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Translating Nibbana as extinguishment


#1

Hello there :slight_smile:

I want to start by that I’m not a specialist and all I want is to share my opinion or ask a question about translations of Ajahn @sujato

I really like your translations, Venerable Sir, I just have some concern over translating Nibbana as extinguishment.

I take it for example from this sutta:

“Mendicants, these two extremes should not be cultivated by one who has gone forth. What two? Indulgence in sensual pleasures, which is low, crude, ordinary, ignoble, and pointless. And indulgence in self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, and pointless. Avoiding these two extremes, the Realized One woke up by understanding the middle way, which gives vision and knowledge, and leads to peace, direct knowledge, awakening, and extinguishment.

It could be also:

which gives vision and knowledge, and leads to peace, direct knowledge, awakening, and Nibbana."

As we know, Buddha rejected both eternalism and anihilationism when it comes down to Nibbana (I mean here final nibbana/parinibbana of course).

I have a feeling that for many people, myself included, term “extinguishment” brings to mind association with eradication, annihillation. It is a very “similar term”. I know that one of your teachers, Ajahn Brahm (whom I deeply love and respect) also uses this term in his book “Mindfulness Bliss & Beyond”. I still have the same feeling thou.

As we know, Nibbana was a metaphor of a flame “going away”.
I feel that your translations would be more “neutral” if you left the term Nibbana untranslated, due to inexpressible nature of Nibbana anyway. Any translation we use, will suggest either eternalism or annihalationism, so I think that leaving it untranslated would be the best and safest option. It is such a popular word, that it doesn’t need translation anyway. Everyone who reads suttas should know the meaning of at least basic terms like nibbana, kamma, dukkha etc., which translations are always imperfect.

At least when I read your translation and come to term “extinguishment” I replace it in my mind with “Nibbana”, I can’t have it other way due to association of the word extinguishment with annihilationism.

I’m just giving my feedback for your consideration. I thought you could be interested what readers think. :slight_smile: I’m in no position to critique :slight_smile:

Thank you for wonderful translations.
With metta.


#2

Thanks for the very kind feedback and suggestion!

This is a difficult one, and I personally often feel like “Nibbana” would work better. However, the reason for translating is twofold:

  1. It is a translation. I don’t pick and choose what to translate, but attempt to render every word into English. Others make different choices, but in my experience, the reason why translators leave words untranslated often has little to do with the language and much to do with the translator’s views.
  2. In this case, the meaning of the word is fairly straightforward: Nibbana means extinguishment or quenching. So to leave it untranslated is to invite the perception that it is a vague, poorly understood, or untranslatable word, which is simply not the case. This is particularly the case when incorrect translations (“unbinding”, for example) or sheer mystical obscurity has masked the actual meaning of the term.

You are quite right, the relation of this term to annihilation is then needing explanation, a need that is felt in the texts themselves. But, given that the Buddha chose to use this word of straightforward meaning, I feel the texts are deliberately flirting with this nexus; that is to say, the Buddha deliberately chose a term that leans to the side of annihilation rather than eternalism. If we leave it untranslated, I think the emphasis of the term flips the other way: most people would read “Nibbana” as “an eternal state of bliss”. Dealing with these nuances is something best left for commentary and exploration. A translation can only do so much.


#3

Hmm this is a tough one.

I’m clearly in no place to discuss objectively, because my understanding of Nibbana is closer to eternalist bias than anihilationist, even thou I’m not eternalist absolutely! (pun intended). At least I think so. :stuck_out_tongue:
I understand difference between “eternal bliss” and Nibbana. Eternal bliss suggest existence and experience of time, while Nibbana is beyond such categories.
There is a danger of course that poeple will mistake some rupa-loka or jhanic experiences with Nibbana (from pragmatic perspective thats the reason why we are warned about eternalist danger, I suppose). But I think when people get right teaching, they will understand the difference. And the texts explain that difference clearly. And this differences don’t point to anihilationism, but to inexpressible nature of Nibbana, except of claiming that it is “highest happiness” (Ajahn Brahm also writes about it).

We cannot say that after/“in” Nibbana there is “nothing” either. Thing is we cannot say anything about it strictly if we are honest. We can only point to it, and so did the Buddha.

Is it interesting that you wrote that Buddha chose the word “Nibbana” with straightforward meaning. I must say I very deeply respect you and your work and wisdom Venerable Sir, and that I take to heart your interpretation and I will remember it. I still will share my own intuitions for consideration and discussion.
From my perspective, I cannot say if your words are interpretation or facts, because my scope of knowing pali makes me unable to make such claims. Also I havent realized Nibbana yet, so I cannot speak from experience either.
But my feeling and interpretation so far is such, that Buddha used term Nibbana in somehow poetic and metaphorical way… and that he did that on purpose, because no word could express it straightforwardly anyway!
It is importaint to note that of course, Nibbana means “extinguishment of a flame”, but it doesn’t say what exactly happens with the “flame” afterwards. It is all very vague and mystical. I don’t see anything wrong with the fact that there is something mystical about term regarding ultimate reality. I also don’t regard mysticism as something inherently wrong.

I understand that you want to translate everything and it is very reasonable attitude, but personally I take Nibbana more like a “specific name” pointing towards inexpressible, rather then term defining something in particular that can be grasped through intelect, so, there are two options:

  1. You could not translate it because it is metaphorical “proper name” that is not to be translated, like names of poeple.
  2. Even if you don’t consider it a “proper name”, but a regular word that should be translated, you could still make this one exception, due to very specific and unique characteristic of Nibbana (transcending samsara, so cannot be expressed in words of samsara anyway). If it cannot be explained, why translate the word that points to its inexpressible nature anyway?

Thats why I personally believe that this term should not be translated, but of course it is only my suggestion.

I feel the texts are deliberately flirting with this nexus; that is to say, the Buddha deliberately chose a term that leans to the side of annihilation rather than eternalism. If we leave it untranslated, I think the emphasis of the term flips the other way: most people would read “Nibbana” as “an eternal state of bliss”.

It is exactly the same situation the other way around, even more. Translation suggesting interpretation.

I’ve had once situation when I was playing meditative gong concert and was speaking during the concert some meditative instructions for beginners. After the concert, one Lady criticised me that speaking the instructions that was disturbing her listenning to the gong. I’ve said that I just wanted to help, and she said that I lack faith in my listeners, and that I should trust them to handle the experience. And she was right and I no longer speak during the concerts, I leave it all to music and people and I trust that they will not fall asleep :wink: (not always working, but still it works better than before :slight_smile: )

I think it could be the same situation. Shouldn’t we trust that people will understand Nibbana correctly when reading the texts? I think it is better than suggesting towards annihilation, but thats just me :slight_smile: Maybe it’s just my ego defending itself from vision of extinguishment? :stuck_out_tongue: :wink:

PS: I also feel that leaving the term untranslated motivates the reader in a wholesome way. Truth is, we can read actually anything in “Nibbana” and the metaphor of flame going away. We can think it is gone, we can think it become “one with the air” etc., but then we know we actually don’t know. It works like a koan. The more you try to “get the meaning” of Nibbana, the more you know you just can’t. And you understand that in order to get the meaning, you have to meditate, practice noble eightfold path and then you could experience Nibbana and only then you will know what it is/isn’t. But then, you’ve “finished the task” and this is what Buddha Dhamma is all about.


#5

I should like to suggest a new English coinage: quenchedness , the flame gone out, but neither being nor nonbeing.

However, that’s just another view, Unfortunately I have not passed beyond views. :thinking:


#6

No, because they do not speak Pali, which is why they need a translation. Worse, it’s not just that people don’t know what Nibbana means; they think they know because they’ve heard explanations, which are often incorrect, and often from people who themselves do not know Pali.

Indeed, that is what the job of a translator is. If you don’t like my interpretation, fine, read another translator. But don’t imagine that their take is any less a product of interpretation…


I understand why this is important to you, and if you want to retranslate to “Nibbana” in your head, go ahead!

But consider this: I could easily list dozens, or with a little effort, hundreds of words in Pali that are genuinely difficult to translate. Without even thinking: samādhi, jhāna, medhagū, medhāvī, nimitta, saṅkhāra, dhamma, paṇḍita, katapuñña, abhiññā, brāhmaṇa, garuda, vedagū

Nibbāna is not one of those words. It clearly means “extinguishment”. The fact that it is challenging is the point. It is meant to be striking, to challenge our sense of identity and being. You are meant to hear it and think, “How is this different from annihilation?”


#7

Thank you for explanation Venerable Sir. It was a learning experience for me. I’m also glad that you took my thoughts for consideration :slight_smile:

I get your points and I respect and accept them :slight_smile:

I’m aware that every translation of every translator brings some interpretation sadly. Even if I did my own, they would still be my interpretations… we cannot escape that.

I agree that there are many terms that are very hard to translate.
I will also contemplate on how Nibbana is different from annihilation :wink: I can see that this translation is conductive to spiritual progress aswell :slight_smile:
Now I feel much better about this translation, thank you! :slight_smile:

And I really like your translations. No translation is perfect, but yours are my probably favorite (I need to read more suttas to really tell thou). But still, I read different translations to be aware which words are translated more or less the same and how translations differ. In this way, I get at least idea where translators were interpreting stuff before I learn pali myself.

I trust and follow your translations mostly. I respect lineage of Ajahn Chah/Ajahn Brahm very deeply, most of the whole spiritual world and your teachings as well. I also learned a lot from you regarding humanistic reading of texts, and I think it is skill not to be underestimated in a translator and teacher. :slight_smile: Thank you for all the hard translator work, teachings and inspiration, I’m really grateful. :anjal:

With metta.


#8

I’ve been thinking about this and I think I agree with Sujato here now. Most people will see “Nibbana” and read in whatever metaphysical / religious ideas they have picked up. However, this is less likely to happen if we translate the term.

Also, people in ancient India would have seen the word nibbana as having a particular meaning, not just as a foreign word they don’t really know what it means. So in this sense, translating it is also closer to how the early buddhists would have experienced it.

I rather like quenching for it though, or perhaps “blow out”. Extinguishment sort of reminds me of extermination and extinction, a bit of an annihilationist flavor.


#9

That is not clear actually. The term nirvāṇa doesn’t appear in pre-Buddhist literature. neither for extinguishing a flame, not to speak of a spiritual context. so we have little way of knowing what the ancient audience understood, if for them it was a sramana term or understandable in every day life.


#10

Once again: that’s a feature, not a bug.


#11

I’ve also been looking into this issue recently. Of all the articles and analyses that I’ve read, this one by Nyanaponika Thera, originally written in the 1950’s , best captures the issue IMO. The boundary between too much ‘annihilation’ flavour, and not enough, is a very subtle one. Enjoy :slight_smile:

Nyanaponika_Anatta-and-nibbana–Egolessness-and-Deliverance.pdf (165.9 KB)


#12

As I heard from Bhante Kotapitie Rahula, when the tepitaka was translated to Sinhala, the translators (Mostven. Anandametteyya Thero, Mostven Labugama Lankananda Thero and others) had a problem translating the Pāli word Papañca.
They kept discussing for two days to decide which word could be suitable to represent the similar meaning with the word Papañca.
After two days long doscussion they just decided to use the same word from Sanskrit (Skrt: Prapañca). It was that difficult to find a poper word from sinhala eventhough sinhala developed in a buddhist culture.
I wonder how it would be with a language originated far away from the east.


#13

And not just in that case, in many instances too. Which is great for those who speak Sanskrit.


#14

Pali and Sankrit share a large number of words with similar bases and meanings, that may be due to the use of Sanskrit in Some buddhist sects such as Sarvastivadins and conceptual similarities between Vedic and Upanisad with Buddhism.


#15

Thank you Bhante @sujato for taking the time to address this topic – translating nibbana as extinguishment has troubled me as well. That’s mainly because extinguishment is the primary synonym of annihilation, and perhaps that’s why my mind reads annihilation and extinguishment as essentially the same.

Also, thanks for the suggestion to contemplate how nibbana is different from annihilation. Perhaps that will help. That said, I get the sense that nibbana cannot be fully described in words just as a sun rise cannot be fully described in words to a blind person. I find remembering that helpful too.

Synonyms of extinguish

annihilate, cream, decimate, demolish, desolate, destroy, devastate, do in, nuke, pull down, pulverize, raze, rub out, ruin, shatter, smash, tear down, total, vaporize, waste, wrack, wreck.

Synonyms and Antonyms of extinguish - Merriam-Webster
https://www.merriam-webster.com › thesaurus › extinguish
](Extinguish Synonyms, Extinguish Antonyms | Merriam-Webster Thesaurus)


#16

Generally I think I’d prefer the verb quench rather than extinguish. Quenching a fire is the primary meaning that comes to mind, which is kind of nice, though it is used in other ways too. Extinguish does have somewhat some more negative/destructive connotations (extinguishing a life or the extinguishment of all hope etc.). Of course, relating to your point, quench doesn’t really have much of an associated noun. “Quenching” might work in some cases but would probably sound fairly strange in others.


#17

I like the word “quench” here. It reminds me of the phrase “quenching a thirst”, which ties in neatly with the quenching of craving (tanha literally means “thirst”).


#18

Bhante @sujato Does nibbana mean extinguishment in general or does it mean specifically the extinguishment of a fire? Thank you.


#19

I think Nibbana literally means “blown out”, as for example when a candle flame is blown out.


#20

Bhante Sujato’s and Brahmali’s effort is priceless in these translations. Translating words as much as possible is better. This helps people to get a quick picture on the particular word or the phrase. However, when someone read the dhamma through, they can look for the meanings in dictionaries when there are original words. Translating key words makes it difficult to looking up for definitions.

Therefore, I would suggest that the tranlation should be right next to the pali version, translating paragraph to paragraph would be much better. Then the reader can look the words up right away. I have no idea how difficult is the technical part.


#21

Good point :slight_smile: I was about to suggest something similar.

I think it would be best, if the pali version and translation were divided, one being on the left side of the screen, and other being on the right.

It is clearly possible, because it is for example done here with Mahasatipatthana Sutta:
https://www.tipitaka.org/stp-pali-eng-parallel#12

I think it would look better and be more reading-friendly if the dividing space was broader, but I suppose these are just technical stuff that can be worked out.

With metta :anjal: