The Milinda-Panha

These are some excerpts from the Milinda Panha, a Pali work dating to about the 100 B.C. The Milinda Panha is a dialogue between a Buddhist monk named Nàgasena and the Greek King Milinda(Melander), who ruled over Bactria(modern-day Afghanistan).  The king raised a number of questions on the philosophy, psychology, and ethics of Buddhism, as well contradictions present in the life of the Buddha.

Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan).  painting by Iwan Lawrowitsch Jaworski (1878-79). Wikimedia commons. Click image for source

(The page numbers seen at the end of every passage are relative to the book “The debate of King Milinda” listed at the end of this post)

1. How shall we discuss?

Milinda: “Venerable sir, will you discuss with me again?”

Nagasena: “If your majesty will discuss as a scholar, yes; but if you will discuss as a king, no.”

Milinda:“How is it then that scholars discuss?”

Nagasena:“When scholars discuss there is a summing up and an unravelling; one or other is shown to be in error. He admits his mistake, yet he does not become angry.”

Milinda:“Then how is it that kings discuss?”

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

Milinda:“Very well then, it is as a scholar that I will discuss.  Let your reverence talk without fear.” (p 35)

2. Reason versus Wisdom

“What, Nàgasena, 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, O king, the recluse takes hold of his mind with reasoning and cuts of the defilements with wisdom.” (p 38)

3. Have you realized the Truth?

“Have you, Nàgasena, seen what the truth is?”
“We disciples, O king, have to conduct ourselves according to the rules laid down by the Buddha.”  (p 59)

(Nagasena is adhering to a training rule (Pàcittiya No. 8) that prevents Buddhist monks from disclosing their spiritual attainments)

(See a previous post as well “Sharing spiritual experiences with others”)

4. Laying Down of Rules for Monks

“Those who are famous doctors are able to prescribe suitable medicine for a disease before the disease has arisen even though they are not omniscient. Why then, did the Tathàgata (Buddha) not lay down the rules for monks before the occasion arose but only when an offence had been committed and a great hue and cry was heard.”

“The Tathàgata, O king, knew beforehand that all one hundred and fifty rules would have to be laid down but he thought, ‘If I lay down all of these rules at once there will be those who will not enter the Order for fear of the many regulations to be observed, therefore I will lay down the rules as the need arises’.”  (p 142)

5. Dreams

“What is this thing that people call a dream and who dreams it?”

“It is a sign coming across the path of the mind. There are six kinds of dreams. A person affected by wind sees a dream, a person affected by bile, by phlegm, by a deity, by their own habits, by a premonition. It is only the last of these that is true, all the others are false.”

“When one dreams a dream is one awake or asleep?”

“Neither one nor the other. One dreams when one sleeps ‘the monkey’s sleep’, which is midway between sleep and consciousness.” (p 152)

(This tallies with the Upanishads, which articulate an intermediate state of consciousness known as Swapna (dream) which lies between Jagruti (waking state) and Sushupti (deep sleep))

6. The Reluctance of the Buddha

“You say that for four aeons (asaïkheyya – incalculable) and 100,000 worldcycles (kappa – or Kalpa in Hinduism) the Bodhisatta practised the perfections in order to gain omniscience, yet after he had gained omniscience his mind inclined to not teaching the Dhamma.  Like an archer who had practised for many days might hesitate when the day for battle had come, even so did the Blessed One hesitate to teach the Dhamma. Was it then because of fear, or lack of clarity, or weakness, or because he was not omniscient that he hesitated?”

“No, great king, it was for none of those reasons. It was due to the profound nature of the Dhamma and to the exceedingly strong passion and delusion of beings that the Blessed One hesitated and considered to whom he should teach it and in what manner so that they would understand.  Just, O king, as a king when he calls to mind the many people who gain their livelihood in dependence on him — the body-guards, courtiers, merchants, soldiers, messengers, ministers and nobles — he might be exercised at the thought; ‘How can I conciliate them all?’ Just so, O king, when the Tathàgata called to mind the strong passion and delusion of beings that he inclined rather to inaction than to preaching. It is also in the natural order of things that the Buddha should teach the Dhamma at the request of Brahmà, for at that time all men were worshippers of Brahmà and placed their reliance on him. Therefore, if one so high and mighty as Brahmà should incline to hearing Dhamma then the whole world of gods and men would become inclined to it and so for that reason too the Buddha waited to be asked before preaching the Dhamma.” (p 125)

(What Nagasena is pointing out above is that the teaching has to be adapted to the spiritual capacity of the disciple, and that one must receive the Divine assent before one can begin.    Ramakrishna Paramahansa once told Shashadhar Pandit that one must receive the Divine Commandment before one start preaching. In this connection, see a previous post “The spiritual aptitude (adhikara) needed for Yoga”)

7. The Boasting of the Buddha

“The Blessed One said, ‘If anyone should speak in praise of me, my teaching or the Order you should not on account of that be elated.’ Yet he was so delighted when Sela the Brahman praised him that he magnified his own virtue and said, ‘A king, Sela, am I, the king supreme of righteousness.  The royal chariot wheel of righteousness do I set rolling on — the wheel that no one can ever turn back.’ This too is a double-edged problem.”

“Both statements, O king, are correct but the first was made to set forth truthfully and exactly the real nature of the teaching. The second passage was not spoken for gain, fame, nor in a biased way, nor for the sake of winning over followers but was spoken with compassion and the knowledge that thereby three hundred brahmins would attain to knowledge of the truth.” (p 105)

8. Why revere the Buddha’s relics?

“The Blessed One said, ‘Do not hinder yourselves, Ananda, with honouring the remains of the Tathàgata.’ Yet on the other hand he said, ‘Honour the relics of him who is worthy of honour, acting in that way you will go from this world to heaven.’  Which of these statements is right?”

“It was not to all men, O king, but to the sons of the conqueror [monks] that the first advice was given.  Paying reverence to relics is not their work, but rather grasping the true nature of all formations, reasoning [paying attention to impermanence etc.], insight meditation, getting hold of the essence of the meditation object, devotion to their own spiritual welfare, that is the work of the monks. Just, O king, as it is the business of princes to learn the arts of warfare and the laws of property while husbandry, trading and care of cattle are the business of householders.” (p 103)

(In this connection, also see a previous post “Significance of places of worship, relics and prayer rooms”)

9. Knowledge of Wrong Doing

“This was said by the Blessed One, ‘Whoever ignorantly deprives a living being of life accumulates great demerit.’  Yet in the training rule for monks concerning killing living beings he says, ‘There is no offence if he does not know.’  How can both of these statements be true?”

“There are offences where there is no escape for one who does not know and there are offences where there is an escape. It was in regard to this second kind of offence that the Blessed One said there is no offence if he does not know.” (p 95)

10. The Buddha’s four ways of answering a question

“The Blessed One said to Ananda, ‘In respect of the Dhamma the Tathàgata (Buddha) does not have the closed fist of a teacher who holds something back.’ Yet when he was questioned by Màlurikyàputta he made no answer. Was it because of ignorance that he did not reply or did he wish to conceal something?”

“O king, it was not because of ignorance, nor for the sake of concealing anything that he did not answer.  A question may be answered in one of four ways: directly, with an analysis, with a counter-question or by setting it aside.

“And what sort of question should be answered directly?

‘Is matter impermanent? Is feeling impermanent? Is perception impermanent?’ These should be answered directly.

“And what should be answered with an analysis?

‘Is what is impermanent, matter?’

“And what should be answered with a counterquestion?

‘Can the eye perceive all things?’

“And which should be set aside?

‘Is the world eternal? Is the world not eternal? Does the Tathàgata exist after death? Does he not exist after death? Is the soul the same as the body? Is the body one thing and the soul another?’ It was to this sort of question that the Blessed One gave no reply to Màlurikyàputta.  There was no reason to answer it.  The Buddhas do not speak without reason.” (pp 90-91)

(See also : On being truthful in speech and My words will remain imprinted on your soul)

11. How does a teaching disappear?

Nagasena: There are three modes of disappearance of a teaching. The decline of the attainment to a clear insight into it, of practice in accordance with it, and decline in the outward form of it. When the intellectual grasp ceases then even the man who conducts himself rightly has no clear understanding of it. By the decline of practice, promulgation of the Vinaya rules (for Buddhist monks) ceases and only the outward form of the religion remains. When the outward form ceases then the succession of the tradition is cut off.” (p 85)

Further reading

These excerpts are from The Debate of King Milinda (online PDF link)  edited by Bhikkhu Pesala. Penang, Malaysia: Inward Path, 2001.

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2 thoughts on “The Milinda-Panha

  1. Pingback: Dropping Below Thinking « Cattāri Brahmavihārā

  2. Pingback: Happy Uposatha Day – A Precious Human Life « Cattāri Brahmavihārā

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