The Lotus Sutra’s parable of the burning house imagines inhabitants of a house in fire. They do not register the dangerous situation and therefore “the thought of getting out does not occur to them”. Later on, the Lotus Sutra ascribes the following comment to Buddha: “Even there, in that threefold universe that is like a burning house, they enjoy themselves and run about. For though they are being afflicted by a great deal of suffering, the thought that they are suffering does not occur to them.”

I imagine a 21-st century Milinda brought up in critical thinking. He is alike to the elder Milinda in his attitude of questioning, but - different from him – today’s Milinda is not willing to accept a bunch of metaphors as a sufficent answer.

21-st century Milinda has no remembrance of past lifes. He does not expect a future life. In addition, he has learned to accept: Present life is not arranged to primarily satisfy human wishes. He asks his modern "Nagasena":

  1. If I do not suffer from rebirth: Why worry about rebirth?
  2. If I do not remember any actions in past lifes: Why worry about karma?
  3. If I expect that death - quite naturally - ends the life of all beings: Why worry about nirvana?
  4. I distinguish between questions with answer and questions without: Why strive for enlightenment due to meditation?
  • 1
    This question seems to be steering to a debate (with "21-century milinda" developing further lines of inquiry on the answers). Is there a "modern nagasena" answer that would be an acceptable answer to the quartet above (and this site is useful for that), or are these just a starting point for philosophical discussions (case where this site is ill suited for)?
    – user382
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 10:11

7 Answers 7


I'd hazard a guess that if the Ven. Nagasena were around today he might respond with something as follows:

1) Just because you don't know that you have a problem doesn't mean there isn't one.

2) One cannot conclude that something in the past didn't happen just because you don't remember it. For example, I don't have any memories of being an infant or being born but that doesn't mean that I never was.

3) One should be concerned about Nirvana because it is not some sort of prize after death, but a reality that is fully realizable in the here and now.

4) One should strive for enlightenment through meditation because meditation is a necessary part of the spiritual practice. Without it one cannot expect to attain anything.

  • ad 1: Milindas point are not problems in general but suffering. Suffering is a feeling, hence a subjective quality. Nagasena should not convert Milinda into suffering from the external viewpont of a 3rd person. ad 2. I do not consider it the task of Milinda to refresh his memory. It's Nagasena's task to support his claim about past lifes by positive indications or arguments. Otherwise he could ascribe quite arbitrary events to the biography of Milinda. ad 3: Milinda replies to Nagasena: Have you ever realized Nirvana in your here and now? If yes, please describe and explain your experience.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 6:27
  • ad 4: Milinda replies to Nagasena: Do you seriously mean I did not attain anything - experience of life, knowledge, my family and friends - due to my lack of spiritual practice?
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 6:33
  • @jowehler In Buddhism Dukkha as a feeling is only one kind of Dukkha. All arisen things are Dukkha in the sense of being conditional formations, and thus do not provide a final satisfaction. When clinging is overcome, one is finally satisfied.
    – Bakmoon
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 11:53
  • @jowehler Nirvana cannot be given a complete description. Even with worldly things, it is not possible to capture experiences meaningfully in words. What can be done however is to explain the means of attaining it, and to let a person try it out for themselves.
    – Bakmoon
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 11:59
  • @jowehler One's experience of life does lead to a kind of attainment. It leads to a worldly kind of happiness. Buddhism categorizes happiness into three kinds. Worldly happiness, the happiness from cultivating the mind, and the happiness of Nirvana. All of these are indeed kinds of happiness, but they are not equivalent. Without spiritual practice the second two kinds of happiness cannot be attained.
    – Bakmoon
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 12:02

1. If I do not suffer from rebirth: Why worry about rebirth?

To think that goal of Buddhism is to stop rebirth is a beginner-level ("hinayana") understanding. The goal of Buddhism is liberation in this very life, liberation by wisdom. Liberation from what? From dukkha, from the three poisons, from the limits of life and death.

2. If I do not remember any actions in past lives: Why worry about karma?

To think that the method of Buddhism is to improve or to get rid of karma is a beginner-level ("hinayana") understanding. The method of Buddhism is removal of mental and emotional obscurations, preconceptions, obsessions, impulses, aversions, irrational expectations, illusions.

3. If I expect that death - quite naturally - ends the life of all beings: Why worry about nirvana?

To think that nirvana is equivalent to non-existence of death is a misunderstanding. Nirvana is the loss of form, which means both an apparent attainment in this very life (either sudden or a result of gradual cultivation), as well as the natural state of things as they are.

4. I distinguish between questions with answer and questions without: Why strive for enlightenment due to meditation?

Because our lives are presumably targeted at happiness (that seems to be the thinking behind our daily choices and efforts) but in the absence of clear understanding of the Big Picture (=Enlightenment) we keep going in circles until we die.

  • I'm astonished to learn that you, a practitioner of Mahayana, classify Mainstream Buddhism (vulgo Hinayana) a beginner level of Buddhism. ad 1: Most of the goals you describe meet with the goals of enlightenment according to Western philosophical tradition like Hume or Kant, but already Greek enlightenment like Xenophanes or the Sophists. They meet with the goal of psychotherapy. More general, with the goal of education as a means to self-determination. But in a secular context nobody attempts to liberate from the limits of life and death. That's unique to religions like Mahayana.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 9:28
  • Andrei: ad 2: Also these goals meet with secular goals. To me the problem seems as follows: Because what some consider deep insights or the way things really are, others consider irrational expectations or an illusion. How to find agreement about the criteria to distinguish one from the other? ad 3: I do not understand (a language problem?) your use of the word attainment: Attainment of what? I also do not understand how the phrase "as well as ... are" is embedded into your last sentence. Could you please repeat your last sentence in a different phrasing? Thank you.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 10:44
  • @jowehler, re: entry-level folk Buddhism, this is my understanding of the traditional perspective of Tibetan Buddhism. Re: 2, the proof is in the pudding. Re: 3, attainment of nirvana with remainder, becoming a personal embodiment of emptiness. But also awakening to the eternal fact that nirvana is self-existing emptiness of all forms. Also added an answer to #4.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 15:07
  • Andrei, in your first answer ad 2 you write "The method ... is removal of ... irrational expectations, illusions." If that's the message, then the goal is pretty clear. Why mixing it up with a term like karma, which since 2.500 years evokes a lot of conceptual discussion even under followers and scholars of Buddhism? - 'The proof is in the pudding' argues for an evaluation of the Buddhist method: To which degree does it acquire the aforementioned goal? In Europe such an evaluation is required in case the psychotherapeutic method shall be paid by a health insurance coverage.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 16:26
  • Andrei, ad 3: Please accept that Milinda, not being a Buddhist practitioner, does not capture the meaning of technical terms like "becoming a personal embodiment of emptiness" or "self-existing emptiness of all forms". Of course, Milinda is able to look up such terms, but he suspects to find several disparate answers. Example: W. Rahula (What the Buddha taught, 1959) explains Nirvana in length. His student R. Gombrich (What the Buddha thought, 2009) writes - referring to Rahula's book - "but even on one topic, nirvana, [I] venture to clarify what I fear is a somewhat muddled presentation."
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 21:07

If I do not suffer from rebirth: Why worry about rebirth? Answer: Everyone suffer here and now. Nobody seems happy. So real end is to end unhapiness!

If I do not remember any actions in past lifes: Why worry about karma? Answer: You dont have to remember past karma, but the effects you will see now. And because of that you have to worry to do good action here and now to produce good result and ultimate happiness!

If I expect that death - quite naturally - ends the life of all beings: Why worry about nirvana? Answer: In death fear exist. Fear is great unhapiness. So he die in unhapiness and again reappear in unhappy world. Nirvana is cessation of unhappiness. A state of no death, birth, old age or feeling of separation.

  • ad 1: Please note, the question is not about suffering in general, but about worrying about rebirth. ad 2 (that seems to me the main issue): Where do you know from that fortune and misfortune of present life result from a former life? ad 3: If death ends the life of all beings, then fear of death happens at most once for each being.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Mar 30, 2015 at 21:43
  • 1: Exactely. Even if someone not worry about rebirth, stil he is suffering. In a process he try to eliminate suffering, he eventually knows rebirth exist came as surprise. But know that its not rebirth of you, not other, nor both. Rebirth is another name for becoming. Like pant from seed. 2: From our ignorance! 3: Death is wonderful thing for the awakened and equally opposite for other. Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 15:41
  1. Do you maintain that there is no suffering that comes from being born?
  2. If actions are going to hit back, would you not care about choices you're making here & now out of responsible goodwill towards yourself in the future? Even here & now you should already be well aware of the fact that good things often come from restraint and responsibility.
  3. If you maintain that death is the end of experience, you're not going to worry about nirvana. But the doctrine says that this view is wrong.
  4. You strive for awakening to the deathless because it is said to be the end of all suffering.
  • I'm afraid, Sadhana, for not responding to your examples 2 and 3. That's not the level I want to discuss Milinda's questions. ad 1: All human experiences are a consequence of being born. You focus on one, but blend all others out. ad 4. Sorry, I do not understand your sentence. My death will end all my life. In particular it ends any suffering. But that's a trivial conclusion.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 14:53
  • @jowehler I didn't mean 2 and 3 in any negative or derogatory way. Hopefully by the time you read this, I'll have edited with more a acceptable analogy so you could ask your questions. Regarding 1, yes, the focus is on this one thing indeed. Also, considering birth is not necessarily human, it may be the case that it's the dominant result. Regarding 4, it's a trivial conclusion only if you assume that death is the end of your experience, which the Buddha said isn't the case.
    – Sadhana
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 19:12
  • @jowehler Any more questions?
    – Sadhana
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 16:45
  • ad 3: Milinda asks about Buddhism from an external stance. Hence he is not quite happy with a confirmation like "But the doctrine says". He reminds Nagasena to the Kalama Sutta (AN IV,65): "You know that you can’t place complete trust in the traditions that have been handed down to you, or in this or that particular lineage, or in what you hear from others, or in one or another collection of texts." ad 4: And he is not happy with the confirmation "the Buddha said". He reminds Nagasena to Vimamsaka Sutta (MN 47). It is often considered a request to examine by oneself the teachings of Buddha.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 20:35
  • @jowehler Indeed. As in the Kalama sutta, not only scriptures are to be viewed this way, but also going by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability... Given that you are presented with something which may be valuable to you, it's your responsibility to test it out. Now what would make someone believe that death is not the end rather than believe that it is? A Safe Bet, for instance.
    – Sadhana
    Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 6:23


One reason to worry is that annihilationism (the belief that death ends all) leads to materialism (the belief that 'physics and chemistry' are all there is) leads to hedonism (the belief that it's right to take pleasure in the here-and-now because that's all there is -- 'eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die'").

Or (less likely), materialism might lead to asceticism: 'what's the point of enjoying this life etc.?'

The problem is that either extreme (hedonism or asceticism) leads to suffering; whereas, to end suffering (even in this life), what you should look for is e.g. restraint, equanimity, love, wisdom, honesty, and so on.


The first Noble Truth is that "suffering exists." What are you going to to about it?

  1. Deny it exists? (naive optimism)
  2. Passive resignation and acceptance? (pessimism)
  3. Seek to justify it? (rationalization)
  4. Make some effort to end it, to overcome it? (3rd and 4th noble truths)

IMO Buddhism is supposed to help you in this life: when you and your friends and family are poor, sick, and dying.


Another reason to worry, is that statements like "I do not suffer from rebirth" implies that you think there is an "I", i.e. a "self". Saying that the "I" is destroyed at death might imply that the "I" exists before death, which may be an example of a wrong view.


In the Samaññaphala Sutta the King listed to the description of Annihilationism given by Ajita Kesakambali, but did not find it satisfying ... found it fruitless.

  • good answer, why deleted?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 23:03
  • I wasn't sure it was a good answer. It doesn't answer jo's specific questions, e.g. "why care about kamma?" It tries to answer a more general question, e.g. "what's wrong with a materialist/annihilationist view?" and e.g. "why care to practice Buddhism?" And it's IMO quite a theoretical answer. And I'm not sure that I answer any follow-on questions jo might ask me. But, ok, I undeleted it so feel free to criticize this answer now.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 23:52
  • @Chris. I agree with you that your answers do not always address the specific question of Milinda. But I also agree with Andrei: This should not be a reason to delete your answers :-) In my opinion "materialism" is a fighting word from 19. century. Also hedonism and ascetisms are labels rather to end a discussion than to exchange arguments. Of course I agree that your list comprises desirable properties of a human person. My own stance concerning your alternatives to cope with suffering: A selection from alternatives 2-4, depending on the circumstances and the kind of suffering.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 10:59
  • @Chris. I assume that you too use the word and the concept of "I"; see the beginning of your reply to Andrei :-) My understanding of anatta: 'anatta' meaning self-is-not-an-essence-or-entity is misunderstood as self-does-not-exists-at-all. (See "Galin, David: The concept of 'self' and 'person' in Buddhims and Western psychology (2001)". You can google the author) That's what Buddha wanted to emphasize. Of course the "I" of a person changes during life. But there is an enduring identity, my personal memory. It is the memory which explains both change and identity.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 11:14
  • :-) Hedonism and asceticism are words which the Buddha used to introduce the Middle Way (between extremes), immediately/even before he began to first explain the Four Noble Truths. If your question were only "Why worry about the past and future?" that would remind me of this story about the Sermon on the Mount. But a converse, a thing to worry about, a reply to an over-optimistic "There's nothing, never anything, to worry about", might be this story.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 14:42

OP: If I do not suffer from rebirth: Why worry about rebirth?

It's not about your rebirth into another womb that you should be worried about in the near future. Rather, it's the rebirth of your personhood that happens everyday, that you should consider. The person that experienced some suffering yesterday, today and will continue to experience suffering in the future, for the course of his or her natural life.

OP: If I do not remember any actions in past lifes: Why worry about karma?

You're absolutely right. You don't have to worry about what you did in a previous life. Rather, you have to worry about what you're doing today and tomorrow. If you don't take care of your health, you become ill. If you lie and deceive others, people will not trust you in future. If you break the law, you will be punished by law enforcers. What you think, speak and do today, reflects what effects you will experience tomorrow. That's karma.

OP: If I expect that death - quite naturally - ends the life of all beings: Why worry about nirvana?

It's suffering that you experience everyday and into the future that you should consider. Nirvana is freedom from this suffering.

Death may end life, but it doesn't end suffering. Suffering continues, for as long as ignorance continues. It's not my suffering or your suffering. It's just suffering.

OP: I distinguish between questions with answer and questions without: Why strive for enlightenment due to meditation?

Why? To end suffering, of course. If you're physically sick, you may see the doctor, consume medicine and, rest and recuperate. If you're spiritually suffering, you may see the Buddha, consume his medicine of the Noble Eightfold Path, including meditation, then relax and learn to let go of your suffering, clinging, craving and ignorance.


This reminds me a bit of that old joke about the guy who falls off the observation deck of a skyscraper. As he goes down past the 30th floor someone leans out a window and asks him how he's doing, to which he replies: "So far, so good..."

It's easy to live in a bubble where we ignore or dismiss cause and effect; one might even say it's natural. Someone can climb into their Tesla supercar, crank up the music, and boom down the road at twice the speed limit sealed up in their own technological ego-space. They will never hear the squealing tires and crunching fenders of freaked-out drivers they've left in their wake, and never see the hapless pedestrian or unexpected delivery van they will eventually crash into. Inside that little bubble all is right with the world, at least until the outside world intervenes.

You can dismiss future lives and past lives if you like — they are not part of my worldview either — but you cannot dismiss continuation itself. The past bleeds into and through you by genetics, culture, upbringing, social conditioning, etc; you bleed into and through the future by imposing your self on others the way you were imposed on by other selves. Any limits you want to put on that continuous flow — even birth and death — are arbitrary constructions: the edges of an imagined bubble your ego finds comfortable.

Asserting that some questions have (definitive) answers and other don't, and assumedly clinging to the first while ignoring the second... That's another edge of that bubble.

The Buddhist paradigm effaces the edges of that bubble, and effaces the imagined self that bubble defines. What happens then is a question you won't get a definitive answer to.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .