Dukkha: What the Buddha Meant by 'Life Is Suffering'

Four carved golden statues of Buddha in wall

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The Buddha didn't speak English. This should be obvious since the historical Buddha lived in India almost 26 centuries ago. Yet it's a point lost on many people who get stuck on the definitions of English words used in translations.

For example, people want to argue with the first of the Four Noble Truths, often translated as "life is suffering." That sounds so negative.

Remember, the Buddha didn't speak English, so he didn't use the English word, "suffering." What he said, according to the earliest scriptures, is that life is dukkha.

What Does 'Dukkha' Mean?

"Dukkha" is Pali, a variation of Sanskrit, and it means a lot of things. For example, anything temporary is dukkha, including happiness. But some people can't get past that English word "suffering" and want to disagree with the Buddha because of it.

Some translators are chucking out "suffering" and replacing it with "dissatisfaction" or "stress." Sometimes translators bump into words that have no corresponding words meaning exactly the same thing in the other language. "Dukkha" is one of those words.

Understanding dukkha, however, is critical to understanding the Four Noble Truths, and the Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhism.

Filling in the Blank

Because there is no single English word that neatly and tidily contains the same range of meaning and connotation as "dukkha," It's better not to translate it. Otherwise, you'll waste time spinning your wheels over a word that doesn't mean what the Buddha meant.

So, throw out "suffering," "stress," "dissatisfaction," or whatever other English word is standing in for it, and go back to "dukkha." Do this even if—especially if —you don't understand what "dukkha" means. Think of it as an algebraic "X," or a value you're trying to discover.

Defining Dukkha

The Buddha taught there are three main categories of dukkha. These are:

  • Suffering or Pain (Dukkha-dukkha). Ordinary suffering, as defined by the English word, is one form of dukkha. This includes physical, emotional and mental pain.
  • Impermanence or Change (Viparinama-dukkha). Anything that is not permanent, that is subject to change, is dukkha. Thus, happiness is dukkha, because it is not permanent. Great success, which fades with the passing of time, is dukkha. Even the purest state of bliss experienced in spiritual practice is dukkha. This doesn't mean that happiness, success, and bliss are bad, or that it's wrong to enjoy them. If you feel happy, then enjoy feeling happy. Just don't cling to it.
  • Conditioned States (Samkhara-dukkha). To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. According to the teaching of dependent origination, all phenomena are conditioned. Everything affects everything else. This is the most difficult part of the teachings on dukkha to understand, but it is critical to understanding Buddhism.

What Is the Self?

This takes us to the Buddha's teachings on the self. According to the doctrine of anatman (or anatta) there is no "self" in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence. What we think of as our self, our personality, and ego, are temporary creations of the skandhas.

The skandhas, or "five aggregates," or "five heaps," are a combination of five properties or energies that make what we think of as an individual being. Theravada scholar Walpola Rahula said,

"What we call a 'being', or an 'individual', or 'I', is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these five groups. They are all impermanent, all constantly changing. 'Whatever is impermanent is dukkha' (Yad aniccam tam dukkham). This is the true meaning of the Buddha's words: 'In brief the Five Aggregates of Attachment are dukkha.' They are not the same for two consecutive moments. Here A is not equal to A. They are in a flux of momentary arising and disappearing." (What the Buddha Taught, p. 25)

Life Is Dukkha

Understanding the First Noble Truth is not easy. For most of us, it takes years of dedicated practice, especially to go beyond a conceptual understanding to a realization of the teaching. Yet people often glibly dismiss Buddhism as soon as they hear that word "suffering."

That's why I think it is useful to toss out English words like "suffering" and "stressful" and go back to "dukkha." Let the meaning of dukkha unfold for you, without other words getting in the way.

The historical Buddha once summarized his own teachings this way: "Both formerly and now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha." Buddhism will be a muddle for anyone who doesn't grasp the deeper meaning of dukkha.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Dukkha: What the Buddha Meant by 'Life Is Suffering'." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/life-is-suffering-what-does-that-mean-450094. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). Dukkha: What the Buddha Meant by 'Life Is Suffering'. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/life-is-suffering-what-does-that-mean-450094 O'Brien, Barbara. "Dukkha: What the Buddha Meant by 'Life Is Suffering'." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/life-is-suffering-what-does-that-mean-450094 (accessed June 2, 2023).