The Questions of King Milinda

Book 4: The solving of dilemmas

Chapter 2

5.2.3. Death

‘Venerable Nāgasena, this too was said by the Blessed One: “All men tremble at punishment, all are afraid of death.” But again he said: “The Arahat has passed beyond all fear.” How then, Nāgasena? does the Arahat tremble with the fear of punishment? Or are the beings in purgatory, when they are being burnt and boiled and scorched and tormented, afraid of that death which would release them from the burning fiery pit of that awful place of woe ? If the Blessed One, Nāgasena, really said that all men tremble at punishment, and all are afraid of death, then the statement that the Arahat has passed beyond fear must be false. But if that last statement is really by him, then the other must be false. This double-headed problem is now put to you, and you have to solve it.’

‘It was not with regard to Arahats, O king, that the Blessed One spake when he said: “All men tremble at punishment, all are afraid of death.” the Arahat is an exception to that statement, for all cause for fear has been removed from the Arahat. He spoke of those beings in whom evil still existed, who are still infatuated with the delusion of self, who are still lifted up and cast down by pleasures and pains. To the Arahat, O king, rebirth in every state has been cut off, all the four kinds of future existence have been destroyed, every re-incarnation has been put an end to, the rafters of the house of life have broken, and the whole house completely pulled down, the conditions have altogether lost their roots, good and evil have ceased, ignorance has been demolished, consciousness has no longer any seed (from which it could be renewed), all sin has been burnt away, and all worldly conditions have been overcome. Therefore is it that the Arahat is not made to tremble by any fear.’

‘Suppose, O king, a king had four chief ministers, faithful, famous, trustworthy, placed in high positions of authority. And the king, on some emergency arising, were to issue to them an order touching all the people in his realm, saying: “Let all now pay up a tax, and do you, as my four officers, carry out what is necessary in this emergency.” Now tell me, O king, would the tremor which comes from fear of taxation arise in the hearts of those ministers?’

‘No, Sir, it would not.’

‘But why not?’

‘They have been appointed by the king to high office. Taxation does not affect them, they are beyond taxation. It was the rest that the king referred to when he gave the order: “Let all pay tax.”’

‘Just so, O king, is it with the statement that all men tremble at punishment, all are afraid of death. In that way is it that the Arahat is removed from every fear.’

‘But, Nāgasena, the word “all” is inclusive, none are left out when it is used. Give me a further reason to establish the point.’

‘Suppose, O king, that in some village the lord of the village were to order the crier, saying: “Go, crier, bring all the villagers quickly together before me.” And he in obedience to that order were to stand in the midst of the village and were thrice to call out: “Let all the villagers assemble at once in the presence of the lord!” And they should assemble in haste, and have an announcement made to the lord, saying: “All the villagers, Sire, have assembled. Do now whatsoever you require.” Now when the lord, O king, is thus summoning all the heads of houses, he issues his order to all the villagers, but it is not they who assemble in obedience to the order; it is the heads of houses. And the lord is satisfied therewith, knowing that such is the number of his villagers. There are many others who do not come—women and men, slave girls and slaves, hired workmen, servants, peasantry, sick people, oxen, buffaloes, sheep, and goats, and dogs—but all those do not count. It was with reference to the heads of houses that the order was issued in the words: “Let all assemble.” just so, O king, it is not of Arahats that it was said that all are afraid of death. The Arahat is not included in that statement, for the Arahat is one in whom there is no longer any cause that could give rise to fear.’

‘There is the non-inclusive expression, O king, whose meaning is non-inclusive, and the non-inclusive expression whose meaning is inclusive; there is the inclusive expression whose meaning is non-inclusive, and the inclusive expression whose meaning is inclusive. And the meaning, in each case, should be accepted accordingly. And there are five ways in which the meaning should be ascertained-by the connection, and by taste, and by the tradition of the teachers, and by the meaning, and by abundance of reasons. And herein “connection” means the meaning as seen in the Sutta itself, “taste” means that it is in accordance with other Suttas, “the tradition of the teachers” means what they hold, “the meaning” means what they think, and “abundance of reasons” means all these four combined.’

‘Very well, Nāgasena! I accept it as you say. The Arahat is an exception in this phrase, and it is the rest of beings who are full of fear. But those beings in purgatory, of whom I spoke, who are suffering painful, sharp, and severe agonies, who are tormented with burnings all over their bodies and limbs, whose mouths are full of lamentation, and cries for pity, and cries of weeping and wailing and woe, who are overcome with pains too sharp to be borne, who find no refuge nor protection nor help, who are afflicted beyond measure, who in the worst and lowest of conditions are still destined to a certainty to further pain, who are being burnt with hot, sharp, fierce, and cruel flames, who are giving utterance to mighty shouts and groans born of horror and fear, who are embraced by the garlands of flame which intertwine around them from all the six directions, and flash in fiery speed through a hundred leagues on every side—can those poor burning wretches be afraid of death?’

‘Yes, they can.’

‘But, venerable Nāgasena, is not purgatory a place of certain pain? And, if so, why should the beings in it be afraid of death, which would release them from that certain pain? What! Are they fond of purgatory?’

‘No, indeed. They like it not. They long to be released from it. It is the power of death of which they are afraid.’

‘Now this, Nāgasena, I cannot believe, that they, who want to be released, should be afraid of rebirth. They must surely, Nāgasena, rejoice at the prospect of the very condition that they long for. Convince me by some further reason.’

‘Death, great king, is a condition which those who have not seen the truth are afraid of. About it this people is anxious and full of dread. Whosoever is afraid of a black snake, or an elephant or lion or tiger or leopard or bear or hyena or wild buffalo or gayal, or of fire or water, or of thorns or spikes or arrows, it is in each case of death that he is really in dread, and therefore afraid of them. This, O king, is the majesty of the essential nature of death. And all being not free from sin are in dread and quake before its majesty. In this sense it is that even the beings in purgatory, who long to be released from it, are afraid of death.’

‘Suppose, O king, a boil were to arise, full of matter, on a man’s body, and he, in pain from that disease, and wanting to escape from the danger of it, were to call in a physician and surgeon. And the surgeon, accepting the call, were to make ready some means or other for the removal of his disease—were to have a lancet sharpened, or to have sticks put into the fire to be used as cauterisers, or to have something ground on a grindstone to be mixed in a salt lotion. Now would the patient begin to be in dread of the cutting of the sharp lancet, or of the burning of the pair of caustic sticks, or of the application of the stinging lotion?’

‘Yes, he would.’

‘But if the sick man, who wants to be free from his ailment, can fall into dread by the fear of pain, just so can the beings in purgatory, though they long to be released from it, fall into dread by the fear of death.’

‘And suppose, O king, a man who had committed an offence against the crown, when bound with a chain, and cast into a dungeon, were to long for release. And the ruler, wishing to release him, were to send for him. Now would not that man, who had thus offended, and knew it, be in dread of the interview with the king?’

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘But if so, then can also the beings in purgatory, though they long to be released from it, yet be afraid of death.’

‘Give me another illustration by which I may be able to harmonise (this apparent discrepancy).’

‘Suppose, O king, a man bitten by a poisonous snake should be afraid, and by the action of the poison should fall and struggle, and roll this way and that. And then that another man, by the repetition of a powerful charm, should compel that poisonous snake to approach to suck the poison back again. Now when the bitten man saw the poisonous snake coming to him, though for the object of curing him, would he not still be in dread of it?’

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘Well, it is just so with the beings in purgatory. Death is a thing disliked by all beings. And therefore are they in dread of it though they want to be released from purgatory.’

‘Very good, Nāgasena! That is so, and I accept it as you say.’

Here ends the dilemma as to the fear of death.