The basic meaning of the Buddhist goal, nibbāna or parinibbāna, means “extinguishment, quenching”, and is closely associated with the going out of a flame. In this sense, the term is ontologically negative, referring to the ending of something. Of course, this ending of existence is painted in glowingly positive psychological terms; our attitude towards it is positive, but the thing itself is an absence. There’s nothing particularly mysterious about this; it is like the alleviating of illness in a sick person.
There is a curious use of the term parinibbāna in MN 65. A colt is in training, and initially it fights the bit, writhing and dodging. But with regular practice it learns to stop fighting and accept the bit. As always, the similes are closely grounded in observation of everyday life.
When the horse learns to accept the bit—and also in subsequent stages of the training—the text expresses this with the curious idiom:
tasmiṃ ṭhāne parinibbāyati
It’s not obvious how to translate this. One problem is that ṭhāna has a wide variety of meanings, and it is not clear exactly what sense is intended here; it is probably something like “with regards to that situation”. Various translations:
- Chalmers: “until he is perfected by constant use and gradual practice therein”
- Horner: “it is brought to perfection in that respect”
- Bodhi: “he becomes peaceful in that action”
Thus all these translations take parinibbāyati in a positive sense, referring to the state of perfection or peace attained by the horse. Ven Bodhi is explicit in taking ṭhāna to refer to “that action”, by which he presumably means the proper conduct.
Of course, this is only a simile, and it has no direct relevance to the spiritual doctrine of Nibbana. However, if parinibbāyati has an established positive sense, this would lend support to the notion that Nibbana is an existing state of perfection. But such a reading is not required, and indeed, directly contradicts the commentary.
Tasmiṃ ṭhāneti tasmiṃ visevanācāre. Parinibbāyatīti nibbisevano hoti, taṃ visevanaṃ jahatīti attho
Tasmiṃ ṭhāneti: regarding that bad habit. Parinibbāyatīti: has no bad habit; the meaning is that he gives up that bad habit.
Thus the ṭhāna here is not the proper conduct that the horse is being trained in, but the “bad habit” (visevana) he is getting rid of. (That this is what visevana means is specified earlier: Visūkāyitānītiādīhi visevanācāraṃ kathesi.)
So parinibbāyati, as usual, has a negative sense, i.e. the bad habits that are gotten rid of. We could use “extinguishes that bad habit” but “gives up” is more idiomatic.
With regular and gradual practice it gives up that bad habit.
Of course, the commentarial reading is not necessarily normative. But in countless occasions, parinibbāyati has the same sense, that of quelling or eliminating suffering, and it would require a strong reason to us assume it had a positive sense here. But there is no such reason. Given that such a reading is neither required nor supported by tradition, in this case it seems best to follow the commentary. At the very least, such an ambiguous passage cannot be used to draw any conclusions about the nature of Nibbana in a spiritual sense.