Praise to the Bhagavat, the Arahat, the perfect Buddha


The king named Milinda approached Nâgasena at Sâgala,

the matchless city, like the Gangâ going to the ocean.

Drawing near to the eloquent torch-bearer and dispeller of darkness,

the king asked him many abstruse questions.....

The solutions to the problems involved profound meanings,

going to the heart, pleasing to the ear, wonderful, astounding,

plunging into Abhidhamma, Vinaya, and Suttas....


Nâgasena and Milinda (1-4, 21-24)


According to what has been heard, there was a city called Sâgala, a centre for all kinds of merchandise for the Yonakas*.     *(‘Ionians’, here Bactrian Greeks; cp. p.87).


The city was graced with rivers and mountain-slopes, in delightful surroundings, with parks, pleasure-gardens, woods, lakes, and lotus-pools....  It was splendid with hundreds of thousands of magnificent dwellings like crests of snowy mountains....


It is said that in the past when Kassapa was the Buddha, a large community of monks was living in a residence near the Gangâ.... The monks observed the traditional rules, rising early in the morning;  they would take long-handled brooms, sweep the courtyard, and collect the rubbish into a heap, all the while meditating on the virtues of the Buddha.


A monk once asked a novice to throw out some rubbish, but the novice went his way without hearing.  The monk... gave him a blow with the handle of the broom.  The novice, crying out in fear and throwing the rubbish out, made his first aspiration:  Through this meritorious deed of throwing out the rubbish may I, wherever I am reborn until I eventually attain nibbana, be of great might and of great glory like the midday sun....


The novice then went to a ford of the Ganga to wash, and there he made his second aspiration:  May I, wherever I am reborn until I eventually attain nibbâna, be prompt in saying the right thing and prompt in answering questions....


The monk,... hearing the novice’s aspiration, made his own aspiration:  May I too, wherever I am reborn until I attain nibbâna, be prompt in answering questions; ... and may I be able to unravel and promptly explain all the questions asked of me by him.


Both of them spent the whole interval between the Buddhas in circling on among devas and humans....


Eventually the novice became the king called Milinda, in the city of Sâgala in India.  He was wise, experienced, clever, and able.  Many were the sciences he had mastered, namely the revealed tradition*, secular lore,... accountancy, music, medicine, the four Vedas, the Purânas...


King Milinda said to his retinue of five hundred Yonakas (Greeks):  Is there some learned monk... who is able to talk with me and disperse my doubts?


Devamantiya* replied thus to King Milinda:  Sire, ... there is the elder named Nâgasena, who is wise and experienced...  He is capable of conversing with Indra, Yama, Varuna, Kuvera, Pajâpati... and even with great Brahmâ the progenitor....     *Demetrios?


Then King Milinda, surrounded by at least five hundred Yonakas, mounted a splendid chariot, and together with his great array of troops he approached the venerable Nâgasena.  At that moment the venerable Nâgasena was sitting in a pavilion, with eighty thousand monks....

The chariot and the non-person (25-28)


King Milinda said to the venerable Nâgasena:  How are you known?  What is your name, reverend sir?


Sire, I am known as Nâgasena...  But although my parents have given me the name Nâgasena,... it is just a denomination, an appellation, a designation....  Nâgasena is merely a name;  no real person can be apprehended here.


Then King Milinda spoke:  Hear me, you five hundred Yonakas and eighty thousand bhikkhus, this Nâgasena says that no real person can be apprehended.  Should we accept that?


And to Nâgasena he said:  If, reverend Nâgasena, no person can be apprehended in reality, who is it that gives you the requisites of robe-material, almsfood, lodging, and medicine?  Who is it that makes use of them?  Who is it that maintains morality, practises meditation, realizes the (four) paths, their fruits, and nibbâna?  Who is it that kills a living thing, takes what has not been given commits sensual misconduct, tells lies, and drinks alcohol?  And who commits the five acts* that bring immediate retribution?

*pâñchânantariya-kamma:  killing mother, father, arahat, buddha;  causing Sangha schism.


If there were no person, there could be no merit and no demerit, no doer of meritorious or demeritorious deeds, no fruit of good or bad deeds, and no retribution for them....  Also, you would have no teacher, no preceptor, no ordination....


What is this so-called Nâgasena?  Are the hairs of the head Nâgasena?

No, sire.

Are the hairs of the body Nâgasena?

No, sire.

Are the nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, stomach, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, serum, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine, or the brain in the head?  Are any of these* Nâgasena?     *the 32 body parts

No, sire.


Is Nâgasena the bodily form, reverend sir?

No, sire

Is Nâgasena the feelings? the perception? the impulses? the consciousness?

No, sire.

Then is Nâgasena the bodily form, the feelings, the perception, the impulses, and the consciousness?

No, sire.

Then is Nâgasena separate from the bodily form, the feelings, the perception, the impulses, and the consciousness?

No, sire.


Reverend sir, though I have asked you repeatedly, I can not see this Nâgasena.  Nâgasena is only a sound.  Who is this Nâgasena, in reality?  You, reverend sir, are not telling the truth.  There is no Nâgasena.


Then the venerable Nâgasena said to King Milinda:  You, sire, have been brought up exceedingly delicately.  If you go on foot in the middle of the day on the scorching ground and the hot sand, treading on sharp gravel, pebbles, and sand, your feet hurt you, your body gets tired, your thinking is impaired, and your consciousness of your body is associated with pain.  So, did you come on foot or in a vehicle?


I did not come on foot, reverend sir, I came in a chariot.

If you came by chariot, sire, please explain the chariot to me.  Is the pole the chariot, sire?

No. reverend sir.

Is the axle the chariot, sire?

No, reverend sir.

Are the wheels the chariot?

No, reverend sir.

Is the body the chariot?  Or the flag-staff?  Or the yoke?  Or the reins?  Or the goad?

No, reverend sir.

Then is the chariot the pole, the axle, the wheels, the body,the flag-staff, the yoke, the reins, and the good?

No, reverend sir.

Then is the chariot separate from the pole, the axle, the wheels, the body, the flag-staff, the yoke, the reins, and the goad?

No, reverend sir.


Sire, though I have asked you repeatedly, I can not see the chariot.  Chariot is only a sound sire.  What is the chariot, in reality?  You, sire, are not telling the truth.  There is no chariot.  You, sire are the greatest king in all India.  Who do you fear, to prevent you from telling the truth?  Hear me, you five hundred worthy Yonakas and you eighty thousand bhikkhus:  this king Milinda tells me that he has come here by chariot, but when I ask him to explain the chariot to me, he cannot.  Should we accept that?


The five hundred Yonakas applauded the venerable Nâgasena...  Then King Milinda said to him:  I am not being untruthful.  It is because of the pole, the axle, the wheels, the body, the flag-staff, the yoke, the reins, and the goad, that this denomination chariot exists, as an appellation, a designation...


Well spoken, sire;  you understand the chariot.

It is the same for me, sire.  It is because of the hair of the head, the body-hair (and the rest of the thirty-two parts of the body), and because of the bodily form, the feelings, the perception, the impulses, and the consciousness that Nâgasena exists as a denomination, an appellation, a designation...  Ultimately, however, the person cannot be apprehended here.


This, sire, was said by the sister Vajirâ when face to face with the Blessed Lord:

When the parts are rightly set together

the word chariot is spoken;

and likewise when the (five) khandhâ are there,

we can talk of a being.


Wonderful, reverend Nâgasena.  Marvellous.  These questions have been answered brilliantly.  If the Buddha himself were here he would surely approve....

The goal of going forth (31-32)


The venerable Nâgasena approached King Milinda’s dwelling, and sat down on the appointed seat.  Then, with his own hand, King Milinda served and satisfied the venerable Nâgasena and his company with sumptuous foods, some solid and some soft.  He presented a pair of woven cloths to each monk, and a set of three robes to the venerable Nâgasena....  And when King Milinda knew that the venerable Nâgasena had eaten, and had withdrawn his hand from his bowl, he took a low seat and sat at a respectful distance....


The king said:  Of what use to you bhikkhus, reverend Nâgasena, is your going forth*?  And what is the ultimate goal for you?     *renunciation of the world


The Elder said:  It is, sire, that the suffering might be stopped, and that suffering might not arise again.  That is the goal of our going forth, sire.  And our ultimate goal is final nibbâna, with complete non-attachment.


But, reverend Nâgasena, do you all go forth for this goal?

No sire.  Some go forth for this goal, but others go forth out of fear of tyrants, or fear of thieves, or because of debts, or for a living.  But those who go forth rightly go forth for this goal.


And you yourself, reverend sir, have you gone forth for this goal?

Because I went forth when I was a boy, sire, I did not know that I was going forth for that goal, but this is how it seemed to me:  these recluses, sons of the Sâkyas, are learned, and they will make me train myself.  And now that I have been trained by them, I know and see that going forth is for this goal....


Personal identity and rebirth (40-41)


The king said:  Reverend Nâgasena, is someone who is reborn the same or someone else?

The elder replied:  Neither the same nor someone else....

What do you think, sire?  When you were a tender baby lying on your back, were you the same as now, someone who has grown up?

No, reverend sir, that tender baby lying on his back was one thing, and I, grown up now, another....


The elder said:  It is the same I that was the tender baby lying on his back, and it is the same I that is now grown up;  and it is held together as a unit in dependence on this same body.


Give me an analogy.

If someone lit a lamp, would it burn all night long?

Yes, reverend sir, it could.

Is the flame of the first watch the same as the flame of the third watch?

No, reverend sir.

Does this mean that there is one lamp in the first watch, another lamp in the middle watch, and yet another lamp in the last watch?

No, reverend sir, it was burning throughout the night in dependence on itself.

Likewise, sire, a continuity of dhammas runs on;  one arises and another ceases, but it runs on as though there were no before or after;  and so neither one dhamma nor another is reckoned as the last consciousness.


Give me another analogy.

As, sire, milk on being taken from a cow would turn after a time into curds, and from curds into butter, and from butter into ghee.  Would it be right to say that the milk is those curds, or that butter, or that ghee?  No, reverend sir.  They have been produced from it.  Likewise, a continuty of dhammas runs on....

The veneration of relics (177-179)


Reverend Nâgasena, the Tathâgata said to Ânanda:  Do not concern yourselves with worshipping the Tathâgata's bodily remains.


and on the other hand it has been said:

Venerate the relics of him who is worthy to be venerated;

by doing so you will go from here to heaven*.     *a lay person’s goal

..... This is a dilemma for you to explain.


The first sentence does not apply to everyone, but only to the Conqueror’s sons.  Veneration, sire, is not work for the Conqueror’s sons*.    

*jinaputta, Buddhist monks


This is what the Conqueror’s sons have to work at:

understanding all conditioned things*,    *as non-self, impermanent, painful 

attentive mind-work,

contemplation of the four applications of mindfulness,

grasping the real essence of all objects of thought,

battling with the passions,

pursuing the highest good.


Veneration is the task of the rest, whether deities* or humans....     *deva


Therefore, sire, the Tathâgata told the monks to devote themselves to their own work and not to the work of others, when he said to Ânanda:  Do not concern yourselves with worshipping the Tathâgata's bodily remains. And if he had not said this, sire, the monks would have taken his bowl and his robe, and would have occupied themselves worshipping the Buddha through them.

The conversion of Milinda (419-420)


At the conclusion of these sessions of setting puzzles and giving solutions, between the king and the elder, this great earth shook six times....


Milinda the king became joyful and humble.  He saw value in the religion of the Buddhas....


Like a cobra whose fangs have been drawn, he said:

Excellent, well done venerable Nâgasena.  You have answered my questions, which would have tested the Buddha.  There is no one like you, amongst all the Buddha’s followers, except the Elder Sariputta, the supreme authority on the dharma.  Pardon me my my faults, venerable Nâgasena.  Accept me as a lay-follower, as one who takes his refuge with the Three Jewels, from today onwards, as long as I shall live.


The king had a vihara built and presented it to Nâgasena....  And subsequently he handed his kingdom over to his son, and after abandoning the householder life for the homeless state he grew great in insight, and attained the arahat state.


The Milindapañha (Milinda-questions) is a Pali book dating from around the beginning of the current era (1st century C.E.).  It is a philosophical discourse in the form of a dialogue between a Theravada monk named Nâgasena and a king called Milinda.  There was in fact a king of that name in the 2nd century C.E.  Milinda is a Pali form of Greek Menandros (Latin Menander);  he was a Greek king of Bactria (Afghanistan).  By the fifth century C.E. Buddhaghosa was quoting the book as an authoritative text, but it is not part of the Pali Canon.

In its arguments much use is made of analogies. The chariot simile is the famous one.

Sometimes there are apparent contradictions in the tradition, and the veneration of relics is one such case (see 37-42 above) .

Available translations of The Questions of King Milinda are by T.W. Rhys Davids (Sacred Books of the East, 1890), I.B. Horner (Pali Text Society, 1963), and selections in E. Conze, Buddhist Scriptures.