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A recent exchange with Fiona (see comments) made me look more closely at dukkha, that key term in Buddhism’s First Noble Truth. Stemming from Pali and Sanskrit, the word is variously translated as affliction, pain, unsatisfactoriness, and, most commonly, as suffering: in short, the things we encounter in the course of a life which contains serious unhappiness.

“This noble truth, “the Buddha is said to have said, “is this: birth, old age, sickness, death, grief, lamentation, pain, depression … [all] associated with what you do not like, being separated from what you do like, and not being able to get what you want (from his Deer Park talk “Setting in motion the wheel of the dharma“). 

Till now I’d assumed that suffering is about mental and emotional anguish and that my job as a good Zen student was to let go of likes and dislikes, of clinging to a fantasy of how life should be; that suffering is psychological and therefore something to be overcome with dedicated practice. Not so! Sickness, grief, illness, old age, and death — all dukkha, all beyond my doing. The Buddha’s fundamental truth is unequivocal.

I’m grateful for David Brazier’s commentary:

When the Buddha says that affliction is truth, I do not think that he is saying that is something that can be escaped. Quite the contrary. He is pointing out that it cannot be escaped. Dukkha is inescapable. To suffer affliction is authentic. It is real and makes life real. …

The Buddha, therefore, taught that suffering will always be part of our lives. After enlightenment we see and feel this more clearly, not less. This is the direct opposite of what is generally taught in Buddhist textbooks where enlightenment is conceptualized as an escape.

So here it is: Dukkha is natural. Dukkha is inescapable. Dukkha points to our authenticity. Fiona, is this what you mean when you write that “this is what is gradually, truly sinking in, not just as a concept or mental understanding, but as an embodied reality”?

source: Brazier, D. (1997, 2001). The feeling Buddha: a Buddhist psychology of character, adversity, and passion. London: Robinson, p. 8. image:Buddha’s First Sermon,” ca. 3rd century Pakistan (ancient Gandhara), 28.6 x 32.4 cm; at


5 responses »

  1. Hi there. I’ve been reading some of your notes from time to time but it’s the first time I’ve de-lurked. Lots of thought provoking ideas! I think this one comes down to how a person interprets karma. If you take the sort of classical approach, then it is indeed possible to transcend the sufferings of birth, sickness, ageing, and death by eliminating the causes of those sufferings (as seen in the 12 links). You could ask what kind of liberation it is that still leaves beings in a state of suffering.

    Another approach is to interpret karma in a way that is essentially psychological: stuff happens, and Buddhist practice helps you deal with it without experiencing it as suffering. But it seems to me that the classical Buddhist view is really more radical: not just helping a person handle or respond to the difficulties of life, but getting rid of them altogether.

    There is middle ground, too, in recognizing that suffering is just a label and there is no inherent suffering to be found in these things (birth, sickness, etc), so it should be possible to experience them all as events, yet without suffering. The latter is, after all, just an interpretation.

    I’m not sure how to decide.

  2. Yep, I think your on to the reality of suffering. It does not go away. All Buddhism does is reveal its’ impact on our lives, that it is ever present, and we don’t have to TRY to escape it. That is the relief. Not trying to make “it” better. Live above it. Be something we are not. In practicing the middle way we have one foot in samsara and one foot in nirvana. And our torso and head feel the tug. 🙂

  3. “The answer to you question is – I’m not sure!! What I was trying to say was that in order for me to really understand the truth of ‘dukkha’ (of anything!) it must move from being purely an intellectual understanding to becoming a lived experience in me. That is what I mean when I say ‘embodied reality’. It is something the whole of me has experienced…not just my mind, but every part of me. It has ‘sunk in’ to every fibre of my being. And generally this process takes a very long time! I may go through the same learning, in different guises, over and over until it finally does ‘sink in’.

    I think I was talking about acceptance, arising out of deep awareness. The depth coming as a result of gradual erosion, through many, many similar experiences. Like water wearing away rock.

    I hadn’t really looked at the word dukkha until you wrote about it. My search came up with many things!! The more I looked the more confused I became! But here is one thing that seemed to ring true for me –

    “dukkha doesn’t reside in the object, but in ones mind”

    To me this means the pain, suffering, discontent, craving or aversion I feel about something arises out of my response to the situation. It isn’t in the situation itself, it is in the way my mind, (my conditioning) interprets it.

    In The Sallatha Sutta (The Dart) – the Buddha says (something like) :

    If a man is pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart. That person will experience feelings caused by two darts. It is similar with an untaught worldling: when touched by a painful feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. So he experiences two kinds of feeling: a bodily and a mental feeling.

    If a man is pierced by a dart, but is not hit by a second dart following the first one. This person experiences feelings caused by a single dart only. It is similar with a well-taught noble disciple: when touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry or grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. He experiences one single feeling, a bodily one.

    • Fiona, you write, “I hadn’t really looked at the word dukkha until you wrote about it. My search came up with many things!! The more I looked the more confused I became! But here is one thing that seemed to ring true for me.”

      Just before dying, the Buddha is said to have told his followers to “be a lamp unto yourself.” I think he directed them/us, to look/find understanding to the big questions in our own heart/mind/body (all one thing in Asia), instead of searching for answers from outside.


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