The Questions of King Milinda

Book 4: The solving of dilemmas

Chapter 1

5.1.7. The Duration Of the Faith

‘Venerable Nāgasena, it has been said by the Blessed One: “But now the good law, Ānanda, will only stand fast for five hundred years.” But on the other hand the Blessed One declared, just before his death, in response to the question put by Subhadda the recluse: “But if in this system the brethren live the perfect life, then the world would not be bereft of Arahats.” This last phrase is absolute, inclusive; it cannot be explained away. If the first of these statements be correct, the second is misleading, if the second be right the first must be false. This too is a double-pointed question, more confused than the jungle, more powerful than a strong man, more knotty than a knot. It is now put to you. Show the extent of the power of your knowledge, like a leviathan in the midst of the sea.’

‘The Blessed One, O king, did make both those statements you have quoted. But they are different one from the other both in the spirit and in the letter. The one deals with the limit of the duration of the doctrine, the other with the practice of a religious life—two things widely distinct, as far removed one from the other as the zenith is from the surface of the earth, as heaven is from purgatory, as good is from evil, and as pleasure is from pain. But though that be so, yet lest your enquiry should be vain, I will expound the matter further in its essential connection.’

‘When the Blessed One said that the good law would only endure for five hundred years, he said so declaring the time of its destruction, limiting the remainder of its existence. For he said: “The good law, Ānanda, would endure for a thousand years if no women had been admitted to the Order. But now, Ānanda, it will only last five hundred years.” But in so saying, O king, did the Blessed One either foretell the disappearance of the good law, or throw blame on the clear understanding thereof?’

‘Certainly not, Sir.’

‘Just so. It was a declaration of injury done, an announcement of the limit of what remained. As when a man whose income had been diminished might announce publicly, making sure of what remained: “So much property have I lost; so much is still left"— so did the Blessed One make known to gods and men what remained when he announced what had been lost by saying: “The good law will now, Ānanda, endure for five hundred years.” In so saying he was fixing a limit to religion. But when in speaking to Subhadda, and by way of proclaiming who were the true Samaṇas, he said: “But if, in this system, the brethren live the perfect life, then the world would not be bereft of Arahats"—in so saying he was declaring in what religion consisted. You have confounded the limitation of a thing with the statement of what it is. But if you like I will tell you what the real connection between the two is. Listen carefully, and attend trustfully to what I say.’

‘Suppose, O king, there were a reservoir quite full of fresh cool water, overflowing at the brim, but limited in size and with an embankment running all round it. Now if, when the water had not abated in that tank, a mighty cloud were to rain down rain continually, and in addition, on to the water already in it, would the amount of water in the tank decrease or come to an end?’

‘Certainly not, Sir.’

‘But why not, O king?’

‘Because of the Continual downpour of the rain.’

‘Just so, O king, is the glorious reservoir of the good law of the teaching of the Conqueror ever full of the clear fresh cool water of the practice of duty and virtue and morality and purity of life, and continues overflowing all limits even to the very highest heaven of heavens. And if the children of the Buddha rain down into it continuously, and in addition, the rainfall of still further practice of duty and virtue and morality and purity of life, then will it endure for long, and the world will not be bereft of Arahats. This was the meaning of the Master’s words when he said: “But if, Subhadda, in this system the brethren continue in perfectness of life, then will the world not be bereft of Arahats.”’

‘Now suppose again, O king, that people were to continually supply a mighty fiery furnace with dried cow-dung, and dry sticks, and dry leaves—would that fire go out?’

‘No indeed, Sir. Rather would it blaze more fiercely, and burn more brightly.’

‘Just so, O king, does the glorious teaching of the Conqueror blaze and shine over the ten thousand world systems by the practice of duty and virtue and morality and purity of life. And if, O king, in addition to that, the children of the Buddha, devoting themselves to the five kinds of spiritual exertion, continue zealous in effort—if cultivating a longing for the threefold discipline, they train themselves therein— if without ceasing they carry out to the full the conduct that is right, and absolutely avoid all that is wrong, and practise righteousness of life—then will this glorious doctrine of the Conqueror stand more and more stedfast as the years roll on, and the world will not be bereft of Arahats. It was in reference to this, O king, that the Master spake when he said: “But if, Subhadda, in this system the brethren continue in perfectness of life, then will the world not be bereft of Arahats.”’

‘Again, O king, suppose people were to continually polish with fine soft red powder a stainless mirror that was already bright and shining, well polished, smooth, and glossy, would dirt and dust and mud arise on its surface?’

‘No indeed—Sir. Rather would it become to a certainty even more stainless than before.’

‘Just so, O king, is the glorious doctrine of the Conqueror stainless by nature, and altogether free from the dust and dirt of evil. And if the children of the Buddha cleanse it by the virtue arising from the shaking off, the eradication of evil, from the practice of duty and virtue and morality and purity of life, then will this glorious doctrine endure for long, and the world will not be bereft of Arahats. It was in reference to this that the Blessed One spake when he said: “But if, Subhadda, in this system the brethren continue in righteousness of life, then will not the world be bereft of Arahats.” For the teaching of the Master, O king, has its root in conduct, has conduct as its essence, and stands fast so long as conduct does not decline.’

‘Venerable Nāgasena, when you speak of the disappearance of the good law, what do you mean by its disappearance?’

‘There are three modes of the disappearance, O king, of a system of doctrine. And what are the three? the decline of attainment to an intellectual grasp of it, the decline of conduct in accordance with it, and the decline of its outward form. When the attainment of it ceases, then even the man who conducts himself aright in it has no clear understanding of it. By the decline of conduct the promulgation of the rules of discipline ceases, only the outward form of the religion remains. When the outward form has ceased, the succession of the tradition is cut off. These are the three forms of the disappearance of a system of doctrine.’

‘You have well explained, venerable Nāgasena, this dilemma so profound, and have made it plain. You have loosed the knot; you have destroyed the arguments of the adversary, broken them in pieces, proved them wrong—you, O best of the leaders of schools!’

Here ends the dilemma as to the duration of the faith.