The Milindapañha, or The Questions of King Milinda, sometimes assigned to one of the “three baskets” of the Pali canon of early Buddhist texts by the Burmese edition, is usually understood as a paracanonical text of Theravada Buddhism, the earlier, more conservative of the two principal branches of Buddhism. Theravada, closer to the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563–483 B.C.), emphasizes the ideal of the arhat, the enlightened individual in his progress towards nirvana. Mahayana in contrast stresses the ideal of the boddhisattva, dedicated to helping others achieve enlightenment.
The Questions of King Milinda consist of a dialogue between the Indo-Greek king Menander I, who reigned about 155–130 B.C. and was one of the Bactrian kings to invade farthest into India, and the Buddhist monk Mahathera Nagasena, believed to have been a historical figure who was sent to the kingdoms of Bactria as a Buddhist missionary at the time of Menander’s rule. Menander (known as Milinda in Buddhist traditions), who was arrogant and impatient because he could not find an intellect sufficiently keen to explain the teachings of Buddhism, found his match in Nagasena. The dating of the text is difficult, but it could not have originated earlier than the reign of Menander in the 2nd century B.C., and it is known that the book was translated into Chinese sometime between 317 and 420 A.D.. Most scholars place the composition of the Questions around 100 B.C. or a century later, possibly as late as the end of the 2nd century A.D.. According to legend, the Questions were compiled by the same monk who speaks in the dialogue, Nagasena.
The Questions of King Milinda is a significant and valuable work for many reasons. It records one of the earliest meetings between Buddhist and Hellenistic cultures; it gives a historical view of the 2nd-century Bactrian milieu; and it provides a nearly comprehensive understanding of Theravada Buddhist thought. Some of the important topics raised in the dialogue are the nature of truth, the problem of evil, why philosophical inquiry is unavailing in these issues, and how the process of rebirth occurs. In one portion of the text, King Menander asks how the Buddha can teach the need to overcome “old age, disease, and death” while proscribing suicide as a means to avoid these evils; he points out an apparent contradiction in Buddhist teaching, since it both prohibits suicide but also encourages the putting of an end to life in its doctrine of escape from suffering and rebirth. Nagasena then explains why the Buddha forbade self-killing, citing the reason that a person who is truly good, who is “full of benefit to all beings” should not “be done away with.” According to The Questions and to Buddhist legend, although not historically confirmed, Menander abdicated his throne as a result of his encounter with Nagasena and joined the Buddhist sangha.
Milindapañha. The Questions of King Milinda, Part I, sections 13-15, tr. T. W. Rhys Davids, in The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 35, ed. F. Max Müller, Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1890. Dover reprint, 1963, pp. 273-278, available online at www.sacred-texts.com, from the Internet Sacred Texts Archive.
‘Venerable Nâgasena, it has been said by the Blessed One: “A brother is not, O Bhikkhus, to commit suicide. Whosoever does so shall be dealt with according to the law.” And on the other hand you (members of the Order) say: “On whatsoever subject the Blessed One was addressing the disciples, he always, and with various similes, preached to them in order to bring about the destruction of birth, of old age, of disease, and of death. And whosoever overcame birth, old age, disease, and death, him did he honour with the highest praise.” Now if the Blessed One forbade suicide that saying of yours must be wrong, but if not then the prohibition of suicide must be wrong. This too is a double-edged problem now put to you, and you have to solve it.’
‘The regulation you quote, O king, was laid down by the Blessed One, and yet is our saying you refer to true. And there is a reason for this, a reason for which the Blessed One both prohibited (the destruction of life), and also (in another sense) instigated us to it.’
‘What, Nâgasena, may that reason be?’
‘The good man, O king, perfect in uprightness, is like a medicine to men 1 in being an antidote to the poison of evil, he is like water to men in laying the dust and the impurities of evil dispositions, he is like a jewel treasure to men in bestowing upon them all attainments in righteousness, he is like a boat to men inasmuch as he conveys them to the further shore of the four flooded streams (of lust, individuality, delusion, and ignorance) 2, he is like a caravan owner to men in that he brings them beyond the sandy desert of rebirths, he is like a mighty rain cloud to men in that he fills their hearts with satisfaction, he is like a teacher to men in that he trains them in all good, he is like a good guide to men in that he points out to them the path of peace. It was in order that so good a man as that, one whose good qualities are so many, so various, so immeasurable, in order that so great a treasure mine of good things, so full of benefit to all beings, might not be done away with, that the Blessed One, O king, out of his mercy towards all beings, laid down that injunction, when he said: “A brother is not, O Bhikkhus, to commit suicide. Whosoever does so shall be dealt with according to the law.” This is the reason for which the Blessed One prohibited (self-slaughter). And it was said, O king, by the Elder Kumâra Kassapa, the eloquent, when he was describing to Pâyâsi the Râganya the other world: “So long as Samanas and Brahmans of uprightness of life, and beauty of character, continue to exist–however long that time may be–just so long do they conduct themselves to the advantage and happiness of the great masses of the people, to the good and the gain and the weal of gods and men!”‘
‘And what is the reason for which the Blessed One instigated us (to put an end to life)? Birth, O king, is full of pain, and so is old age, and disease, and death. Sorrow is painful, and so is lamentation, and pain, and grief, and despair. Association with the unpleasant is painful, and separation from the pleasant. The death of a mother is painful, or of a father, or a brother, or a sister, or a son, or a wife, or of any relative. Painful is the ruin of one’s family, and the suffering of disease, and the loss of wealth, and decline in goodness, and the loss of insight. Painful is the fear produced by despots, or by robbers, or by enemies, or by famine, or by fire, or by flood, or by the tidal wave, or by earthquake, or by crocodiles or alligators. Painful is the fear of possible blame attaching to oneself, or to others, the fear of punishment, the fear of misfortune. Painful is the fear arising from shyness in the presence of assemblies of one’s fellows, painful is anxiety as to one’s means of livelihood, painful the foreboding of death. Painful are (the punishments inflicted on criminals), such as being flogged with whips, or with sticks, or with split rods, having one’s hands cut off, or one’s feet, or one’s hands and feet, or one’s ears, or one’s nose, or one’s ears and nose. Painful are (the tortures inflicted on traitors)–being subjected to the Gruel Pot (that is, having boiling gruel poured into one’s head from the top of which the skull bone has been removed)–or to the Chank Crown (that is, having the scalp rubbed with gravel till it becomes smooth like a polished shell)–or to the Râhu’s Mouth (that is, having one’s mouth held open by iron pins, and oil put in it, and a wick lighted therein)–or to the Fire Garland or to the Hand Torch, (that is, being made a living torch, the whole body, or the arms only, being wrapped up in oily cloths, and set on fire)–or to the Snake Strips (that is, being skinned in strips from the neck to the hips, so that the skin falls in strips round the legs)or to the Bark Dress (that is, being skinned alive from the neck downwards, and having each strip of skin as soon as removed tied to the hair, so that these strips form a veil around one)–or to the Spotted Antelope (that is, having one’s knees and elbows tied together, and being made to squat on a plate of iron under which a fire is lit)–or to the Flesh-hooks (that is, being hung up on a row of iron hooks)–or to the Pennies (that is, having bits cut out of the flesh, all over the body, of the size of pennies)–or to the Brine Slits (that is, having cuts made all over one’s body by means of knives or sharp points, and then having salt and caustic liquids poured over the wounds)–or to the Bar Turn (that is, being transfixed to the ground by a bar of iron passing through the root of the ear, and then being dragged round and round by the leg)–or to the Straw Seat (that is, being so beaten with clubs that the bones are broken, and the body becomes like a heap of straw)–or to be anointed with boiling oil, or to be eaten by dogs, or to be impaled alive, or to be beheaded. Such and such, O king, are the manifold and various pains which a being caught in the whirlpool of births and rebirths has to endure. just, O king, as the water rained down upon the Himâlaya mountain flows, in its course along the Ganges, through and over rocks and pebbles and gravel, whirlpools and eddies and rapids, and the stumps and branches of trees which obstruct and oppose its passage,–just so has each being caught in the succession of births and rebirths to endure such and such manifold and various pains. Full of pain, then, is the continual succession of rebirths, a joy is it when that succession ends. And it was in pointing out the advantage of that end, the disaster involved in that succession, that the Blessed One, great king, instigated us to get beyond birth, and old age, and disease, and death by the realisation of the final end of that succession of rebirths. This is the sense, O king, which led the Blessed One to instigate us (to put an end to life).’
‘Very good, Nâgasena! Well solved is the puzzle (I put), well set forth are the reasons (you alleged). That is so, and I accept it as you say.’
[Here ends the problem as to suicide.]