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"The Unborn", "The Deathless" ,"The Unconditioned": Translating epithets for nibbāna

pali
translation
nibbana
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#1

In English translations, we often find epithets for nibbāna such as amata and ajāta translated as the deathless” and the unborn”, which may be read as an implicit reification of nibbāna.

The most prominent example is perhaps Udāna 8.3:

“Atthi, bhikkhave, ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ. No cetaṃ, bhikkhave, abhavissa ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, nayidha jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyetha. Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, atthi ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ, tasmā jātassa bhūtassa katassa saṅkhatassa nissaraṇaṃ paññāyatī”ti.

Bhikkhu Ānandajoti translation:

“There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned. If, monks there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, you could not know an escape here from the born, become, made, and conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore you do know an escape from the born, become, made, and conditioned.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation is quite similar:

There is, monks, an unborn[1] — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.

While ajātaṃ may certainly be translated as “the unborn” or “an unborn” perhaps it could also be translated as “not-being-born” and amata as “not-dying”.

A while back, there was a discussion on dhammawheel where tiltbillings suggested using “freedom from birth”, or “freedom from death”. Here is his proposed translation:

“Monks, there is freedom from birth, freedom from becoming, freedom from making, freedom from conditioning. For, monks if there were not this freedom from birth, freedom from becoming, freedom from making, freedom from conditioning, then escape from that which is birth, becoming, making, conditioning, would not be known here. But, monks, because there is freedom from birth, freedom from becoming, freedom from making, freedom from conditioning, therefore the escape from that which is birth, becoming, making, conditioning is known.”

More discussion on dhammawheel here.

I haven’t found a discussion regarding this on this forum apart from this post by Bhikkhu Brahmāli where something similar was suggested:


#2

Amata literally means the drink of the gods or water of immortality and it is a synnym to Nibbāna.

A general conception of a state of durability & non — change, a state of security i. e. where there is not any more rebirth or re — death. So Bdhgh at KhA 180 (on Sn 225) “na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati ti amatan ti vuccati” (PTS dict.- p 84)

All these words: ajātaṃ abhūtaṃ akataṃ asaṅkhataṃ used to reflect the characteristics of Nibbāna.

Ajātaṃ because Nibbāna is not originated dependently such as pleasure, perception, etc.

Abhūtaṃ - Nibbāna was not there all by itself and did not arise itself without a reason, therefore it is abhūtaṃ ( also because of the absence of four grate elements in nibbāna, it is abhūtaṃ??).

Asaṅkhataṃ- Nibbāna was not there all by itself and did not arise all by itself, it was not created from something, so it is unconditioned (asaṅkhataṃ). Not arised with a conditioned basis. Things like nāmarūpa are conditioned. Nibbāna is not one of those things therefore it is called Asaṅkhataṃ.

Since there is a doubt that something was done to create Nibbāna, to get rid of that nibbāna is considered akataṃ.

Therefore the words used to translations should reflect these means.


#3

Is this something you can do with the Pali grammatically? I’m asking as someone who doesn’t know Pali. In Chinese, I could see myself doing this because part of speech is more fluid. A verb can be nominalized if the context warrants it.

It seems that we need to use either 1) adjectives or 2) negated verbs, and both will imply that some noun, expressed or not, is being described, which a reader can reify in their mind. It doesn’t help that we have this noun in the canon, Nibbāna, that creates the issue in the first place. I’m not sure translator word choice is really the root of the problem.

Thanks by the way, for the note about amata. The Chinese makes sense to me now. I was always wondering why it seemed like a translation of soma.


#4

I recently wrote a few words about it on this forum.




#5

Can it be said that nibbana is [anything]?


#6

If I avoid “the,” “a,” I can think of these alternatives.

“What wasn’t born, won’t die, and isn’t conditioned.”
“The lack of birth, death, and conditioning.”
“Birthlessness, deathlessness, and conditionlessness.”
“What’s unborn, undying, and unconditioned.”
“What’s not birth, not death, and not conditioning.”
“What’s without birth, without death, and without conditions.”

There are only so many ways it can be worded. My question is, as a translator, is there really any difference?

It’s like describing a hole. It isn’t really a thing, but stands for the absence of something.


#7

I like that. … & anyone running around looking for no-self can stop looking when they fall down that hole.


#8

Interesting. I was thinking about ‘zero’. Is it a number?


#9

This particular sutta states that nibbāna exists without a beginning which is a deep and complex fact. This is one of those factors that males it difficult to understand nibbāna. If there is something that should have a beginning (starting point?). It is a fact that “something that did not arise cannot exist”. Most of the things in the world do not exceed this rule. However, this is not a universal rule. There are dhammas that exists without a beginning.
When we talk about Paññatti; idealy we have to say that they do not exist. But, they are not entirely absent, and exist as ideas.
For an example, Table is a paññatti, that has no starting point or an origin. Literally, earlier it was not there and then made by a carpenter. But that is not entirely true. We just think that way because we do not know what exactly is the “table”.
So how could we learn waht is the table?
A table has four legs, a box apron, sometimes side stretchers, and a top. Table is not a mass of matter, if the mass of matter is the table, the pile of wood that make the table also should call a table. If someone breaks it apart we nomore call it a table. Then the log which was used to saw the wooden pieces also shuld call the table. Therefore, the mass of matter is no the table.
Table is an idea created in the mind seeing a structure which has four legs, a top and a box apron connecting legs and the top. This is something we can feel only in the mind. What we see or touch is that set of wood pieces. Literally, there is no such thing called a table but set of wooden pieces. But what we feel as a table in the mind is not something which is not there. We see a table because there really is something that can be identified as a table. Things that we experience in the mind but literally do not exist are called Paññatti.
Ex: Table, Chair, House, Kassapa, Tree, etc.

If the table is put into a fire, the wooden physical thing burns into ashes but nothing would happen to the “table”. If it was destroyed using some other method still only the physical thing disappears. When a carpenter makes a table he put wooden pieces in a way that he feels how a table looks. People who know the combination that made by the carpenter, also feels the table.

Those who understand what a table is, can similarly understand the existance of Nibbāna as expalained in the sutta.

There is no place to find the so called table, so does nibbana, but it both exist. But nibbāna is neither emptiness nor a paññatti. It is a paramatta.

Note:
paramattha - the highest good, ideal; truth in the ultimate sense, philosophical truth

Paññatti - making known, manifestation, description, designation, name, idea, notion
Please suggest a better word for "Paññatti"


#10

Do these epithets represent the cessation of dependent origination, which is all about conditionality, birth and death? The cessation of conditioned existence?


#11

Yeah Mata is the past perfect passive of the root mar meaning to die. Which means Mata means dead


#12

Thank you bhante!
If nibbana was not a discernible dhamma such conversations between noble individuals as the following would be impossible.

Well, Reverend Anuruddha, when you say:
(“Yaṃ kho te, āvuso anuruddha, evaṃ hoti:)

‘With clairvoyance that is purified and surpasses the human, I survey the entire galaxy,’ that’s your conceit.
(‘ahaṃ dibbena cakkhunā visuddhena atikkantamānusakena sahassaṃ lokaṃ volokemī’ti, idaṃ te mānasmiṃ.)

And when you say:
(Yampi te, āvuso anuruddha, evaṃ hoti:)

‘My energy is roused up and unflagging, my mindfulness is established and lucid, my body is tranquil and undisturbed, and my mind is immersed in samādhi,’ that’s your restlessness.
(‘āraddhaṃ kho pana me vīriyaṃ asallīnaṃ, upaṭṭhitā sati asammuṭṭhā, passaddho kāyo asāraddho, samāhitaṃ cittaṃ ekaggan’ti, idaṃ te uddhaccasmiṃ.)

And when you say:
(Yampi te, āvuso anuruddha, evaṃ hoti:)

‘But my mind is not freed from the defilements by not grasping,’ that’s your remorse.
(‘atha ca pana me nānupādāya āsavehi cittaṃ vimuccatī’ti, idaṃ te kukkuccasmiṃ.)

It would be good to give up these three things. Instead of focusing on them, apply your mind to the deathless.”
(Sādhu vatāyasmā anuruddho ime tayo dhamme pahāya, ime tayo dhamme amanasikaritvā amatāya dhātuyā cittaṃ upasaṃharatū”ti.)

After some time Anuruddha gave up these three things. Instead of focusing on them, he applied his mind to the deathless.
(Atha kho āyasmā anuruddho aparena samayena ime tayo dhamme pahāya, ime tayo dhamme amanasikaritvā amatāya dhātuyā cittaṃ upasaṃhari.)

Then Anuruddha, living alone, withdrawn, diligent, keen, and resolute, soon realized the supreme culmination of the spiritual path in this very life. He lived having achieved with his own insight the goal for which gentlemen rightly go forth from the lay life to homelessness.
AN3.130

Zero is most definitely a number and Nibbana must be a Dhamma discernible to Ariyas.


#13

An interesting comment on quora

Oh woops 0 is not a number.
I guess x*2-2x+1=0 will never be what it used to be…
-Doruk Aksoy


#14

Interestingly, that’s exactly how Joseph Goldstein described his first major awakening experience during an interview, “the experience of zero”.


#15

Also relevant is this great post by Bhante Brahmāli:

“Deathless”, for instance, is supposed to be a translation of amata . Mata means dead and the a is a negative prefix. A common use of such prefixes is as a privative, that is, to show the absence of the term they are associated with. Amata should therefore be translated a “freedom from death”. That this is correct can be seen from it’s usage in MN26, where it is clear from the context that the Buddha is searching for the freedom from death, not some sort of deathless state.

I don’t even know what the Pali word behind “realm” is supposed to be, and I am not sure if there even is one. But the Pali word behind “element” is dhātu , and “element” is not really a satisfactory rendering, at least not in this context. For instance, in the suttas you have the nirodha-dhātu , which would then be the “element of cessation”. This is fine, but only if we expand our normal understanding of “element”. A better translation might be “the property of cessation”. In the same way, amatadhātu can best be rendered as “the property of freedom from death”.

If you look for eternal bliss, that’s what you will find, except you will be disappointed. Your view will decide how you interpret your experience. If you get it wrong, you will get stuck. So yes, have an open mind, but remember that nibbāna means extinguishment, not eternal bliss.

The danger in reification of nibbāna is, I think - if one keeps practicing with the hope of arriving at an eternally happy state, one will never fully give up craving for existence, and that may prevent the practitioner from the break through to stream entry.


#16

I don’t really see the difference in meaning between the expressions “deathless” and “freedom from death.” One is an adjective and other is a noun phrase, I guess, but they both mean the absence of death. It sounds like Brahmali is describing the difference in negation that Chinese would discern with 非 and 無, where the first creates an opposite and the second indicates an absence of something. So, you could translate amata as “without death” or “having no death” as well, if that’s the case. There’s another term 離 that would mean “freedom from” or “separation from” something.

The term amata, as I understand it, is used for ironic effect because it refers to the immortality of gods. Usually, the Chinese translates it not as deathless but as a synonym of ambrosia, the drink of the gods. This is important, I think, because it seems as though Pali studies can become divorced from idiomatic usage and obsess over etymological interpretations. Chinese translations indicate actual living language readings (well, ancient living-language readings). But, and it’s a big “but,” they aren’t Pali readings.

This doesn’t directly relate to the Pali sources, but the Chinese texts have some interesting phrasing around Nirvana sometimes. For example, when used for the death of an arhat, we sometimes get the expression “entered into Nirvana” literally in the Chinese, which suggests a state of being or a location, grammatically. At some point, I plan to study the Agamas more to see if there are any interesting insights/differences and if I can find parallel passages to compare. I’m sure other scholars have done the same, but it’s always interesting to go through the readings personally.


#17

It feels like we’re focusing on semantics, but not getting to the practical meaning.

So what does amata mean, practically speaking? What does “deathless” or “freedom from death” mean, practically speaking?
And what does ajatam mean, practically speaking? What does “unborn” or “freedom from birth” mean, practically speaking?

Are these terms referring to liberation from the cycle of birth and death, and if so, what does that mean, practically speaking? Or is it referring to the result of liberation from identity-view, the realisation that there is no self which is born and dies? Or liberation from the fear of extinction? Or something else?

I suspect the OP epithets refer directly to the cessation of DO, the difficulty is a lack of consensus about how the cessation of DO should be interpreted. Is there a progressive “winding down” of DO, or is it a sudden collapse?


#18

An intriguing verse in AN11.9

‘Homage to you, O thoroughbred man.
Homage to you, O superlative man—
you of whom we don’t know even what it is
dependent on which
you’re absorbed.

‘Namo te purisājañña,
namo te purisuttama;
Yassa te nābhijānāma,
yampi nissāya jhāyasī’”ti.


#19

I think Amatabhani explained it fairly well, and I’m coming to the same conclusion. It’s basically the principle that rebirth can end, stated as a basic principle of the world. So, sages can realize it, and someone who has become an arhat or buddha can enter it upon death. It does seem to me that there is a dual understanding, but my judgement is still suspended. It’s definitely a principle, the second reading might just be a manner of speaking that I’ve seen in different passages here and there.