Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Meaning of Dukkha

Dear George,
Recently Katja and I went to a lecture at the university on the paradoxes of Buddhism, and it jogged our minds.  The speaker dealt primarily with Buddha’s concept of dukkha.  He presented it as the most central idea in classical Buddhism.  Buddha stated, “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha” (1).  [Note: numbers in quotes refer to sources at end.]   As I understand it, Buddha regarded dukkha as the fundamental feature of the human condition.  The original translation of “dukkha” from the Pali language into English was “suffering”, and that’s often given as the meaning of the word.  However,  modern translators note that there’s no single word in English that encompasses the complex, multi-faceted meanings of dukkha in Pali and that the term implies a host of concepts such as anxiety, stress, discontent, frustration, conflict, misery, etc.  Thus dukkha entails a wide range of negative affective states, from mild irritation to extreme pain and suffering.  The notion of “unsatisfactoriness” perhaps comes closest to capturing the broad meaning of dukkha.  Dr. Kingsley Heendeniya (4) has defined dukkha in the following way:  “Dukkha is sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair, separation from loved ones, from associating with those you do not like and from not getting what you want.”

Buddha’s teachings about dukkha are given most fully in the Four Noble Truths (6).  The four truths are: (1) the truth of dukkha; (2) the truth of the origin of dukkha; (3) the truth of the cessation of dukkha; and (4) the truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha.  Thus, the Four Noble Truths explain the nature of dukkha, the conditions which give rise to dukkha, and how dukkha can be overcome.

The First Noble Truth addresses the nature and pervasiveness of dukkha in people’s lives.  Human existence is difficult and imperfect, and people inevitably experience pain, suffering, discontent, conflict, etc.  Buddha referred to three different categories of dukkha.  The first is “ordinary suffering”.  It includes the physical and mental suffering inevitably associated with birth, aging, illness, and dying.  In addition, “ordinary suffering” includes negative emotions from experiencing events and outcomes that we find unpleasant and undesirable.  This may occur because we fail to attain outcomes that we want, or because we receive outcomes that we don’t want.  For Buddha, “union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha…”  (5)  These are simply pervasive aspects of everyone’s daily lives.

A second source of dukkha has to do with change.  In Buddhist thinking, all objects and events are constantly in a process of change, and consequently all life forms are impermanent.  Change is intrinsically stressful.  Dukkha (e.g., frustration, discontent) results from striving to hold onto things in the face of change. 

The third pattern of dukkha is termed “conditioned states” or “all-pervasive suffering,” and it refers to a form of unsatisfactoriness that characterizes all aspects of existence.  In essence, we experience dissatisfaction because things and events virtually never live up to our standards or expectations (5).

The second noble truth involves the origins of dukkha.  In Buddhist thought, dukkha results from cravings, accompanied by ignorance of the true nature of things.  Such cravings include desires for sensory pleasures; cravings for something solid and enduring (e.g., wealth, fame) and domination of others; and cravings to disconnect ourselves from pain and avoid suffering.  In addition, dukkha has been interpreted as resulting from three disturbed emotional states associated with cravings: (1) Ignorance (bewilderment about the nature of the self and reality); (2) Attachment (to pleasurable outcomes); and (3) Aversion (a fear of not getting what we want, or of getting what we don’t want) (6).

The third noble truth is that the cessation of dukkha is possible.  This is the goal of spiritual practice in Buddhism.  The causes of dukkha can be eliminated when individuals achieve a genuine understanding of the origins of suffering in craving and ignorance.  When the causes of suffering cease in one’s mind, this constitutes nirvana (enlightenment and a freeing of the spiritual self from attachment to worldly things).  In Buddha’s words:  "And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that very craving" (SN 56.11) (2).
The fourth noble truth specifies a path to the cessation of dukkha, the Noble Eightfold Path.  It involves eight dimensions of human action and thought: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration (6).

I think everyone can readily find instances of dukkha in their lives.  For myself,
the loss of my two brothers and my brother-in-law over the past eight years has radically altered my life in painful ways.  Katja recently spent five days in the hospital, and they’ve been unable to come up with any clear diagnosis of her nagging problems.  My hearing is doing poorly and is a daily source of consternation.  One of our young relatives faces major surgery in the coming year.  Beyond these clear and dramatic examples, though, the further implication of Buddhism is that virtually all experiences involve dukkha.  A trivial example of this occurred when I took the dogs out for a walk the other morning.   With dukkha already on my mind, I noticed how badly cracked our sidewalk is and how much of it will need replacement in the near future.  I worried about the brown patches on the small evergreens next to our house and what that meant for their longevity.  I worried still more for the giant yew bush in our front yard that the tree people have been trying to save.  I picked up litter and cigarette butts on the lawn, annoyed at the irresponsible people who had dropped it there.  All this, of course, illustrates the extent to which dukkha is a standard part of the environment and of ourselves. 

I think dukkha is also implied by the connotations that we attach to our cultural meanings of “reality”.  We commonly think of “” as something abrasive that we have to come to terms with.  Thus, we refer to “harsh reality” or “cold reality” or the “facts of life”.  In all these instances, reality is contrasted to our wishes, dreams, desires, and ideals.  That discrepancy between what we wish for and the reality that we face is another way of getting at the meaning of dukkha.  It ties into the Buddhist admonition that the cessation of craving is the route to the elimination of dukkha. 

I find myself convinced by the argument that dukkha is at the essence of human consciousness.  As human beings, we engage in a constant process of evaluating objects and events on a good-bad continnum.  We experience ourselves, others, every aspect of our worlds as pleasing or painful, desirable or unwanted, useful or a waste.  Moreover, we don’t make such evaluations in a vacuum, but rather we assess current events in terms of standards or expectations that we’ve acquired from the broader culture and/or from our own life histories.  Because our standards of what’s good or desirable tend to be idealized, immediate events typically fall short, and the experience of dukkha (or dissatisfaction) is the consequence. 

Reducing or eliminating dukkha seems a foreboding challenge.  Doing so by eliminating craving would seem to make sense, but isn’t striving to satisfy cravings a major avenue to human pleasure?  I personally think of Buddhist philosophy as emphasizing coming to terms with human reality and accepting and embracing events for what they are, e.g., “going with the flow,” rather than what we wish they were.   That’s easier said than done, though I’m struggling to work at it.

SOURCES:  (1) =, “Dukkha”; (2) =, “Cessation of Dukkha”; (3) =, “The Word of the Buddha”; (4) =, “The Buddha’s Concept of Dukkha”; (5) =, “Dukkha”; (6) =, “The Four Noble Truths” 

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