Is there a difference between abhava and vibhava? Or are those words synonyms?

When they are not synonyms, what is their exact meaning.


'Vibhava' is a form of 'becoming' or 'self-view', namely, the idea "I do not exist" or "I do not want to exist" or "I will cease to exist". Since the idea of 'I' ('atta') or "a being/person" ('satta') still remains, 'vibhava' is a type of becoming (bhava). This is described in the following suttas:

Tayidaṃ, bhikkhave, tathāgato abhijānāti. Ye kho te bhonto samaṇabrāhmaṇā sato sattassa ucchedaṃ vināsaṃ vibhavaṃ paññapenti te sakkāyabhayā sakkā­ya­pari­je­gucchā sakkāyaññeva anupa­ri­dhāvanti anu­pari­vattanti. Seyyathāpi nāma sā gaddulabaddho daḷhe thambhe vā khile vā upanibaddho, tameva thambhaṃ vā khilaṃ vā anuparidhāvati anuparivattatianuparivattati evamevime bhonto samaṇabrāhmaṇā sakkāyabhayā sakkā­ya­pari­je­gucchā sakkāyaññeva anupa­ri­dhāvanti anu­pari­vattanti.

Those recluses that describe the annihilation, destruction & extermination (vibhavaṃ; non-existence) of an existing being (sattassa); through fear & disgust with identity (sakkāya), keep running & circling around that same identity; just as a dog bound by a leash to a post keeps running & circling around that same post....

MN 102.12

Kathañca, bhikkhave, atidhāvanti eke? Bhaveneva kho paneke aṭṭīyamānā harāyamānā jigucchamānā vibhavaṃ abhinandanti—yato kira, bho, ayaṃ attā kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā ucchijjati vinassati na hoti paraṃ maraṇā; etaṃ santaṃ etaṃ paṇītaṃ etaṃ yāthāvanti. Evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, atidhāvanti eke.

How, bhikkhus, do some overreach? Now some are troubled, ashamed and disgusted by this very same being and they rejoice in (the idea of) non-being, asserting: ‘In as much as this self, good sirs, when the body perishes at death, is annihilated and destroyed and does not exist after death—this is peaceful, this is excellent, this is reality!’ Thus, bhikkhus, do some overreach.

Iti 44

As for 'abhava', I do not currently know what it means in Pali Buddhism.

'Abhava' appears to not have the same meaning as 'abhavissā', which seems to mean: 'if was' or 'would have been', as found in the 2nd sermon:

Rūpañca hidaṃ, bhikkhave, attā abhavissa, nayidaṃ rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvatteyya

For if, bhikkhus, form were self, this form would not lead to affliction...

'Vibhava' is not a synonym for Nibbana or the Unconditioned. MN 140 states:

So nevaneva taṃ abhisaṅkharoti, na abhisañ­ceta­yati bhavāya vā vibhavāya vā. So anabhi­saṅ­kha­ronto anabhi­sañ­ceta­yanto bhavāya vā vibhavāya vā na kiñci loke upādiyati, anupādiyaṃ na paritassati, aparitassaṃ paccattaṃyeva parinibbāyati

He does not form any condition or generate any volition tending towards either being or non-being. Since he does not form any condition or generate any volition tending towards either being or non-being, he does not cling to anything in this world. When he does not cling, he is not agitated. When he is not agitated, he personally attains Nibbāna.

In Hinduism, 'abhava' appears to refer to a primordial unconditioned state, namely, unmanifest level from where the concrete bhava arises or emerges.

'Abhava' here, in Hinduism, is not a synonymous with 'vibhava' in Buddhism because, in Buddhism, 'bhava' ('becoming') must occur before 'vibhava' can occur.

The idea of 'I' is 'bhava'. The idea of "I" must exist before the idea of "I do not want to exist" can occur. For example, the idea of "I", "me" or "self" must occur before the wish to commit suicide.


Let's assume that bhava means "existence".

I think that the a prefix means "not" (it appears in a lot of Buddhist words, like anatta and so on).

I think that the vi prefix might mean "the reverse of" (see e.g. the dictionary definition quoted here).

So my guess is that abhava means "non-existence", whereas vibhava means "destruction".

The phrase vibhavataṇhā is used in the definition of the second noble truth in SN 56.11, so you can read various translations of vibhava in the various translations of that sutta, for example:

  • craving for extermination (of what is not liked)
  • craving for non-being
  • craving for non-existence (self-annihilation)
  • craving for non-becoming
  • craving for non-existence [for extinction].

The first translation of SN 56.11 that I read translated bhavataṇhā and vibhavataṇhā as "the craving to live and even the craving to die", so that's the way I remember it.

In summary, maybe they mean the same thing (i.e. "non-existence"); but if they aren't synonyms, then one simply means "non-existence" and the other implies a "transition from existence to non-existence" for example "annihilation, destruction, extinction, death".

  • 'Vibhava tanha' refers to any craving not-to-be, such as not wanting to be in the hot sun. Its application is far broader than merely not wanting to live. Regards Apr 10 '17 at 3:17
  • @Dhammadhatu Your example of not wanting to be in the hot sun is interesting. I am not sure if you can use it to describe vibhavataṇhā, because being in the hot sun is a sensory experience, so I would naively say it's more an example of kamataṇhā. Does kamataṇhā also include disliking/aversion to sensory objects? Apr 12 '17 at 20:54
  • @OidaOudenEidos The question "Could Lobha(craving) and Dosa(aversion) be working in tandem?" says that "wanting pain to disappear" or "desire for the non painful state" is 'Vibhava tanha'.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 12 '17 at 20:59
  • @OidaOudenEidos No. Aversion to the hot sun is not kamatahna since the suttas define this as craving for what is pleasing. To quote: "There are, monks, these five strings of sensuality. Which five? Forms cognizable via the eye — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing." ...Every form of craving must fall within the three kinds of craving in the 2nd noble truth. Regards Apr 12 '17 at 21:03
  • @Dhammadhatu So any form of disliking falls under vibhava tanha? \@ChrisW Thanks for the reference. Apr 12 '17 at 21:09

I recently stumbled upon an interesting explanation of vibhavataṇhā in the german translation of the Majjhima Nikāya by Mettiko Bhikkhu. I tried to translate this explanation as good as I could into english. The following is from page 25 (3rd edition, 2014):

Bhavataṇhā generally is craving for being, or in a more precise case the craving for being in the current, present situation.

Vibhavataṇhā often is misunderstood as craving for non-existence. That is linguistcally wrong, because the prefix "vi-" does not mean "not", but it means "different than, dis-, apart-, parallel to". (A-bhava, not-becoming/non-existence only occurs very rarely in the texts and in different contexts.) Furthermore would "craving for non-existence" mean, that the Buddha teaches a fundamental category, which only applies to specific people at a specific times -- a contradiction in terms, which is not consistent with the spirit/tenor of the Suttas.

From an existential point of view it's also impossible to imagine "non-existence/being" or to wish it. Even a potential suicide does not wish for 'nothing', but rather for 'something else'.

Vibhavataṇhā is a potential/possible existence/state of being, which we use to isolate and define our present existence/state of being, regardless of whether these possibilities are going to become true or not. Just as it only makes sense to speak about the color red when there are things that are not red, our existence becomes established by the possibilities that we have within it (or around it). An example: How often do we speak while eating about different food or things we ate in the past or might eat in the future, even if the present meal is 100% satisfying?

That's why I'll translate Vibhavataṇhā as "Craving for potential existence", the craving for a background for the own existence. The philosophical fun question "Life is strange ... compared to what?" therefore is not far fetched.

This kind of craving is one of the three forms of the source of a relative, conditioned personality (sakkāya) as it is described in the teachings of the Buddha (for example in M44). Follower of other teachings that don't base on conditions, postulate the existence of an absolute, permanent, independent self. In their language, referring to an absolute self, the sense of "being-different-than" (Vibhavataṇhā) can of course only mean annihilation and in these cases is also translated as such, as well as when the Buddha talks about the standpoint of those teachings (i.e. M102).

I might adjust/refine the translation, if there is some feedback. But for now, I hope a sloppy (sometimes word by word) translation is enough.

In summary, what this section says is that Vibha within the Buddha's teaching can mean two things:

  • non-existence, if a different philosophy or teaching is addressed, which states a permanent self.
  • Craving to be different, become somebody else (Which I think is what is meant by "craving for potential existence").

Vibhava means disbelief in rebirth. Vibhava is always gets referred to with “tanha”. Tanha is “getting attached to things in this world” via greed, hate, and ignorance. Vibhava tanha then can be taken as "getting attached to non-existence" or that nothing exists after death. This view arises from the wrong view of materialism. In Pali it is called ucceda ditthi. One believes that at death one ceases to exist, i.e., one believes that the mind is a by-product of the body (brain), and thus when the body dies, that is the end of story. Thus one believes that one needs to just enjoy the pleasures of this life before dying as nothing exists after death.

It is easy to have ucceda ditthi and vibhava tanha, especially when one has not heard about the Buddha’s message about a wider and more complex world with 31 realms and a rebirth process. Since our normal human senses cannot access such “hidden” aspects of this world, one just believes what one sees. It takes a wider world view to explain such & in not seeing the truth, many immoral acts are done with ucceda ditthi (or materialism or nihilism) because one believes that everything in this world is for one’s enjoyment.

Abhava and Vibhava are two different words. Abhava means a death of a person or being. On the other hand Vibhava can have some relation to “antarabhava“ - “antara-bhava“ – an in-between zone from one bhava to another. It is the Mahayanists who coined this term and started saying that there is an antarabhava. But at the Third Buddhist Council, this was proved wrong and that there is no antarabhava.

  • Where do the suttas state vibhava means disbelief in rebirth? Thanks Apr 10 '17 at 1:02
  • Going forward I will try to show another way of seeing/interpreting a given word. This is one attempt towards it. As per your question... It is in the Brahmajala sutta: suttacentral.net/pi/dn1 in section 3.2.4. Ucchedavada section - . Vibhava tanha arises from ucceda ditthi. Apr 10 '17 at 2:27
  • This does not show anything because 'vibhava' is a self-view; just as ucceda ditthi is a self-view. Please read carefully. Each quote in the suttas states a 'self' or 'being' is annihilated. I will wrote an answer to explain. Apr 10 '17 at 2:39
  • @Dhammadhatu.. it is quite clear that vibhava tanha is associated with ucceda ditthi, the view that one lives just this life and that is the end of it. So, one tries to "enjoy life to the fullest" until death. Also, one may have more than one ditthi. There are so many interpretations of "self view". Are you reading the Pali, or English, version of the sutta? Apr 14 '17 at 15:05
  • Please do not make pointless comments towards me. You are posting 'eternalism'. You do not understand the teachings. Both eternalism & nihilism are 'self-views'. They both contain the belief about a 'self'. Thanks Apr 14 '17 at 23:36

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