The selection below is drawn from the famous Questions of Milinda (Milindapanha), a dialogue between a Bactrian Greek king named Milinda and a Buddhist monk named Nagasena. It is uncertain whether such a dialogue ever took place. There was indeed a famous king named Menander (Milinda in Indian sources) who ruled over a large region that encompassed parts of modern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan during the middle of the second century bce. There is no historical evidence of Nagasena. The text itself was probably composed or compiled around the beginning of the Common Era.
Whether or not the conversation ever took place, the Questions of Milinda is one of the best-known texts of the Theravada tradition. It is presented as a series of questions by the king and answers by the monk on a wide range of topics, with each of the interlocutors displaying an impressive knowledge of Buddhist doctrine and literature. Nagasena always provides a satisfying answer to each of the king’s queries. His presentation of the dharma is so successful in fact that at the end of the dialogue King Milinda placed his son upon the throne, entered the religious life, and became an arhat.
In the passage below, the king asks why the Buddha said that there can be only one buddha in the universe at a time, making the sensible point that if there were two they might be able to share the labour and be of assistance to one another. Nagasena’s answer includes predictable points about the dangers of factionalism and questions of seniority. But his first and most extensive explanation concerns the sheer gravity of the presence of a buddha in the universe. The appearance of a buddha is such a rare and momentous event in the history of the universe that the cosmos is stretched to its limit by his majesty. If a second buddha were to appear simultaneously, the universe would collapse.
Here, the coming of a buddha – not necessarily Gautama Buddha, but any buddha – is portrayed as an epoch-making moment which transforms the entire universe, requiring all of its resources to sustain his brief presence. A buddha, clearly, is not simply another teacher.
With the rise of the Mahayana came accounts of other buddhas present in other universes and buddha-lands, the most famous of whom was Amitabha of the pure land called Sukhavati (see Chapter 8). This proliferation of buddhas did not so much contradict the claim made here that our universe can sustain only one buddha, but instead multiplied the number of universes that sustained a buddha, and provided means for coming into their presence.
‘Revered Nagasena, this too was said by the Lord: “This is impossible, monks, it cannot come to pass that in one world- system two arahants who are perfect buddhas should arise simultaneously – this possibility does not exist.” When they are teaching, revered Nagasena, all tathagathas [buddhas] teach the thirty-seven things helpful to enlightenment, and when they are talking they talk about the four [noble] truths, and when they are making [disciples] train themselves they make them train themselves in the three trainings [ethics, meditation and wisdom], and when they are instructing they instruct in the practice of diligence. If, revered Nagasena, one is the teaching, one the talk, one the training and one the instruction of all tathagathas, for what reason do two tathagathas not arise at the same moment? Already by the arising of one buddha is this world illuminated; if there were a second buddha all the more would this world be illumined by the light of them both. And two tathagathas, when exhorting [monks] could exhort at ease, and when instructing could instruct at ease. Tell me the reason for this that I may be without perplexity.’
‘This ten-thousand-world-system, sire, is the sustainer of one buddha, it sustains the special qualities of one tathagatha only. If a second buddha were to arise, the ten-thousand-world-system could not sustain him; it would tremble, shake, bend, bow down, twist, disperse, dissolve, scatter, it would disappear. Suppose, sire, there should be a boat for taking [only] one man across; for so long as [only] one man had embarked in it it would go along evenly. But suppose a second man were to come along, similar to the first in age, appearance, stage of life, size, and lean and strong in all his limbs – if he too were to embark in the boat, could that boat, sire, sustain the two of them?’.
‘No, revered sir, it would tremble, shake, bend, bow down, twist, disperse, dissolve, scatter, it would disappear, it would sink into the water.’
‘Even so, sire, this ten-thousand-world-system is the sustainer of [only] one buddha, it sustains the special qualities of one tathagatha only. If a second buddha were to arise, the ten-thousand-world- system could not sustain him; it would tremble, shake, bend, bow down, twist, disperse, dissolve, scatter, it would disappear. Or suppose, sire, a man were to eat as much food as he wanted, and was filled up to his throat with what he had appreciated and that, though he were satiated, regaled and quite full with no room left for more, drowsy and rigid as a stick that cannot bend, he nevertheless again ate even as much food as before. Would that man be at ease, sire?’
‘Certainly not, revered sir. If he ate even once more he might die.’
‘Even so, sire, this ten-thousand-world-system is the sustainer of [only] one buddha, it sustains the special qualities of one tathagatha only. If a second buddha were to arise, the ten-thousand-world- system could not sustain him; it would tremble, shake, bend, bow down, twist, disperse, dissolve, scatter, it would disappear.’
‘But, revered Nagasena, does the earth tremble at an overburdening of dhamma?’
‘As to this, sire, there might be two carts filled to capacity with precious things; if [people] took the precious things from one cart and piled them into the other, would that cart, sire, be able to sustain the precious things that had been in the two of them?’
‘No, revered sir, its nave would split, and its spokes would break, and its rims would fall to pieces, and its axle would break.’
‘So, sire, a cart breaks with an overburdening of precious things?’
‘Yes, revered sir.’
‘Even so, sire, does the earth tremble at an overburdening of dhamma. And, sire, this is a reason propounded for illustrating the power of the buddhas. And listen to another reason why two perfect buddhas do not arise at the same moment. If, sire, two perfect buddhas were to arise at the same moment, dispute would arise among their assemblies and [on these] saying: “Your buddha, our buddha”, a two-fold faction might be brought into existence. As, sire, dispute might arise in the companies of two powerful ministers and [on these] saying: “Your minister, our minister”, a two-fold faction might be brought into existence – even so, sire, if two perfect buddhas were to arise at the same moment, dispute might arise among their assemblies and [on these] saying: “Your buddha, our buddha”, a two-fold faction might be brought into existence. This, sire, is one reason why two perfect buddhas do not arise at the same moment.
‘And, sire, listen to another and a further reason why two perfect buddhas do not arise at the same moment. If, sire, two perfect buddhas were to arise at the same moment, false would be the statement which says: “The Buddha is the foremost, the Buddha is the eldest, the Buddha is the best, the Buddha is the [most] eminent, the Buddha is the supreme… the most distinguished… without an equal. equal to the unequalled. matchless. without a counterpart, the Buddha is unrivalled.” Accept according to its meaning this reason too, sire, why two perfect buddhas do not arise at the same moment.
‘Moreover, sire, this is the natural individual essence of buddhas, of lords, that only one buddha arises in the world [at a time]. And why? By reason of the might of the special qualities of omniscient buddhas. Other things that are mighty in the world, sire, are also unique: the earth, sire, is mighty and is unique; the sea is mighty and is unique; Sineru, monarch of the mountains, is mighty and is unique; space. Sakka. Mara . great Brahma is mighty and is unique;. the tathagata, arahant, perfect buddha is mighty and is unique in the world. Where these uprise there is no occasion for a second. Therefore, sire, only one tathagata, arahant, perfect buddha arises in the world [at a time].’
‘The question has been well spoken to, revered Nagasena, with similes and reasons [adduced]. Even a person who is not clever would be delighted on hearing this, how much more then one of great wisdom like myself? It is good, revered Nagasena; so it is, therefore do I accept it.’
From Milinda’s Questions, vol. 2. trans. I. B. Horner (London: Luzac & Company Ltd, 1964), pp. 40-44.
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.