K.R. Norman on the "unborn" and "deathless"

The Collected Papers of the late K.R. Norman by and large address linguistic issues which have little to no relevance to the practicing Buddhist. But here and there we find some interesting reflections, which may change the way we look at some of the Buddha’s teachings. One is the paper Mistaken ideas about Nibbana. Even it goes into some nitty-gritty stuff, but I thought the following section is of most interest, because the subject has been discussed with relative frequency both here and elsewhere.

K.R. Norman - Collected papers 7 - Mistaken ideas about Nibbana - Death-free nibbana.pdf (888.2 KB)

I’m just sharing it here, because it isn’t available online. (PTS allows such sharing.) I don’t have the intention to start another discussion on the topic, although feel free to do so without me. :+1:


Without doubt Norman was a great scholar, but as far as I know (I am not sure in 100%) he wasn’t even a Buddhist. Assuming that it means that he was a puthujjana, his ideas about nibbana, just cannot help, were mistaken.:smiling_face:

Not being willing to consider arguments from people because you don’t think they could be stream enterers (or above) seems like a bad cognitive strategy.

The reason is, IMO, that you are probably more likely to feel that people who have similar views to yourself could be stream enterers and above. Thus, you consider less arguments that don’t agree with your views, your own views get more protection than they maybe should, and you risk not learning as much :woman_shrugging: :nerd_face: :yellow_heart:


Good article, thanks for sharing.

Norman points out that epithets such as ajāta or amata when applied to Nibbana don’t actually mean that Nibbana itself is “unborn” or “deathless”. Rather, they mean that it is the state where there is no being born or dying. A subtle distinction to be sure!

While it is obviously true to say that Nibbana is not born, it would seem to be equally true to say that samsara is not born, does not age, and does not die. Perhaps one might want to contest that, but that gets into the unknowable metaphysics, and surely that is not what the Buddha was talking about.

The point of the noble quest is to escape being reborn, because then you will be subject to old age and death. Nibbana is that escape.

I’ve made appropriate changes in my translations. “Deathless” should only be used in Brahmanical contexts.


I think I see the subtlety, but this also seems like a distinction without a difference. If such a state(throwing aside any ontology of Nibbana) is without birth and death, how is that different from saying the state itself is “unborn” or “deathless”?

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What do you think, is samsara born?


On a macrolevel the question can be tricky, but I don’t think it needs to be. Certainly the processes in samsara are born. It can’t be right to say there is samsara without consciousness, form, senses, etc. The links of DO are produced and “born”. Recognizing the flow of samsara is constantly being born and dying and from that saying it is “born” is different that postulating a first cause or something. in my opinion at least. If there is no difference between the experience of samsara and samsara on a macroscale it’s born, sure. Isn’t that our big issue with all this birth and death?

This kind of reminds me of an idea i’ve heard before, maybe even once from you Bhante. That impermanence is permanent. I think this can only be true in the abstract, because the actual content in samsara is anicca and the contents in samsara is samsara.
But even in a macroscale it makes sense to call nibbana anunborn and deathless and when you zoom in i think it still makes sense to call that state an unborn.

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It appears that if the Buddha is in nirvāṇa then that only makes sense if it is a (no birth? no death? no change? constant?) state of existence. If it is not a particular state of existence, how could the Buddha have attained or be in such a state - and in what sense can nirvāṇa be meaningfully be applied to the Buddha?

The only other possibility I can see is that nirvāṇa is a complete fiction meant to confound Buddhists about what the Buddha actually achieved (or didnt achieve) i.e. it is non-different from conventional death - conventional death here being described as deathlessness.

So I don’t see how Norman’s interpretations make any better sense of the term.

:thinking: Perhaps this is just years of acclimating to one way of thinking about it, but I think I’d say yes. Saṃsāra is contrived, fashioned, conditioned, and constructed by craving. Would you disagree, Bhante? :pray:

I think the question was more in the spirit of: Does (the entirety) of samsara have a beginning?

Right. To which the answer is technically ???

Jāti is always understood in the Dhamma as the rebirth of beings into the different orders of beings. That’s what the bodhisatta went on his noble search to escape, and that’s what must be meant by ajāta.

So when the Buddha considered where samsara had a beginning, he didn’t say “was it born?” but rather, “did it have a first point?”

Sure, it makes sense in a philosophical way. But it’s not how these words are used; it’s not their point. The point is that we don’t get born again.

But he isn’t, there’s no such “place” for him to be in, and no Tathagata to be in such a place. Before he suffered due to attachment, now the attachment is gone and there is no suffering.

Exactly. It is not a state of existence, it is the escape from all states of existence.


:thinking: Yeah, I agree. This is why I’m confused.

If “born” here meant “did it have a first point?” then wouldn’t nibbāna be born? (“Before he suffered, then he didn’t.”)

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But as per your understanding of Norman, it is a “state” (where there is no birth or death). If it is not a state that the Buddha exists in - in what way does such a state get associated with the Buddha? Does he not actually enter that state, and does he not subsist in that state? If the Buddha (or anybody else) is not found to subsist in that state, is it an imaginary state? If starting from a state of existence, he then escapes from all states of existence (according to you), that is annihilation/extinction. If he is not in a state of existence to begin with, then there is no nirvāṇa necessary to attain.

Hmmm… I see in SN 48.57 Brahmā Sahampati seems to call the Brahmā realm “deathless” :thinking: What do we make of that? Is he… mistaken?? Or can “amata” apply to more than just nibbāna? :thinking: (genuinely a bit confused here!)

Hello Venerable,

Does the sutta say that?
Brahma says by cultivating the five faculties " I lost desire for sensual pleasures. When my body broke up, after death, I was reborn (upapanno) in a good place, in the Brahmā realm."

Not seeing anything here about Brahma and “the deathless” or nibbāna.

Brahmā Sahampati ends the sutta saying,

I know and see how when these five faculties are developed and cultivated they culminate, finish, and end in the deathless.

His evidence for that statement was his rebirth in the Brahmā realm

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But I think Brahma is referring to the Buddha who was reflecting on these faculties which helped him to awakening.
Kind of like, “I’m not an Olympian athlete, but from what I see in your training I now know it can be achieved.”

And, although not yet fully awakened, he now knows directly that the practice of the faculties lead to the cessation of sensual clinging and now sees they lead to nibbāna – not that he’s “attained” this yet.

Anyway, those are my reflections.

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Ah, okay, a reasonable read. But doesn’t “I know…” usually indicate a first-person realization in the Pāli Canon?

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Agree – but I’d offer it’s not limited to realization of nibbāna.
In MN95, ‘ahametaṁ jānāmi, ahametaṁ passāmi" is used when the Buddha asks the Brahmins about their clinging to un-awakened views, and the same words are said by Brahma at the end of SN48.57, although in a different way.
Point is, neither example reflects a statement of full realization.

As I understand it, Brahma Sahampati is a non-returner, and he knows that when this life comes to an end he will not go anywhere else any more. He is aware that he is a non-returner, and he attributes his state and the fact that he is definitely bound for full awakening to his development of the five faculties in his previous life.