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Does nibbidā mean "revulsion" or "disillusionment"?

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#1

Sometimes technical terms in the EBTs are used very frequently, but with little context. They occur in doctrinal passages, and the basic meaning is clear in context, yet pinning down the exact nuance can be difficult. In such cases we try to draw upon the meanings in everyday contexts, for that is how language works: from the simple and mundane to the abstract and philosophical.

One such term is the well-known nibbidā. Dictionaries give meanings such as “disgust”, “dissatisfaction”, “aversion”, “weariness”, “disenchantment”, “turning away”, “indifference”. That’s quite a semantic range for a term that almost always appears in exactly the same few doctrinal tropes! A few of these senses apply only to later texts, such as “weariness”.

Ven Bodhi followed Ven Nyanamoli in rendering as “disenchantment” for the Majjhima. In the Samyutta, he noted that it sometimes has a stronger sense, and used “revulsion”. While he gives no sources, I believe this was in response to a note from Ajahn Brahm, who has long argued for a stronger meaning. In Ven Bodhi’s Anguttara translation, however, he reverted to “disenchantment”, with (so far as I can see) no explanation.

I have looked, but I can’t find any cases that confirm the “stronger” sense of nibbidā. Perhaps they were thinking of contexts such as AN 9.15. This speaks of the body as a boil, with nine wounds oozing disgusting filth. The text finishes urging the monks to have nibbidā for the body. The problem is that there’s no real connection between the “disgustingness” of the body and the experience of nibbidā per se. After all, one is supposed to have nibbidā when seeing impermanence, or suffering, and so on. Nibbidā doesn’t mean disgust, it is the response when seeing something disgusting (or impermanent or whatever).

It is also worth noting that when the stock phrases that speak of things that are disgusting—such as aṭṭīyati harāyati jigucchati—are used, nibbidā is not found. The two ideas are distinct. Even places that relate the two ideas, such as the passage discussed above, are rare.

So what do we find in the everyday sense? By far the most common idiom is a phrase meaning to “leave disappointed” (nibbijja pakkamati). It’s used of the Buddha being disappointed in his former teachers (MN 26); the five monks being disappointed in the bodhisatta (MN 36); and the Jains being disappointed in the behavior of their monks after the passing of their teacher (DN 29). The same idiom is also used of a jackal who can’t get any meat out of a tortoise that’s all withdrawn in its shell; and Mara who gets disappointed when he can’t find a vulnerability (SN 35.240).

Mara also features in another couple of related idioms, including the “verses of disappointment” (nibbejanīyā gāthāyo) he recites when he realizes his failure to trap the Buddha (SN 4.24). Both he and his daughters appear in the context of “leaving disappointed”, which has the same sense as nibbijja pakkamati, but here we have nibbijjāpema (= nibbijja apema where apema = apa + eti).

All of these cases have basically the same meaning, to have your expectations or hopes dashed. “Disenchantment” isn’t quite right. Either “disillusionment” or “disappointment” would seem to mostly work okay. Note, though, that “disillusionment” means to have one’s unrealistic ideas corrected. But in some examples, specifically the case of the five monks leaving the Buddha, nibbidā doesn’t necessarily mean that one realizes the truth. In that case, they are experiencing nibbidā, but still based on their misunderstanding. Thus “disappointment” would fit better in such cases.

Clearly, in any case, there is no justification for the “stronger” renderings such as “disgust” or “revulsion”. You might argue that such sense could work in some cases: the five monks were disgusted with the bodhisatta when he started eating solid food. But it doesn’t fit the case of the Buddha leaving his former teachers, nor the jackal who can’t find food. “Disappointment” covers all these cases.

In doctrinal contexts, however, “disappointment” wouldn’t work. Practice Dhamma, and it leads to disappointment! In such cases, “disillusionment” works better.


On tortoises and samādhi
#2

… Oozing boils certainly can generate disgust, in initial perception. However, if one either as a patient or a medical professional is perceiving and dealing with boils over and over and over (rebirth, anyone?) the shock and disgust may be inevitably mellows into distaste but more practical focus of attention; it’s unfortunate having to deal with this again, but knowing how, one deals with it and moves on without clinging to it at all. Even if seeing, there is a reoccurring unpleasant non useful phenomenon which if conditions (or conditioning?) fits X, will occur again.

Thank you for this small essay. :slight_smile: Just what i seemed to need at the moment.


#3

Cold you provide the sutta link?


#4

In Sinhalese, we use the word “kala kireema” to indicate Nibbbida.
For instance when people are Kala Kereema about their life some people become monks and others commit suicide.
More I study Buddhism more I become disenchanted about life and want to become a monk to fully realise Nibbana.


#5

Did Ajahn Brahm give any references to passages where Nibbida requires a stronger form like “revulsion”?

Maybe from an implicit connection between the practice of asubha (un-attractive 31 body parts) in the overcoming of kāma (sensual desire), rāga (passion/lust).

In Vesali sutta, SN 54.9, scores of monks commit suicide because practice of asubha led to aṭṭīyamānā harāyamānā jigucchamānā,

Becoming horrified, repelled, and disgusted with this body, they looked for someone to assist their suicide. Te iminā kāyena aṭṭīyamānā harāyamānā jigucchamānā satthahārakaṃ pariyesanti. 3.4Each day ten, twenty, or thirty mendicants committed suicide.

https://suttacentral.net/sn54.9/en/sujato

It’s really important to note that the Buddha, after learning of the mass suicide, never discontinued the teaching and practice of asubha, which has that inherent risk, but simply added 16 APS (anapana) as another meditation technique, perhaps as the first option as a meditation subject instead of asubha.

Perhaps it’s on the basis of asubha practice, and its role in producing these words that appear together often (nibbida, viraga, nirodho, nibbana). that led Ven. Bodhi to translate nibbida as “revlusion” sometimes.

edit, addition:
But why disillusionment instead of disenchantment? If Vens. Bodhi, Thanissaro, Nanamoli have adopted that, it’s good to use a commonly accepted translation. I read the part here where you make that distinction, that disillusionment carries a sense of “having unrealistic ideas corrected”, but a quick google definition search, “disenchantment” and “disillusionment” seem to synonymous.


#6

Dear Friends in the Dhamma,

When I come across Nibbida, the Sinhala words that come up in my mind are either ‘Kalakireema’ or ‘Epaveema’ but, I cannot think of a suitable English word other than the word ‘disappointment’ or ‘disenchantment’.

In my view, the two Sinhala words correctly convey the meaning of Nibbida. I think the word ‘Epaveema’ which is a colloquial word coneys the meaning even better than’ ‘Kalakireema’.

Perhaps, someone who is doing Sinhala/English translation could provide a better English word to any of the two Sinhala words.

With Metta,
Upasako


#7

Interestingly the older Indian context justifies both the stronger and the weaker meaning. In Satapatha Brahmana 2.3.4.6 we find

Whosoever follows either a Brahman or Kshatriya, praising him, thinking, ’ He will give me gifts, he will build me a house,’ to him, if he strives to please him both in speech and deed, that (master of his) will think himself bound to give gifts. Whosoever, on the other hand, says, ‘What art thou to me, that givest me nothing?’ him that (master) is likely to hate [dveṣṭorīśvaro, also: ‘to be hostile against’], to become nirveda with [translated as ‘disgusted’].

Since the first word (to hate, to be hostile) is rather strong, we can assume that the second (which is the Skt equivalent to nibbida) is strong as well.

Interestingly Baudhayana Srautasutra XVII.48 rather suggests a weaker meaning:

This offering leads to the attainment of (labhya) or indifference towards (nirveda) the thing to be achieved.

Here a strong idea like ‘disgust’ or ‘hatred’ doesn’t make sense.

Other than that the term is not to be found in old literature and appears mostly in the Mahabharata. So maybe someone could do a small Mbh analysis…


#8

This is all quite persuasive. But I would like to pick you up on one point:

It seems to me that one is normally repelled by what is disgusting. Isn’t this connection good enough?

In a broader sense what is disgusting must be included in dukkha. And it seems quite natural to me that one should be repelled by suffering. (See for instance AN 7.49, which, however, does not use the word nibbidā.) None of which proves that nibbidā means “repulsion,” but it opens up the possibility that it is included as a subsidiary meaning.

I am saying this just to give a bit of nuance. I do not wish to challenge you overall argument.


#9

In terms of disenchantment vs. disillusion, I would choose disillusion for translation, simply because an illusion is one we choose to perceive (e.g., optical illusions), whereas an enchantment can generally be dismissed and blamed on an external evil magicdoer. Disillusion can be gently negative (“Disillusioned with taxis, they took a rideshare”) or can be strengthened by using an adjective (e.g., “crushing disillusionment”). In contrast, “revulsion” has no such subtlety and just “feels dhukkha” to me.


#10

I am not qualified to engage regarding the mechanics of translation. But I really like the use of

as an expression of nibbida. Finding something naturally distasteful, one is repelled from it > moving away from samsara and toward liberation as a natural process of being free of delusion. ie being attracted to the Dhamma and repelled by samsara


#11

It’s not a quote, just an example, but this kind of thing occurs commonly.

I think he did, I suspect it’s the passage I discussed. But it was 20 years ago.

Either will work, but I feel disillusionment is a better fit. Also, it’s a little more flexible; for example, consider a line like imasmiṃ kāye nibbindatha, “Have no illusions about the body”, which I think is more idiomatic than Ven Bodhi’s “become disenchanted with this body”.

Generally speaking, I do not prioritize consistency with earlier translators. Indeed, I feel that the problem with the field of translation is not that different translators choose different renderings, but premature ossification. We are not at a stage in our history where we can confidently say we have it all nailed down, so it’s good to keep some churn going, encourage innovation and exploration.

Well spotted on the Sanskrit texts, I had missed these!

I don’t really think so; dveṣa has a range of meanings. If a student is impolite or ungracious, that doesn’t mean a teacher will “hate” them, more likely simply “dislike” would fit better here, and likewise “disappointed” for nirveda.

But it is interesting how similar the context is to the Buddhist texts: the relation between teacher and student is the primary context where nibbidā appears, a detail I have never seen noticed before.

Note that in this case too, “disappointment” is probably the intended sense: you either get what you want or you’ll be disappointed.

No! “If A then B” does not imply “if B then A”. The cause, in this case, is disgust, the result nibbidā. But in other cases, the cause is not disgust at all, but impermanence and the like. So you can’t infer from nibbidā to disgust at all.

It might be a reasonable inference if there was a persistent pattern where these words are used together. But the opposite is true: this passage is rare, whereas the passages connecting nibbidā to insight generally are very frequent.


#12

Bhante @sujato,

In his book “The Art of Disappearing” throughout the very first chapter, Ajahn Brahm had used “nibbidā” mainly as disengagement. Here are just a few excerpts:

" When we really understand the problem of suffering…It’s neither trying to escape nor accepting whatever comes; it’s nibbidā.
Nibbidā means disengaging. We turn away from this thing we call life”

“But when you disengage, you have no business there, and because you’re not interested in it, the whole thing just disappears from your consciousness. When you have nibbidā you’re really “un-creating” your world.”

In a Forest Sangha Newsletter, AB used “dispassion”:

"If it really is insight, it creates dispassion (nibbidā) in the mind.
Nibbidā gives rise to a more intense form of dispassion, called viraga.

https://www.fsnewsletter.org/html/18/samd.htm

:anjal:


#13

I also find “hate” quite a harsh word, but I don’t see much leeway in Skt. For example Satapatha 1.5.4.11 speaks of an enemy and advises the ritual:

For this reason let him (the sacrificer) say, when the first fore-offering has been performed, ‘ One for me!’ and ‘One for him whom we hate!’ And if he should not hate any one, let him say, 'who hates us and whom we hate!’ (smāndvéṣṭi yáṃ ca vayáṃ dviṣma)

Do you see Skt passages that speak for a softer version of antipathy? Or maybe it’s brash ‘forest language’ that we have to tone down for a proper perspective?


#14

Could the intensity and nuance of the meaning behind “nibbidā” simply just be contextual; somewhat similar to the multiple usages of “dhamma” and it is appropriate to sometimes use revulsion or disillusionment due to the natural subtle versatility inherent in the word?

Maybe there was once a difference in tone when “nibbidā” was spoken by a native-speaker in conversation or later recitation that has since been lost over the centuries through the transcribing process and subsequent chanting afterwards. Could this nuance have been muddled by the scriptures themselves after the end of the oral tradition and this confusion is just an artifact of the dialect itself that wouldn’t translate uniformly?

I could be off on this, but the thought occurred so I typed it.
:heart:


#15

With respect to Bhante,

The following quote is from ‘Paṭisambhidāmagga’ under ‘bhaṅgānupassanāñāṇaniddeso’

As per this, ‘nibbinda’ is opposite of ‘nanda’. Nandati means, find delight in, rejoicing, to be glad. So, nibbinda means negative forms of these three.

My understanding is ‘revulsion’ is a good fit.

“aniccato anupassanto niccasaññaṃ pajahati. dukkhato anupassanto sukhasaññaṃ pajahati. anattato anupassanto attasaññaṃ pajahati. nibbindanto nandiṃ pajahati. virajjanto rāgaṃ pajahati. nirodhento samudayaṃ pajahati. paṭinissajjanto ādānaṃ pajahati.”

Sādhu Bhante Sādhu
:pray::pray::pray:


#16

When you are sick of your sickness you will cease to be sick.


#17

Do you meant to learn to live with sickness?
Cases such as, if yor are terminally ill and there is no cure, you accept the nature of living?
Can you say it is Nibbida?


#18

@SarathW1

This is a quote by laozi. I dont know in exactly what sense he meant it. But for my self it captures the meaning of nibbida.

"You can’t remedy the changing of sankharas.
Fashioned by kamma,
they’re out to spite no one.
If you grasp hold of them
to push them this way & that,
the mind has to become defiled & wrong.
Don’t think of resisting
the natural way of all things.
Let good & evil follow their own affairs.
We simply free
ourselves.
-Ajahn Mun


#19

This sounds close to Upekkha.

Here’s another thread on it: What is the best translation for nibbida


#20

Well what ever it is, it must be a extremely powerful state of mind where the noble ones turn there backs on infinite samsara. A flash of lightning that vaporises a mighty tree that stood for a long time.