Glossology Page Masthead

[Home]  [Sutta Indexes]  [Glossology]  [Site Sub-Sections]




Mulapariyaya Resources
[MN 1]
PTS: Middle Length Sayings I, #1: Discourse on the Synopsis of Fundamentals, Horner, trans., pp 3.
WP: Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: The Root of All Things, Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans., pp 83
Examining the Mulapariyaya — Analysis
The Root Sequence, Bhikkhu Thanissaro, translation of the Mulapariyaya
PTS: As It Was Said, Woodward, trans.
Puremind: Awakening Meditation, Ven Punnaji
Dhamma Dana Publications: The Wings to Awakening, Thanissaro Bhikkhu


Pāḷi MO Hare Horner Punnaji Bodhi Rhys Davids (Mrs)Rhys Davids Thanissaro Walshe Woodward
nibbāna Nibbana, Downbound never no more The Cool, Nibbana nibbana imperturbable stillness (serenity) of mind; the end of discomfort forever; the ultimate and supreme peace; utter imperturbability of mind; Nibbana Nirvana Nirvana Unbinding Nibbana Nibbana


Pāḷi Text Society
Pāḷi English Dictionary
Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and William Stede


Nibbāna: I. Etymology. Although nir+va "to blow". (cp. BSk. nirvaāa) is already in use in the Vedic period...we do not find its distinctive application till later and more commonly in popular use, where va is fused with vā in this sense, viz. in application to the extinguishing of fire, which is the prevailing Buddhist conception of the term. Only in the older texts do we find references to a simile of the wind and the flame; but by far the most common metaphor and that which governs the whole idea of nibbana finds expression in the putting out of fire by other means of extinction than by blowing, which latter process rather tends to incite the fire than to extinguish it.[1] The going out of the fire may be due to covering it up, or to depriving it of further fuel, by not feeding it, or by withdrawing the cause of its production. Thus to the Pāḷi etymologist the main reference is to the root vā (to cover), and not to va (to blow). This is still more clearly evident in the case of nibbuta. In verbal compn. nis+va (see vayati) refers only to the (non-) emittance of an odour, which could never be used for a meaning of "being exhausted"; moreover, one has to bear in mind that native commentators themselves never thought of explaining nibbana by anything like blowing (vata), but always by nis+vana[2] For Bdhgh's defn of nibbana see e. g. Vism 293.
The meanings of n. are:
1. the going out of a lamp or fire (popular meaning).
2. health, the sense of bodily well-being (probably, at first, the passing away of feverishness, restlessness).
3. The dying out in the heart of the threefold fire of raga, dosa & moha: lust, ill-will & stupidity (Buddhistic meaning).
4. the sense of spiritual well-being, of security, emancipation, victory and peace, salvation, bliss.

II. Import and Range of the Term. A. Nibbana is purely and solely an ethical state, to be reached in this birth by ethical practices, contemplation and insight. It is therefore not transcendental. The first and most important way to reach N. is by means of the eightfold Path, and all expressions which deal with the realisation of emancipation from lust, hatred and illusion apply to practical habits and not to speculative thought. N. is realized in one's heart; to measure it with a speculative measure is to apply a wrong standard. - A very apt and comprehensive discussion of nibbana is found in F. Heiler, "Die buddhistische Versenkung" (München2 1922), pp. 36-42, where also the main literature on the subject is given. - N. is the untranslatable expression of the Unspeakable, of that for which in the Buddha's own saying there is no word, which cannot be grasped in terms of reasoning and cool logic, the Nameless, Undefinable (cp. the simile of extinction of the flame which may be said to pass from a visible state into a state which cannot be defined. Thus the Saint (Arahant) passes into that same state, for which there is "no measure" (i. e. no dimension)...Yet, it is a reality, and its characteristic features may be described, may be grasped in terms of earthly language, in terms of space (as this is the only means at our disposal to describe abstract notions of time and mentality)... -- It is the speculative, scholastic view and the dogmatising trend of later times, beginning with the Abhidhamma period, which has more and more developed the simple, spontaneous idea into an exaggerated form either to the positive (i. e. seeing in N. a definite state or sphere of existence) or the negative side (i. e. seeing in it a condition of utter annihilation).[3] ... Yet its sentimental value to the (exuberant optimism of the) early Buddhists (Rh. Davids, Early Buddhism, p. 73) is one of peace and rest, perfect passionlessness, and thus supreme happiness. As Heiler in the words of R. Otto (Das Heilige etc. 1917; quoted l. c. p. 41) describes it, "only by its concept Nirvana is something negative, by its sentiment, however, a positive item in most pronounced form." - We may also quote Rh. Davids' words: "One might fill columns with the praises, many of them among the most beautiful passages in Pāḷi poetry and prose, lavished on this condition of mind, the state of the man made perfect according to the B. faith. Many are the pet names, the poetic epithets, bestowed upon it, each of them -- for they are not synonyms -- emphasising one or other phase of this many-sided conception -- the harbour of refuge, the cool cave, the island amidst the floods, the place of bliss, emancipation, liberation, safety, the supreme, the transcendental, the uncreated, the tranquil, the home of ease, the calm, the end of suffering, the medicine for all evil, the unshaken, the ambrosia, the immaterial, the imperishable, the abiding, the further shore, the unending, the bliss of effort, the supreme joy, the ineffable, the detachment, the holy city, and many others. Perhaps the most frequent in the B. texts is Arahantship, "the state of him who is worthy"; and the one exclusively used in Europe is Nirvana, the "dying out," that is, the dying out in the heart of the fell fire of the three cardinal sins-sensuality, ill-will, and stupidity (Saṅyutta IV.251, 261)," (Early Buddhism pp. 72, 73.) And Heiler says (p. 42 l. c.): "Nirvana is, although it might sound a paradox, in spite of all conceptional negativity nothing but "eternal salvation," after which the heart of the religious yearns on the whole earth."[4]

The current simile is that of fire, the consuming fire of passion (rag-aggi), of craving for rebirth, which has to be extinguished, if a man is to attain a condition of indifference towards everything worldly, and which in the end, in its own good time, may lead to freedom from rebirth altogether, to certain and final extinction (parinibbana). - Fire may be put out by water, or may go out of itself from lack of fuel. The ethical state called Nibbana can only rise from within. It is therefore in the older texts compared to the fire going out, rather than to the fire being put out. The latter point of view, though the word nibbana is not used, occurs in one or two passages in later books. See J I.212; Miln 346, 410; SnA 28; Sdhp 584. For the older view see M I.487 (aggi anaharo nibbuto, a fire gone out through lack of fuel) . . .as a fire would go out, bereft of food, because the former supply being finished no additional supply is forthcoming . . . the king of the gods does not escape rebirth so long as he has within him any grasping . . . a philosopher, freed, without any cause, source, of rebirth . . . the going out of the jungle fire. The result of quenching the fire (going out) is coolness (sīta); and one who has attained the state of coolness is sītibhūta. sītibhūto 'smi nibbuto Vin I.8; Pv I.87; sītibhūto nirūpadhi, cooled, with no more fuel (to produce heat) . . . gone out like the flame of a lamp without supply of fuel . . . the Wise go out like the flame of this lamp ... This refers to the pulling out of the wick or to lack of oil, not to a blowing out...

B. Since rebirth is the result of wrong desire (kāma, kilesa, āsava, rāga etc.), the dying out of that desire leads to freedom and salvation from rebirth and its cause or substratum. Here references should be given to: (1) the fuel in ethical sense; (2) the aims to be accomplished (for instance, coolness = peace); (3) the seat of its realisation (the heart); (4) the means of achievement (the Path); (5) the obstacles to be removed.

1. Fuel = cause of rebirth & suffering: āsāva intoxications. . . . the wise who are rid of all intoxications are in this world the thoroughly free S V.29; . . . are completely cooled A IV.98; . . . those of happy fate go to heaven, but those not intoxicated die out...cravings;...vice, (only in certain commentaries);...disenchantment...

2. Aims: ...tranquillity; ...immovable, not to be disturbed;...stable; nekkhamma, renunciation, dispassionateness;...victor;...calm, composure; samatha, allayment, quietude;...welfare.

3. The Heart: (a) attā, heart, self; (b) citta, heart; (c) hadaya, heart; (d) mano, mind.

4. The Path:...Recognition of anicca (transitoriness)...the bhikkhu with devout heart will destroy ignorance, gain right cognition & realize Nibbana A I.8.

5. The Obstacles: gantha (fetter);...(rebirth); nivaraṇa (obstacles);...sankhara (elements of life); saṅyojanani (fetters).

III. Nibbana: its ethical importance and general characterisation. 1. Assurance of N. ... near N., sure of N.: S I.33 ... with the chariot of the Dhamma sure of reaching N. IV.75; A II.39...impossible to fail in the assurance of final release...

2. Steps and Means to N....attainment of N., is... to be achieved by means of tapo, brahmacariyā and ariyasaccāna-dassana[5]- brahmacariyā (a saintly life) is n.-parāyanā (leading to N.) S III.189, cp. V.218; also called n.-ogadhā (with similar states of mind, as nibbidā, virāgo, vimutti)...; A II.26. The stages of sanctification are also discussed under the formula "nibbidā virāgo vimutti . . . vimuttasmiṅ vimuttaṅ iti ñāṇaṅ hoti: khīṇā jāti etc." (i. e. no more possibility of birth) S II.124 = IV.86; dhamma: Buddha's teaching as the way to N.; magga: Those practices of a moral & good life embraced in the 8 fold Noble Path (ariyamagga); gamini paāipada A IV.83 (the path to salvation).

3. The Search for N. or the goal of earnest endeavor . . . is a higher bliss than acquisition of perfect health, the eightfold Path (alone) of all leads to perfect peace, to ambrosia . . . the fullest gain is for health etc.; N. is the highest happiness . . . All means of conduct & all ideals of reason & intellect lead to one end only: Nibbana.

4. Some Epithets of Nibbana: deliverance from all ties; the Auspicious; calm, peace[6].

5. N. is realisable in this world, i. e. in this life if it is mature: S II.18=115=III.163=IV.141; M II.228; A IV.353=358, cp. 454.

6. Definitions with regard to the destruction of the causes or substrata of life: calming down of all vital elements; Vin I.5; S I.136; A II.118 = III.164; IV.423; V.8, 110, 320, 354...

7. N. as perfect wisdom and what is conducive to such a state. The foll. phrase is one of the oldest stereotype phrases in the Canon & very freq.; it is used of all the highest means & attainments of conduct & meditation & may be said to mark the goal of perfect understanding & a perfect philosophy of life. It is given in 2 variations, viz. in a simple form as "upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṅvattati," with ref. to majjhimā paṭipadā at Vin I.10 = S IV.331 = V.421; of satta bojjhangā at S V.80; and in a fuller form as "ekanta-nibbidāya virāgāya nirodhāya upasamāya etc. as above" at D I.189 (negative); II.251 (of brahmacariyaṅ), 285; III.130 (sukhallik¢nuyogā, neg.) 136 (avyākataṅ, neg.); S II.223 (brahmacariyṅ); V.82 (satta bojjhangā), 179 (satipaṭṭhānā), 255 (iddhipādā), 361 (ariyamagga), 438 A III.83, 326 sq.; etc.

8. N. as the opposite of raga (passion, lust). Freq. is the combn of virāga nirodha nibbāna, almost used as three synonyms, thus at S II.18; Vin III.20 = 111; A II.118 = III.164 = IV.423 = V.8...A II.34; similarly S I.192.

9. Various Characterisations & Similes D III.251; A III.384 sq.; Vin V.86. On anicca & anattā in rel. to N. see also S IV.133 sq.; A IV.353, A III.442. On comparison with a lamp see e. g. S I.159 = D II.157...A IV.3...




Bhikkhu Thanissaro defines "unbinding"[7]:
"Unbinding: Because nibbāna is used to denote not only the Buddhist goal, but also the extinguishing of a fire, it is usually rendered as "extinguising" or, even worse, "extinction." However, a study of ancient Indian views of the workings of fire ... will reveal that people of the Buddha's time felt that a fire, in going out, did not go out of existence but was simply freed from its agitation and attachment to its fuel. Thus, when applied to the Buddhist goal, the primary connotation of nibbāna is one of release and liberation. According to the commentaries, the literal meaning of the word nibbana is "unbinding," and as this is a rare case[8] where the literal and contextual meanings of a term coincide, this seems to be the ideal English equivalent."



In the Itivuttaka[9] there is a sutta (which does not appear in the 4 Nikayas) which describes "Nibbana with residue" and "Nibbana without residue:"
'Monks, there are these two conditions of nibbana. What two? The condition of nibbana with the basis still remaining and that without basis. Of what sort, monks, is the condition of nibbana which has the basis still remaining? Herein, monks, a monk is arahant, one who has destroyed the cankers, who has lived the life, done what was to be done, laid down the burden, won the goal, worn out the fetter of becoming, one released by perfect knowledge. In him the five sense-faculties still remain, through which, as they have not yet departed, he experiences sensations pleasant and unpleasant, undergoes pleasure-and-pain. In him the end of lust, malice and delusion, monks, is called "the condition of nibbana with the basis still remaining."
And of what sort, monks, is the condition of nibbana that is without basis?
Herein a monk is arahant ... released by perfect knowledge, but in him in this very life all things that are sensed have no delight for him, they have become cool. This is called "the condition of nibbana without basis."

The Masefield translation is substantially similar.

Bhante Punnaji paraphrases the Itivuttaka's description of the two stages of Nibbana:[10]
Nibbāna (Nirvāna) is also two-fold: Nirvana with residue and Nirvana without residue. One who has experienced the "paradigm of the cessation of being,"[11] but has re-entered the "paradigm of existence," is detached from experience, and is therefore experiencing the "Nirvana with residue." The one who is experiencing the "paradigm of cessation of being" is experiencing the "Nirvana without residue." (Itivuttaka, page 143).



There is also the issue of 'Nibbana' vs 'Parinibbana'. It is not clear to me (I do not have the Pāḷi for the Itivuttaka) whether or not the business of 'Nibbana' with residue (Masefield's 'substrate-remnant) is a synonym for 'Nibbana' and that without such one for 'Parinibbana', but if it is, there is a small issue to be resolved in the idea that the Itivuttaka clearly paints a picture of the latter as being something attainable while the Arahant (as such) is still residing here in this visible world, whereas other commentaries and other references to Parinibbana indicate that such is to be attained only after shucking this body.


[1] Unless it is a small flame, such as that of a Khandle.

[2] Out of the woods.

[3] This is not quite accurate as we have numerous examples of these two extremes being refuted in the suttas themselves]

[4] It may sound like hair-splitting, but this is not the way this should be described: it is deathlessness, not eternal salvation.

[5] Ardency, godly living, seeing the Four Truths

[6] Many more given untranslated.

[7] Dhamma Dana Publications: The Wings to Awakening, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, pp 346

[8] I would argue that this is precisely where we have gone wrong, that is, in not more often accepting the literal meanings of Pāḷi terms over the thoughts of commentators. But the reader's attention is brought to the interesting "field/ground" issue that is going on in the minds of the translators: on the one side there are those who see the Flame and it's fate as the illustration; on the other there are those who see the fuel for the flame and it's fate as the illustration. The Buddha's similes are always well thought through, and the more fruitful view is to consider the whole. 'The fire has gone out.'

[9] PTS: As It Was Said: The Twos, pp 142, Woodward, trans.

[10] Puremind, Awakening Meditation, pp 7-4, Ven. Punnaji

[11] It is not explicitly stated, but presumably this is the condition of having entered the "saññā-vedayita-nirodha" or the "cessation of perception and feeling".


 [Glossology Table of Contents]  [Mulapariyaya]

Copyright Statement