has a sweet fragrance, nibbana has the sweet fragrance of virtue; as ghee has a delicious taste, nibbana has the delicious taste of freedom.

    "Like a mountain peak, it is very high, immoveable, inaccessible to the defilements, it has no place where defilements can grow, and it is without favouritism or prejudice."

    The Realisation of Nibbima

    "You say, Nagasena, that nibbana is neither past, nor present nor future, neither arisen, nor not arisen, nor producible. In that case does the man who realises nibbana realise something already produced, or does he himself produce it first and then realise it?"

    "Neither of these O king, yet nibbana does exist."

    "Do not, Nagasena, answer this question by making it obscure! Make it clear and elucidate it. It is a point on which people are bewildered and lost in doubt. Break this dart of uncertainty."

    "The element of nibbana does exist, O king, and he who practises rightly and who rightly comprehends the formations [which give rise to the egoistic self that is bound to samsara according to the teachings of the Conqueror [i.e., the Buddha], he, by his wisdom, realises nibbana.

    "And how is nibbana to be shown? By freedom from distress and danger, by purity and by coolness. As a man, afraid and terrified at having fallen among enemies, would be relieved and blissful when he had escaped to a safe place; or as one fallen into a pit of filth would be at ease and glad when he had got out of the pit and cleaned up; or as one trapped in a forest fire would be calm and cool when he had reached a safe spot. As fearful and terrifying should you regard the anxiety which arises again and again on account of birth, old age, disease and death; as filth should you regard gain, honours and fame; as hot and searing should you regard the three-fold fire of lust, hatred and delusion.

    "And how does he who is practising rightly realise nibbana? He rightly grasps the cyclic nature of formations and therein he sees only birth, old age, disease and death; he sees nothing pleasant or agreeable in any part of it. Seeing nothing there to be taken hold of, as on a red-hot iron ball, his mind overflows with discontent and a fever takes hold of his body; hopeless and without a refuge he becomes disgusted with repeated lives. And to him who sees the terror of the treadmill of life [i.e., samsara, or the samsaric experience of life] the thought arises, 'On fire and blazing is this wheel of life, full of suffering and despair. If only there could be an end to it, that would be peaceful, that would be excellent; the cessation of all mental formations, the renunciation of grasping, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbana!'

    "Therewith his mind leaps forward into the state where there is no becoming. Then has he found peace, then does he exult and rejoice at the thought, 'A refuge has been found at last!' He strives along the path for the cessation of formations, searches it out, develops it, and makes much of it. To that end he stirs up his mindfulness, energy and joy; and from attending again and again to that thought [of disgust with mental formations-translator's interpolation], having transcended . the treadmill of life, he brings the cycle to a halt. One who stops the treadmill is" said to have realized nibbana."

    Where is Nibbana?

    "Is there a place, Nagasena, where nibbana is stored up?"

    "No there is not, yet it does exist. As there is no place where fire is stored up, yet it may be produced by rubbing two dry sticks together."

    "But is there any place on which a man might stand and realise nibbana?" "Yes there is; virtue is the place;4 standing on that and with reasoning, wherever he might be, whether in the land of the Scythians or the Bactrians, whether in China or Tibet, in Kashmir or Gandhara, on a mountain top or in the highest heavens; the one who practises rightly realises nibbana."

    "Very good, Nagasena, you have taught about nibbana, you have explained about the realisation of nibbana, you have praised the qualities of virtue, shown the right way of practice, raised aloft the banner of the Dhamma, established the Dhamma as a leading principle, not barren nor without fruit are the efforts of those with right aims!"

    Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Bhikkhu Pesala, ed., The Debate of King Milinda: An Abridgement of the Milinda Panha (Buddhist Traditions, Vol. XIV; Dehli: Motilal Barnarsidass, 1991 ), pp. 3-6, 19, and 83-86.

    This page titled 10.1: Nagasena Replies to the Questions of King Milinda is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.