Translating Nibbana as extinguishment


The examples of ordinary usage in reference to fires going out or being extinguished were what I was looking for. Thanks.


I posted the PTS dictionary definitions because it seemed like it might be helpful to the conversation at large. I finally got around to consulting what the actual dictionary says today rather than relying on others and found it helpful; so I thought others might, too.

There’s actually quite a bit more there (in the PTS dictionary) – some of which required a greater knowledge of pali than I possess at this time. In fact, the definition does include a section on examples of usage, including some reference to fires, etc. Hope this is helpful.


The dictionary is great, but it also just goes so far. When they compiled it they didn’t have some supernatural knowledge - they also just go back to the sources. And they not only took the suttas but also Buddhaghosa and the chronicles. If we’re interested in oldest meanings we still have to re-contextualize and see where those meanings actually occur in the suttas, and exclude the later usages and explanations. The PTS is a stepping stone, is what I mean


Makes sense, but it does seem like a good stepping stone to start with when looking at how to translate a word or to understand what a word actually means. Do you have any other suggestions of where to start? Thanks!


I feel we kinda started from the dict definitions and worked our way to the suttas and their Chinese parallels. But it’s surely good to take a loop back to the PTS as well


My Pali is probably only a little better, but I’ve spent enough time correlating Chinese with Sanskrit to at least find the roots in usage and then look at translations to see what they mean exactly. I have the annoying habit of a translator to set aside dictionaries and look for contextual readings, so I want to see examples. (Annoying in that sometimes I fall into rabbit holes deeper than they look.)

The trouble with transliterating words like this is that, as Sujato was pointing out earlier, a reader will think those are the only times a word occurs or they’ll imagine meanings to fill in a blank, not knowing that the same word is in the source text translated as extinguish, too (in this case).

It also emphasizes that it doesn’t just mean extinguish. Translators are wrong no matter what they do from one angle or another. We get used to it.


Isn’t this a strong indication for us not to look for a literal translation but to go for something like moksa, salvation, or deliverance as well? Not that the Chinese translators knew perfect Sanskrit, but I would very much assume that if such a key word as Nirvana would have had a nice literal meaning they would have used it?


Except for the later Chinese pilgrims, most of the Chinese translators weren’t actually Chinese. They were Central Asian or Indian missionaries who translated the texts from memory verbally with the help of Chinese assistants who were fluent with writing and Chinese grammar. So, I think the Chinese translations taken altogether are a good sampling of how Indian and Central Asian Buddhists understood their texts.

At any rate, yes, I think that the tendency to transliterate would indicate that they didn’t want to simply translate it as “cessation” and leave it at that.


That’s very helpful, thanks. There’s still so much to learn for pali-centric researchers from the Chinese corpus.


Nibbana is extinguishing, the extinguishing of the Nama-Rupa illustrations in consciousness. Those who attained Nibbana have non-illustrated consciousness.
Those who need to know more may refer to Ratana Sutta, “Nibbanthi Dira yatha ayampadipo”. The striving one with wisdom will attain Nirvana just as the flame of the lamp got extinguished.


The last thing this thread needs is another personal opinion, but I’m going to express my personal opinion…

I find it interesting that we would suggest making the Dhamma accord with our limited and conditional use of language rather than making our language accord with the Dhamma…or better yet, not rely on language as the primary resource in the first place.
I agree with @sujato as well, “extinguishment” is not only accurate, it’s a perfectly apt word despite some English speakers equating it with annihilation… that’s a flaw of our language, or more specifically the cultural/social framework in which our language exists, it’s not a flaw of the term itself. And that limitation only exists in English, as far as I can tell, so even MORE the product of causes and conditions as opposed to the transcending of causes and conditions.

I like the term “extinguishment” not so much as a “killing the flame” idea (that therefore gets confused with annihilation), but more of a “removing one of the conditions required for a flame to exist.” A flame requires heat and fuel…in the case of a candle’s light, heat, wick, wax and air. The candlelight doesn’t exist separate from these conditional elements. “Blow it out” and you temporarily remove the air, which causes the heat to vanish, leaving only a smoking wick and some wax sitting in oxygen with no heat. If you don’t want that candle to light again, don’t apply heat - the other 3 conditions are already there, latent, waiting for heat to light them up.
Same is true for our defilements - remove a cause and condition of the defilement, and you remove the state in which the defilement can arise. You haven’t “annihilated” anything, you’ve merely prevented it from being born in the first place. If you don’t want that defilement to light up again, don’t apply one or more of the conditions to other latent conditions that would cause it to arise.

</ uninformed worldly person rant> :slight_smile:


On which and how many suttas are we again basing ‘nibbana’ as the extinguishing of a flame?
I don’t mean nibbuto but suttas that define the actual term nibbana through the extinguishment of fire.

Quite the opposite is MN 90, which relates fire with liberation:

So too, great king, when [spiritual] fire is kindled by energy, lit by striving, there is, I say, no difference, that is, between the deliverance of one and the deliverance of the others.

MN 92 compares the Buddha with a flame - also not really compatible with someone who is ‘extinguished’:

Majestic, erect as a flame,
In the midst of this body of recluses
You shine like the blazing sun.

MN 99 compares piti (with and without samadhi) with fire

Also MN 127 has a positive association with fire:

Suppose an oil-lamp is burning with pure oil and a pure wick; because of the purity of its oil and its wick it does not burn dimly. So too, here a bhikkhu abides resolved upon and pervading [an area with] a pure radiance.


I think we should be careful not to think that a positive association with fire in one context excludes a negative in another. Entering the stream towards the ocean or rivers emptying into the ocean is good in one metaphor/simile/analogy while being swept down river is bad in another. Fire is good in one metaphor and bad in another.



A candle is made to become entirely flame.
In that annihilating moment
it has no shadow.
It is nothing but a tongue of light
describing a refuge.
Look at this
just-finishing candle stub
as someone who is finally safe
from virtue and vice,
the pride and the shame
we claim from those.

(~ Coleman Barks “translating” Rumi)

Which is to say, it can be both a flame and a going out :sparkler:


No problem with that - language is after all language. Just let me repeat my question: Based on which suttas do we say that nibbana is the extinguishment of a flame?

I listed above (58) in which suttas nibbuta has a literal meaning of cooling down/extinguishing. But where do we find the actual nibbana in this literal sense?

Take for example SN 38.1, SN 39.1:

What is nibbāna?”
Katamaṃ nu kho, āvuso, nibbānan”ti?

“Reverend, the ending of greed, hate, and delusion is called nibbāna.
“Yo kho, āvuso, rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo—idaṃ vuccati nibbānan”ti.

One could argue here that nibbana is the extinguishment of raga, dosa, moha. But that’s not a correct reading. It clearly says that it’s rāga-khaya - not rāgannibutta. So the sutta says that nibbana is the destruction of these, not the extinguishment.

Similarly, in AN 3.55 it’s the pahīna, elimination/destruction, of rāga that is nibbana.


SN 45.170

“Bhikkhus, there are these three kinds of thirst. What three? Thirst for sensual pleasures, thirst for existence, thirst for extermination. These are the three kinds of thirst. The Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for direct knowledge of these three kinds of thirst, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning.

I suffer because I thirst, and it can never be permanently satisfied by consuming what I thirst for. But the thirst can be quenched, and when it is, my suffering ceases. Indirectly, this is what religions that promise eternal heaven or some other sensual or spiritual fulfillment do too. They promise to provide an eternal supply of what I thirst for, and if this were actually possible, it would end the thirst for as long as the supply lasted, but such promises cannot safely be believed. The Buddha’s dhamma is far more efficient. Instead of promising me an endless supply of sex, life in paradise or whatever else I may want, he provided the tools to cut off thirst at the root, to permanently extinguish it without the need for whatever is desired. There is nothing mystical about this. When my thirst is permanently extinguished/quenched, I have attained nibbana.


I don’t understand how this contributes to the nibbana-extinguishment discussion except for how you personally give it your meaning. The sutta you quote for example does not extinguish thirst.

Instead we have regarding tasinā/craving:
abhiññāya - having understood
pariññāya - having fully comprehended
parikkhaya - exhaustion
pahānāya - giving up

The sutta does mention nibbana, but only here: “[The Noble Eightfold Path] which slants, slopes, and inclines to nibbāna”

Nothing in this sentence forces us to conceptualize nibbāna as extinguishment. Rather, in combination with the sentence before it is related to amata/the deathless, thus being simply a synonym for salvation/liberation.


Thanks for the interesting argument that nibbuta and nibbana perhaps should not be automatically conflated and treated as synonyms and that they may not even have the same verbal root (and a lack of pre-Buddhist usages of nibbana to help pin down an everyday non-technical non-Sramana meaning).

I went off and tracked down occurrences of nibbuta and parinibbuta in the Nikayas to try to get a better sense of their meanings (for my own curiosity). I did find several occurrences of nibbuta along the lines of coals cooling down, fire going out and a glowing hot iron ball cooling down. It also is used a lot to refer to people in the present tense as seemingly something like cooled or free of desires. Parinibbuta seems to be used for the most part to refer to the Buddha or arahants after they have passed away (something of a synonym of parinibbana). However, I did find some more present-tense usages too as a realization while still alive (so maybe not so clear-cut).


Yes, it was interesting to find those. They are probably the same I referenced in post no.58. I neglected parinibbuta, which is quite common for liberated people. Did you find any context in which parinibbuta refers to ‘cooling down of something that is hot’?

How did you find its use in MN 65? Also MN 86 is interesting. They sound like ‘to tame’
Also, in Snp 3.8 we have the interesting ‘vārinā parinibbaye’ (i.e. ‘with water’)


I will resist the temptation to respond in kind, except to say that you are free to ignore whatever I write whenever you personally don’t see how it is useful. :wink: