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Dukkha: The Unsatisfactoriness of Existence

Dukkha: The Unsatisfactoriness of Existence

One of the keywords in Buddhism is dukkha, often translated as suffering. In everyday life, dukkha is most easily perceived as suffering, and that is why that translation appeals more to the imagination.

However, dukkha has a much broader meaning which threatens to be lost with ‘suffering’.

Actually dukkha could best be translated as ‘the friction of the wheel on the wagon-axis’. We experience a similar friction during our life’s journey.

Things don’t go as desired, whether the wheel is stationary or rolling. Even if the wheel is temporarily released from friction as a result of an accidental movement on the road, the wheel will simply continue to cause friction one revolution later.

dukkha has three different forms which are inherently related to one another.

Suffering that is Directly Experienced

First there is dhukkha-dukkhata which means as much as suffering that is directly experienced.

This can be mental as well as physical. Physical pain, for example, means something as simple as bumping your toe or maybe on a deeper level the continuous discomfort of your body which makes you move all the time. Mental pain is, for example, grief or despair, perhaps caused by the loss of a loved one.

Suffering as a Result of Change

The second variation is viparimana dukkha or suffering as a result of change.

This is a bit more complicated than the first variation. It is not, as is often thought, the suffering that arises after something has changed. As said before, this is part of the first variation, e.g. suffering through loss.

This form of suffering is the suffering that is irrevocably present in a pleasurable experience itself, at the time of that pleasurable experience. The reason is that, because everything that arises will eventually pass away again, any form of happiness or pleasure will perish. It is this potential suffering arising from the conditioned nature of existence that is meant by this form of suffering.

Suffering Inherent in All Conditioned States

The last form is saṅkhāra dukkha.

This refers to the suffering inherent in all conditioned states. Saṅkhāra is a difficult term to translate. It refers to formations in the sense that everything stems from conditions.

This form of dukkha is the inherent continuous underlying unsatisfaction witihn existence at the deepest level.

As long as there are conditions, existence continues, and so does the endless wandering in samsāra.

Only Nibbāna is free from conditions, and only the one who has seen Nibbāna from one’s own personal experience can see through saṅkhāra dukkha completely. For us ordinary mortals this remains a concept up to that point.

The different forms of dukkha are therefore nothing but increasingly subtle levels on which dukkha can be seen.

First the immediately perceptible, then the realization that this also applies to pleasant moments, then that this is completely interwoven into existence as a totality.

The End of Suffering

You may wonder why it is good to develop an increasing awareness of dukkha. Won’t that just increase your suffering? Isn’t it better to just ignore it, act as if nothing is wrong?

Ostrich politics is always an option, of course, but that doesn’t change reality.

Those who are increasingly aware of the reality of dukkha can derive tremendous energy and motivation from this to make the effort necessary to put an end to it, because ending suffering is possible!

Just keep putting forth patient effort. Then sooner or later you will be able to step out of the endless circle of samsāra and attain the indescribable peace of Nibbāna.

This is the promise of the Buddhist path.

This text was previously published in The Four Noble Truths: Essence of the Dhamma.

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Buddha, Dhp 276