06 November 2009

Synonyms for Nibbāna

Bodhi temple at night

very difficult to see
looked for
without attributes
free from the mental proliferation
a place of safety
abscence of passions
the light
a hermitage
In a short text from the Saṃyutta Nikāya the Buddha gives a series of metaphors and similes for Nibbāna.[1] Using the form: "Bhikkhus I will teach you X and the path leading to X: listen to that... And what is that? ..." e.g.
Anāsavañca vo, bhikkhave, desessāmi anāsavagāmiñca maggaṃ. Taṃ suṇātha. Katamañca, bhikkhave, anāsavaṃ pe
The form is very abbreviated because it is referring back to previous suttas which are very repetitious. In Pāli an 'etc.' or elipsis '...' is signified by 'pe' which is itself a contraction of peyyālaṃ 'repetition, sucession'. [2] The paths leading to nibbāna are just what you would expect: the eightfold path, the foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts etc. These are enumerated at (tedious) length in the previous texts in the chapter. However the list of synonyms is quite interesting so I thought I'd extract the them and comment a little where appropriate. If nothing else it's a good vocab exercise!

anāsavaṃ - the basic term is āsava which literally means 'influx'. Gombrich thinks this originated in a Jain context where it meant the inflow of 'dust' that results from actions and sticks to the jīva (or soul) weighing it down in saṃsara. By cleaning the jīva through pain, and creating no more dust through inaction, the Jains sought to lighten their jīva so it could float to the top of the universe and be liberated from saṃsara. For Buddhists āsava means something more like 'taints'. There are three or four: sense desire (kāma), desire for existence (bhava), ignorance (avijja), and (sometimes) views (diṭṭhi). The taints are what hold us in bondage, and nibbāna is often talked about in terms of destruction of the taints (āsavakkhaya). Anāsavaṃ, with the negative prefix an-, is taintless.

saccaṃ - from √sat (the Sanskrit equivalent is satya) which can mean 'true' or 'real' much like the cross over in English. Here it most likely refers to truth.

pāraṃ - from √pṛ 'beyond, over'. Figuratively 'the other shore'. The image is perhaps of making it safely across a river. Another possibility is that it retains something of an archaic form of rebirth theory. Even in Buddhism you occasionally get references to this world and the next.

nipuṇaṃ - the root is also √pṛ but in the sense of 'busy, active' (cf. Sanskrit pṛṇoti). The meaning is 'clever, skilful, accomplished; fine, subtle'.

sududdasaṃ - invisible. Ironically the word itself is almost invisible as it's very difficult to find in the dictionary! In The Pali-English Dictionary (PED) sv. dasa 2 (Sanskrit dṛśa) 'seeing, to be seen' we find a note that duddasa (not listed elsewhere) means 'difficult to see': presumably from du (S. duḥ) + dasa with a doubling of the initial da. Su then is being used in the sense of 'thoroughly' or 'very'. So sududdasa then means 'very difficult to see'.

ajajjaraṃ - from jarā 'to age'. The repetition of the ja comes from the intensive form meaning 'withered, feebled with age', while the 'a' is a negation. So the word means unenfeebled. Incidentally jarā is cognate with the Greek 'geras' and therefore related to English 'geriatric' a 20th century coinage from geras + iasthai 'heal, treat'.

dhuvaṃ - (S. dhruva) 'stable, constant, fixed, certain'. The general Indian view is that the mundane world is always changing - going through cycles of change. The Buddha extended this to the world of the gods which Brahmins considered unchanging (anitya). Nibbāna is by definition unchanging, but is also impersonal. Dhruva is related to English 'true'.

apalokitaṃ - PED gives 'asked permission', 'consulted' which hardly seems like a epithet for Nibbāna. But wait, because this is the Pāli equivalent of Sanskrit avalokita which should be familiar as the first part of the name Avalokiteśvara, and means 'beholding, looking at'. The noun form of the verb lokate is loka - the perceptible world. Lokita is a past-participle 'looked, perceived' and with ava can mean 'looked down' as in Avalokiteśvara - The Lord who Looked Down [upon the suffering beings with compassion]. How does it relate to nibbāṇa? Avalokita can also mean 'to look ahead/before/after' so I think what intended here is that nibbāna is what we look forward to - the looked for, ie what we seek. Bhikkhu Bodhi has 'undisintegrating' but I don't understand why.
NOTE (10/11/09). It's been pointed out to me in a comment by Theravadin that apalokitaṃ is a+palokitam. Palokitam being a past-participle of palujjhati (itself the passive of palujati) 'to break, to fall down'. Hence Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation as 'undisintegrating' makes more sense.
anidassanaṃ - PED lists this under nidassana and suggests that it means 'without attributes'. Nidassana (ni- + dassana) literally 'seeing into' or 'looking back' means 'evidence, example' and 'attribute, characteristic'. To some extent it overlaps with avalokita in the sense of 'looking down'. Anidassana then may remind us of the the signless liberation of the mind (animitta-ceto-vimutti), animitta being another synonym for nibbāna. Nibbāna here is that which has no characteristic, there is no evidence of it because it is not a thing or place. Also it cannot be refuted.

nippapañcaṃ - PED analyses this as nis- + (p)papañnca. I have dealt with this difficult word papañca in an earlier Rave: Proliferation. The way I think of papañca is as all the stories we tell ourselves about the experiences we have, which come largely from various groups we belong to. Unfortunately we tend to believe our own stories. Nis- in this case means 'free from'. So nibbāna is free from the mental proliferation associated with sensory experiences - we may still have experiences but we see them for what they are - impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial.

santaṃ - means peaceful, calmed down. It is a past-participle of sammati from S. √śam 'to calm, quiet'. When all our proliferations are pacified, we stop craving and hating, and then we experience the most profound state of peace imaginable. Nibbāna is peace.

amataṃ - one word which may be more familiar in its Sanskrit form: amṛta. The root is √mṛ 'to die' - mṛta (P. mata) meaning 'dead, deceased'. So amṛta literally means undead, but the English has all the wrong connotations! Immortal is actually cognate (via Latin mors from the same Proto-Indo-European root) but this translation has such strong Christian overtones that it's useless in this context. Undying is probably the best choice, though deathless also has resonance. In Indian mythology, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, amṛta is an ambrosial drink which bestows immortality - it is one of the valuable things churned from the ocean of milk by the devas and asuras. Mahāyāna Buddhists seem to have adopted the Śaiva version of the story in which Śiva swallows the poisoned amṛta (thereby saving all beings in the universe), and have given Śiva's characteristic blue colour to Avalokiteśvara and/or Vajrapāṇi. There is in fact a dhāraṇī associated with Avalokiteśvara called Nilakantha (blue throat) a name which rightly belongs to Śiva.

paṇītaṃ - the literal meaning here is 'brought out' from neti (√nī) 'to lead, guide, direct'. It is being used here in an applied sense as 'exalted, excellent, sublime'. PED says it is synonymous with uttama 'the highest', and antonymous with hīna 'inferior, vile, contemptible'.

sivaṃ - this one is a surprise, because in Sanskrit it is śiva. It means happy, fortunate, auspicious, and is of course the name of a Hindu God: Śiva. In Sanskrit the sense extends to 'friendly, kind, benign'. Richard Gombrich has argued (in How Buddhism Began) that Angulimala was a Śaiva (a worshipper of Śiva), though I don't think we can be certain of this. PED lists this word as a reference to Śaivas in the post-canonical Questions of King Milinda.

khemaṃ is quite similar to santa. It means peaceful, safe, calm; or even a place of safety and calm.

acchariyaṃ - the etymology of this word is uncertain with different scholars having different ideas but tending to agree that it is not from the main dialect underlying Pāli (this is now considered to be Magadhi). It means wonderful, surprising, strange, marvellous! It's often linked with the next term abbhutaṃ. .

abbhutaṃ - similar to acchariyaṃ. The etymology is that it comes from a+√bhū 'unreal' which I quite like. The meaning seems to be more 'terrifying, astonishing, puzzling, supernormal'. So Nibbāna is surprising, wonderful and strange - it is 'unreal' as we might say in the vernacular. This reminds me of the verses from 'The Confounder of Hell' Sadhana which begin: Eh ma oh! Dharma wondrous strange...

anītikaṃ - is slightly tricky because when a is added to a word starting with a vowel it become an (cf a bear, an apple). So the base here is īti meaning 'ill, calamity, plague, distress'. The suffix ka is a possessive and we could render ītika as afflicted with illness, sick etc. So anītka is literally 'not afflicted by illness'. It's quite typical of Pāli to define something in terms of what it is not. More straightforwardly we would call not being afflicted by illness 'health' or 'well-being'.

anītikadhammaṃ is the same word as above in combination with dhamma which in this case means the state of health, i.e. healthiness.

nibbānaṃ - means 'to blow' (vana) 'out' (nir-). What is blown out is not existence, nor the person (or personality), but the fires of craving, aversion, and confusion about the nature of experience.

abyāpajjhaṃ - (from a+vi+ā+pada). Ba and va are frequently transposed - which may be related to the similarity in their written forms (c.f. Devanāgarī ba ब; va व) though could be due to pronunciation. Āpada means to meet with or undergo, and the vi- prefix gives this a negative cast - a bad or divisive meeting. In use byāpajjha means 'trouble, malevolent'. So abyāpajjha means 'trouble-free' or 'benevolent'.

virāgo - rāgo comes from a root √rañj which means 'to redden, to glow red' and is used in an applied sense to refer to those emotions which make us go red in the face, primarily anger and passion, and in the grip of which we lose our reason. Adding vi- makes the word mean the abscence of passions. We tend to think of passion as a good thing - taking it to mean enthusiasm; but the earlier meaning of passion was simply 'suffering'. The crucifixion of Christ is, for example, called 'The Passion'. Also the word fiend 'enemy' is ultimately from the same root.

suddhi - is a verbal noun from √śudh and mean 'purity'. Purity most often refers to moral purity - that is not behaving in a way that causes harm. Here perhaps I think it refers to the state of being undefiled by craving, aversion and confusion about the nature of experience - as per above the very possibility of these inept responses to experience is eliminated.

mutti - is again a verbal noun from √muc 'to abandon, to cut off' and means 'release, freedom'. The sanskrit is mukti. Related terms are the past-participle mutta/mukta 'released'; and mokkha/mokṣa 'releasing, freeing'. The idea is the freedom obtained when one has cut off the defilements of craving, aversion and confusion about the nature of experience.

anālayo is an interesting word. Although PED suggests that it means 'aversion, doing away with' the etymology suggests a more positive sense. The base is ālaya - a word which might be more familiar from Yogacāra Buddhism where as ālaya-vijñāna it came to signify that aspect of consciousness involved in the ripening of karma. In Pāli it means a perch or resting place, and by analogy 'clinging or attachment'. An is the negative prefix and so means 'not clinging' or 'detached'. Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests 'unadhesive' about which I am more than doubtful on aesthetic grounds. Having been liberated one is not attached to any experience.

dīpaṃ - comes from the root √dī 'to shine' which also gives us words like deva, divya which are cognate with English deity, divine. A dīpa is a lamp, and nibbāna is the light which dispels darkness the darkness of confusion.

There is another word dīpa (Sanskrit dvīpa) which derives from dvī + āpa 'two waters' i.e. an island - the image is probably derived from an island dividing the stream of a river. Jambudvīpa - the Rose-apple Island - is an early name for India.

leṇaṃ (from √lī 'to hide'). A mountain cave used as a hermitage or shelter. Caves make good places to meditate because they are cool in the hot season, and dry in the rainy season. The image here is a refuge from the elements where one is insulated from adverse conditions. (Often occurs together with the following two terms)

tāṇaṃ (from √trā) 'shelter, protection'. The root also occurs in the word parittā - the verses and suttas chanted for protection from earliest times. Folk etymologies of the word mantra take it to be something protecting (tra) the mind (manas). PED suggests the original meaning was 'bringing or seeing through'.

saraṇaṃ - (from √śri) this word should be familiar to all Buddhists and primarily means 'protection, guarding' and 'a shelter, a house'. Cognate words might be 'preserve' (Latin. præ- 'before' + servare 'to keep safe') and 'observe' (Latin: ob 'over' + servare 'to watch, keep safe').

So all of these words are epithets for nibbāna, they are all facets of that jewel which we call liberation. The Buddha teaches the... taintless, true, beyond, subtle, very difficult to see, unenfeebled, certain, looked for, without attributes, free from the mental proliferation, peaceful, deathless, sublime, auspicious, a place of safety, marvellous, astonishing, healthy, healthiness, extinguished, trouble-free, abscence of passions, purity, freedom, detached, the light, a hermitage, shelter, refuge; and the way to this.

And these do not exhaust the possibilities of ways of speaking about the ineffable. [3]

  1. SN43.14-43, PTS S iv.369-373. Translated in Bodhi Connected Discourses p.1378
  2. PED notes that this is a Maghadism (that is an incorporation into Pāli from the older Maghdan dialect) for pariyāya lit 'going around' which amongst other uses can also indicate a way of putting something or a figurative use of language.
  3. Ineffable: from Latin in- "not" + effabilis "speakable," from effari "utter," from ex- "out" + fari "speak".
English etymologies from Online Etymology Dictionary.

Image: the Mahābodhi Temple, Bodhgaya at Night. My photo.
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