Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Analysis of the Chariot

The use of a chariot as a simile for the self first appears in Buddhist scripture in the Saṃyutta-nikaya, the third of the five collections of sūtras in the Pali canon. A Buddhist nun, one Vajira, tells Māra the tempter:

There is no “being” found...[within oneself], only a heap of karmic constituents. Just as the word “chariot” is used when we come across a combination of parts, so we speak conventionally of a [human] being when the five aggregates are present. (Mitchell 39)

Later, the monk Nāgasena, in a dialogue known as the “Questions of Milinda”(Stryk 89), uses this same simile in greater detail, asking King Milinda a series of rhetorical questions:

Is the axle the chariot?... Are the wheels the chariot?...Is the chariot-body the chariot?...Is the flagstaff...the yoke...the reins...Is the Goad-stick the chariot? (Stryk 92)

He goes on to ask whether the chariot is simply “a sound”(92), and then explains to the King that, like the chariot, human beings are simply the sum of their parts: namely, the five aggregates (skandhas). Any one part of a human being, though it might be integral, is not the being. The parts of the chariot, though while they are assembled do conventionally constitute a chariot, are destined eventually to separate, leaving no sign that a chariot ever existed.

This simile, like many used in early Buddhism, seems designed to be grasped fully by even the simplest hearer of the teachings. There can be no doubt. Any object or thing can be described with the simile of the chariot. For instance, a toaster is not the heating elements, nor is it the controls. It is is not the plastic feet, nor is it the metal body. Neither is it the springs or the logo imprint of the manufacturer. It is is definitely not the toast, though bread may transmigrate through the toaster, becoming toast. When viewed in this way, the toaster can be seen more
accurately. It is an assemblage of parts, briefly put together for the function of heating bread, or perhaps frozen pizza, but it has no permanent or independent self. In that way, in an absolute sense, it can be considered illusory. In the same way, all beings are made up of impermanently gathered parts, all interdependent on each other and on countless other causes and conditions. It is a very powerful and immediate way to illustrate two subtle and sublime aspects of the Buddha's teaching: the five skandhas and no-self, which would otherwise be very challenging to explain.

Works Cited:
Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2008.

Stryk, Lucien. World of the Buddha: A Reader. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1969.

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