Dukkha (Pāli दुक्ख; Sanskrit दुःख duḥkha) is a central concept in Buddhism, which corresponds to a number of terms in English including suffering, pain, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, and frustration. The term is probably derived from duḥstha, "standing badly," "unsteady," "uneasy."
Dukkha is one of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha's teachings, which asserts that samsaric existence is characterized by unsatisfactoriness. Dukkha is also listed among the three marks of existence. Although Buddhism teaches that dukkha permeates existence, it simultaneously affirms that dukkha can be overcome through following the Eightfold Path. Therefore, Buddhism provides a sotieriological solution to dukkha that allows one to attain Nirvana (the extinguishment of dukkha).
In Chinese Buddhism, Dukkha was translated as kǔ (苦 "bitterness; hardship; suffering; pain"), and this loanword is pronounced ku (苦) in Japanese Buddhism and ko (苦) in Korean Buddhism. In Tibetan it is སྡུག་བསྔལ་ sdug bsngal."
The Eightfold Path is the prescription given to us by the Buddha to cure the samsaric condition of duhkha. Through following his instructions, he believed that anyone, regardless of race, caste, religion, or gender, could attain the same awakening as him.
Although dukkha is often translated as "suffering," its philosophical meaning is more complex. The concept contains a cluster of interrelated connotations including "imperfection," "unease," "anguish" and "unsatisfactoriness." Therefore, the word "suffering" is too narrow of a translation with "negative emotional connotations," which can give the impression that the Buddhist view is one of pessimism. However, as Traleg Kyabgon points out:
The diagnosis the Buddha gave is not terminal or with no hope of a cure. He went a step further to explain the origin of our illness, which is the Second Noble Truth: the cause of suffering. He stated that the primary cause of suffering is craving (Sanskrit: trishna). He taught that since we are constantly trying to arrange our selves and our lives in a manner that is pleasant, we are never satisfied with what we have and what we are. We always crave for more, materially, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, and as a result we feel pain. The thing we cling to most of all is our belief in a independent and unchanging self (atman), and this more than anything else is why we suffer.
In ancient times, the term duḥkha was often compared to a large potter's wheel that would screech as it was spun around, and did not turn smoothly. The opposite of dukkha was the term sukha, which brought to mind a potter's wheel that turned smoothly and noiselessly.
Buddhists believe that when Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment sitting under the bodhi-tree, his realization was so profound that he hesitated to speak to anyone about it. How could ordinary beings understand what he had experienced? Then it is said that the Hindu deva (deity) Brahmā appeared, and beseeched him to teach what he had learned to all sentient beings (Brahmā included) who were trapped in the cycle of rebirth and suffering (samsāra). Upon hearing this appeal for help, the Buddha was moved to begin teaching others what he had learned in his meditation. He gave his first sermon to his five ascetic companions on the subject of the Four Noble (Arya) Truths, which are summarized as follows:
The first of the Buddha's teachings was the statement that life is duhkha, meaning that life in any of the six realms (see bhava-cakra) is characterized by suffering, frustration, and dissatisfaction. He stated:
Duhkha, it is taught, exists in three primary ways. The first is the “suffering of suffering” (duhkha-duhkhata) that all living things are aware of—disease, war, physical pain, etc. The second is the pain and frustration caused by the impermanence (anitya) of all things (viparinama-duhkhata). We struggle all of our lives to stay comfortable and happy, yet pleasure cannot be indefinitely maintained, and invariably turns into pain. The third level is the suffering that is inevitable so long as we live in any of the realms of the bhava-cakra (samsāra-duhkhata). This level refers to the unavoidable suffering one must experience as a living being—for the pain of birth to the pain of death. The Buddha argued that these three dimensions of duhkha are pervasive in the unenlightened life.
The Buddha taught that knowing there is a root cause to our suffering enables us to overcome it. This leads to the Third Noble Truth. He explained the Third Noble Truth as follows:
The Third Noble Truth is the affirmation of the cessation of suffering, nirvana. Thus, rather than being seen as a pessimistic doctrine that is preoccupied with suffering, Buddhism is better described as an optimistic worldview because it insists that suffering can be completely eradicated in our lives. Many encountering these teachings for the first time often interpret this to mean that the Buddha wanted us to be devoid of passion and feeling, but this is not the case. The Buddha taught a “middle way” approach between indulgence and mortification, and here is referring to exaggerated forms of desire. For instance, eating a meal that is balanced and an appropriate sized serving is good, while gorging is not.
In the above way, the Buddha presented the Four Noble Truths as a medical diagnosis for the human existential condition: the First Noble Truth identified the disease of suffering, the Second Noble Truth outlined its causes, the Third Noble Truth offered a prognosis, and the Fourth Noble Truth provided a prescription or antidote to end suffering (i.e. the Eightfold Path).
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 such happiness will be secure and lasting. In analyzing the nature of suffering, the Buddha discussed three kinds of dukkha:
This last type of suffering 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, selflessness (no-self). Insofar as it is dynamic, ever-changing, uncontrollable and not finally satisfactory, experience is itself precisely dukkha.
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