Example Of A Translation That Could Turn People Off Of Buddhism

My apologies, I tried to find the thread I originally brought this issue up in, but I could not find it.

In that other thread I mentioned that previous translators of the suttas often choose ( among more than one choice ) technically correct English words for Pali translations which have misleading connotations that can turn contemporary native English speakers off of Buddhism.

Often these choices seen negative, anti-life, and can remind people of puritanical Christian writings.

Ajahn Sujato asked me to provide some examples, but not keeping notes of such things over time I could only give him one or two.

I came across a good one today, so here goes.

I was reading SN 22.59 and came across this paragraph:

“Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form, revulsion towards feeling, revulsion towards perception, revulsion towards volitional formations, revulsion towards consciousness. Experiencing revulsion, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion his mind is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It’s liberated.’ He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’”

“Revulsion” seemed like a rather strong word to me. Thankfully, suttacentral.net has the Pali version of the suttas. I determined that the Pali word is “nibbindati”. Using this Pali-English translator I found that nibbindati is defined as:

nibbindati: [ni + vid + ṃ-a] gets wearied of; is disgusted with.

As a long term meditator, being “wearied” with form, feeling, etc leading to dispassion sounds much more natural to me than “revulsion”. To me as a native English speaker “revulsion” conjures up images of closing my mouth and swallowing vomit back down.

This kind of situation is why I think multiple translations are valuable, and why I feel that some of the contemporary translators out there have a negative, anti-life bias, as the two main ones are native English speakers who are well aware of such common connotations.


The more apt translation might be “dispassion”.

In terms of an “anti-life” bias, I am not so sure thats true. The Buddha taught the timeless truth of the way things are. The modern Western mind tends to have a sort of tender, bittersweet, if not sanctimonious need to have things be life-affirming. The Buddha told some truths that may be hard for especially the western mind to accept, but out of compassion: he wanted us to be liberated and put an end to suffering. He wasn’t saying it to be a downer.

So even if we did use the word “revulsion” its not necessarily inappropriate. These things he is urging revulsion towards keep us in the cycles of suffering.


Of course it is inappropriate. Are you a native English speaker? If so do you think “dispassion” ( your choice ), “dispassion”, and “revulsion” all carry the same connotations, the same informal meaning?

In other words “suck it up butter cup, unless you can express disdain like us tough guys you got it wrong” ?


No disrespect.

I’m a native English speaker yes and I do think dispassion is probably more appropriate.

As for your other comment, I don’t understand. Best of luck to you.

Translating can be tricky, and it seems that some Pali words have a much wider range than their English counterparts. Take dukkha, for example. The translation “suffering” seems completely over the top in some situations . On the other hand, telling someone in great pain: “Poor fellow, you must be feeling a little unsatisfactoriness” would not be very appropriate.

As for nibbidā, in many suttas, such as SN 22.79, it appears in the trio nibbidā, virāgā, vimutti:

“Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form, revulsion towards feeling, revulsion towards perception, revulsion towards volitional formations, revulsion towards consciousness. Experiencing revulsion (nibbidā), he becomes dispassionate (virāgā). Through dispassion his mind is liberated (vimutti). When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It’s liberated.’ He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’

This is a high stage of insight, and, as Bhikkhu Bodhi notes in the Introduction to his SN translation, it does need a rather strong translation:

Nibbidā, in MLDB, was translated “disenchantment.” However, the word or its cognates is sometimes used in ways which suggest that something stronger is intended. Hence I now translate the noun as “revulsion” and the corresponding verb nibbindati as “to experience revulsion.” What is intended by this is not a reaction of emotional disgust, accompanied by horror and aversion, but a calm inward turning away from all conditioned existence as comprised in the five aggregates, the six sense bases, and the first noble truth. Revulsion arises from knowledge and vision of things as they really are (yathābhotañāṇadassana), and naturally leads to dispassion (virāga) and liberation (vimutti; on the sequence, see SN 12.23).

I always liked the “disenchantment” translation.

At the same time, though, this language of ‘severing from’, ‘vomiting out’, and ‘revulsion to’ is largely what separates Earlier Buddhisms from Mahāyāna, wherein this language of ‘severing from’, ‘vomiting out’, and ‘revulsion to’ is heavily polemicized against because it is incoherent (or, to be less strong in wording, problematic) with a specifically non-abiding nirvāṇa.

Since Eastern Orthodox anchoritic spirituality has already been mentioned here on this forum, for instance, they say that becoming a Christian monastic involves a progressive dying to the world(ly). I am sure that Buddhist monasticism has similar discourse of dying to the world(ly). Also language that could turn people off Buddhism, but IMO necessary language- because it is honest.

1 Like

I’ve posted on this earlier.

But in summary, nibbidā has a range of senses, from “revulsion” at one end to “boredom”, “disillusionment”, etc. To be clear, “revulsion” or “repulsion” is not an incorrect translation: in some contexts it must be rendered like this. So it’s a matter of the judgement of the translator as to what works in cases where the sense is less clearly defined.

I tried using more colloquial renderings like “weariness” or “boredom” but I couldn’t get them to work in doctrinal contexts, so currently I use “disillusionment”.

Well, kind of, but it would be better to say that words in different languages have different semantic scopes. Pali/English is no different than any other language pair.


Ajahn Sujato,

“disillusionment” is far better than “revulsion”.

Thank you.

It is important to get the meaning and the message right here. However we mustn’t water down just to make it sound pleasant. The Buddha warned that a sign of decline of the dispensation is when the more poetic teachings are favoured over deep topics such as emptiness (not that you’re doing that).

I prefer repulsion myself.

With metta


I don’t think disillusionment is a “watering down” of the intended meaning.

1 Like

This is context dependent. I think you haven’t experienced repulsion yourself, have you?

With metta

My opinion is that attachment is inherent in revulsion( and repulsion ), that is why I favored the alternate synonyms given by the Pali->English dictionary site.

I think attachment is inherent in nibbida too- hence the suffering. Those who are less attached to phenomena suffer less, IMO. But seeing the Truth about phenomena at this stage allows dispassion viraga to develop, which is the following step. Attachment is lost only at this stage, i.e. this process is required for letting go at the deepest level.

With metta

1 Like

There is another issue about nibbida that is important. What is the beneficial context in which nibidda appears? We may feel disillusioned, disenchanted, repulsed or revulsion - at different times about different things. Exactly what is it that we need to feel ‘deeply’ jaded and world-weary about? What does it mean to turn-away from the world?

The only way we can turn away from the world is to turn-away from ‘our’ world. It is our world - as we experience it - that is where we must look in order to understand the Dhamma. We cannot find our freedom in the world ‘out there’ and we cannot find it ‘in here’. You are the door that you need to walk through!

The nibidda we need to experience in order to ‘wake up’ is a consequence of self-awareness. We need to experience nibidda with regard to ourselves, how we are living, what we do and, why?

We may begin to feel genuine discontent with the way we have been living. The vacuous existence we often live before we begin to search for a genuine solution - that which brings dukkha to an end.

We don’t need to feel revulsion with regard to the world if it does not give rise to desire and attachment. We can care for the world - warts and all - the good, the bad and the ugly.

The repulsive and catastrophic is not hidden or difficult to find. That which is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and, beautiful in the end has entered our field of vision - the Dhamma. A bit of loving kindness can make a real difference in a world in need of infinite care.

If we become conscious of the fact that we are living a life that is not showing any promise, a life without purpose or meaning, we have found a place where nibidda may arise. If we meet good friends and teachers at this critical juncture we begin to move towards freedom. We apply ourselves to another way of being in the world - the path - until the issue is resolved.

May all beings be liberated! :slight_smile:

1 Like

We are not trying to turn away from conventional experiences. That is mentioned under a somewhat different scheme, of seeing the gratification (aassada), drawbacks (aadinava), and escape (nissarana)- there is no revulsion in that scheme.

"Any consciousness whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every consciousness is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’
"Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’"SN22.59

Revulsion is reserved for deep phenomena, seen ideally at jhanic level of blissful samadhi ie vipassana. What is seen is not birds, trees, books but the five aggregates- which are components of every experience that we ever had or will have. This services to carve out craving at a deep level.

Consciousness proliferates at these aggregates again and again due to this deep level craving and attachment. The ending of this craving is the ending of all suffering.

with metta

This reminds me of my issue with sankhara. I don’t think “volition” really captures its meaning and actually confuses the reader to how it is meant to work in dependent origination and in the 5 aggregates. I don’t know if whatever word is chosen should be used for both, but I do think it should have the same basic idea and I don’t think it should ever be volition, because I’m pretty sure that’s not how the buddha ever meant it. Volition is too personal, it implies a self behind the action, and these are meant to be impersonal processes.

I am not talking about a philosophical nibidda in my comments. We have heard our monastic teachers talking about the disgusting reality of samsara and it is not hard to see. As to whether we need to have this insight in the foreground of our consciousness for deep realisation - is a moot point. I guess we will know when we get there?

I am still talking about a disenchantment with the five aggregates. If you are disenchanted with your life of worldly vacuity you are disenchanted with the five aggregates of being. What else could it be?

The personalistic language I used is just a manner of speaking. The disenchantment I referred to was a ‘happening’ in the life of a human being but it can also be talked about in an impersonal way.

Everything that happens in the unfolding of sentient existence - our lived reality - can be couched in personal and impersonal terms. Everything that happens is ultimately not-self - nothing personal. By speaking personally we ground our experience of the path in our daily lives. Something is lost and something is gained by way of understanding in the process - IMO.

I am talking about an experience of lived disenchantment that had important consequences. This seems less abstract than talking about the ‘disgusting and repulsive’ realities of existence. This is something we can contemplate but in a more abstract way. If it is your lived reality then that’s fine - I hope it helps? :heart_eyes:

This is a really good point. Nibbida is never depicted as an absolute or core value. It is a stage in the development of insight, a very advanced stage at that. When you see how advanced meditators live, they’re obviously not going “Ew, yucky!” all the time! Actually, they’re pretty chill, smiling and happy.

But there is a point, or more likely, many points, in meditation where the aspect of disgust comes up, a feeling of overwhelming repulsion at conditions, at change, at the very idea of existence. I think the reason it’s mentioned so prominently is so that we don’t fear that feeling and try to hide from it. If our progress is proceeding smoothly, and especially, if we have laid the groundwork of emotional serenity with jhana, then the nibbida passes and we feel a deep peace, clarity, and equanimity.

This is one of the problems with trying to make the Dhamma too inoffensive in our translations. If we make it all sound like sweetness and light, we shy away from genuine experiences that people have. Meditators feel these things, and then they understand what it means. But if they think that meditation is only about being peaceful and happy, they get confused and distressed when the dark times come.



IMO the larger problem is translations without footnotes.
For instance, the word “revulsion” should be followed by a rerence to a footnote .
At minimum the footnote would read something like the definition you found.

nibbindati: [ni + vid + ṃ-a] gets wearied of; is disgusted with.

The alternative is to use the word untranslated with a footnote . In this way a reader gradually acquires a small, basic vocabulary of important words from the original language.