The use of parables is common to all the ancient world, and rarely is one expected to take them as factual records of historic incidents. One of the most charming collections is the Pali work, Milindapanha — or the Eighty-two Dilemmas of King Milinda — these being questions and problems which the king put before the Buddhist sage, Nagasena, for answer. According to tradition, Milinda is none other than Menander, the famed Indo-Greek king whose invasion of India as far as the Indus Valley was to leave a lasting impress, not so much geographically as through the intermingling of Greek and Indian philosophy and the arts.
No one knows for certain whether Nagasena ever lived, or whether Milinda (or the Menander of history) really did have this series of conversations — all of which is secondary to their moral import. The story goes that Milinda, king of the Yavanas, seeks far and wide for counsel, and after much fruitless searching meets Nagasena the Elder whom he recognizes as his spiritual superior and so offers himself as his pupil.
Nagasena's method of instruction rather closely parallels that of Socrates. He does not present any formal outline of doctrine, but by means of analogies drawn from the daily events he leads the king himself to thresh the chaff of false thinking from the wheat of true perception. The Dilemma called "The Harm of Preaching" is an excellent illustration of the use of the parable, and indeed of the paradox (quoted from "The Questions of King Milinda," Vol. 35 of Max Muller's Sacred Books of the East):
Milinda — Venerable Nagasena, you monks say that the Buddha averts harm from all beings, and does them good. And again you say that when he was preaching the discourse based on the simile of the burning fire, hot blood was ejected from the mouths of about sixty monks. By his delivery of that discourse he did those monks harm and not good. So if the first statement is correct, the second is false; and if the second is correct, the first is false. This too is a double-pointed problem put to you, which you have to solve.
Nagasena — Both are true. What happened to them was not the Buddha's doing, but their own.
Milinda — But, Nagasena, if the Buddha had not delivered that discourse, then would they have vomited hot blood?
Nagasena — No. When they took wrongly what he said, then was there a burning kindled within them, and hot blood was ejected from their mouths.
Milinda — Then that must have happened, Nagasena, through the act of the Buddha, it must have been the Buddha who was the chief cause to destroy them. . . .
Nagasena — When the Buddha delivered a discourse, O king, he never did so either in flattery or in malice. In freedom both from the one and from the other did he speak. And they who received it aright were made wise, but they who received it wrongly, fell. Just, O king, as when a man shakes a mango tree or a jambu tree or a mee tree, such of the fruits on it as are full of sap and strongly fastened to it remain undisturbed, but such as have rotten stalks, and are loosely attached, fall to the ground — so was it with his preaching. . . . so was it that the Buddha making wise those whose minds were prepared, preached the Dhamma (the Law) without flattery and without malice. And they who received it aright were made wise, but they who received it wrongly, fell.
Milinda — Then did not those monks fall, Nagasena, just because of that discourse?
Nagasena — How, then, could a carpenter by doing nothing to a piece of timber, and simply laying it by, make it straight and fit for use?
Milinda — No, Sir. He would have to get rid of the bends out of it, if he wanted it straight and ready for use.
Nagasena — Just so, O king, the Buddha could not, by merely watching over his disciples, have opened the eyes of those who were ready to see. But by getting rid of those who took the word wrongly he saved those prepared to be saved. And it was by their own act and deed, O king, that the evil-minded fell . . .
And so with those sixty monks, they fell neither by the act of the Buddha nor of anyone else, but solely by their own deed. Suppose, O king, a man were to give ambrosia to all the people, and they, eating of it, were to become healthy and long-lived and free from every bodily ill. But one man, on eating it, were by his own bad digestion, to die. Would then, O king, the man who gave away the ambrosia be guilty therein of any offence?
Milinda — No, Sir.
Nagasena — Just so, O king, does the Buddha present the gift of his ambrosia to the men and gods in the ten thousand world systems; and those beings who are capable of doing so are made wise by the nectar of his law while they who are not are destroyed and fall. . . .
Milinda — Very good, Nagasena! That is so, and I accept it as you say. — IV, 8, 5-9
In ancient scriptures, the method of expression is often intentionally crude in order to drive home the point of instruction. Certainly in this parable, the sixty monks who "ejected the hot blood" and were "destroyed" did not experience this physically. The sage Nagasena spoke in metaphor, and used a dramatic figure of speech in order to impress the king with the intensity of reaction that would inevitably follow upon any premature attempt to wrest from nature her secrets before one had proved himself worthy.
The crux of the parable, as I see it, is that those sixty monks must have considered themselves prepared to receive the teaching of the Buddha. Obviously, they had undergone some preliminary training in discipline and instruction, else they would not have been taken into the Order. As monks they had put themselves in line to receive a test of their real motive as well as to have the light of truth thrown upon everything that they had been taught. But, as clearly shown, the fact of having attained the rank of monk does not guarantee inner stature. Perhaps this particular group of sixty had reached the place where the Buddha felt that they had to find out the hard way whether they were truly sincere and wanted the pure "nectar of the law," or not. He may have wanted to impress those who were always clamoring for more and more teaching that what a man is inwardly, in the deepest center of his being, is the only measure of his worth. At the same time, the opportunity was offered for those who were prepared to receive the boon of further illumination.
In the larger view no one is completely wanting, because every outer failure carries within it the seed of inner success. The very heartache and discouragement serve to nourish the soul and to spur it on to greater effort. The only real failure consists in giving up the ageless quest for growth, and this no normal human being can do. In fact, as the whole current of evolutionary progress is onward, and as man is very much a part of this forward-moving stream, it would be as impossible to give up — unless one deliberately set himself in reverse — as it would be for the sun to cease its beneficent giving of warmth and light.
Fortunately, none of us knows his real stature. Those who prate about being on a high rung of evolution do not know the first principles of true inner growth. Often those who feel they are the least progressed may, when a crucial test comes, prove to have far greater spiritual endurance than those who, like the sixty monks, are so sure they are ready.
Just suppose by some strange set of circumstances it were possible for a Buddha or a Christ to turn the direct rays of truth on to our present fallible natures, what would happen? We could not for one moment stand the full current of spiritual electricity that would charge through us, for no matter whether the discourse touched on the highest metaphysics or on some simple matter of daily experience, the power radiating from a Buddha or a Christ springs from a divine, not human source. Unless the individual has been purified sufficiently with the divine spark of aspiration to receive and step down the radiation properly, unless he has undergone years, and probably lifetimes of self-discipline, he cannot withstand the "burning fire" that is kindled by the flame of truth.
That is why the sixty monks in this parable were "destroyed." In their pride of attainment they no doubt felt they were able to receive the pure force of the Buddha's message, but when the test came, their shortcomings were revealed.
The people among whom the Buddha lived and worked were just like you and me. As the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb, so did he grade his teaching accordingly, knowing well that if he were to let the full power of his buddhahood shine forth, he would do irreparable damage to the tendrils of divinity he was so carefully nurturing within the souls of his followers.
However, the monks had by their own aspiration placed themselves in a different category. All had been trained, disciplined, instructed, and knew the dangers of committing the four cardinal "offenses against the law — breach of chastity, theft, murder," and last, but by no means least in importance, "a false claim to extraordinary spiritual powers." Perhaps it was this more than anything else that proved the monks' undoing, for psychic and spiritual vanity, however subtly disguised, are the most dangerous of foes and lurk like a deadly serpent upon the path of every earnest aspirant.
Then the hour came when the entire group were given the supreme test — their souls naked before the searchlight of truth. Those who proved worthy would, for a few moments at least, know the glory of at-onement with their own inner god and become "as a light among men." Those who failed "were destroyed." They suffered not a physical but a symbolic death, the cutting off of all further contact with the source of truth until a future lifetime.
We might ask ourselves indeed how far was the Buddha responsible for the monks' reaction. Did he cause their failure? Note this passage: "When the Buddha delivered a discourse, he never did so either in flattery or in malice. In freedom both from the one and from the other did he speak." That is a remarkable choice of wording. How many of us are capable of speaking the absolute truth — impersonally and with dispassion? Either there is a touch of flattery, or there creeps in a tinge of criticism or even malice. The pure exchange of values from one to another, without a breath of pretense or harshness of judgment is what marks the speech and lives of the Buddhas and the Christs.
Was it the Buddha, then, who caused the monks their difficulty? If so, then not only the sixty but the whole group who heard the Buddha would have been similarly disaffected. No, it was the unpreparedness of the sixty that caused their troubles, not the Buddha's teaching. Of course the Buddha as well as every entity in the universe makes karma. From the smallest particle and subparticle in the atom to the giant clusters of galaxies in the depths of space — all are making karma. They are actors, karmic doers, continuously setting up causes which some time and some where will finally return upon them as effects — action and reaction, or karma. Yet would the sun, or the solar deity animating it, be responsible for the sunstroke of the man who exposed himself to the heat of the desert unprepared? Would the solar deity suffer bad karma for this? Obviously not. Just so with the Buddha. He taught among men and gave of the sunlight of truth that a few at least might understand and follow the Law. Some were able to absorb the direct rays of truth; others were unprepared and were disturbed. There is no question of personality involved here. The Buddha was completely the servant of the Law, and when the time came to speak he gave utterance to the truth as he had received it. The higher a soul goes in growth and perception, the less choice will he exercise in the fulfillment of his duty.
The force of truth cuts like a sword through all that is false. When the Buddha gave forth the "ambrosia of truth," it was a totally dispassionate act. He spoke neither in "flattery or in malice." Those monks whose natures were "loosely attached" to truth, by even so much as one "rotten stalk," fell to the ground; while those who were "strongly fastened" in their aspiration remained, as does the fruit of the mango, undisturbed by the shaking of the tree. Thus do the Buddhas and the Christs work with their disciples.
On the other hand, when either Gautama or Jesus spoke with the multitudes, their divine compassion manifested in the protective form of parables. Theirs was a philosophy that challenged, not weakened. The Buddha is reported to have told his disciples when he was about to pass from this earth, "Hold fast to the truth as your refuge; yourselves work out your own liberation with diligence." If each of us can rely on that inmost center of truth and wisdom as our sole refuge, we shall ultimately attain that state of selflessness the Great Ones so perfectly exemplify.
(From Sunrise magazine, November 1972. Copyright © 1972 by Theosophical University Press)