Nagasena

The arhats are the enlightened beings of Buddhism, who were disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni and attained freedom from the cycles of suffering and rebirth. In Tibet, there are a group of sixteen arhats and the two "adjuncts," Hvashang and Dharmatala, making it an eighteen-member group. Arhat Nagasena, is one of the sixteen arhats.

Nagasena, or "master of the Nagas," was a learned monk and lived about 100 years after Buddha Shakyamuni. He came from a Brahmin family in India and entered the Buddhist sangha, or monastic order, at the age of fifteen. His Sanskrit name means an army of dragons and symbolizes strong supernatural power. Nagasena was an eloquent speaker and debater. He was famous all over India for his preachings on the "hear no evil" maxim. The senses of hearing is one of the six sources through which mankind become aware of the world. Therefore a practitioner of Buddhism should avoid listening to decadent sounds and in particular other people's secrets. Thus he is often portrayed as scratching his ear, a gesture symbolizing the purification of the sense of hearing in the search for peace and quiet.

Nagasena resided on Mount Pandava in Magadha with 1,200 disciples. He studied the Buddhist teachings in various places, among them Pataliputra, where he was considered to have attained the stage of an arhat. Nagasena was an expert in propounding the essentials of Buddhism. The discussions between him and the Indo-Greek king, Menander (Milinda), who ruled in western India during the second century B.C., is the subject of the text entitled Milindapanha, or "The Questions of Milinda". This text records the conversations between the king and Nagasena regarding a wide range of Buddhist beliefs.

The middle path, between extremes

A king asked a monk by what name is he called and he answered Nagasena but there is no man here.

Very confused the king asked him if his hair was Nagasena? No. Is his body Nagasena? Again no. Is his conscience Nagasena? No. After naming every part of Nagasena’s body he said, “I do not find any Nagasena, Nagasena is but a sound! Who is Nagasena? You are lying there is no Nagasena!” Quickly changing the subject, Nagasena asked the king if he rode in a chariot. Then he proceed to ask the king similar questions about his chariot. Is the axle the chariot? No. Is the yoke the chariot? No. Is the frame the chariot? No. Is the axle, yoke and frame the chariot? No. Then Nagasena said “I do not find any chariot, chariot is but a sound! What is this chariot? You are lying there is no chariot!”

Understanding Nagasena’s point the king said, “Good Nagasena, I did not lie. The word chariot comes into existence, dependent on the pole, dependent on the axle, the wheels, the frame, the banner staff, the yoke, the reins, the goad; it is a designation, a description, an appellation, a name.” Nagasena added, “But in the final analysis, the ultimate sense, there is no Person to be found herein.”

What we are is a sum of our many components that are always changing. Many view the soul as the part of us that is passed on through our bodies to somewhere else. However, how can something that is supposed to be you continue on without its intrinsically dependent components

King Milinda’s Doors of Perception

Nagasena appears to defeat the king on exclusively logical ground, viz, that the king’s initial statement is inconsistent and self-contradictory. By analysis of the argument alone and no reference to theories of the soul or perception, explain Nagasena’s objection at each step of the argument. Does he succeed?
King Milinda asks Nagasena, “Reverent Nagasena, do you assume the existence of the soul? “When the King is probed to come up with a definition for the soul, he replies, “The living principle within...which with the eye sees visible objects, with the ear hears sounds, with the nose smells odors, with the tongue tastes flavors, with the body touches tangible objects, with the mind perceives the Doctrine:-just as we here, sitting in this palace, may look out of whatever window we please,-east, west, north, south,-so also, Reverend Sir, this living principle within looks out of whatever door it pleases.”

In summary, Milinda’s soul uses each sense organ to acquire a different type of information, just as looking out a window allows one to acquire information about a different direction. I’ll continue this discussion with an analogy of my own, where each sense organ represents a different book, containing only information not found in any other book. The reader, representing the soul, is free to pick up any book he/she pleases and acquire the information that lies therein.

Nagasena inquires whether the soul can see out of the ear, or nose, etc. To this, Milinda replies, “No.” Nagasena then insists, “What you said last does not agree with what you said first, nor does what you said first agree with what you said last.” Presumably, “what you said first” refers to “the living principle within...which with the eye sees visible objects...” and “what you said last” refers to “this living principle within looks out of whatever door it pleases.” However, this is not the case. Continuing my own analogy, Nagasena is asking Milinda if the reader can acquire the information of Book A while reading book B. Because Milinda never implied that the information in Book A could be acquired while reading book B, and in fact stated the nature of the information that could be found in each book (visible objects in the eye book, sounds in the ear book, etc.), agreeing with Nagasena’s statement does not amount to contracting himself.

Nagasena then attacks Milinda’s analogy of the palace door by suggesting that we can see clearly out of doors, but the “doors” of the soul, the sense organs, somehow do not allow a clear representation of reality. Milinda agrees. However, Milinda’s analogy is not affected by this argument. The phrase “looks out of whatever door it pleases” is merely meant to suggest that there are multiple sources of knowledge for the soul, not that the soul is literally a door. Nagasena is trying to carry the analogy too far; an analogy by nature is not identical to its subject, but only shares certain characteristics with.
In the next argument, “Man Outside of Gateway,” Milinda agrees that he would know if a man left his presence to stand outside the door. Milinda would also know if the same man were to come inside the door and stand before him. Nagasena then attempts to make an analogy to taste-one knows the taste of a substance only when it is on the tongue, not while in the stomach. Thus the soul can not really look outside any door it pleases. In this argument, it is Nagasena’s analogy that is at fault. Milinda provided a specific and complete list of doors that the soul could look through; that list did not include any sense of taste in the stomach. Nagasena is trying to get Milinda to obtain information from a book that does not exists.

In the final discourse, “Man in Trough of Honey,” Milinda is obviously overwhelmed by Nagasena; he contends that sealed lips would block his understanding that he was swimming in a trough of honey! Of course this is not the case, as the other senses (touch, smell, sight) could be adequate for this perception. However, lets consider a case in which an object has a single sensory quality, such as sulfur gas can only be identified by smell. The fact that no other sense can identify this object, that the soul can look out any other door and can not gain information, does not contradict this argument as Nagasena merely provided the books and the limited information therein. He did not promise that all the information would be contained in every book.