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The Concept Of


The Concept Of “Dukkha” In Buddhism Essay, Research Paper

Philosophy of World Religions

Dr. Buckley

April 21,2000

Aimee L. Naylor

From its origins in India to its expansion North to Tibet and East through China and eventually Japan, Buddhism has undergone many changes. These changes are usually evidenced in its iconography, and somewhat in popular practice, but the essential tenets remain unchanged. One of these tenets is “Dukkha” or the idea of inescapable human suffering. The kinds and origins of dukkha are as varied as the regional practices of Buddhism itself, ranging from the ancient and very symbolic, to the modern and very pragmatic. Explanations of dukkha, no matter from what ideology they come, offer an interesting insight into one religions standpoint on human suffering.

Dukkha is a fascinating concept that asserts that suffering is the lot of anyone born to this existence, the so-called “bad news” of Buddhism. Unlike other religions that assert that suffering is either the will of God, or an inheritance of original sin, Buddhism places suffering squarely at the bearers doorstep, either by past bad karmic actions, the discomfort we cause ourselves by searching for inherently unfulfilling paths, or by the simple fact that by inhabiting a human form we are subject to the deterioration of all physical matter. Aging, growing, living, and dying are all facts that even the most enlightened cannot transcend.

Since all of the translations of Buddhist philosophy I’ve been able to consult are in English, and for the most part done by Americans (with the exception of a few ) I will begin by acknowledging the fact that by definition English translation/ relation of Buddhist text are at least minimally affected by modern influence the fluctuation in meaning of the same kinda of dukkha. I will clarify:

Buddhism is a religion of numbers. While in many religions the symbolism of numbers has long been mystical, memorial, or even used as a way to teach the illiterate; Buddhism makes use of numbers in so many ways as to make your head spin. The first and foremost among those numbers being the Four Noble Truths: the first, as was mentioned earlier, that we all, great and small, must suffer (dukkha). The second being that while there are different kinds of dukkha we tend to bring it on ourselves because we seek satisfaction in ways that are inherently dissatisfying. The third, and fourth noble truths are respectively, that the possibility of liberationfrom dukkha exists for all, and that the way to liberation is virtue, wisdom, and meditation; all delineated in The Eightfold Path of Enlightenment. While these Four Noble Truths have been stated much more bluntly or eloquently than I have managed here, it is most necessary to understand the first two Noble Truths for our purposes.

In my research to list and define different kinds and origins of dukka, I was more suprised to find that indeed, putting a finger (an English speaking finger at that) on the word dukkha itself was quite a challenge. The word “dukkha” does not translate well to English, it has an antonym in the word “sukkha” which means satiated or comfortable, but dukkha is not the exact opposite. The literal Sanskrit word means “wheel out of balance” but it is used in many ways such as “off the mark” “frustrating” “hollow” and even “pain”, but in most cases it is equated with the English word “suffering”. So by agreeing that suffering has many different forms ranging from minor inconveniences to blunt physical torture, and every emotional shade of grey in between, “suffering” then becomes an adequate word.

Any book you pick up on Buddhism will touch on dukkha in some way. In fact, a good way to tell a westernized translation from something translated as closely as possible to the literal is to read the Four Noble Truths (also addressed in almost all Buddhist books). The ones that come straight from China translated by a first year English student will say something like: First Noble Truth: Life is Pain, Second Noble Truth: Life is Pain Because of Attachments, Third Noble Truth: All Can Be Free From Attachments, Fourth Noble Truth: Enlightenment. The ones that are published by a Yoga teacher from Berkeley, begin something like: Life Can Have Hardships…

It is an interesting point to witness how unpalatable the idea of difficulty is to Western consciousness when comparing the two versions.

There are so many kinds of dukkha, I cannot fit them all into this paper. There is so-called “Ordinary” dukkha; which entails things that we encounter constantly; this is also called Pain dukkha, but again there is a problem with translation as we usually take “pain” to mean something strong and physical, when in fact it may be included in the grey scale we discussed earlier.

Ordinary dukkha consists of everyday problems. Everybody has to endure emotional as well as physical pain. Cars break down, accidents happen, and eventually someone you love dies. In the Buddhist religion this is seen as an opportunity to keep a realistic outlook on life. “Mental suffering takes place when we don’t get what we want or are forced to live with something we don’t want (Hagan. Bp&s). But from a Buddhist point of view this is seen as an opportunity to face, overcome, and accept as well as being the counterpoint to the other things life has to offer : namely the enormous potential for joy and transcendence.

This is an interesting point in that few, if any, other religions is everyday suffering addressed. So often it is the constant stream of small trials we face that break us down and turn us into the ugly creatures we so often are. By acknowledging this as a polarity and a necessary evil Buddhism addresses an issue so often overlooked in the contemplation on human suffering.

One of the m ost common things that cause us pain is change.

Man above all resists change; so much so that even when people are in a painful or dangerous situation they will continue in this fashion rather than risk the uncertainties of change. Change is traumatic, even when it is a happy one. This is evidenced by the fact that events such as getting married, having a child, and winning the lottery register among the most stress producing events in a persons life (Comer, Abnormal Psych.ch.5)

The Buddha knew that not only was Pain an inevitable fact of human life but also change. “Change Dukkha” is caused by any change in ones circumstances that cause us discomfort; all aspects of our lives and ourselves is in constant flux, and as a result we try to “nail” things down. This fixation on fixation is a cause of dukkha . By externally trying to manipulate, control or force our circumstances we set ourselves up for disappointment. Dukkha is funny in that one cause can encompass all forms of dukkha, as is apparent when our disappointment resulting from our reaction to change becomes pain dukkha because of the fruitless outcome. The attempts we unconciously make to keep things as we want are an endless source of dukkha, and most of the time we are completely unaware. Taken to the extreme on one hand and the mundane on the other, most of our personal and social rituals are based in the hope of making things concrete. Opening a bank account, getting married, or joining a fellowship of any kind are all common ways of trying to ensure that things on which we depend (spiritual/mortal crutches) don’t go away or disappear. Societies are full, both in secular and religious practice of rituals that are meant to bind, from having a Delchamps gold card, to baptizing a child, we forever seek to align ourselves with something, depending on the person, in order to protect ourselves from the unknown that change represents. However, reality is change and in Buddhist philosophy the awakened mind seeks not to solidify but to de-construct, losing the attachments, great and small that are the plague of human existence. All that exists changes, and being at peace with that change is a major step in the path to enlightenment.

The third and last major cause of dukkha is that of existence. The “dukkha of existence” is the distress caused by the question of being human; “Who am I?” “Who or what, if anything, is experiencing my experience?” “Where or how is the experiencer?” It is from the dukkha of existence that we are introduced to the five skandhas which when examined offer the Buddhist answer to all these philosophical questions to which we do not posses the answer, not the least of which is: “What happens when we die?”

In the Buddhist faith it is believed that the individual is composed of five Skandhas, or complex conglomerates, for lack of a better term. The first being a form and ‘material’, the last four being of the mind and therefore immaterial. The five skandhas are said by Buddha to be what makes up a person, the body being the vehicle with its own attributes and, and the mind composing the other characteristics of an individual. This could also be described as mind and body; Nama mind, Rupa body, in sanskrit. A quick reference chart follows:

This is again where it is interesting to witness the translatory difference between the “western” and more traditional or ancient texts. The singular difference I find is that if the skandhas are mentioned in westernized texts they are depicted as five different and distinctly separate groups working to cause their own contribution to your tribulation, whereas in the oldest texts things aren’t nearly so clearly delineated and are perceived to be part of a larger cycle of pain and causation.

Nama-Rupa is the Buddhist / Sanskrit term for individual, and it translates pretty well. Literally Nama-Rupa means mind / body, but it refers to not just the physical person but all that is mental and experiential that makes up the person. There is a great question in Buddhism that is one of Cause. In numerous Buddhist texts the form / formulas and components of cause are discussed. “Cause” actually means the prime causes of pain, or dukkha. One very interesting point is that these formulas can be applied universally (as in to the human condition) as well as individually in every case. One of the simpler forms is demonstrated here:

This is taken from the Lalita Vistara within the Mahavastu:

“…Then again the Bodisattva thought: When what exists do old age and death come to be, and what are the causes of old age and death? He thought: When birth exists do old age and death arise for they have birth as their cause.”

If we follow this thought further we realize that in the same way birth has coming into existence (bhava) as its cause, coming into existence has grasping (upadana) as its cause, grasping has craving (tanha) as its cause, craving has sensation (vedana) as its cause, sensation has contact (sparsa) contact has the six sense organs (sadayatana) the six sense organs have mind-body (nama rupa) mind-body has consciousness (vijnana), consciousness has the aggregates of intentionality, or Will (samskarah) and will has ignorance (avidya)

We have no idea that it is the wheel of Samsara and our existence on it that causes us to suffer. So with our will and intentions we create our own consciousness, consciousness needs a format this level of existence to act through, so it inhabits a body, the body includes the sensory faculties, which through any stimulatory contact creates sensation, these sensations are temporarily satisfying and so we crave them, craving is a result of grasping for existence, and it is the grasping for existence that leads us to continual rebirths.

This has been called the “wheel of becoming” and even though I simplified much of process in interest of space, it is a clear and simple formula of causation. In the Divyavadana (300) Buddha requires there to be built a “Five Spoked Wheel” for learning and reminding purposes. He describes how it is to be made: “The five spoked wheel …is to be made with the five destinies (gati), the hells, the animals, ghosts (pretas), gods and human beings…”

These are directly descended from the consciousness skandha and are addressed on the chart, but require too much space to go into here. Another interesting point is that the philosophers who wrote the texts for Americans (because at this point it is too interpretive to be called translation) have found that the wheel of gods and hungry ghosts can be relative to the six senses, And so, I have also included this in the chart for the sake of comparison, but unfortunately, not discussion.

In some books (I’ve come across two; both Zen oriented and western) the explanations and discussions of skandhas are forsaken in favor of a simpler explanation of our craving and how it affects us: The first is Sensual Desire; the second is Craving Existence; and the last one deals with beings who are no longer ignorant of the fact that it is the material form and rebirths that cause us hardship but instead find craving in an ‘enlightened way’ and crave Non-Existence.

The sensual desire is physical and at the same time mental. We want to be physically comfortable but we also desire mental pleasures as well, conversation, art, relationships, etc. The thirst for existence is pretty self-explanatory: we do not wish to die. Or, for that matter cease existing at all, and we have a thousand ways to ensure that we somehow continue to exist after we are gone. But even those who have abandoned their search for existence still face the third craving of non-existence. Once we realize this is where all our trouble and pain arises, we wish to be released from it.

Buddhism is one of the worlds largest religions with almost two hundred and eighty million followers, Buddhism was founded about 500 b.c. and has been a dominant religion, cultural, and social determinant in most of Asia. Buddhist philosophy is highly adaptable and has meshed well with every culture it has been introduced to; especially India, China, Tibet, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, as well as the rest of South East Asia. Perhaps Buddhisms longevity is a result of the idea that while suffering is inescapable, there are real actions we can take to alleviate this pain. Buddhism is singular in that not only does pain have a real and tangible source instead of a vague philosophical idea, but it is up to the practitioner to end his own suffering with the pragmatic steps provided in Buddhist scripture. Indeed, Buddhisms steps to freedom and enlightenment offer wise words to even non-Buddhists. Perhaps with a little more time the west will let go of the fear of acknowledging pain and be able to read and understand Buddhist philosophy with a richer understanding, bringing us all closer to the goal.


Porter, Bill. Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.

San Francisco: Mercury House, 1993.

Trungpa, Chogyam. The Essential Chogyam Trungpa.

Boston & London: Shambala Press, 1999.

Lama, Dalai H.H.. Spiritual Advice: for Buddhists and Christians.

New York: Continuum, 1998.

Thomas, Edward Joseph. The History of Buddhist Thought.

London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1933.

Lama, Dalai H.H.. The Art of Happieness: a handbook for living.

New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Hagen, Steve. Buddhism Plain and Simple.

Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1997.

Comer, Ronald J. Abnormal Psychology: Third Edition.

New York: W.H. Freeman & Co., 1997.

Surya Das, Lama. Awakening the Buddha Within: The Eight Fold Path to Enlightenment.

Boston & London: Shambala Press., 1996.

“Buddhism.” The World Book Encyclopedia. 1982.

The Dukkha Heirarchy

1. Ordinary Dukkha

2. Change Dukkha

3. Dukkha of Being/ Flawed Natural Existence

a. Form Under the last come

b. Feelings/Senses Dukkha from the 5

c. Perceptions Skandhas.

d. Will/Intentionality

e. Consciousness

/ These have sometimes been simplified in

\ Western texts into just three forms, related to, but not / addressing the skandhas: A. )Sensual Desire

\ B.)Craving Existence

V C.)Craving non-Existence

More Traditional/Symbolic Forms Western Forms of Conscious

1.) Realm of Gods 1.) Sight

2.) Jealous Gods 2.)Smell

3.) Realm of Humans 3.)Taste

4.)Realm of Animals 4.)Touch

5.) Hungry Ghosts 5.)Sound

6.)Realm of Hells 6.)Mind

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