From New World Encyclopedia

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 (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,"[1] which can give the impression that the Buddhist view is one of pessimism. However, as Traleg Kyabgon points out:

Some Western commentators on Buddhism have said that Buddhism is pessimistic because is concentrates so much on suffering. But actually, it is not pessimistic; it is realistic. The truth of suffering need not make us feel pessimistic and hopeless.[2]

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.

Sometimes English translations of Buddhist literature leave the word dukkha untranslated so as to encompass its full range of meaning.[3][4][5]

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.

Relationship to the Four Noble Truths

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:

  • 1. Dukkha: or the noble truth of suffering
  • 2. Samudaya: or the noble truth of the origin of suffering
  • 3. Nirodha: or the noble truth of the cessation of suffering
  • 4. Marga: or the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering

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:

Birth is duhkha, old age is duhkha, sickness is duhkha, and death is duhkha. Sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are duhkha. Contact with unpleasant things is duhkha, and separation from what one wishes is duhkha. In short, the five aggregates onto which one grasps are duhkha.[6]

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.[7] 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:

[It is possible to attain] the complete cessation of duhkha. It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, renouncing it, release from it, detachment from it.”[8]

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).

Types of Dukkha

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.[9] In analyzing the nature of suffering, the Buddha discussed three kinds of dukkha:

  • Dukkha-dukkha (pain of pain) is the obvious sufferings of:
  1. pain
  2. illness
  3. old age
  4. death
  5. bereavement
  • Viparinama-dukkha (pain of alteration) is suffering caused by change:
  1. violated expectations
  2. the failure of happy moments to last
  • Sankhara-dukkha (pain of formation) is a subtle form of suffering inherent in the nature of conditioned things, including:
  1. Skandhas
  2. the factors constituting the human mind

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.[10]


  1. Jeffrey Po, “Is Buddhism a Pessimistic Way of Life? Retrieved May 27, 2008.
  2. Traleg Kyabgon, 11.
  3. Walpola Rahula, "Chapter 2", What the Buddha Taught (Grove Press, 1959, ISBN 0-8021-3031-3).
  4. Charles Prebish, Historical Dictionary of Buddhism (The Scarecrow Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8108-2698-4).
  5. Damien Keown, Dictionary of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-19-860560-9).
  6. Mitchell, 47.
  7. Sakyong Mipham, 159-160
  8. Mitchell, 50.
  9. Michael Carrithers, The Buddha, in Founders of Faith (Oxford University Press, 1986), 55-56.
  10. Ibid.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hanh, Thich Nhat. "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching." Broadway, 1999. ISBN 978-0767903691
  • Keown, Damien. "Dictionary of Buddhism." Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0198605609
  • Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0195139526
  • Moffitt, Phillip. "Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering." Rodale Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1594863530
  • Nanamoli, Bhikkhu. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1995. ISBN 086171072X
  • Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1995. ISBN 1559390263
  • Prebish, Charles. "Historical Dictionary of Buddhism." The Scarecrow Press, 1993. ISBN 0810826984
  • Rahula, Walpola. "Chapter 2," What the Buddha Taught." Grove Press, 1959. ISBN 0802130313
  • Sakyong Mipham. Turning the Mind Into an Ally. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003. ISBN 1573222062
  • Siu, Ralph Gun Hoy. "Panetics and Dukkha: Integrated Study of the Infliction of Suffering and the Reduction of Infliction." Intl Society for Panetics, 1994. ISBN 978-1884437021
  • Traleg Kyabgon. The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to its Philosophy and Practice. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2001. ISBN 1570624682


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