What is Dukkha?


I teach two things. There is suffering, and release from suffering. ~ Buddha

Dukkha is a word in Pali (Dukhka in Sanskrit) that has in the past been translated to mean simply suffering. Suffering is the core of Buddha’s teachings.

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Dukkha however, takes on a much deeper meaning than just that of suffering. It applies to all things that are unpleasant, and causes misery.

Nirvana is the absence of dukkha. Nirvana is detaching ourselves from Samsara This is easier said than done, but it is the end goal of Buddhists.

The word dukkha is created from the prefix du which refers to something that is bad or difficult, and the suffix kha which means empty.

Incidentally empty in ancient Aryan terminology refers to the empty axle hole of a wheel which has not been placed in the exact center of the wheel, which of course results in an unsteady, and uncomfortable ride down the trail.

Dukkha is one of the three marks of existence that all beings must accept as part of life. The other two are, (Anicca) Impermanence, and (Anatta) Non-self.

Life is Dukkha (suffering):

Buddha’s doctrine of The Four Noble Truths declares that, “There is suffering. Life is suffering” as the first of the four noble truth’s. Followed by…

  • Samudaya - “Suffering is caused by our attachment to our desires.”

  • Nirhodha - “Suffering can be overcome, and happiness attained by overcoming our attachment to all of our desires.”

  • Magga – “If we follow the steps outlined in the Eight Fold Path we would let go of our desires, and attachments, and bring an end to our suffering.”

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The Buddha taught that there are three separate categories attributed to Dukkha which are:

Pain or suffering (Dukkha - Dukkha)
This refers to ordinary suffering which includes our physical, mental, and emotional pain. We will suffer when we are born, as we exist, and also in our death. Not only will we suffer from life’s challenges such as illness, and heartbreak, but watching those around us suffer will bring us suffering as well.

It is not the suffering of these physical, mental, and emotional conditions that are dukkha, but our dissatisfaction with being inflicted with these unpleasant conditions that are truly dukkha.

Impermanence or change (Viparinama – Dukkha)
All things are impermanent and will eventually change, our positive emotions of love and happiness are no exception. That does not mean that love, or happiness is dukkha, but rather the act of our emotional state changing from happiness to misery is dukkha.

Change is certain, we must accept that all things are impermanent.

When we contemplate our impermanence we must acknowledge our immanent death. This fact of life causes some to fear the unknown of the afterlife which causes them to suffer.

Conditioned States (Samkhara – Dukkha)
All forms of life are impermanent, and forever changing. We can never be as healthy and vibrant in our old age as we were in our youth. This causes dissatisfaction knowing that we will deteriorate into an unhealthy state.

This dissatisfaction, or unhappiness will cause us to suffer.

The life conditions of all living things are the way they are because they are conditioned by other things. We are all conditioned by circumstances, and the people around us. Our decisions and actions influence the conditions and circumstances of all those around us as well.

Buddha stated that dukkha was, “Not getting what we want” and “Getting what we don’t want.”

When we suffer because of these two happenstances we must be mindful of our suffering, and question the reason behind our suffering.

It is always our insatiable craving, desire, or strong attachment for something or someone that causes us to suffer when we don’t get what we want. It is the dissatisfaction that we feel when we receive something that we don’t want that is the cause of our suffering as well.

The Five Aggregates that are the conduit of our cravings, and our grasping and clinging to that which we want the most is a big factor in the dukkha that we will experience in our life.

Dukkha is everything that we experience that is unpleasant to us.

We must be mindful of our desires, and cravings if we are to free ourselves from Dukkha and Embrace Nirvana.

Back to Buddhist Terminology

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