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.

Six Animals and One Pillar

BEN_5154The parable of the six animals and one pillar appears in a Buddhist scripture. This is a story that Shakyamuni told people when he preached in an area to the north of Shravasti in ancient India:

A man kept six animals in his house: a dog, a bird, a poisonous snake, a fox, a sisumara ( a kind of crocodile), and a monkey. They were all tightly leashed to the single pillar of the house. They hated to stay inside, and each yearned to go to its favourite place.The dog longed for the village, the bird for the skies, the snake for a hole, the fox for a barrow, the sisumara for the sea and the monkey for the forest. Yet no matter how hard they struggled or strained, they were too securely tied to the pillar to be able to escape.

Shakyamuni Buddha continued:

The six animals represent our six senses or desires—-sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and consciousness. Desires insatiably demand objects. The eyes yearn for beautiful colors, the ears for pleasing voices, the nose for its favorite fragrances, the tongue for good tastes, the body for agreeable textures and the consciousness for self satisfaction. Even though each of them vies with the other to gush forts, one will never be controlled by them if they are tightly tied to a pillar.

The single pillar, by the way, stands for a type of meditation.


Drawing by abbysoekarno, 2011.




12 Symptoms of a Spiritual Awakening

BEN_515212 symptomps of a spiritual awakening:

1  ) An increased tendency to let things happen rather that make them happen.  

2  ) Frequent attacks of smiling.      

3  ) Feelings of being connected with others and nature.      

4 ) Frequent overwhelming episodes of appreciation.  

5 ) A tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fears based on past experience.            

 6 ) An unmistakeable ability to enjoy each moment.    

 7 ) A lost ability to worry.                                          

8 ) A loss of interest in conflict.    

9 ) A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others.  

10) A loss of interest in judging others.                

11 ) A loss of interest in judging self.  

12) Gaining the ability to love without expecting anything.


Drawing by abbysoekarno, 2011.

Kumbh Mela

InBEN_5151 the Hindu belief, it is believed that the waters at the confluence of the three holiest rivers in Allahabad, India hold the power to wash away all of one’s sins and break the cycle of reincarnation. There is no spot more sacred than the Triveni Sangam, the meeting of those waters. Here, pilgrims, from all over the world attend the world’s largest pilgrimage, the great Kumbh Mela.


Drawing by abbysoekarno,2011.

“The Poor Woman’s Lamp”

BEN_5153This story is derived from a Buddhist scripture and is known widely as “The Poor Woman’s Lamp”:

In the days of Shakyamuni Buddha there was a state called Magadha in ancient India. The well-known city Rajagriha was the capital where the king of this state resided. An old woman lived nearby. A person of profound faith, she had always yearned to offer something precious to the Buddha, but, as alone and poor as she was, she could not fulfill her desire.

One day on the street the old woman encountered a long procession of carts carrying a large quantity of flax oil. Upon asking, she learned that the oil was a donation which Ajatashatru, the king of the country, was sending to the Buddha. Deeply moved, the old woman also longed to make an offering, but she had no money whatsoever. She decided to cut off her own hair and sell it. With that money she bought a small amount of flax oil and went to offer it to the Buddha. She thought: “With so little oil a lamp will burn only half a night. However, if the Buddha recognizes my faith and feels compassion for me, then the lamp will burn throughout the night.”

Her wish was fulfilled and the lamp continued to burn throughout the night, while all other lamps went out in the strong winds which blew from the direction of Mount Sumeru. When day broke, people tried to blow it out, but, on the contrary, her lamp continued to glow all the more, so brightly as to almost illuminate the entire world. Then Shakyamuni Buddha scolded his disciples who were doing everything possible to extinguish the glowing light:

“Stop! Stop! This old woman made offerings to eighteen million Buddhas in her previous existences and received a prophecy from a Buddha in her last life that she would attain Buddhahood.” Then Shakyamuni Buddha proclaimed that in the future she would certainly become Buddha called Lamp Light Sumeru. Needles to say, upon hearing that, the old woman was overjoyed. By contrast, Ajatashatru, even though he had donated tens of thousand times as much oil as the old woman, could not receive a prophecy of enlightenment because he had an overwhelming sense of arrogance within himself.


Drawing by abbysoekarno,2011.

The Birds of The Snow Mountain

BEN_5146In ancient times there were mountains in India called the Snow Mountains. These mountains were so high that the cold there penetrated to the marrow, and, as their name indicates, snow lay deep on the ground throughout the year. In this mountains lived two homeless birds called Kankucho. When evening fell and darkness gathered, the female bird, unable to bear the cold, would cry, “I’m perishing from the cold!” To which the male bird would reply, “Let’s build a nest when the day dawns.” But as soon as the sun rose and birds were bathed in the warm sunshine, they forgot all about the cold which tormented them during the night. They reasoned: “We might be destined to die today or tomorrow; nothing is changeless in the world and we are strangers to eternal peace and tranquillity.” Thus they spent their entire lives in vain without ever building a nest.


Drawing by abbysoekarno,2008.

The Atman

BEN_5148As Brahman cannot be defined, neither can the Atman. It exists, but it cannot be captured; life proceeds from it, yet it has no tangible quality. This idea is expressed in a famous parable:

“Fetch me a fruit from the Banyan tree,” said Svetaketu’s father to his son.

“Here is a fruit, sir.”

“Break it.”

“I have broken it, sir.”

“What do you see?”

“Very tiny seeds, sir.”

“Break one.”

“I have broken it, sir”

“Now, what do you see?”

“Why? nothing, sir.”

“Dear son, what you do not see is the essence of the banyan tree. In that essence the mighty banyan tree exists. The essence, my dear, is the unseen spirit which pervades everywhere. It is the Self of all things. And you are that Self, Svetaketu.”

“You are that Self” —–you are one with the spirit that pervades the universe—is the meaning of monism and the predominant theme of Indian religions. Elsewhere in Upanishads the connection between individuality and Brahman is expressed in another image. “As flowing rivers disappear in the sea, losing their name and form, thus as wise man, freed from name and form, goes to the divine person who is beyond all.”


Historic India by Luccile Schulberg.

Drawing by abbysoekarno, 2008