Is the word nirvana a noun or a verb? Modern English dictionaries always classify the word nirvana as a noun, e.g., a state of heavenly bliss.
However, as Pali translator Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out, “back in the days of the Buddha, nirvana (nibbana) had a verb of its own: nibbuti. It meant to ‘go out,’ like a flame. Because fire was thought to be in a state of entrapment as it burned — both clinging to and trapped by the fuel on which it fed — its going out was seen as an unbinding. To go out was to be unbound.”
Notice that nirvana (a Sanskrit term) is a compound word. The prefix ‘nir’ means ‘out.’ The root ‘vana’ means ‘to blow.’ Put them together and you get ‘to blow out.’
Nirvana is a verb!
Defining and classifying ancient words, such as the word nirvana, is a bit arbitrary. For example, if we define nirvana as ‘blown out,’ then the word becomes an adjective. And if we define it as ‘the state of being blown out,’ then it is a noun again. It’s all just semantics – sleight of hand with words!
It is curious and telling that we only use nirvana as a noun. We need nirvana to be a place or a thing, or at least a state. We need it to be some-thing that we can hold onto. (And a Buddhist might say that trying to hold onto nirvana is the fundamental error of existence.) Of course, you cannot really make the error of holding onto nirvana, for that is impossible; rather, the error one might make is holding onto the idea of nirvana. Nouns are a little easier to hold onto than verbs and for that reason I propose that we begin using the word nirvana as a verb, i.e., a verb that means ‘to blow or put out.’ What do you think?
The next time you ask someone to blow out a candle or put out a fire, try saying, “Will you nirvana that for me, thanks?”
It might start an interesting conversation.