Dukkha Buddhism

Dukkha (pāli; Sanskrit: duḥkha) is a central concept in Buddhism, a component of the Four Noble Truths. The term has no exact equivalent in French but can be translated as "suffering," "discomfort," "dissatisfaction," or "mis-existence," "ill-being."

The first three truths explain what dukkha is, its origin (thirst, taṇhā), and the possibility of stopping it (nirodha); the fourth noble truth gives the path to liberation (noble eightfold path).

The Buddha stated that the major reason that holds beings in samsara and prevents them from becoming enlightened is that they do not fully understand dukkha (Dīgha Nikāya, 16, 2, 1).

We can relate dukkha to several concepts:

dukkha is part of the three characteristics of existence;
conditioned coproduction gives an explanation for the production of dukkha;
the kleshas create dukkha, especially the Three Poisons.


The Sanskrit term "duḥkha" probably comes from the following: "su" and "duḥ" are prefixes indicating that something is "good" or "bad," "correct" or "incorrect"; the word "kha" meant "hole" and specifically represented the "hub of a wheel " or the place where the axle of a wheel took place.

The original Sanskrit word "sukha" thus means "that turns perfectly," and thus "duḥkha" is often compared to a wheel that does not turn properly. It could therefore be translated as "that does not go round," "unpleasant," or "unsatisfactory," but the word is usually translated as "suffering. "

If suffering is indeed due to something that is "wrong", then to summarize "dukkha" with the word suffering is reductive.

To state the first truth by saying "All life is suffering" is therefore simplistic. A more correct translation would be "All life is unsatisfactory" or, even better, "does not go round".

But here again it is impossible to translate the original teaching perfectly. The exact understanding of "dukkha" can only be done by reading the texts and the many examples of "dukkha".

Without the possibility of translating "dukkha" correctly, it is customary to keep the original word. The first truth is: "All life involves dukkha".

According to Cecile Becker: "If the etymology of this word is important, it is because its richness calls for nuanced meanings according to the sources but also according to the audience for which they are intended. References to the four noble truths are abundant.

The way in which they are evoked directs the audience's attention towards reflections with distinct nuances. The presentation can thus be colored by a more moralizing or conceptual intention."

Presentation of the first noble truth

Here is an excerpt from the "Dhammacakkappavattana sutta": "This, O monks, is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, growing old is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, sorrow and lamentation, pain, affliction and despair are dukkha, being united with what one dislikes is dukkha, being separated from what one likes or pleases is dukkha, not getting what one desires is dukkha. In short, the five aggregates of attachment are dukkha."

The first noble truth thus states eight types of suffering.

Three aspects

Dukkha can be considered in three aspects :

dukkha-dukkha: ordinary dissatisfaction;
vipariṇāma-dukkha: dissatisfaction due to change;
saṃkhāra-dukkha: dissatisfaction related to conditioned states.

Dukkha dukkha

Ordinary suffering: this expression brings together various forms of suffering (physical and mental) that are recognized as such; it is the enumeration of illness, old age, lamentation, etc.

Viparinama dukkha

This is the suffering of change. When one experiences a pleasant moment, one already fears its passing. And when that moment is over, we suffer for having been attached to it. Everything that is impermanent is suffering.

Here we find the link between the characteristic of impermanence and dukkha.

In Theravada, it is considered that vipassana meditation leads, after certain profits, to a stage of dissolution (bhanga nupassana) of phenomena in which the meditator discovers the impermanent character, and which will lead him to observe dukkha in all its reality.

Sankhara dukkha

This aspect is that of conditioning (sankhāra or sankhata in Pali): everything is conditioned and will condition in turn (this is conditioned coproduction). On this more subtle suffering lie the other sufferings.

Even happy states, resulting from sense pleasure, and even altered states of consciousness resulting from dhyāna meditation, fall under dukkha (which shows the inadequacy of the single term "suffering" to translate "dukkha").

In the Rahogata Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya, SN 36.11), a monk raises a possible contradiction between the assertion that the five aggregates are dukkha and the threefold distinction concerning sensations (vedanā): pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.

The Buddha then justifies his affirmation that "everything that is of the order of sensation is of the order of suffering" by the impermanence and conditioning of phenomena.