Simile of the chariot

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The simile of the chariot is commonly used within Buddhism to explain the concept of not-self (anatman). In brief, it is said that just as the chariot is not one singular independent thing, but it is composed of parts, in the same way, that which we call the "self" (atman) is not a singular independent entity, but it is likewise composed of parts. Also, just as the chariot comes into being based on mulitple causes and conditions, so does the "self."

Possibly the first appearance of this simile in Buddhist texts is found in the Vajirāsutta of the Pali canon. This simile is also used by the sage Nagasena in the well-known Questions of Milinda (Milindapañha).

Within the Questions of Milinda

The Questions of Milinda (Milindapañha) is a text from the Pali Canon that records a dialog between the Buddhist sage Nagasena and Bactrian-Greek King Milinda (a.k.a Menander I).

One chapter of this text contains a well-known exchange in which the sage Nagasena used the simile of the chariot to explain the concept of "not-self" (anatman).

Chapter summary

Barbara O'Brien summarizes the chapter of the text in which Nagasena presents the simile of the chariot as follows:

One of the King's first questions is on the nature of the self and personal identity. Nagasena greeted the King by acknowledging that Nagasena was his name, but that "Nagasena" was only a designation; no permanent individual "Nagasena" could be found.

This amused the King. Who is it that wears robes and takes food? he asked. If there is no Nagasena, who earns merit or demerit? Who causes karma? If what you say is true, a man could kill you and there would be no murder. "Nagasena" would be nothing but a sound.

Nagasena asked the King how he had come to his hermitage, on foot or by horseback? I came in a chariot, the King said.

But what is a chariot? Nagasena asked. Is it the wheels, or the axles, or the reigns, or the frame, or the seat, or the draught pole? Is it a combination of those elements? Or is it found outside those elements?

The King answered no to each question. Then there is no chariot! Nagasena said.

Now the King acknowledged the designation "chariot" depended on these constituent parts, but that "chariot" itself is a concept, or a mere name.

Just so, Nagasena said, "Nagasena" is a designation for something conceptual. It is a mere name. When the constituent parts are present we call it a chariot; When the five skandhas are present, we call it a being.

Nagasena added, "This was said by our sister Vajira when she was face to face with the Lord Buddha." Vajira was a nun and a disciple of the historical Buddha. She used the same chariot simile in an earlier text, the Vajira Sutta (Pali Sutta-pitaka, Samyutta Nikaya 5:10). However, in the Vajira Sutta the nun was speaking to the demon, Mara.

Another way to understand the chariot simile is to imagine the chariot being taken apart. At what point in the dis-assembly does the chariot cease to be a chariot? We can update the simile to make it an automobile. As we disassemble the car, at what point is it not a car? When we take off the wheels? When we remove the seats? When we pry off the cylinder head?

Any judgment we make is subjective. Perhaps you may argue that a pile of car parts is still a car, just not an assembled one. The point is, though, that "car" and "chariot" are concepts we project onto the constituent parts. But there is no "car" or "chariot" essence that somehow dwells within the parts.[1]

Chapter translation from SuttaCentral

The chapter of the Questions from Milinda in which Nagasena presents the simile of the chariot follows. This chapter was translated by T.W. Rhys Davids and edited by Bhikkhu Sujato.

Now Milinda the king went up to where the venerable Nāgasena was, and addressed him with the greetings and compliments of friendship and courtesy, and took his seat respectfully apart. And Nāgasena reciprocated his courtesy, so that the heart of the king was propitiated.

And Milinda began by asking, ‘How is your Reverence known, and what, Sir, is your name?’

‘I am known as Nāgasena, O king, and it is by that name that my brethren in the faith address me. But although parents, O king, give such a name as Nāgasena, or Sūrasena, or Vīrasena, or Sīhasena, yet this, Sire—Nāgasena and so on—is only a generally understood term, a designation in common use. For there is no permanent individuality (no soul) involved in the matter.’ Then Milinda called upon the Yonakas and the brethren to witness: ‘This Nāgasena says there is no permanent individuality (no soul) implied in his name. Is it now even possible to approve him in that?’ And turning to Nāgasena, he said: ‘If, most reverend Nāgasena, there be no permanent individuality (no soul) involved in the matter, who is it, pray, who gives to you members of the Order your robes and food and lodging and necessaries for the sick? Who is it who enjoys such things when given? Who is it who lives a life of righteousness? Who is it who devotes himself to meditation? Who is it who attains to the goal of the Excellent Way, to the Nirvāṇa of Arahatship? And who is it who destroys living creatures? who is it who takes what is not his own? who is it who lives an evil life of worldly lusts, who speaks lies, who drinks strong drink, who (in a word) commits any one of the five sins which work out their bitter fruit even in this life ? If that be so there is neither merit nor demerit; there is neither doer nor causer of good or evil deeds ; there is neither fruit nor result of good or evil Karma. —If, most reverend Nāgasena, we are to think that were a man to kill you there would be no murder, then it follows that there are no real masters or teachers in your Order, and that your ordinations are void.—You tell me that your brethren in the Order are in the habit of addressing you as Nāgasena. Now what is that Nāgasena? Do you mean to say that the hair is Nāgasena?’

‘I don’t say that, great king.’

‘Or the hairs on the body, perhaps?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘Or is it the nails, the teeth, the skin, the flesh, the nerves, the bones, the marrow, the kidneys, the heart, the liver, the abdomen, the spleen, the lungs, the larger intestines, the lower intestines, the stomach, the faeces, the bile, the phlegm, the pus, the blood, the sweat, the fat, the tears, the serum, the saliva, the mucus, the oil that lubricates the joints, the urine, or the brain, or any or all of these, that is Nāgasena ?’

And to each of these he answered no.

‘Is it the outward form then (Rūpa) that is Nāgasena, or the sensations (Vedanā), or the ideas (Saññā), or the conditions (the constituent elements of character, Saṁkhārā), or the consciousness (Vigññāna), that is Nāgasena ?’

And to each of these also he answered no.

‘Then is it all these Skandhas combined that are Nāgasena?’

‘No! great king.’

‘But is there anything outside the five Skandhas that is Nāgasena?’

And still he answered no.

‘Then thus, ask as I may, I can discover no Nāgasena. Nāgasena is a mere empty sound. Who then is the Nāgasena that we see before us? It is a falsehood that your reverence has spoken, an untruth!’

And the venerable Nāgasena said to Milinda the king: ‘You, Sire, have been brought up in great luxury, as beseems your noble birth. If you were to walk this dry weather on the hot and sandy ground, trampling under foot the gritty, gravelly grains of the hard sand, your feet would hurt you. And as your body would be in pain, your mind would be disturbed, and you would experience a sense of bodily suffering. How then did you come, on foot, or in a chariot?’

‘I did not come, Sir, on foot . I came in a carriage.’

‘Then if you came, Sire, in a carriage, explain to me what that is. Is it the pole that is the chariot?’

‘I did not say that.’

‘Is it the axle that is the chariot?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘Is it the wheels, or the framework, or the ropes, or the yoke, or the spokes of the wheels, or the goad, that are the chariot?’

And to all these he still answered no.

‘Then is it all these parts of it that are the chariot?’

‘No, Sir.’

‘But is there anything outside them that is the chariot?’

And still he answered no.

‘Then thus, ask as I may, I can discover no chariot. Chariot is a mere empty sound. What then is the chariot you say you came in? It is a falsehood that your Majesty has spoken, an untruth! There is no such thing as a chariot! You are king over all India, a mighty monarch. Of whom then are you afraid that you speak untruth? And he called upon the Yonakas and the brethren to witness, saying: ‘Milinda the king here has said that he came by carriage. But when asked in that case to explain what the carriage was, he is unable to establish what he averred. Is it, forsooth, possible to approve him in that?’

When he had thus spoken the five hundred Yonakas shouted their applause, and said to the king: Now let your Majesty get out of that if you can?’

And Milinda the king replied to Nāgasena, and said: ‘I have spoken no untruth, reverend Sir. It is on account of its having all these things—the pole, and the axle, the wheels, and the framework, the ropes, the yoke, the spokes, and the goad—that it comes under the generally understood term, the designation in common use, of “chariot.”’

‘Very good! Your Majesty has rightly grasped the meaning of “chariot.” And just even so it is on account of all those things you questioned me about— The thirty-two kinds of organic matter in a human body, and the five constituent elements of being—that I come under the generally understood term, the designation in common use, of “Nāgasena.” For it was said, Sire, by our Sister Vajirā in the presence of the Blessed One:

“‘Just as it is by the condition precedent Of the co-existence of its various parts That the word ‘chariot’ is used, Just so is it that when the Skandhas Are there we talk of a ‘being.’”’

‘Most wonderful, Nāgasena, and most strange. Well has the puzzle put to you, most difficult though it was, been solved. Were the Buddha himself here he would approve your answer. Well done, well done, Nāgasena!’[2]

Notes

  1. O'Brien, Barbara. "King Milinda's Questions and the Chariot Simile." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/king-milindas-questions-450052.
  2. SuttaCentral icon square 170px.png 3.1.1. Individuality and name; the chariot simile, SuttaCentral