Translating Nibbana as extinguishment


I think it was a good choice to move it to discussion :slight_smile:


One of the fascinating quotes from DN33 deals with the double-entendre about fire:

Three fires: greed, hate, and delusion.

Another three fires: a fire for those worthy of offerings dedicated to te gods, a fire for householders, and a fire for those worthy of a religious donation.

In the first case we have, as you mentioned, the fire of the defilements. And in the second case we have the implication that the end of the spiritual quest is also a form of extinguishment. I find this quite remarkable that the path should be somewhat of a circle that transcends itself after a revolution.

Yes. That may happen. But this issue even affects monks. I’m personally somewhat aghast at the Buddhist monks who mortified themselves into mummies. So even those on the path sometimes head that way as well. And now we have self-embalmed monks in museums here and there. For me they are just dead ends.


I wouldn’t make too much of ‘fire’, sometimes it’s negative, but sometimes it’s positive too.


Well, having quickly read the passage you quoted (it’s in the foreword to the MN translation) it seems Venerable Bodhi has a view I do not share. He writes “that Nibbana is merely the destruction of the defilements and the extinction of existence cannot stand up under scrutiny.” But the clearest definitions of Nibbana are saying exactly those things he says it is not. I’ve quoted the passages before. Nibbana at enlightenment is the ending of the defilements, Nibbana at death is the cessation of existence (bhava).

He writes further “the most compelling testimony agasint that view is […] ‘there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned …’”. But this is firstly an inspired utterance (Udana), that, like verse, is not meant to inform but to inspire, and secondly can just as well be translated ‘there is an end to what is born, etc.’ or ‘there is that which is without what is born’. The un- prefix here (in unborn etc) is just as much a translation choice as others. That it doesn’t always work is shown in the same sutta (iirc) when it says Nibbana is “asoka”, i.e. the end of sorrow, or sorrowless. Not the Unsorrow.

Of course a translator’s view will inform his writings. So we can read Venerable Bodhi’s comment through this interpretation.

What is inspiring for one person is not inspiring to the other, so that should ideally not inform our translations too much. I find the idea of some eternal blissful consciousness (or whatever Nibbana ideas are out there) not very appealing in that I do not belief it is possible. On the other hand, the extinguishment of craving and the extinguisment of suffering are very beneficial ideas for me.

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

Actually, that’s just a matter of parts of speech. Born, made, and conditioned are verbs, while sorrow is not. Now, if he had translated sorrowless as unlamented, then I’d give you your point. Otherwise, it’s just English grammar.

Translitering a term like Nirvana/Nibbana because of non-standard usages is actually an attempt at not interpreting a term. The translator isn’t certain what to translate it as and doesn’t want his views to get in the reader’s way. So, when you read Bodhi’s translations, you can read Nibbana as extinguishment or dead-and-not-reborn or anything at all. It’s your call. He’s not going to force you to read “highest bliss” in a passage.

I’m personally still in this boat, myself. I may change my mind in the future as I continue translating, but thus far it’s a special case in which I follow the Chinese texts, which tend to transliterate most of the time. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but its still something I’m deciding.

The funny thing is that I’m also a reader of Chinese translations that transliterate a term selectively, and so I suffer from not know exactly when it was translated, the same as I do when I read Bodhi’s English translations. I can look at Pali parallels, but the passages don’t always line up.



Hi @cdpatton,

Yes, it’s English. Not Pali. But that’s my point. In Pali both asoka and ajata are adjectives that describe nibbana. That is, they describe what is absent (a-) in nibbana, describing what nibbana is not. They do not describe what nibbana IS. But then translating that as Unborn, potentially turns the absence of “born” into a presence of “the Unborn”.

Just like deathless (amata, also derived from a verb in Pali) means the absence of death, not the Undeath! (literally it’s non-died) So if we were consistent, we’d have amata-> deathless, ajata ->birthless. So it is a choice that has been made.

I mean, I’m not criticizing “Unborn” as such. It’s not an altogether bad translation, as long as you know that unborn means the absence of birth. But Ven Bodhi’s comment on it is in my opinion misplaced, in saying it’s “the most compelling testimony againnt that view” that nibbana is the cessation of existence. Because as I said, “the end of what’s born” or “birthless”, or alike, is just as valid a translation.

I agree Ven Bodhi does not force “highest bliss” in his translations, and that’s good. Actually, he translates nibbana as “quencing” in verse, which effectively means the same as “extinguishment”. It was my mistake to refer to “highest bliss” or blissful consciousness in commenting on him. With that I was referring more to the “unbinding” and “ultimate liberation” kind of translations.

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

My favourite translation of Nibbana is still “freedom” - liberation from the conditioned, freedom from the personal.


Okay, yeah. Well, that’s the trouble that I have with Nirvana in Chinese translation. The accepted translation was often a Chinese term that in fact means something close to “ultimate liberation.” If learned missionaries from Central Asia were reading the word that way, too, then it isn’t just modern translators going off the beaten path. It was considered a valid reading.


Extinguishment to me is putting out a fire. How do we put out a fire ? It is by getting rid of the causes that create fire. It fits perfectly with the 4 noble truths. :pray:t4:


Mindfulness is a bit of work. :hammer_and_pick:
Identity view has many tentacles. :japanese_ogre:

A very simple way to understand Right Freedom is that the work lessens as fetters clank away. We become free to act on principles without the constant need to double check ourselves. So the way I’ve always read Right Freedom is ultimate liberation from the P.I.T.A. that constant Right practice requires. With time, Right Wisdom indicates that we’re good to go and begone never to return. It’s a rather dull interpretation absent any Nibbana parties or fireworks, yet I find it somehow serviceable in my readings of the EBTs. This is also probably why I find relief in MN121 with its beckoning emptiness.


Interestingly enough, I just found evidence that this argument is one which goes back way farther. I was reading the Tattvasiddhi by Harivarman and found this:

p 478


Some quotes from Bhikkhu Katukurunde Ñāṇananda’s nibbāna sermons may be of relevance here:

From Nibbāna Sermon 1:

We have to make a similar comment on the meaning of the word Nibbāna. Here too one can see some unusual semantic developments in the commentarial period. It is very common these days to explain the etymology of the word Nibbāna with the help of a phrase like: Vānasaṅkhātāya taṇhāya nikkhantattā. And that is to say that Nibbāna is so called because it is an exit from craving which is a form of weaving.

To take the element vāna in the word to mean a form of weaving is as good as taking nāma in nāma-rūpa as some kind of bending. It is said that craving is a kind of weaving in the sense that it connects up one form of existence with another and the prefix ni is said to signify the exit from that weaving.

But nowhere in the suttas do we get this sort of etymology and interpretation. On the other hand it is obvious that the suttas use the word Nibbāna in the sense of ‘extinguishing’ or ‘extinction’. In fact this is the sense that brings out the true essence of the Dhamma.

For instance the Ratanasutta, which is so often chanted as a paritta, says that the Arahants go out like a lamp: Nibbanti dhīrā yathāyaṃ padīpo. "Those wise ones get extinguished even like this lamp."

The simile of a lamp getting extinguished is also found in the Dhātuvibhaṅgasutta of the Majjhima Nikāya. Sometimes it is the figure of a torch going out: Pajjotass’eva nibbānaṃ, vimokho cetaso ahu, “the mind’s release was like the extinguishing of a torch.”

The simile of the extinction of a fire is very often brought in as an illustration of Nibbāna and in the Aggivacchagottasutta of the Majjhima Nikāya we find the Buddha presenting it as a sustained simile, giving it a deeper philosophical dimension. Now when a fire burns, it does so with the help of firewood. When a fire is burning, if someone were to ask us: “What is burning?” - what shall we say as a reply? Is it the wood that is burning or the fire that is burning? The truth of the matter is that the wood burns because of the fire and the fire burns because of the wood. So it seems we already have here a case of relatedness of this to that, idappaccayatā. This itself shows that there is a very deep significance in the fire simile.

Nibbāna as a term for the ultimate aim of this Dhamma is equally significant because of its allusion to the going out of a fire. In the Asaṅkhatasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya as many as thirty-three terms are listed to denote this ultimate aim. But out of all these epithets, Nibbāna became the most widely used, probably because of its significant allusion to the fire. The fire simile holds the answer to many questions relating to the ultimate goal.

The wandering ascetic Vacchagotta, as well as many others, accused the Buddha of teaching a doctrine of annihilation: Sato sattassa ucchedaṃ vināsaṃ vibhavaṃ paññāpeti. Their accusation was that the Buddha proclaims the annihilation, destruction and non-existence of a being that is existent. And the Buddha answered them fairly and squarely with the fire simile.

“Now if a fire is burning in front of you dependent on grass and twigs as fuel, you would know that it is burning dependently and not independently, that there is no fire in the abstract. And when the fire goes out, with the exhaustion of that fuel, you would know that it has gone out because the conditions for its existence are no more.”

As a sidelight to the depth of this argument it may be mentioned that the Pāli word upādāna used in such contexts has the sense of both ‘fuel’ as well as ‘grasping’, and in fact, fuel is something that the fire grasps for its burning. Upādānapaccayā bhavo, “dependent on grasping is existence”. These are two very important links in the doctrine of dependent arising, paṭicca samuppāda.

The eternalists, overcome by the craving for existence, thought that there is some permanent essence in existence as a reality. But what had the Buddha to say about existence? He said that what is true for the fire is true for existence as well. That is to say that existence is dependent on grasping. So long as there is a grasping, there is an existence. As we saw above, the firewood is called upādāna because it catches fire. The fire catches hold of the wood, and the wood catches hold of the fire. And so we call it firewood. This is a case of a relation of this to that, idappaccayatā. Now it is the same with what is called ‘existence’, which is not an absolute reality.

It seems that the deeper connotations of the word Nibbāna in the context of paṭicca samuppāda were not fully appreciated by the commentators. And that is why they went in search of a new etymology. They were too shy of the implications of the word ‘extinction’. Probably to avoid the charge of nihilism they felt compelled to reinterpret certain key passages on Nibbāna. They conceived Nibbāna as something existing out there in its own right. They would not say where, but sometimes they would even say that it is everywhere. With an undue grammatical emphasis they would say that it is on coming to that Nibbāna that lust and other defilements are abandoned: Nibbānaṃ āgamma rāgādayo khīṇāti ekameva nibbānaṃ rāgakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo ti vuccati.

But what do we find in the joyous utterances of the theras and therīs who had realized Nibbāna? As recorded in such texts as Thera- and Therī-gāthā they would say: Sītibhūto’smi nibbuto, “I am grown cool, extinguished as I am.” The words sītibhūta and nibbuta had a cooling effect even to the listener, though later scholars found them inadequate.

Extinction is something that occurs within an individual and it brings with it a unique bliss of appeasement. As the Ratanasutta says: Laddhā mudhā nibbutiṃ bhuñjamānā, “they experience the bliss of appeasement won free of charge.” Normally, appeasement is won at a cost, but here we have an appeasement that comes gratis.

From the worldly point of view ‘extinction’ means annihilation. It has connotations of a precipice that is much dreaded.


At the moment there are quite a few threads about Nibbana, extinguishment, the unconditioned etc.

I would just like to remind people of the first sutta in the MN

Last lines from the Root of all things sutta
“That is what the Buddha said.
But the Mendicants were not happy with what the Buddha said.”

Just to keep in mind while debating all these things :slight_smile: :smiling_imp: :sunflower:


So true!
Defining something supramundane using mundane similes might be the most difficult task ever!