Dukkha: What Buddhists Mean by “Suffering”


In a prior post I gave my translation of the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism, which concern us as Western, psychology-minded practitioners of mindfulness meditation.  Our mindfulness tradition originated in Buddhist, Hindu, and other Asian practices, and we do well to understand these origins.

The First Noble Truth is often translated as “Life is Suffering.”  I picture various people around 3,000 years ago, noticing the fact that despite civilization, despite adequate food supplies and a good measure of safety and stability, life still seems to suck much of the time.  There’s illness, there’s old age, there’s death.  And we can’t avoid them.

More subtly, we constantly experience disappointment with the way things are, compared to how we would like them to be.  We get things we don’t want, and we fail to get ahold of things we want.  It’s annoying.  It’s inconvenient.  It’s… not exactly “Suffering,” as in, dying-of-cancer kind of suffering, it’s something more constant, something omnipresent.  Like the friction of a wheel as it turns under a cart, allowing the cart to move forward, it is the daily grind of our lives.  That is what is meant by “Suffering” in the First Noble Truth; in Pali, the language in which the earliest Buddhist scriptures is recorded, this Suffering is called Dukkha.

Dukkha is the friction of our lives.  It is the constant stream of mildly unpleasant to vastly unpleasant thoughts and feelings that we experience.  It is the disappearance of the brief periods of happiness and satisfaction.  It is our craving for more.

Our minds generate this form of suffering by differentiating between, or rather, labeling things as, “good” and “bad.”  Just cut that out, and you have it made!


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