The extremely important Pāli word dukkha gets translated using a number of different English words: suffering,
stress, unsatisfactoriness. But none of these words really captures what the Buddha was saying when he used the word dukkha. It does mean suffering and stress and unsatisfactoriness but it includes all the minor annoyances of life as well. It's basically getting what one does not want and not getting what one does want. It covers all those little niggling feelings that life is not perfect.
In a number of discourses, the Buddha says:
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha.DN 22, SN 56:11, etc.
What if we plug in the usual English words and see what we get? But rather than using that whole long sentence above, let's start with:
Having the flu is dukkha.
Losing your sunglasses is dukkha.
So first suffering:
Having the flu is suffering. yeah, OK.
Losing your sunglasses is suffering. not really, you wimp.
Suffering seems too strong in some cases. So let's try stress:
Having the flu is stress. yeah, but I want to change stress to stressful.
Losing your sunglasses is stress. once more stressful would work better.
Having the flu is stressful. yeah, OK.
Losing your sunglasses is stressful. if losing sunglasses is stressful, you need a vacation for sure.
Again, stress seems too strong in some cases. And changing stress to stressful changes a noun to an adjective; we lose something thereby. What about unsatisfactoriness:
Having the flu is unsatisfactoriness. too weak and I want to change unsatisfactoriness to unsatisfactory.
Losing your sunglasses is unsatisfactoriness. again unsatisfactory would work better.
Having the flu is unsatisfactory. that's a weird way to speak for sure.
Losing your sunglasses is unsatisfactory. it works, but it's weird and again we are going from a noun to an adjective.
Maybe instead of using the usual English words, what if we try working from the literal meaning of dukkha dirty hole. The hole originally referred to the axle hole in a cart wheel. In order for the wheel to turn smoothly, the hole needs greasing. But the grease can also cause dirt and pebbles to collect in the hole, thus giving an unsatisfactory ride. So a dirty hole produces unpleasantness.
Let's try the literal meaning of dukkha:
Having the flu is [a] dirty hole.
Losing your sunglasses is [a] dirty hole.
We need to insert the article a since Pāli has no articles. But this is actually much less meaningful than anything above. Is there any English phrase that is close to dirty hole and means things are not quite right? How about bad space:
Having the flu is a bad space.
Losing your sunglasses is a bad space.
I'd want to fix these up as:
Having the flu put me in a bad space.
Losing your sunglasses puts you in a bad space.
This is a little better, but we've strayed rather far from the simple Having the flu is dukkha.
What other English phrases mean something like put me in a bad space? How about bummed me out. Or even better, the shortened bummer:
Having the flu is a bummer.
Losing your sunglasses is a bummer.
Again, we've needed to introduce the article a, but this is much more promising. Let's try it in the original quote:
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is a bummer; aging is a bummer; illness is a bummer; death is a bummer; grief, lamentation, bodily pain, mental pain and despair are bummers; having to associate with what is displeasing is a bummer, separation from what is pleasing is a bummer; not getting what one wants, that too is a bummer: In brief the five aggregates subject to clinging are all bummers.
The downsides seem to be only the need for a and the need at times to make bummer plural. But this better captures the range of dukkha than suffering or stress or unsatisfactoriness and it doesn't generate weird constructs either. It keeps the word as a noun, and a noun with an embedded verb sense since a bummer bums you out. Plus, very importantly, it captures the fact that the Buddha wasn't teaching that dukkha resides in the object, but in your mind see for example the sutta on the Two Arrows at SN 36.6.* If aging and death are dukkha, the end of dukkha doesn't imply the end of aging or death; the end of dukkha implies not getting all bummed out when these things occur. This gives a much clearer picture that the end of dukkha doesn't come from changing the external world, but by changing one's reactions to the external world:
Bummer! I lost my sunglasses at the beach.
Well, it's only sunglasses, don't get all bummed out about it.
Of course, we should check this more carefully by plugging bummer into a few more of the Buddha's teachings. How about the Four Noble Truths:
The Origin of Dukkha
Bummers arise dependent on craving.
The Cessation of Dukkha
With the cessation of craving comes the cessation of bummers.
The Path of Practice that Leads to the Cessation of Dukkha
The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the cessation of bummers.
That works. Let's try another:
I teach only dukkha and the end of dukkha.
I teach only bummers and the end of bummers.
One has no uncertainty or doubt that, when there is arising, only dukkha is arising; and that when there is passing away, only dukkha is passing away.
One has no uncertainty or doubt that, when there is arising, only bummers are arising; and that when there is passing away, only bummers are passing away.
Not quite as smooth, but it still works. How about a more modern phrase:
May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
which actually is
May you be free from dukkha and the causes of dukkha.
and converts to
May you be free from bummers and the causes of bummers.
Yep, that's what we are after.
Maybe bummer is too flippant for such a serious subject. It's doubtful it will make it into the academic world and we're highly unlikely to find translations using bummer rather than suffering or stress. But maybe thinking about dukkha from a hippy slang perspective will help you understand more deeply what exactly the Buddha was teaching.
I will continue to use dukkha rather than bummer or any other translation of this very important word. Although bummer comes closer to capturing what dukkha means than any other English word (in my opinion), even bummer does not encompass all the subtleties of the meaning of dukkha.
The key thing is that dukkha does not reside out there; it resides in your response to the inevitable suffering, stress, and bummers of life. The Buddha's teaching of dependent origination is pointing to a way of experiencing the world such that your responses to the stresses of life don't generate negative mental states.
* In SN 36.6 The Sallatha Sutta (The Dart) the Buddha says:
It is as if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart. So 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.
It is as if a man were pierced by a dart, but was not hit by a second dart following the first one. So 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.
Clearly the well-taught noble disciple doesn't get bummed out. Two other suttas that have a similar theme are SN 1.38 and SN 4.13 both are about physical pain without mental pain (i.e. no bummers).