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Dukkha (Pāli दुक्ख; Sanskrit दुःख duḥkha; according to grammatical tradition derived from dus-kha "uneasy", but according to Monier-Williams more likely a Prakritized form of dus-stha "unsteady, disquieted"[1]) is a Pali term roughly corresponding to a number of terms in English including suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, social alienation, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration. In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths on dukkha are taught as the primary means to attain the ultimate aim of nirvana.



Sargeant, et. al. (2009: p. 303) provides the etymology of the Sanskrit words sukha and duḥkha:

It is perhaps amusing to note the etymology of the words sukha (pleasure, comfort, bliss) and duḥkha (misery, unhappiness, pain). The ancient Aryans who brought the Sanskrit language to India were a nomadic, horse- and cattle-breeding people who travelled in horse- or ox-drawn vehicles. Su and dus are prefixes indicating good or bad. The word kha, in later Sanskrit meaning "sky," "ether," or "space," was originally the word for "hole," particularly an axle hole of one of the Aryan's vehicles. Thus sukha … meant, originally, "having a good axle hole," while duhkha meant "having a poor axle hole," leading to discomfort.[2]

Sanskrit prefix 'su' is used as an emphasis suggesting wholesome, high, evolved, desirable, strong and such. [3]


Although dukkha is often translated as "suffering", its philosophical meaning is more analogous to "disquietude" as in the condition of being disturbed. As such, "suffering" is too narrow a translation with "negative emotional connotations" (Jeffrey Po),[3] which can give the impression that the Buddhist view is one of pessimism, but Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic.[4] Thus in English-language Buddhist literature dukkha is often left untranslated, so as to encompass its full range of meaning.[5][6][7]

Buddhist literature

The Buddha himself on Dukkha:

This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of Dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha. Presence of objects we loathed is dukkha; separation from what we love is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha. — SN 56.11[8]

Accordingly, dukkha can refer to various unpleasant experiences in varying degrees. It can range anywhere from discomfort to suffering.[citation needed]

The Buddha embarked on a spiritual journey to find a way to end aging, death, and "dukkha". Dukkha is the focus of the Four Noble Truths that deal with the nature of "dukkha" in life, what is the cause of "dukkha", the cessation (cure) for "dukkha", and the techniques to bring about the cessation of "dukkha". The way leading to its cessation is known as the Noble Eightfold Path.[9] Texts like the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta[10] and Anuradha Sutta,[11] show Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha, as insisting that the truths about dukkha and the way to end dukkha are the only ones he is teaching as far as attaining the ultimate goal of nirvana is concerned.

Although the First Noble Truth that "Life is Dukkha" sounds simple enough, it is not easy for many people to realize. The Anapanasati Sutta and Maha-satipatthana Sutta indicate that a person first needs to practice meditation to purify the mind of the five hindrances to wisdom and the ability to "see things as they truly are" before contemplating the Four Noble Truths, which begin with the nature of "dukkha" in life. For someone who has not seen what it's like to be without dukkha, it is difficult to realize that life is "dukkha". Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" can be helpful in this regard.

In "Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond", Ajahn Brahm, the Founder of Jhana Grove Meditation Retreat states that without the preparation of the mind through Jhana it is not easy to develop deep insight into dukkha. He gives a simile that is, in a way, similar to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave":

Another simile, to emphasize the same point, is that of the man who was born and raised in a prison and who has never set foot outside. All he knows is prison life. He would have no conception of the freedom that is beyond his world. And he would not understand that prison is suffering. If anybody suggested that his world was dukkha, he would disagree, for prison is the limit of his experience. But one day he might find the escape tunnel dug long ago that leads beyond the prison walls to the unimaginable and expansive world of real freedom. Only when he has entered that tunnel and escaped from his prison does he realize how much suffering prison actually was, and the end of that suffering, escaping from jail is happiness. In this simile the prison is the body, the high prison walls are the five senses, and the relentless demanding prison guard is one's own will, the doer. The tunnel dug long ago, through which one escapes, is called jhana ( as at AN IX, 42). Only when one has experienced jhana does one realize that the five -sense world, even at its best, is really a five-walled prison, some parts of it is a little more comfortable but still a jail with everyone on death row! Only after deep jhana does one realize that "will" was the torturer, masquerading as freedom, but preventing one ever resting happily at peace. Only outside of prison can one gain the data that produces the deep insight that discovers the truth about dukkha. In summary, without experience of jhana, one's knowledge of the world is too limited to fully understand dukkha, as required by the first noble truth, and proceed to enlightenment.[12]

As the Buddha said in Samyutta Nikaya #35:

What ordinary folk call happiness, the enlightened ones call dukkha

The Buddha discussed three kinds of dukkha or suffering:

  • Dukkha-dukkha (pain of pain) is the obvious sufferings of:

pain, illness, old age, death, bereavement

  • Viparinama-dukkha (pain of alteration) is suffering caused by change:

violated expectations, the failure of happy moments to last

  • Sankhara dukkha (pain of formation) is a subtle form of suffering arising as a reaction to qualities of conditioned things, including the skandhas, the factors constituting the human mind

Dukkha is also listed among the three marks of existence: impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and not-self (anatta).[9] Dukkha denotes the experience that all formations (sankhara) are impermanent (anicca) - thus it explains the qualities which make the mind as fluctuating and impermanent entities. It is therefore also a gateway to anatta, not-self.

Insofar as it is dynamic, ever-changing, uncontrollable and not finally satisfactory, unexamined life is itself precisely dukkha.[13] The question which underlay the Buddha's quest was "in what may I place lasting relevance?" He did not deny that there are satisfactions in experience: the exercise of vipassana assumes that the meditator sees instances of happiness clearly. Pain is to be seen as pain, and pleasure as pleasure. It is denied that happiness dependent on conditions will be secure and lasting.[13]

In the early texts, the skandhas explain what suffering is. According to Noa Ronkin, "What emerges from the texts ... is a wider signification of the khandhas than merely the aggregates constituting the person. Sue Hamilton has provided a detailed study of the khandhas. Her conclusion is that the associating of the five khandhas as a whole with dukkha indicates that experience is a combination of a straightforward cognitive process together with the psychological orientation that colours it in terms of unsatisfactoriness. Experience is thus both cognitive and affective, and cannot be separated from perception. As one's perception changes, so one's experience is different: we each have our own particular cognitions, perceptions and volitional activities in our own particular way and degree, and our own way of responding to and interpreting our experience is our very experience. In harmony with this line of thought, Gethin observes that the khadhas are presented as five aspects of the nature of conditioned existence from the point of view of the experiencing subject; five aspects of one's experience. Hence each khandha represents 'a complex class of phenomena that is continuously arising and falling away in response to processes of consciousness based on the six spheres of sense. They thus become the five upādānakhandhas, encompassing both grasping and all that is grasped.'"[14]

Non-English translations

Dukkha was translated as ( "bitterness; hardship; suffering; pain") in Chinese Buddhism, and this loanword is pronounced ku (苦) in Japanese Buddhism and ko (苦) in Korean Buddhism, and khổ in Vietnamese Buddhism. In Tibetan it is sdug bsngal (སྡུག་བསྔལ་). In Shan, it is တုၵ်ႉၶႃႉ ([tuk˥kʰaː˥]) and in Burmese, it is ဒုက္ခ ([douʔkʰa̰]).

Non-Buddhist literature

In Hindu literature, the earliest Upaniads — the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya — are believed to predate or coincide with the advent of Buddhism.[15] In these texts' verses, the Sanskrit word dukha (translated below as "suffering" and "distress") occurs only twice. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, it states (in English and Sanskrit):

While we are still here, we have come to know it [ātman].
If you've not known it, great is your destruction.
Those who have known it — they become immortal.
As for the rest — only suffering awaits them.[16]

ihaiva santo 'tha vidmas tad vayaṃ na ced avedir mahatī vinaṣṭiḥ
ye tad vidur amṛtās te bhavanty athetare duḥkham evāpiyanti

In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad is written:

When a man rightly sees,
he sees no death, no sickness or distress.
When a man rightly sees,
he sees all, he wins all, completely.[18]

na paśyo mṛtyuṃ paśyati na rogaṃ nota duḥkhatām
sarvaṃ ha paśyaḥ paśyati sarvam āpnoti sarvaśaḥ

Thus, as in Buddhism, in these sacred texts the eradication of dukha is a desired and promised outcome; here dukha serves as an antipode to the ultimate Brahmanic goal of immortality (amṛtās). In addition, as in Buddhism, one overcomes dukha through the development of a transcendent understanding.[20] Nonetheless, in these Brahmanic sacred texts, dukha is either identified as a general condition or as simply one of many undesirable states, not embodying the conceptual centrality assigned to it in Buddhism's Pali Canon.


  1. ^ Monier-Williams (1899, 1964), A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press), p. 483, entry for "duḥkha", retrieved 27 December 2008 from "U. Cologne" at http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/scans/MWScan/MWScanpdf/mw0483-dut.pdf.
  2. ^ Sargeant, Winthrop (author, translator); Smith, Huston (author) & Chapple, Christopher Key (Editor) (2009). The Bhagavad Gita. Excelsior Editions, Suny Series in Cultural Perspectives: SUNY Press. Edition: annotated. ISBN 1438428413, 9781438428413 Source: [1] (accessed: Tuesday February 23, 2010), p.303
  3. ^ Jeffrey Po, “Is Buddhism a Pessimistic Way of Life?”, http://www.4ui.com/eart/172eart1.htm
  4. ^ Bhikku, Thanissaro. "Life Isn't Just Suffering". Essays. Access To Insight. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/lifeisnt.html. Retrieved July 26, 2010. 
  5. ^ Rahula, Walpola (1959). "Chapter 2". What the Buddha Taught. Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3031-3. 
  6. ^ Prebish, Charles (1993). Historical Dictionary of Buddhism. The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-2698-4. 
  7. ^ Keown, Damien (2003). Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860560-9. 
  8. ^ [2]
  9. ^ a b Michael Carrithers, The Buddha. Cited in Founders of Faith, Oxford University Press, 1986, page 51.
  10. ^ MN 63, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, retrieved from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html
  11. ^ SN 22.86, trans., Thanissaro Bhikkhu, retrieved from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.086.than.html
  12. ^ Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator's Handbook. (2006). Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-275-7.
  13. ^ a b Carrithers (1986), op cit., pages 55-56.
  14. ^ Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics: the Making of a Philosophical Tradition." Routledge, 2005, page 43.
  15. ^ See, e.g., Patrick Olivelle (1996), Upaniads (Oxford: Oxford University Press), ISBN 978-0-19-283576-5, p. xxxvi: "The scholarly consensus, well-founded I think, is that the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya are the two earliest Upaniads.... The two texts as we have them are, in all likelihood, pre-Buddhist; placing them in the seventh to sixth centuries BCE may be reasonable, give or take a century or so."
  16. ^ BU 4.4.14, trans. Olivelle (1996), p. 66.
  17. ^ BrhUp 4,4.14. Retrieved 28 December 2008 from "Georg-August-Universität Göttingen" at http://www.sub.uni-goettingen.de/ebene_1/fiindolo/gretil/1_sanskr/1_veda/4_upa/brup___u.htm.
  18. ^ CU 7.26.2, trans. Olivelle (1996), p. 166. Compare this statement to that in the Pali Canon's Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) where sickness and death are formulaically identified as examplars of dukkha.
  19. ^ ChUp 7,26.2. Retrieved 27 December 2008 from "Georg-August-Universität Göttingen" at http://www.sub.uni-goettingen.de/ebene_1/fiindolo/gretil/1_sanskr/1_veda/4_upa/chup___u.htm.
  20. ^ For a general discussion of the core Indian spiritual goal of developing transcendent "seeing," see, e.g., Hamilton, Sue (2000/2001), Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford U. Press), pp. 9-10, ISBN 978-0-19285374-5.

External links

  • The various meanings of the Pali term "Dukkha", edited by John T. Bullitt - Access to Insight
  • On understanding the teaching of Dukkha by the Buddha, Kingsley Heendeniya
  • Ku 苦 entry (use "guest" with no password for one-time login), Digital Dictionary of Buddhism
  • [4] Definitions, Objectives, Premises and Principles of the International Society for Panetics, Ralph Siu. Panetics: The study of the infliction of suffering. J. Humanistic Psychology 28(3), 6-22. 1988, The humane chief of state and the Gross National Dukkhas (GND). Panetics 2(2), 1-5. 1993. Panetics Trilogy. Washington: The International Society for Panetics, 1994. Vol. I, Less Suffering for Everybody. Ibid. Vol. II, Panetics and Dukkhas. Ibid. Vol. III, Seeds of Contemplation. Understanding and Minimizing the Infliction of suffering. Unpublished text. 711 pages. Introduction to panetic system design. Panetics 3(4), 3-12. 1994. Panetic inflation, deflation, and the Humane Index. Panetics 5(2), 52-53. 1966. see also suffering

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