Translating Nibbana as extinguishment


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Wow, this is just great! :open_mouth: :smiley:
This site is even more amazing than I thought :smiley: :anjal:
Great thanks to all who made it :anjal:


Thank you so much!


I am very curious why some think “unbinding” as a translation is deficient. I understand that the literal translation would be “extinguishment,” but based on what I have read (mainly from Ven. Thanissaro) the image this evokes in English is very different from what it would have conjured in ancient India. We associate the image of a fire going out as annihilation, but they would not have done the same (or so I hear). Thus “unbinding” is used to more closely match their understanding of the term. Is this too much “editorializing” on the part of the translator–to change words this way?


This is based on a false etymology, or pun, given in a commentary. It’s not what the word meant, and no legitimate source gives this as a meaning.āṇa&lang=sans&action=Search


Unbinding does make some sense in the context of the 10 fetters. Upon enlightenment, the arahant becomes fully unbound from the fetters tying them to samsara. Attaining Nibbana at arahantship and full unbinding from the fetters always go together. So even if unbinding is a bad translation of the word Nibbana, it’s still as good a word as any to describe the experience.


Stepping out of this mini-debate between extinguishment and unbinding for a moment I can highly recommend the following article “On Understanding the Buddhist Nirvāṇa” (1966) by Richard Welbon who shows how scholars of the past 150 years have interpreted and translated nibbana. (get a free jstor account and read it here:

It surprised me how many scholars were okay with ‘deliverance’ and ‘salvation’, focusing on the function of Nibbana and not on etymological considerations. There has also been a strong faction interpreting it as annihilation and extinction.

Also the root has been challenged in the past in favor of vṛ, meaning “to cover, to encompass”.

Anyhow, I think it’s worthwhile to read what researchers of the past have done with the topic.


Just to clarify, what is being extinguished? Is it the taints?


Thanks @Gabriel, what a fun read :smiley: The many quirks of the time in which it was written and the excerpts from prior scholarship were really beautiful. I had even forgotten that a mere 50’ish years ago, educated persons were expected to be fluent in French :grin:

That was a great overview of the first 5 generations of western scholars of Buddhism. Though the current generation, and increasing number, of textual scholars (Including: Bhante @sujato, Bhikkhu Analayo, and Ajahn Brahmali) may just take the debate one further step …

However, and as the author concludes, there is only one sure way to understand Nibbana; to realise it for one(non)self.

May the Buddha Dhamma keep illuminating the path out of suffering :pray::dharmawheel::anjal:


oxford dictionary for nirvana:




  1. (in Buddhism) a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. It represents the final goal of Buddhism.

synonyms: paradise, heaven, Eden, the promised land; More

  • another term for moksha.

  • a state of perfect happiness; an ideal or idyllic place.

plural noun: nirvanas

“Hollywood’s dearest dream of small-town nirvana”

It’s in the English dictionary, most English non Buddhist speakers know that word, and as you can see from the dictionary definition, it has a pretty accurate Buddhist meaning, no confused metaphysical meaning B. Sujato was worried about.

The problem with ‘extinguishment’ is that the beginner readers that B. Sujato’s translation style is target towards, they’re going to miss the Nirvana aspect of liberation from suffering. I’d bet most beginners are going to miss the important fact that Nirvana is being realized in all those sutta passages when they see “extinguishment” instead.


I 100% agree with you frankk. :anjal:

I must say that I love Bhante Sujato translations. Last days I’m reading suttas only and in translations of Ajahn Sujato and they’re simply awesome and absolutely the best I’ve ever read. :anjal:

But I must say that if I didn’t had certain knowledge about Buddha Dhamma, I would be scared of practice aimed at “extinguishment”.

It is interesting how language change perceptions. For example in my language (polish), we have word “zniszczenie” which translates as “destruction, annihilation, extinguishment”, and we have word “wygaszenie” which trasnlates as “cooling down, blowing away, extinguisment, fire being gone”.

So in Polish language if we use word “wygaszenie” we are failthful to the word “extinguisment” but it is has this mellow association, of a bonfire cooling down and stop burning.

While if we use the word “zniszczenie” it it would be for total annihilation, aggresive destruction etc, very harsh association.

Thing is the english language words don’t have a perfect word to translate Nibbana as polish language for example, which is strange but it is true.

In philosophy of language there was something about “Fields of meaning”. Certain words doesn’t have “one meaning” but they have fields of associations. And even if two words can mean the same thing, they have different flavors to it due to their other associative power.

Maybe I’m just ignorant of the english language thou and I don’t grasp “extinguisment” (pun unindented :P) correctly.

PS: I’m still totally fine with “extinguisment” translation personally, after Venerable Sujato clarifications and respect it deeply. I’m sharing my views just for the sake of discussion, realising that it is not easy topic without perfect solution.


It is important to ask ourselves ‘what exactly we are trying extinguish?’. If you don’t, the tendency is to think that the fire is all there is and forget about the log that supported it. There is also the an issue of translating vinnyana as consciousness , which for most beginners a phrase like ‘cessation of Consciousness’ might mean unconscious or dead.


Nirvāna (Pāli: nibbāna )
The word’s etymology already reveals the concept’s
ambiguity and polysemy. The Sanskrit term Nirvāna is an action noun signifying the act and effect of blowing (at something) to put it out, to blow out, or to extinguish, but the noun also signifies the process and outcome of burning out, becoming extinguished, cooling down, and hence, allaying, calming down, and also taming, making docile. Technically, in the religious traditions of India, the term denotes the process of accomplishing and experiencing freedom from the unquenchable thirst of DESIRE and the pains of repeated births, lives, and deaths.

The word contains a problematic metaphor, an image of denial that only suggests what nirvāna is not (fire, heat, ardent craving, and repeated pain), but offers only limited clues as to what might be the term’s referents or discursive contexts. Furthermore, the semantic overlap between “extinguishing” and “cooling down” does not solve the question of what are the exact means and the end result of putting out this fire. These uncertainties encapsulate much of the doctrinal debates over nirvana (Encyclopedia of Buddhism, pp 600; read 600-605)


You seem to imply a pre-Buddhist usage here. Can you give references?


This is not my implication at all, whole thing is quoted from Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Already given the reference (pp - 600)


I don’t see a problem with “extinguishment”, since it reflects the literal meaning of “blown out”.

But that is only half of the equation. We also need be clear about what is being extinguished, or blown out. I assume it is the taints which are extinguished, but I would be interested to hear if there are other interpretations.


I see. Just then the Encyclopedia is misleading with: “…in the religious traditions of India…”. Better would be “Since the Buddhist usage, the term seems to…”


I don’t understand why they described the word Nirvāna instead of nibbāna. This may be due to the use of Sanskrit in many known Buddhist sects such as Sarvastivadins, Mahasanghikas, etc. When it comes to the word Nirvāna, explaining it as “… in the religious traditions of India” is correct. Idea of Nirvāna was already there even before the Buddha especially in Vedic and Upanishad traditions. At present Hindus also share some ideas on Nirvāna but the path and the definition from all the other traditions differ from Buddhist perspective of Nibbāna (Skrt: Nirvāna).


The fire of passion / greed, hatered and delusion :D.

Adittapariyaya sutta / Aditta sutta

The eye is burning. Sights are burning. Eye consciousness is burning. Eye contact is burning. The painful, pleasant, or neutral feeling that arises conditioned by eye contact is also burning.

Burning with what?

Burning with the fires of greed, hate, and delusion. Burning with rebirth, old age, and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress.