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7 years ago  ::  Mar 28, 2008 - 1:55PM #1
EmeraldGuardian
Posts: 47
It's been awhile since I posted here, but finally a question has arised that I hope someone can answer!

I've just start reading "The Questions of King Milinda" and I can tell I'll be enjoying it. However in just the first chapter, "Chariot", I'm having some difficulty understanding the debate about non-self. When Nagasena asks the King is the chariot is a combination of so and so parts he replies "no." I suppose it's also difficult to understand when the King asks about the combined parts of a human being.

Say we take a car and we know that the tires, engine, windshield, etc, aren't EACH a car. But I would think that when you combine them they DO make up a car. Just as the pieces mentioned in the text does make a chariot. Same for people I suppose, in that the flesh, mind, etc does make a human being.

How then does the King and Nagasena conclude that a chariot cannot be the combination of the items that make up a chariot? I'm sure this'll be tough and hopefully there's a strongly learned person who can help me here.

Thank you very much!
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7 years ago  ::  Mar 28, 2008 - 3:22PM #2
Author
Posts: 311
[QUOTE=EmeraldGuardian;390320]It's been awhile since I posted here, but finally a question has arised that I hope someone can answer!

I've just start reading "The Questions of King Milinda" and I can tell I'll be enjoying it. However in just the first chapter, "Chariot", I'm having some difficulty understanding the debate about non-self. When Nagasena asks the King is the chariot is a combination of so and so parts he replies "no." I suppose it's also difficult to understand when the King asks about the combined parts of a human being.

Say we take a car and we know that the tires, engine, windshield, etc, aren't EACH a car. But I would think that when you combine them they DO make up a car. Just as the pieces mentioned in the text does make a chariot. Same for people I suppose, in that the flesh, mind, etc does make a human being.

How then does the King and Nagasena conclude that a chariot cannot be the combination of the items that make up a chariot? I'm sure this'll be tough and hopefully there's a strongly learned person who can help me here.

Thank you very much![/QUOTE]

This is one of the most challenging topics in Buddhism, not because it is inherently difficult, but rather because it strikes at the heart of attachment, which is the source of suffering. In gaining an understanding of this topic, one is going to the heart of Buddhism.

In the example you provide, there is the beginning discussion of what is termed the "aggregates," or "skandhas," or "heaps." The idea is that we have aggregate forms which we assume are self, when they are not. When we look at the constituent parts, we also find that they are not self.

An example would be a body -- we assume this aggregate form is who we are. It is our identity. But the Buddha taught, no, that is not who we are, that is not self. Rather, the body is an aggregate fabrication to which we become attached.

The Buddha teaches a practice in which we observe all such phenomena, or fabrications, and realize that they are not self. That is not who we are. As one strips aways identification (which is total attachment) to the aggregates and constituent parts, a Buddhist finds that one does not find self in those phenomenal appearances.

Thus, through a process of stripping away that which we are not -- the aggregates -- we come to reveal our true essence, our Buddha Nature. This essence or Buddha Nature is non-phenomenal, is not a fabrication, is not "thingness." We come to a state of enlightenment when we know our true essence and cease identification with that which is non-self.

Some make the mistake of assuming that, as we are none of the phenomenal things we observe, we do not really exist -- they alter the teaching from "non-self" or "not self" to "no self." This is the error of nihilism, which assumes if one is not a thing (for example, a body), then one must cease to exist when one ceases attachment.

The Buddha, however, did not teach such nihilism, but rather taught that after one strips away identification with those things that are not self -- or, in other words, once we cease attachment -- we achieve Buddhahood or enlightenment. We become enlightened as to our true nature.

That probably does not supply a complete answer, but begins to point out some of the defining aspects of the teaching. Hope it helps.
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7 years ago  ::  Mar 29, 2008 - 11:21PM #3
RenGalskap
Posts: 1,420
Hi EG,

Let's look at an ax, since an ax has only two parts. The problem is encapsulated in the old joke about the guy who owned the same ax for twenty years; he replaced the head three times and the handle seven times, but it was still the same ax!

Even though an ax has only two parts, it is still obviously more than the sum of its parts. If you had only an ax head, it would be hard to split wood, and it would be almost impossible with just an ax handle. If you had both, but didn't combine them to make an ax, it would be just as hard. So an ax represents something more than its parts.

On the other hand, you can make an ax just by assembling its parts. There is no ax essence that has to be added to the parts to make an ax. All you need are the head and the handle.

And the ax exists only as long as the parts are assembled. If you take the ax apart, you have only the head and the handle. There is no ax being that lives on after the ax. My translation of The Questions of King Milinda uses the word "dependence"; the chariot exists in dependence on its various parts. The ax exists in dependence on the head and handle.

This is a sneaky way of introducing the idea of dependent origination. Everything exists in dependence on other things. This is the Buddhist teaching of emptiness; nothing exists inherently, or of itself. Everything exists because of specific causes and conditions. In the Dhammapada, it says (in my translation) that all phenomena are without self. They are empty and exist only because of causes and conditions. The ax being or ax essence would be what the Dhammapada calls a self.

The next section of the Questions, the king asks if a reborn person is the same as the previous person, or if he is another person. Nagasena answers "Neither the same or different." If you conceptualize a person, then the previous person must be the same as the current person, or different from the current person. There are no other choices. Two things are either different things or the same thing. But if you don't conceptualize a person, then there's nothing to be either different or the same.

This is illustrated in the ax joke. We recognize that there is nothing that is inherently an ax, independently of the ax parts. We also recognize the continuity between the original ax and the current ax. So we recognize that saying the ax is different denies the continuity, while also recognizing that saying the ax is the same denies the fact that nothing of the original ax exists in the current ax. The two axes are neither different or the same, as long as we don't conceptualize an ax that exists independently of the causes and conditions that create the ax. There's no ax essence uniting the two axes, and each doesn't have its own ax essence that is different from the other ax.

The Questions makes this explicit:
[Quote]"Is there, Nagasena, any being that passes from this body to the next body?"--"No, your majesty."[/Quote]

Note that when Nagasena says of himself, "the person cannot be apprehended", he doesn't say "this phenomenon doesn't exist". What he's saying is that conceptualizing a person leads to error. The king interprets Nagasena's statement that Nagasena can't be apprehended as meaning that Nagasena doesn't exist; there's nothing that can be a teacher or be murdered. Nagasena corrects this by pointing out that there is a phenomenon which has been given the label "Nagasena", but in reality, the person cannot be apprehended. The phenomenon called Nagasena exists in dependence on the body and the five skandas, but there's nothing called Nagasena that exists inherently, independent of the body and the five skandas, that is apprehended.
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6 years ago  ::  Apr 03, 2008 - 12:58PM #4
vacchagotta
Posts: 298
[QUOTE=EmeraldGuardian;390320]It's been awhile since I posted here, but finally a question has arised that I hope someone can answer!

I've just start reading "The Questions of King Milinda" and I can tell I'll be enjoying it. However in just the first chapter, "Chariot", I'm having some difficulty understanding the debate about non-self. When Nagasena asks the King is the chariot is a combination of so and so parts he replies "no." I suppose it's also difficult to understand when the King asks about the combined parts of a human being.

Say we take a car and we know that the tires, engine, windshield, etc, aren't EACH a car. But I would think that when you combine them they DO make up a car. Just as the pieces mentioned in the text does make a chariot. Same for people I suppose, in that the flesh, mind, etc does make a human being.

How then does the King and Nagasena conclude that a chariot cannot be the combination of the items that make up a chariot? I'm sure this'll be tough and hopefully there's a strongly learned person who can help me here.

Thank you very much![/QUOTE]

I'd like contribute some thoughts on your specific question.  In the Milindapanha, Nagasena and Menander say of the chariot: [QUOTE]“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.”[/QUOTE]
According to common sense, a chariot is all of its parts combined, then why is something so clear denied so readily?  When Nagasena further presses him, Milinda makes the following interesting statement: [QUOTE]It is because it has all these parts that it comes under the term chariot.[/QUOTE]
For which Nagasena praises his grasp of the meaning of his original statement.  At first blush, it may look like Milinda is contradicting his prior denial that a chariot is all of its parts combined.  But on careful scrutiny, a distinction is clearly made between the conditions of calling something by a name and its being that thing.  This distinction, valid though it remains, may not be as important when speaking of inanimate objects like chariots, but remembering that it is but a simile for the person, it becomes important.  Nagasena said [QUOTE]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 ‘Nagasena’.[/QUOTE].  It is only by virtue of being born into that specific circumstance and form that he is called "Nagasena".  Therefore it is only those attributes of the specific adopted form of existence (attabhavapatilabho), the five aggregates of him, which bear the name Nagasena.  Prior to Nagasena, and after dying, there have been and will be other forms which did and will bear other names.   For Nagasena, he is not "Nagasena" because for him that would be an identification with the concrete form of existence which wisdom shows would be an annihilationism: for surely the aggregates that bear the person's name are utterly subject to impermanence and suffering.  I would add it seems for the Buddha and his disciples this was a real experience of liberation, not just a logical conclusion made in theory.

in friendliness,
V.
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6 years ago  ::  Apr 03, 2008 - 2:22PM #5
RenGalskap
Posts: 1,420
Annihiliationism (uccheda-vada) is the belief that the person is annihilated at death, and it implies that there is a self to be annihilated. Discussion of annihilationism and eternalism belong in the "Soul" thread.

That's not to dispute that identifying "with the concrete form of existence" is an error.
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6 years ago  ::  Apr 11, 2008 - 11:05AM #6
EmeraldGuardian
Posts: 47
After looking over the replies, I think I'm starting to understand. It sure can be a headache at first.

Thanks for the feedback everyone!
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3 years ago  ::  Mar 16, 2012 - 2:18AM #7
Bob0
Posts: 485

bump

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