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Dukkha (Pāli दुक्ख; Sanskrit दुःख duḥkha; according to grammatical tradition derived from dus-kha "uneasy", but according to Monier-Williams more likely a Prakritized form of dus-stha "unsteady, disquieted"[1]) is a Pali term roughly corresponding to a number of terms in English including suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration. In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths on dukkha are taught as the primary means to attain the ultimate aim of nirvana.


In classic Sanskrit, 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. In other Buddhist-influenced cultures, similar imagery was used to describe dukkha. An example from China is the cart with one wheel that is slightly broken, so that the rider is jolted each time the wheel rolls over the broken spot.

Although dukkha is often translated as "suffering", its philosophical meaning is more analogous to "disquietude" as in the condition of being disturbed. As such, "suffering" is too narrow a translation with "negative emotional connotations" (Jeffrey Po)[2], which can give the impression that the Buddhist view is one of pessimism, but Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic. Thus in English-language Buddhist literature dukkha is often left untranslated, so as to encompass its full range of meaning. [3][4][5].

Non-English translations

Dukkha was translated as ( "bitterness; hardship; suffering; pain") in Chinese Buddhism, and this loanword is pronounced ku (苦) in Japanese Buddhism and ko (苦) in Korean Buddhism. In Tibetan it is sdug bsngal (སྡུག་བསྔལ་).

Buddhist literature

Dukkha is the focus of the Four Noble Truths, which state its nature, its cause, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation. This way is known as the Noble Eightfold Path.[6] Ancient texts, like Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta[7] and Anuradha Sutta,[8] show Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha, as insisting that the truths about dukkha are the only ones he is teaching as far as attaining the ultimate goal of nirvana is concerned.

The Buddha discussed three kinds of dukkha or suffering:

  • 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 arising as a reaction to qualities of conditioned things, including the
  1. skandhas
  2. the factors constituting the human mind

Dukkha is also listed among the three marks of existence: impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and not-self (anatta).[6] Dukkha 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, not-self.

Insofar as it is dynamic, ever-changing, uncontrollable and not finally satisfactory, unexamined life is itself precisely dukkha.[9] 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 happiness dependent on conditions will be secure and lasting.[9]

In the early texts, the skandhas explain what suffering is. According to Noa Ronkin, "What emerges from the texts ... is a wider signification of the khandhas than merely the aggregates constituting the person. Sue Hamilton has provided a detailed study of the khandhas. Her conclusion is that the associating of the five khandhas as a whole with dukkha indicates that experience is a combination of a straightforward cognitive process together with the psychological orientation that colours it in terms of unsatisfactoriness. Experience is thus both cognitive and affective, and cannot be separated from perception. As one's perception changes, so one's experience is different: we each have our own particular cognitions, perceptions and volitional activities in our own particular way and degree, and our own way of responding to and interpreting our experience is our very experience. In harmony with this line of thought, Gethin observes that the khadhas are presented as five aspects of the nature of conditioned existence from the point of view of the experiencing subject; five aspects of one's experience. Hence each khandha represents 'a complex class of phenomena that is continuously arising and falling away in response to processes of consciousness based on the six spheres of sense. They thus become the five upādānakhandhas, encompassing both grasping and all that is grasped.'"[10]

The Buddha himself on Dukkha

Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.

— SN 56.11 [11]

Non-Buddhist literature

In Brahmanic sacred literature, the earliest Upaniads — the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya — are believed to predate or coincide with the advent of Buddhism.[12] In these texts' verses, the Sanskrit word dukha (translated below as "suffering" and "distress") occurs only twice. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, it states (in English and Sanskrit):

While we are still here, we have come to know it [ātman].
If you've not known it, great is your destruction.
Those who have known it — they become immortal.
As for the rest — only suffering awaits them.[13]

ihaiva santo 'tha vidmas tad vayaṃ na ced avedir mahatī vinaṣṭiḥ
ye tad vidur amṛtās te bhavanty athetare duḥkham evāpiyanti

In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad is written:

When a man rightly sees,
he sees no death, no sickness or distress.
When a man rightly sees,
he sees all, he wins all, completely.[15]

na paśyo mṛtyuṃ paśyati na rogaṃ nota duḥkhatām
sarvaṃ ha paśyaḥ paśyati sarvam āpnoti sarvaśaḥ

Thus, as in Buddhism, in these sacred texts the eradication of dukha is a desired and promised outcome; here dukha serves as an antipode to the ultimate Brahmanic goal of immortality (amṛtās). In addition, as in Buddhism, one overcomes dukha through the development of a transcendent understanding.[17] Nonetheless, in these Brahmanic sacred texts, dukha is either identified as a general condition or as simply one of many undesirable states, not embodying the conceptual centrality assigned to it in Buddhism's Pali Canon.


  1. Monier-Williams (1899, 1964), A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press), p. 483, entry for "duḥkha", retrieved 27 December 2008 from "U. Cologne" at
  2. Jeffrey Po, “Is Buddhism a Pessimistic Way of Life?”,
  3. Rahula, Walpola (1959). "Chapter 2". What the Buddha Taught. Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3031-3. 
  4. Prebish, Charles (1993). Historical Dictionary of Buddhism. The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-2698-4. 
  5. Keown, Damien (2003). Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860560-9. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Michael Carrithers, The Buddha. Cited in Founders of Faith, Oxford University Press, 1986, page 51.
  7. MN 63, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, retrieved from "Access to Insight" at
  8. SN 22.86, trans., Thanissaro Bhikkhu, retrieved from "Access to Insight" at
  9. 9.0 9.1 Carrithers (1986), op cit., pages 55-56.
  10. Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics: the Making of a Philosophical Tradition." Routledge, 2005, page 43.
  11. [1]
  12. See, e.g., Patrick Olivelle (1996), Upaniads (Oxford: Oxford University Press), ISBN 978-0-19-283576-5, p. xxxvi: "The scholarly consensus, well-founded I think, is that the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya are the two earliest Upaniads.... The two texts as we have them are, in all likelihood, pre-Buddhist; placing them in the seventh to sixth centuries BCE may be reasonable, give or take a century or so."
  13. BU 4.4.14, trans. Olivelle (1996), p. 66.
  14. BrhUp 4,4.14. Retrieved 28 December 2008 from "Georg-August-Universität Göttingen" at
  15. CU 7.26.2, trans. Olivelle (1996), p. 166. Compare this statement to that in the Pali Canon's Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) where sickness and death are formulaically identified as examplars of dukkha.
  16. ChUp 7,26.2. Retrieved 27 December 2008 from "Georg-August-Universität Göttingen" at
  17. For a general discussion of the core Indian spiritual goal of developing transcendent "seeing," see, e.g., Hamilton, Sue (2000/2001), Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford U. Press), pp. 9-10, ISBN 978-0-19285374-5.

External links

  • Dukkha entry, Access to Insight
  • On understanding the teaching of Dukkha by the Buddha, Kingsley Heendeniya
  • Ku 苦 entry (use "guest" with no password for one-time login), Digital Dictionary of Buddhism
  • [2] Definitions, Objectives, Premises and Principles of the International Society for Panetics, Ralph Siu. Panetics: The study of the infliction of suffering. J. Humanistic Psychology 28(3), 6-22. 1988, The humane chief of state and the Gross National Dukkhas (GND). Panetics 2(2), 1-5. 1993. Panetics Trilogy. Washington: The International Society for Panetics, 1994. Vol. I, Less Suffering for Everybody. Ibid. Vol. II, Panetics and Dukkhas. Ibid. Vol. III, Seeds of Contemplation. Understanding and Minimizing the Infliction of suffering. Unpublished text. 711 pages. Introduction to panetic system design. Panetics 3(4), 3-12. 1994. Panetic inflation, deflation, and the Humane Index. Panetics 5(2), 52-53. 1966. see also suffering

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