Translating Nibbana as extinguishment


Yes, many of them were the same. The suttacentral search facility is quite good (throws up variants up the basic root word also). Looked through a good sample (though not exhaustively) of the Nikaya occurrences. The horse taming usages of paranibbuta in MN65 and MN86 are pretty interesting. Also I suppose the occurrences of parinibbuta applied to living arahants only seems to occur in verses. Didn’t spot any usage of parinibbuti with a cooling nuance, but my search wasn’t exhaustive.

Also recalled that Bhikkhu Bodhi has an interesting discussion of this issue in the introduction to his SN translation (p. 49 in the section entitled “Nibbana, Paranibbana”). At about 3 pages, though, it’s a bit too long to cut and paste here.


I think I looked up all occurrences and the only ones with variant connotations were in MN 65 and MN 86.

Yes, Bodhi mentions that, though we have prose parinibbuta related to living arahants/Buddhas in SN 35.83, SN 35.88, MN 8, MN 35, MN 86, MN 123, DN 14.

In general, I think parinibbuta is a nice term to see the development of a concept, of what ‘complete liberation’ was interpreted to mean. The verses (going back to SN and Snp) which apply it to living people seem to come from a time and understanding where a full liberation is possible while alive, while afterwards there was a more philosophical reinterpretation that for a full liberation the saint has to pass away.

In that sense it can be used to stratify the suttas. When applied to arahants passed away the suttas would be later. And if applied to while alive they would be either old or continuing an old transmission line.


That is, on the contrary, exactly the kind of metaphysical misinterpretation of Nibbana that I was referring to.


A Sri Lankan friend of mine once mentioned that in Sinhala which has some similarities with Pali they still use the word “Nibbana”, or something very close. She said for example when asking someone to switch the light off they would say: “Can you please ‘nibbana’ the light?”


Being a Sri lankan, I am surprised as to how I have never heard "nibbana’ used in that sense.
With metta


Iti93 has a good doctrinal explanation. The fires of greed, hatred, and delusion have to be put out (nibbāpenti rāga-aggiṃ, etc.) Nibbana is also called the ending of craving, of the defilements, etc, in SN38.1, SN23.2, SN45.7 and elsewhere. It’s also often a metaphor for cessation. SN12.68 and Iti44 refer to nibbana after death, calling it “the cessation of existence” (@Martin). These synonyms, cessation and ending, are unambiguous as to their meaning, really. Translations such as “unbound” or the like have no basis in the Pali canon, @clay. Greed, hatred, and delusion don’t go “unbound” when you get enlightened, yet if you read such translations carefully, that’s what they say! (E.g. “he experiences unbinding”.) If such ideas seem to exist in the suttas, it seems usually based on mistranslation or misinterpretations. Like translating “coming to an end” as “going to the end”, and things similar to that – tiny subtle mistakes that together create a twisted picture.

As to the grammar, @Gabriel, I had a quick look. I agree with Warder (the table in the back) and Buddhadatta (dictionary) in taking nibbuta as the past participle of nibbāti. The PED, deriving it from varati, I belief, must be mistaken. Words are not always fully regularly formed from roots. Sometimes a u appears out of nowhere. (Well, not really nowhere, it’s for reasons of pronounciation.) The appearance of u in a past participle with root in ā is rare, but seems to be not unique to this case. It seems to result from the closeness of vowel u to other labials, because it occurs in roots with p, b, and mostly v. E.g. vuttha from vāseti, vusita from vasati, vutta from vacati.

From context I also understand nibbuta and nibbana to be directly related. Nibbuta refers to fires and to the defilements; nibbapeti (and other derived verb forms) refer to the fires and defilements: so it seems clear they mean the same thing. We find the words in close proximity, i.e. “aparinibbutāna.m parinibbāpetā” (MN86), and many more. (DN16, Thag, is what I quickly found.)

By the way, extinguishment is as good a translation as English allows, but, @Invo, I think I understand your confusion because just like Polish, Dutch had a much better word “uitdoving”, literally meaning “out-dousing”, I think, but it’s a noun meaning “going out” (of a fire), not “putting out”.


I’ll venture out to say that ~1 month after OP and 86 great posts, the answer is… 42.


Now, I’m wondering if this post is going to feed or extinguish the debate :smiley: .


It might helping knowing the Sanskrit is nirvṛta. That’s where the u is the coming from, IMO, a phonetic simplification of the cluster rvṛ to the more Pāli bbu.

Unless I’m wrong.

It’s a pretty normal formation (note that this is not using verbs):

saṁskāra --> saṁskṛta
nirvāṇa --> nirvṛta

The -ta here is the same Indo-European tendency that produces condition --> conditioned.

It’s Pāli’s phonetic transformations of its underlying Sanskrit morphology that introduces extra irregularities. Not to say Sanskrit itself isn’t full of irregularities, but the Pāli “accent” of Sanskrit, so to speak, doesn’t help.


nibbāpeti is a good lead and finally a term in the vicinity of nibbana which is exclusively used in the literal sense of ‘making heat go away’ (SN 8.4, SN 14.12, SN 46.53, SN 56.34, AN 4.93, AN 6.20, AN 8.74, AN 10.51-55, DN 16).

A couple of things are interesting here. The term is most organic in the SN, and much more formulaic in the AN. I would take it again as a sign for different strata. Also, it doesn’t appear in the MN at all, so for whatever reason the literal meaning was not interesting for MN compilers to include. The same is true for the DN with the small exception of DN 16.

Also interesting are two exceptions: in AN 3.102 it’s not fire that is extinguished but gold! (jātarūpaṃ nibbāpeyya) So that Sujato is forced to translate “gold would likely cool down”, because gold obviously cannot ‘extinguish’.

This echoes the Sanskrit vāpayati - to put out, extinguish, allay, cool, already in the Rgveda 10.16.13 as ‘nir vāpayā’. The prefix nir- would function as an intensifier. The occurrence with the prefix is very rare in older literature though. Only in Aitareya Brahmana 2.36.2 we also find nirvāpayā (probably in the meaning of ‘blow away’ or ‘cool’).

So this might very well be the source for nibbana, but I would argue that at the time of the suttas nibbana was already used very much as a terminus technicus, only vaguely carrying the connotation of extinguishment and much more of liberation.

As a side note, while nibbāpeti doesn’t appear in the MN and hardly in the DN, it is parinibbāpeti which shows up there. And with the exception of DN 21 the term has lost it’s connection with ‘cooling down heat’ (AN 3.60, AN 4.61, AN 5.48, AN 5.50, AN 7.47, MN 8, MN 86, DN 26). Arguably this is a later use and again just means ‘liberation’/‘liberating’.


Seems like you did very careful analysis, thank you :slight_smile:
So, it could be actually translated as liberation (of course not trying to convince Venerable Sujato to anything, just going on with the discussion).

For example this passage could be…

  1. Ajahn Sujato original translation:

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

  1. changed according to Gabriel analysis and suggestion:

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

  1. changed with refference to Chinesse parallel:

which gives vision and knowledge, and leads to peace, direct knowledge, awakening, and liberating extinguishment.

Personally I’m fine with all 3 versions, and all 3 are my favorite because each one has its strengths. :slight_smile:
It was was very educating discussion and the depth of analysis was much deeper than I would suspect from the OP question, so thank you all for that :anjal: :slight_smile:

Seems like we still feed this fire and it is not extinguished yet :wink: Sankharas like to proliferate. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Except, of course, that ‘liberation’ is the proper translation of vimutti.
Maybe something like ‘freedom’ or ‘spiritual freedom’ or so. But more important than the perfect word is I think the details of the discussion that enables us to enrich whatever term we use with more meaning. I at least use ‘liberation’ for myself and don’t care much that the term is already ‘taken’.


It seems that another drawback to translating nibbana as extinguishment or any other common word that has a plain meaning is nibbana is presumably beyond the scope of reason. For example, in some suttas, including MN 95, we find the following language from the Buddha:

“And the principle that they teach is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, sublime, beyond the scope of reason, subtle, comprehensible to the astute.”

Thus, it seems like translating nibbana as simply extinguishment (which is a synonym of annihilation) is implying that nibbana is within the scope of reason. For example, reason is defined in definition 1a of Websters as: a statement offered in explanation or justification. So, it seems like translating nibbana with a concrete word like extinguish is an attempt to explain or reason out nibbana, which the Buddha seems to say is beyond the scope of reason.

In other words, when I read nibbana or nirvana, I get the sense that the word does not and cannot fully describe the experience it’s pointing at. On the other hand, when I read the word extinguishment, it sounds like one of those words and nouns that is within the scope of reason and ordinary observation.

That said, I don’t have a suggestion for what might be a better way to translate nibbana, so please don’t take this as a criticism for Bhante Sujato’s choice. However, like some others, I prefer to keep the word untranslated.

On the other hand, what about translating nibbana as extinguishment of defilements?

with metta,


Yes but :smiley:

Well, the word nibbana also had a specific meaning that was extended.

So we’re back to the base argument from bhante Sujato: leaving the word untranslated leaves it open to misinterpratation and fantasies.

Translating it has different drawbacks, but at least the translator has done his job (to translate).


The Noble Eightfold Path itself changes us, changes our webs of meaning in our journeys along that path. SImple words such as extinguishment transform themselves from lackluster seviceable shells and begin to shimmer with new hues of meaning as insights unfold, practice after practice. And whatever word was or is or will be chosen for nibbana, somehow we all walk steadily, together, towards that shared destination. That for me is one of the most incredible aspects of the Dhamma–that all the words chosen guide us to the end of wishes.


Sometimes I hear this argument, but I don’t think that in itself it’s sufficient. Take words like ‘god’, ‘soul’, ‘existence’, ‘being’. Words are not containers for specific meanings, they make us navigate the discourse. ‘Nibbana’ can do that, because it is sufficiently introduced into spiritual vocabulary, and ‘extinguishmend’ or ‘liberation’ can do that as well.

The question we have, I think, is which word has similar connotations (i.e. triggers concepts and actions) as nibbana when it was used in the suttas as one of the main terms which signified the spiritual goal of the Buddha’s message.


This morning I searched for more sutta references that contain Nibbana and came across Bikkhu Bodhi’s introduction in his translation of the MN on Nibbana. He seems to make a similar argument: namely that the suttas suggest Nibbana cannot be fully explained by words that are typically used to describe the material. This sums up one of my issues with translating Nibbana as extinguishment pretty well: extinguishment is typically used to describe the material realm (in contrast, Nirvana and even liberation, for example, is often used to describe the abstract.)

Here’s an excerpt from Bikkhu Bodhi’s intro that seems useful to this discussion:

"The state that supervenes when ignorance and craving have been uprooted is called Nibbāna (Sanskrit, Nirvāṇa), and no conception in the Buddha’s teaching has proved so refractory to conceptual pinning down as this one. In a way such elusiveness is only to be expected, since Nibbāna is described precisely as “profound, hard to see and hard to understand,…unattainable by mere reasoning” (MN 26.19).

Yet in this same passage the Buddha also says that Nibbāna is to be experienced by the wise and in the suttas he gives enough indications of its nature to con-vey some idea of its desirability. The Pali Canon offers sufficient evidence to dispense with the opinion of some interpreters that Nibbāna is sheer annihilation; even the more sophisticated view that Nibbāna is merely the destruction of defilements and the extinction of existence cannot stand up under scrutiny.

Probably the most compelling testi-mony against that view is the well-known passage from the Udāna that declares with reference to Nibbāna that “there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned,” the existence of which makes possible “escape from the born, become, made, and conditioned” (Ud 8:3/80). The Majjhima Nikāya charac-terises Nibbāna in similar ways. It is “the unborn, unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled supreme security
from bondage,” which the Buddha attained to on the night of his enlightenment (MN 26.18). Its pre-eminent reality is affirmed by the Buddha when he calls Nibbāna the supreme foundation of truth, whose nature is undeceptive and which ranks as the supreme noble truth (MN 140.26).

Nibbāna cannot be perceived by those who live in lust and hate, but it can be seen with the arising of spiritual vision, and by fixing the mind upon it in the depths of meditation, the disciple can attain the destruction of the taints (MN 26.19, MN 75.24, MN 64.9).

The Buddha does not devote many words to a philosophical definition of Nibbāna. One reason is that Nibbāna, being unconditioned, transcendent, and supramundane, does not easily lend itself to definition in terms of concepts that are inescapably tied to the conditioned, manifest, and mundane. Another is that the Buddha’s objective is the practical one of leading beings to release from suffering, and thus his principal approach to the characterisation of Nibbāna is to inspire the incentive to attain it and to show what must be done to accomplish this.

To show Nibbāna as desirable, as the aim of striving, he describes it as the highest bliss, as the supreme state of sublime peace, as the ageless, deathless, and sorrowless, as the supreme security from bondage. To show what must be done to attain Nibbāna, to indicate that the goal implies a definite task, he describes it as the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion (MN 26.19). Above all, Nibbāna is the cessation of suffering, and for those who seek an end to suffering such a designation is enough to beckon them towards the path.
p. 31-32 Acquired at

Hope this is helpful


To be clear, I’m not complaining about Bhante Sujato’s translation of Nibbana as extinguishment. From his earlier posts, it sounds like it was not an easy decision. Moreover, I’m super thankful that Bhante @sujato includes alternative translations of the suttas on this site so that we better investigate the dhamma.


I think there has been a tension of different interpretations going back to ancient times. It was spoken of as a spiritual state in some sutras and not so much in others. I think it may have began as a creative metaphor for something the Buddha didn’t want over-interpreted, but there are people who take metaphors literally, so the expression ended up with double-meanings and wayward interpretations. It’s true today; it was probably true when the Buddha was alive. The thing about literary double-meanings is that they lose their magic when you force them to mean one thing or another. Translation unfortunately does just that: We have to make a choice what to say.


@brooks, this might help put it all into perspective :slight_smile: It seems that this debate about the specific meanings of Nibbana has been going on for Millenia :dharmawheel::upside_down_face:

Ultimately,the final understanding must rest with the individual as they reach higher states of realisation… Not much point worrying about it in the mean-time, and ‘eventually’, the truth will be experienced :skull_and_crossbones::joy::slightly_smiling_face:


This particular essay and position occupies a rather interesting point in Buddhist history. Nyanaponika was responding to the then-popular idea endorsed by CAF Rhys-Davids (among others) that Nibbana was the True Self and hence that Buddhism was no different than Hinduism.)

While that argument would find few supporters among contemporary serious students, it is also the case that Nyanaponika’s response (shared with other Theravadins of the time) is not quite right, either.

As point out long ago by Ven Kheminda, the teaching that “all things are not-self” is said to lead to dispassion, revulsion, and so on, and so can hardly be referring to Nibbana. In fact it is a guideline for vipassana meditation.

The reason for the difference between the use of sankhara and dhamma is not because one of them includes Nibbana. It is because dhamma here means “principle” as in, the laws of nature: dependent origination, the four noble truths, and so on. They are descriptions of how the world is, so they are not themselves “impermanent” (since they are always accurate descriptions of samsara) nor are they suffering. They are, however, clearly not self.

The logical implications of anicca