Buddha and Buddhism
5. Questions of King Milinda
Another great literary work of the Theravada ("way of the elders") school of Buddhism is The Questions of King Milinda. Menander was one of the Greek kings who ruled Bactria after the conquests of Alexander, carrying Greek power further into India than any of his predecessors in the last half of the second century BC; his name was Hinduized to Milinda by the unknown Buddhist author, who wrote this work a century or so later.
The philosophical dialog is preceded by a prophecy from the previous lives of the two individuals whereby the Buddha foretold they would have this discussion some five centuries hence. While living as a god in a heavenly world, Mahasena is persuaded to be reborn as Nagasena so that he could help to enlighten this king. King Milinda delights in philosophical discussion and has never met his match until he encounters Nagasena. He asks the sage every difficult question he can think of and is continually amazed at the sagacious replies of Nagasena. In this way the Buddhist doctrine is thoroughly tested and explained.
Even the first question asking his name elicits the response from Nagasena that there is no permanent individuality. King Milinda asks then who it is who lives, receives gifts, devotes himself to meditation, attains enlightenment, etc. Like a chariot it is none of the separate parts though their combination comes under the name "chariot," and he is known as Nagasena. Nagasena wants to know if Milinda will be discussing as a scholar who may be convicted of error or as a king who punishes disagreement, and King Milinda agrees to discuss as a scholar.
The next day the king asks Nagasena what is the goal of his renunciation. The highest aim is the end of sorrow and the complete passing away. Sinful beings are reindividualized after death; sinless ones are not. True wisdom is cutting off one's failings, and this is accomplished by good conduct, faith, perseverance, mindfulness, and meditation. Good conduct is achieved by virtue and wisdom. Faith frees the heart of lust, malice, mental sloth, pride, and doubt. Perseverance renders support, and mindfulness discerns the good qualities from the bad; but meditation is the leader of all the good qualities. The one who will not be born again is more aware and, though suffering physical pain, is free of mental pain.
But if there is no soul or individuality, how does reincarnation occur, and what reincarnates? Nagasena explains the doctrine of karma - how causes have their effects even from one life to the next. One who sets a fire is responsible for the other things that are burned by the spread of the fire. A person who prepares poison and drinks it oneself as well as giving it to others is responsible for one's own pain and shares responsibility for the pain of the others too. According to the Buddha it is karma that causes the many differences among people.
The king asks why the recluses are so concerned about taking care of their bodies if they don't love their bodies. The body is like a wound that must be treated with salve, oil, and a bandage even though one does not love the wound. Although Buddhism is in many ways a pessimistic philosophy, Nagasena nonetheless finds more merit than demerit, because eventually the wrong-doer acknowledges the wrong and feels remorse, eventually correcting and ending demerit. Yet those who do well do not feel remorse but gladness and peace and blissful feelings; thus good increases.
After seven days of abstinence the king continues his discussion with Nagasena asking him about various dilemmas he found in the Buddhist doctrine. Nagasena solves every problem by giving various illustrations. For example, the Buddha admitted Devadatta to the order even though he knew that he would cause a schism, because he perceived that even this contact with the Buddha would keep Devadatta from becoming even worse. Social prejudice is transcended as even a prostitute is able to perform a miracle by the power of truth.
Eleven advantages come to those who feel love toward all beings and put it into practice. Such people sleep in peace, awake in peace, have no sinful dreams, are dear to people and spirits, watched over by gods, not harmed by fire nor poison nor a sword, are easily tranquilized, calm, undismayed by death, and if arhatship is not attained are reborn in the Brahma world. Though of a loving disposition Prince Sama was shot by a poisoned arrow, because the virtues are not inherent in the person but are only effective at that moment while in use. The king is convinced that the felt presence of love has the power to ward off all evil mental states. Nagasena agrees heartily:
Yes! The practice of love is productive
of all virtuous conditions of mind
both in good and in evil ones.
To all beings whatsoever,
who are in the bonds of conscious existence,
is this practice of love of great advantage,
and therefore ought it to be sedulously cultivated.8
The king asks Nagasena whether virtue or vice is more powerful. The karma from vice seems to be effectively punished, this balancing in fact causes it to die away rather quickly; while virtue because of its grandeur lasts for a long time. Because virtue is rarely rewarded immediately as vice is often so punished, the results of virtue usually are received more abundantly in the lives to come. Also according to Nagasena vice only affects the doer, while virtue overspreads the whole world of gods and people. By giving the individual no peace the remorse from wrong-doing leads more quickly to the eradication of that evil.
Finally at the end of their discussions King Milinda ordered a building constructed for Nagasena and the monks, turned his kingdom over to his son, abandoned the household life to become homeless, grew in insight, and eventually became an arhat himself.