Feb 17, 2023
Martin Goodson

King Milinda Eats a Fine Meal!

Stories from the Buddhist Tradition

Why do new things lose their shine?

King Menander questions Nagasena, from a 19th century illustration.



The following story is from a series of writings related to the discourses of the Greco-Bactrian King Milinda with Bhikkhu Nagasena, with whom he had many arguments!

One day, King Mlinda turned to Nagasena and asked the old monk “Is it true that the Buddha taught the non-attachment to the passions as the way out of suffering?

"Yes sire”, replied Nagasena, ‘’That is true.”

"I must disagree with that view!" replied the king. "It is passion that gives life its vitality, that makes us feel alive. Who in their right mind wants to live an insipid life?”

Nagasena smiled since he was quite used to the king’s forthright manner, and said "On the contrary, it is a life led by the passions that prevents us from experiencing life. May I give you an example?" "Please do" demanded the King.

And so Nagasena tells the following story. "Imagine you had been invited to a neighbouring kingdom and the king there received you with perfect hospitality. He showed you and your court to a wonderful palace where he entertained you with fine music and the best dancers in his kingdom. There you were given a most wonderful feast in your honour. A dish is brought before you that you have never tasted before. You dip in your spoon and lift it to your lips; that first taste is exquisite! You have never tasted anything so fine in all your years on Earth. You send for your own cook and say to him, ‘’find out how to make this – I want to have the same dish tomorrow after we return. It must be exactly like this one; I have never tasted anything so fine.’’

Upon your return, you order your cook to make the dish. For dinner he brings it out to you. You take up your spoon and take a mouthful. It is good and yet somehow it is not as fine as the dish you ate the previous day which was so exquisite. You say to the cook, ‘’this is good but not as good as the dish I ate yesterday. I told you to make it in exactly the same way with exactly the same ingredients.’’ The cook says to you, ‘’I have followed the recipe exactly and used the same ingredients of the same quality as the dish you had yesterday.’’

 The cook is telling the truth, so the question remains why does it not taste the same? Well, when you ate that dish for the very first time, you had no expectations about it and were perfectly open to the experience of tasting that meal just as it is. In the 24 hours that follow, you have tasted and re-tasted that meal in your imagination, and your desire has been fired up by this imagining tasting it again. The imagination when fired up by desire idealises the experience to such an extent that the reality could never match up to what your desire wants. Thus, when you taste the meal, which is exactly the same, for a second time you no longer are open to the way things really are, only to your fired up expectation. That desire filters your experiences and you form judgements that make the first experience better and the latter one worse. This is how the passions prevent us from experiencing life to the full because they are constantly judging and finding fault. This is because the nature of desire is never to be satisfied with what is. It always seeks ‘more’.”

Now it was the king’s turn to smile. "I suppose even being a king I cannot rearrange the way the world is to make it entirely what I want it to be. Your example makes sense.” Turning to the cook who was standing there, not sure whether his neck was still on the line the king said "You have a lot to thank this old monk for. Now go back to the kitchen and we will have some tea.…

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