INDIA, sometime during the second century AD: Indo-Greek King Milanda and his retinue drop in on the famed Buddhist sage, Nagasena. “How is your reverence called?” Milanda asks.
“O great king,” Nagasena responds. “As Nagasena I am known, and as Nagasena do my fellow religious habitually address me. … Nevertheless this word ‘Nagasena’ is just a denomination, a designation, a conceptual term, a current appellation, a mere name. For no real person can here be apprehended.”
We should have known better than to expect a straightforward answer from a sage. Fortunately, ancient heads of state had a lot of time on their hands:
“Now listen, you 500 Greeks and 80,000 monks,” Milanda responds. “This Nagasena tells me that he is not a real person. How can I be expected to agree with that?” Then, addressing Nagasena, he enquires that if the party to whom he is speaking is not real, then who is it who consumes food and medicine, guards morality, and practices meditation? And because he really has a lot of time on his hands, Milanda throws in a generous litany of all manner of activities a sage - and a sage in non-sage moments - might indulge in. Finally, he ties a bow on his query with this question:
“What then is this ‘Nagasena’? Are perhaps the hairs of the head ‘Nagasena’?”
This is the cue for a laconic change-up: “No, great king!” Nagasena responds.
“Or perhaps the hairs of the body?”
“No, great king!”
We’ll compassionately spare you the full inventory of teeth, skin, muscles, sinew, and snot, not to mention feelings, perceptions, and so on, and in combination, that flow off Milanda's regal tongue. Now Nagasena turns the conversation around to Milanda’s mode of transportation:
“Please explain to me what a chariot is. Is the pole the chariot?”
“No, reverend Sir!”
The wheels, the framework, the flag-staff, the yoke, the reins, the goadstick? In combination?
At last, Milanda is forced to concede there is no chariot, that it is simply a “designation, this conceptual term, a current appellation, and a mere name.”
So who the hell are we? Draw any lesson you wish from the conversation.
First published as a blog Dec 2009, republished as an article Feb 9, 2011, reviewed Dec 3, 2016.
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