Who Am I

BEN_5143This passage from the Questions of King Menander is among the best known arguments in favor of the composite nature of the individual. The Greek King Milinda, or Menander, ruled in northwestern India about the middle of the second century B.C. According to the text he was converted to Buddhism by Nagasena.

Then King Menander went up to Venerable Nagasena, greeted him respectfully, and sat down. Nagasena replied to the greeting, and the King was pleased at heart. Then King Menander asked: “How is your reverence known, and what is your name?”  “I’m known as Nagasena, your Majesty, that’s what my fellow monks call me. But though my parents may have given me such name….it’s only a generally understood term, a practical designation. There is no question of a permanent individual implied in the use of the word.”

“Listen, you five hundred Greeks and eighty thousand monks!” said King Menander. “This Nagasena has just declared that there’s no permanent individuality implied in his name!” Then, turning to Nagasena, “If Reverend Nagasena, there is no permanent individuality, who gives you monks your robes and food, lodging and medicines? And who make use of them? Who lives a life of righteousness, meditates, and reaches Nirvana? Who destroys living beings, steals, fornicates, tell lies, or drink spirits?…..If what you say is true there’s neither merit nor demerit, and no fruit or result of good or evil deeds. If someone were to kill you there would be no question of murder. And there would be no masters or teachers in the [Buddhist] Order and no ordinations. If your fellow monks call you Nagasena, what then is Nagasena? Would you say that your hair is Nagasena? ” “No, your Majesty.” “Or your nails, teeth, skin, or other parts of your body or the outward form, or sensation, or perception, or the physic constructions, or consciousness?1  Are any of these Nagasena?” “No, your Majesty.””Then are all these taken together Nagasena? “No, your Majesty.” “Or anything other than they?” “No, your Majesty.” “Then for all my asking I find no Nagasena. Nagasena is a mere sound! Surely what your Reverence has said is false!”

ThenVenerable Nagasena addressed the King. “Your Majesty, how did you come here—on foot, or in a vehicle?”  “In a chariot.” “Then tell me what is the chariot? Is the pole the chariot?” “No, your Reverence.”  “Or the axle, wheels, frame, reins, yoke, spokes, or goad?” ” None of these these things is the chariot.”  “Then all these separate parts taken together are the chariot?” “No, your Reverence.” “Then is the chariot something other than the separate parts?” “No, your Reverence.” “Then for all my asking, your Majesty, I can find no chariot. The chariot is a mere sound. What then is the chariot? Surely what your Majesty has said is false! There is no chariot!……”

When he had spoken the five hundred Greeks cried “Well done!” and said to the King, “Now, your majesty, get out of that dilemma if you can!”  “What I said was not false,” replied the King. “It’s on account of all these various components, the pole, axle, wheels, and so on, that the vehicle is called a chariot. It’s just a generally understood term, a practical designation.”

“Well said, your Majesty! You know what the word ‘chariot’ means! And it’s just the same with me. It’s on account of the various components of my being that I’m known by the generally understood term, the practical designation Nagasena.”  [From Milindapanha]

1 The five components of individuality [Pancaskandhas]

Pencil drawing “self portrait” by Sonya Indira Abbysoekarno, 2008.

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