Dukkha (duḥkha) is an important Buddhist concept, commonly translated as “suffering“, “pain”, “unsatisfactoriness” or “stress”. It refers to the fundamental unsatisfactoriness and painfulness of mundane life. It is the first of the Four Noble Truths and it is one of the three marks of existence. The term is also found in scriptures of Hinduism, such as the Upanishads, in discussions of moksha (spiritual liberation).
Etymology and meaning
Dukkha (Pali; Sanskrit duḥkha) is a term found in ancient Indian literature, meaning anything that is “uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult, causing pain or sadness”. It is also a concept in Indian religions about the nature of life that innately includes the “unpleasant”, “suffering”, “pain”, “sorrow”, “distress”, “grief” or “misery.” The term Dukkha does not have a one word English translation, and embodies diverse aspects of unpleasant human experiences. It is opposed to the word sukha, meaning “happiness,” “comfort” or “ease.”
The word is commonly explained as a derivation from Aryan terminology for an axle hole, referring to an axle hole which is not in the center and leads to a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. According to Winthrop Sargeant,
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.
Joseph Goldstein, American vipassana teacher and writer, explains the etymology as follows:
The word dukkha is made up of the prefix du and the root kha. Du means “bad” or “difficult.” Kha means “empty.” “Empty,” here, refers to several things—some specific, others more general. One of the specific meanings refers to the empty axle hole of a wheel. If the axle fits badly into the center hole, we get a very bumpy ride. This is a good analogy for our ride through saṃsāra.
However, according to Monier Monier-Williams, the actual roots of the Pali term dukkha appear to be Sanskrit दुस्- (dus-, “bad”) + स्था (stha, “to stand”). Regular phonological changes in the development of Sanskrit into the various Prakrits led to a shift from dus-sthā to duḥkha to dukkha.
Contemporary translators of Buddhist texts use a variety of English words to convey the aspects of dukkha. Early Western translators of Buddhist texts (before the 1970s) typically translated the Pali term dukkha as “suffering.” Later translators have emphasized that “suffering” is too limited a translation for the term dukkha, and have preferred to either leave the term untranslated or to clarify that translation with terms such as anxiety, distress, frustration, unease, unsatisfactoriness, etc. Many contemporary teachers, scholars, and translators have used the term “unsatisfactoriness” to emphasize the subtlest aspects of dukkha. Contemporary translators have used a variety of English words to translate the term dukkha, and many translators prefer to leave the term untranslated.
Within the Buddhist sutras, dukkha is divided in three categories:
- Dukkha-dukkha, the dukkha of painful experiences. This includes the physical and mental sufferings of birth, aging, illness, dying; distress from what is not desirable.
- Viparinama-dukkha, the dukkha of pleasant or happy experiences changing to unpleasant when the causes and conditions that produced the pleasant experiences cease.
- Sankhara-dukkha, the dukkha of conditioned experience. This includes “a basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all existence, all forms of life, because all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance.” On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.
Various sutras sum up how life in this “mundane world” is regarded to be dukkha, starting with samsara, the ongoing process of death and rebirth itself:
- Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha;
- Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are dukkha;
- Association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha;
- Not getting what is wanted is dukkha.
- In conclusion, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.
Dukkha is one of the three marks of existence, namely dukkha (“suffering”), anatta (not-self), anicca (“impermanence“).
The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of developing insight into the nature of dukkha, the conditions that cause it, and how it can be overcome. This process is formulated in the teachings on the Four Noble Truths.
In Hindu literature, the earliest Upaniṣads — the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya — in all likelihood predate the advent of Buddhism. In these scriptures of Hinduism, the Sanskrit word duḥkha (दुःख) appears in the sense of “suffering, sorrow, distress”, and in the context of a spiritual pursuit and liberation through the knowledge of Atman (soul/self).
The verse 4.4.14 of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad states:
|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.
|ihaiva santo ‘tha vidmas tad vayaṃ na ced avedir mahatī vinaṣṭiḥ
ye tad vidur amṛtās te bhavanty athetare duḥkham evāpiyanti
The verse 7.26.2 of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad states:
|When a man rightly sees [his soul],
he sees no death, no sickness or distress.
When a man rightly sees,
he sees all, he wins all, completely.
|na paśyo mṛtyuṃ paśyati na rogaṃ nota duḥkhatām
sarvaṃ ha paśyaḥ paśyati sarvam āpnoti sarvaśaḥ
The concept of sorrow and suffering, and self-knowledge as a means to overcome it, appears extensively with other terms in the pre-Buddhist Upanishads. The term Duhkha also appears in many other middle and later post-Buddhist Upanishads such as the verse 6.20 of Shvetashvatara Upanishad, as well as in the Bhagavada Gita, all in the context of moksha. The term also appears in the foundational Sutras of the six schools of Hindu philosophy, such as the opening lines of Samkhya karika of the Samkhya school.
Comparison of Buddhism and Hinduism
Both Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize that one overcomes duḥkha through the development of understanding. However, the two religions widely differ in the nature of that understanding. Hinduism emphasizes the understanding and acceptance of Atman (self, soul) and Brahman, while Buddhism emphasizes the understanding and acceptance of Anatta (Anatman, non-self, non-soul) as each discusses the means to liberation from Dukkha.
According to the Silk Road philologist, Christopher I. Beckwith, the ancient Greek philosopher, Pyrrho, based his new philosophy, Pyrrhonism, on elements of Early Buddhism, most particularly the Buddhist three marks of existence. Pyrrho accompanied Alexander the Great on his Indian campaign, spending about 18 months in Taxila studying Indian philosophy. Diogenes Laërtius’ biography of Pyrrho reports that Pyrrho based his philosophy on what he learned there:
…he even went as far as the Gymnosophists, in India, and the Magi. Owing to which circumstance, he seems to have taken a noble line in philosophy, introducing the doctrine of acatalepsy (incomprehensibility), and of the necessity of epoche (suspending one’s judgment)….
A summary of Pyrrho’s philosophy was preserved by Eusebius, quoting Aristocles, quoting Pyrrho’s student Timon, in what is known as the “Aristocles passage.”
“Whoever wants to live well (eudaimonia) must consider these three questions: First, how are pragmata (ethical matters, affairs, topics) by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude?” Pyrrho’s answer is that “As for pragmata they are all adiaphora (undifferentiated by a logical differentia), astathmēta (unstable, unbalanced, not measurable), and anepikrita (unjudged, unfixed, undecidable). Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our doxai (views, theories, beliefs) tell us the truth or lie; so we certainly should not rely on them. Rather, we should be adoxastoi (without views), aklineis (uninclined toward this side or that), and akradantoi (unwavering in our refusal to choose), saying about every single one that it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.
According to Beckwith’s analysis of the Aristocles Passage, Pyrrho translated dukkha into Greek as astathmēta. This gives insight into what dukkha meant in Early Buddhism.
…although the sense of duḥkha in Normative Buddhism is traditionally given as ‘suffering’, that and similar interpretations are highly unlikely for Early Buddhism. Significantly, Monier-Williams himself doubts the usual explanation of duḥkha and presents an alternative one immediately after it, namely: duḥ-stha “’standing badly,’ unsteady, disquieted (lit. and fig.); uneasy”, and so on. This form is also attested, and makes much better sense as the opposite of the Rig Veda sense of sukha, which Monier-Williams gives in full as “(said to be fr. 5. su + 3. kha , and to mean originally ‘having a good axle-hole’; possibly a Prakrit form of su-stha37 q.v.; cf. duḥkha) running swiftly or easily (only applied to cars or chariots, superl[ative] sukhátama), easy”…. The most important point here is that duḥ + stha literally means ‘dis-/ bad- + stand-’, that is, ‘badly standing, unsteady’ and is therefore virtually identical to the literal meaning of Greek astathmēta, from a- + sta- ‘not- + stand’, both evidently meaning ‘unstable’. This strongly suggests that Pyrrho’s middle term is in origin a simple calque.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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