I have argued in an earlier post that it is hard to define what the subject really is. The following dialog from the Buddhist tradition shows that a materialist interpretation does not work. It is also not possible to find the identity of the subject in a  particular collection of  elements, as the chariot example shows. We face a similar problem when we try to define what a “hole” is.

The Milinda Panha, (or the  “Questions of Milinda”) is a Buddhist text from approximately 100 BCE. It is included in the Burmese edition of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. Milinda, (or King Menander I ) discusses fundamental philosophical questions with a Buddhist monk, Nagasena. Here is the beginning of the text:

“King Milinda went up to Nàgasena, exchanged polite and friendly greetings, and took his seat respectfully to one side. Then Milinda began by asking:

1. “How is your reverence known, and what sir, is your name?”

“O king, I am known as Nàgasena 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 Nàgasena says that no permanent individual is implied in his name. Is it possible to approve of that?” Then he turned to Nàgasena and said,

“If, most venerable Nàgasena, 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 Nàgasena; now what is that Nàgasena? 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?10 Is it all of these combined? Or is it something outside of them that is Nàgasena?”

Still Nàgasena answered: “It is none of these.”

“Then, ask as I may, I can discover no Nàgasena. Nàgasena 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 don’t speak the truth?” Then he called upon the Bactrian Greeks and the monks to bear witness: “This King Milinda has said that he came here in a chariot but when asked what it is, 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 ‘Nàgasena’. As it was said by Sister Vajãra 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, Nàgasena, most extraordinary that you have solved this puzzle, difficult though it was. If the Buddha himself were here he would approve of your reply.”

King Milinda went up to Nàgasena, exchanged polite and friendly greetings, and took his seat respectfully to one side.”

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  1. […] in a way that can't be understood through language but must be experienced for itself. That it goes beyond acknowledging that a word isn't the very thing that it refers to. But that perception itself is restricted by language, our way of thinking is constituted by […]


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Asian Philosophy, Buddhism, Philosophy