Translating Nibbana as extinguishment


Many Thanks Bhante :slight_smile: It is so valuable to have pointed out where understanding can be improved.

I liked this essay because it specifically addressed the two main opposing views - also it was a bit removed from the present so it can be viewed more ‘impersonally’, and to give an indication of how long this has been a topic of contention.

Could you please explain what you mean in a bit more detail. When you say

I did not pick up on this point in the essay - perhaps I was more focusing on other things.
What I took from it was that self-view is a condition for eternalists, and for anihilationists. That the situation is complex, and that the texts allow for some degree of interpretation that can feed into either of the 2 extremes. The reality, and the middle way, depends on fine nuance.

Personally, I accept and am happy with the ‘unknowability’ of the details of what, if anything lies beyond Samsara and the cycle of re-births.

Your further comments would be greatly appreciated :anjal::dharmawheel::upside_down_face::slightly_smiling_face:

Added: - apologies this post is turning into a bit of a mess (probably reflecting my own state of uncertainty regarding this issue)…
I wanted to add a link to an article by Ajahn Brahmali, that also examines this issue. There are essays written by many respected teachers of the current time, each slightly different in emphasis,… So for anyone who wishes to research further there are many resources… Most of them can be found by using the search function of this forum :slight_smile:


I’ve been contemplating and researching this issue for quite a few months, only to realise just how complex the issues are. And enough to realise that the ‘proliferations’ about this could be endless :sweat_smile:. And this, of course, completely defeats the purpose! So, I’m happy to leave this discussion here -

And I take your point Bhante @sujato, that the essay I have quoted may not be the best/clearest resource to refer to. :slightly_smiling_face:


Bhante, does “sabbe dhamma anatta” describe:

  1. Dhammic principles not being me or mine;
  2. Dhammic principles being empty of own-being (sunnata);
  3. A more philosophical negation of atman/atta (in the sense of eternal “soul”)?

I realise that more than one of these options could apply.


There are such references in DN and MN too. Not counting nibbuta (although it should count), I found:

  • Mā ca te aggi nibbāyi. Sace ca te aggi nibbāyeyya … (DN23) – Don′t let the fire go out. But if it would go out …

  • aggi nibbāyeyya, jāneyyāhaṃ: “ayaṃ … aggi nibbuto.” (MN72) – If the fire would go out, I would know: “this fire … has gone out”. (Again nibbuta used in the same sense as nibbāti, as I argued in my last post.)

  • bāhirā tejodhātu … nibbāyati. (MN28) – the great fire-element is going out.

  • telappadīpo … anāhāro nibbāyati (MN140) – An oil lamp without fuel goes out.

Then similar phrases are in SN8.4, SN12.52-54, SN14.12, SN22.86, SN46.52, AN6.43, etc. etc.

I’m sure there must be quite a few harder-to-find references, such as in compounds.

In my earlier post I should perhaps have added the following similies, which are directly related to an arahant’s death:

  • telappadīpo … nibbāyeyya. (SN36.7) – A lamp would go out. (In a simile for parinibbana.)

  • Viññāṇassa nirodhena … Pajjotasseva nibbānam, vimokkho hoti cetaso. (AN3.90) – The liberation of the mind, as consciousness ceases, is like the going out of a lamp. (Similar verse at SN6.15, spoken at the Buddha’s death.)

If gold is anything like other metals, it can literally be on fire when coming out of a furnace, not just melting. Probably it is, because the sutta actually says it’s burning (ḍaheyya). Of course, nibbana has a derived meaning of coolness, but I think that is not the main meaning, as is clear by the effective synonimity with cessation and ending that I have referenced before.

But there is a sutta in DN about milk nibbana-ing, where cooling off is the only logical idea.


Yes it can. You see nibbana, you get revulsed by all else.


I do not agree with Ven Bodhi that nibbana is hard to translate. To me the problem seems to be that we put the word on a pedestal it doesn’t deserve. You read any book on buddhism, and what does it say the goal is? Nibbana. But in the suttas one finds terms like cessation (nirodha) and ending (khaya) much more often. I guess they outnumber nibbana at least ten to one.

Standard phrases for enlightenment often don’t mention it. Eg. “Nibbindaṃ virajjati; virāgā vimuccati. Vimuttasmiṃ vimuttamiti ñāṇaṃ hoti. ‘Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā’ti pajānātī”ti.” This is all about losing desire and ending birth; not about creating any new experience.

You see exactly this issue in Ven Bodhis quote given: “The state that supervenes when ignorance and craving have been uprooted is called Nibbāna.” When does the Buddha call Nibbana a state?

The point I’m making is: Nibbana is just a metaphor for the goal; it isn’t the actual goal.

I think the over-emphasis on nibbana is the actual reason for non- or mistranslations. As Ven Sujato said, its actual meaning is clear. It just has too much baggage.

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

Yes, very good. I haven’t specifically looked for nibbāyati. For sake of completion, SN 36.8 is the same as SN 36.7.

Also this nibbā*-term ‘deteriorates’ in the AN and becomes mostly formulaic.

Yes, it’s DN 27

Actually I think you got all nibbāyati references

Totally agree, and I don’t think another interpretation is really tenable based on the texts. The same mistake has been done by ‘ontologizing’ brahman in late Vedic literature. In most of the cases in the Upanisads where it’s used in definitions or ‘correspondences’ its meaning is ‘supreme’. So ‘x is brahman’ or ‘atman is brahman’ means ‘x is the supreme’ or ‘the atman is the supreme (principle)’.

split this topic #109

4 posts were merged into an existing topic: The logical implications of anicca


Hello Ven. @sujato and all.

I’ve only been studying Pali seriously for about a year. But it seems to me that “dhamma” in the context of “sabbe dhammā anattā” ought to refer to anything that is an object of clinging and not just principles of nature or of the Dhamma. Perhaps I misunderstand what you are saying, below.



Thank you. I haven’t thought about Nibbana from this angle before. That’s helpful.
with metta,



Would you happen to know which particular commentarial nirukti Ajahn Thanissaro is relying on when he translates ‘nibbāna’ this way?


The citation given in “Mind Like Fire Unbound” is:

Buddhaghosa proposed in The Path of Purification: Un- (nir) + binding (vāna): Unbinding

[PS: which appears to be Visuddhimagga VIII.247, though he didn’t provide the exact reference]


What about Venerable Bodhi’s assertion:

“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.”

Do you think this has any relevance to how and/or whether Nibbana is translated? The primary issue I have with translating Nibbana as extinguishment is when I read extinguishment it’s kind of a turn off and not very motivating. In contrast, Nibbana sounds to me more neutral and abstract. Of course, those are just my impressions and perceptions, but I just wonder if many others might read extinguishment the same way.

Thank you.


Yeah, if I recall correctly, this was one reason Thanissaro Bhikkhu cited for preferring “unbinding” He argues that the cooling of a fire would have a very differently connotation in a tropical (Indian) language than in a subarctic (Nordic/Gaelic) language!

But, personally, I am a fan of trusting the reader. A work of literature from another culture will always require some degree of maturity to read. I can’t agree with translating based on the connotation at the expense of denotation. It simply robs the reader of too much.


A few days ago I bought a wood campstove. It is a very small thing fitting in my one hand. All it requires is some twigs and a spark. I could not see how this could work. There is no gas. There is no electricity. Just dead wood and a spark.

Yet somehow, after an hour of fumbling, cursing and bumbling, I was indeed astonished to see a hot fire in my new stove. So I fed the fire and it kept going. And I fed it some more and it kept going. Then I thought to myself, “Now I know how fire works.” And then I no longer wished to feed the stove. So I stopped feeding the stove. After a time, the fire stopped, cooled and became extinguished. Content, I simply stared at the embers cooling. They faded into peace and so did I.

Nibbana need not be so so complicated. Just stop feeding the fire. It will become extinguished in this very life. Right there.


Sadu. That had much meaning for me as I’m sure it did for others with a substantial amount of meditation and sutta study experience. The concern about translating Nibbana as extinguishment is more about what effects will this translation have on people who are just getting acquainted with the Dhamma. In other words, will translating Nibbana as extinguished invite others deeper into the refuge of the Dhamma or repel them away from it?

For example, it seems very likely that many will read extinguished as annihilated. In fact if you google the word extinguished, one of the definitions of extinguish is annihilate, as shown below:

“2. to put an end to or bring to an end; wipe out of existence; annihilate:
to extinguish hope.” Second definition from the Random House Dictionary of Extinguish.

In summary, since Nirvana is in the English dictionary (as another pointed out), and since extinguished is sometimes defined at least in part as annihilated (and we know annihilation is part of wrong view), would it be more beneficial (for more people) to leave the word Nibbana untranslated? I don’t know the answer to this question, but it seems like a relevant one.

with metta,


The extinguishment of the taints, I assume?
I’m thinking for example of SN35.28, where the All is described as “burning” with the taints (lust, hatred and delusion).


Hey :slight_smile:
I think it would be good to move this topic to discussion or the watercooler.

It started as “feedback” because I wanted to ask Venerable Ajahn Sujato about the issue.
Venerable Sujato stated his mind that he is good with his translation and gave careful and solid explanation why, so the feedback aspect is finished :anjal: :slight_smile:

But this is clearly discussion right now, and I think that the fact its going on in “feedback” section can give impression of pressuring tone, that I would love to avoid. :slight_smile: :anjal:

Since it is topic I started, I think it would be great to move it to discussion or watercooler section, because its intention of feedback was done in first few posts already, but the discussion doesn’t have to finish.

We can discuss the matter of translation of Nibbana in general, but we should not pressure it in feedback section.
We can discuss it regarding all translations, not just Ajahn Sujato, because Venerable Sujato has 100% right to choose his own translation and he already explained why, and we should just respect it and if something, countinue this very interesting discussion outside of feedback section in my humble opinion, to give this hint that its just regular discussion, and no longer trying to “Feedback” something that was already answered thoroughly by Ajahn.

With metta :slight_smile: :anjal:


I think you actually have the power to do that yourself. Try clicking the pencil icon near the title at the top of this post.

I can change it and I’m not a moderator. If I can, presumably you can too.


Thank you, yes I think I can do this :slight_smile:
I think it would be great to have opinion of a moderator, if the topic should be moved to discussion or watercooler :wink:

PS: Allright, I just moved it to discussion, because it is related to EBT and there are suttas references and this is importaint topic and the discussion in the thread was on very high level in my opinion.