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Home Teachings Rebirth An Explanation of Rebirth - Debate of King Milinda

An Explanation of Rebirth - Debate of King Milinda

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Article Index
An Explanation of Rebirth
A Precious Human Rebirth
Rebirth is NOT Reincarnation
Debate of King Milinda
Putting an End to Rebirth
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Debate of King Milinda

Extracts from the Debate of King Milinda

The following extracts are all from "The Debate of King Milinda" — an abridgement of the translation of the Milindapañhā. This famous work of Buddhist literature from the 1st century BC, is based on dialogues between a Buddhist monk, Nāgasena, and a Bactrian Greek king, Menander.

What is in a Name?

King Milinda went to Nāgasena 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?"
"O king, I am known as Nāgasena, 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 Nāgasena says that no permanent individual is implied in his name. Is it possible to approve of that?" Then he turned to Nāgasena and said, "If, most venerable Nāgasena, 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. 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 Nāgasena; now what is that Nagasena? Is 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? Is it all of these combined? Or is it something outside of them that is Nāgasena?"
And still Nāgasena answered: "It is none of these."

"Then, ask as I may, I can discover no Nāgasena. Nāgasena 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 the thirty-two kinds of organic matter in a human body and the five aggregates of being that I come under the term Nāgasena. As it was said by Sister Vajirā in the presence of the Blessed One, '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, Nāgasena, most extraordinary that you have solved this puzzle, difficult though it was. If the Buddha himself were here he would approve of your reply."

Me and My Shadow

"How many rains do you have Nāgasena?"
"Seven, your majesty."

"But how can you say it is your seven; is it you who are seven or the number that is seven?"
And Nāgasena said, "Your shadow is now on the ground. Are you the king, or is the shadow the king?"

"I am the king, Nāgasena, but the shadow comes into being because of me."
"Just so, O king, the number of the years is seven, I am not seven. But it is because of me that the number seven comes into being and it is mine in the same sense as the shadow is yours."

"Most wonderful, Nāgasena, and extraordinary. Well has this puzzle been solved by you, difficult as it was."

Rebuttal of the Soul Belief

Devamantiya, Anantakāya and Mankura went to Nāgasena's hermitage to accompany the monks to the palace. As they were walking along together, Anantakāya said to Nāgasena:

"When, your reverence, I say, 'Nāgasena' what is that Nāgasena?"
"What do you think that Nāgasena is?"
"The soul, the inner breath, which comes and goes."

"But if that breath, having gone out, should not return would that man still be alive?"
"Certainly not."

"But when those trumpeters and the like have blown their trumpets does their breath return to them?"
"No venerable sir, it doesn't."

"Then why don't they die?"
"I am not capable of arguing with you sir, pray tell me how it is."

"There is no soul in the breath. These inhalations and exhalations are merely constituent powers of the bodily frame." Then the elder talked to him on the Abhidhamma and Anantakāya was satisfied with his explanation.

Is the Same Person Reborn?

"He who is reborn, Nāgasena, is he the same person or another?"
"Neither the same nor another."

"Give me an illustration."
"In the case of a pot of milk that turns first to curds, then to butter, then to ghee; it would not be right to say that the ghee, butter and curds were the same as the milk, but they have come from that so neither would it be right to say that they are something else."

What is Reborn?

"What is it, Nāgasena, that is reborn?"
"Mind and matter."

"Is it this very mind and matter that is reborn?"
"No, it is not, but by this mind and matter deeds are done and because of those deeds another mind and matter is reborn; but that mind and matter is not thereby released from the results of its previous deeds."

"Give me an illustration."
"It is like a fire that a man might kindle and, having warmed himself, he might leave it burning and go away. Then if that fire were to set light to another man's field and the owner were to seize him and accuse him before the king, and he were to say, 'Your majesty, I did not set this man's field on fire. The fire that I left burning was different to that which burnt his field. I am not guilty.' Would he deserve punishment?"

"Indeed, yes, because whatever he might say the latter fire resulted from the former one."
"Just so, O king, by this mind and matter deeds are done and because of those deeds another mind and matter is reborn; but that mind and matter is not thereby released from the results of its previous deeds."

The One Who Knows

"Is there, Nāgasena, such a thing as 'The one who knows' (vedagu)?"
"What is this thing?"
"The living principle within that sees, hears, tastes, smells, feels and discerns things; just as we, sitting here, can look out of any window we wish to."

"If, O king, the living principle within can see, hear, taste, smell and feel things like you say, can it not also see forms through the ear and so on?"
"No, venerable sir."

"Then, O king, the living principle within cannot make use of whichever sense it pleases as you suggested. It is, O king, by reason of the eye and forms that sight and those other conditions arise, namely; contact, feeling, perception, intention, one-pointedness, vitality and attention. Each arises simultaneously with its cause and herein 'The one who knows' cannot be found."

Transmigration or Rebirth?

"Is there any being who transmigrates from this body to another?"
"No there is not."

"If that is so, would there not be an escape from the result of evil deeds?"
"Yes there would be an escape if they were not to be reborn, but there would not be if they were to be reborn. This mind and body process commits deeds either pure or impure, and because of that kamma another mind and body process is reborn. Therefore this mind and body is not free from its evil deeds."

"Give me an illustration."
"If a thief were to steal another man's mangoes, would he deserve punishment?"
"Indeed he would."

"But the mangoes he stole were not those that the owner had planted; why should he deserve punishment?"
"Because those that he stole resulted from the others."

"Just so, O king, this mind and body process commits deeds either pure or impure, and because of that kamma another mind and body process is reborn. Therefore this mind and body is not free from its evil deeds."

Where is Kamma Stored Up?

"When deeds are committed by one mind and body process, where do they remain?"
"The deeds follow them, O king, like a shadow that never leaves. But one cannot point them out saying, 'Those deeds are here or there,' just as the fruits of a tree cannot be pointed out before they are produced."


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