Teaching Buddha Teaching Buddha

Dukkha is A Bummer

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:

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:

So first “suffering”:

“Suffering” seems too strong in some cases. So let's try “stress”:

so 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”:

so 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:

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”:

I'd want to fix these up as:

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”:

Again, we've needed to introduce the article “a”, but this is much more promising. Let's try it in the original quote:

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:

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:

That works. Let's try another:

And from SN 12.15:

Not quite as smooth, but it still works. How about a more modern phrase:

which actually is and converts to 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:

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).

See Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2013, “I Teach Only Suffering And The End Of Suffering” by Bhikkhu Bodhi for a detailed discussion of this famous phrase.

See Appendix 3 of my book Dependent Origination and Emptiness for a further brief discussion of why “suffering” is a poor choice for translating “dukkha.”

Craving and Dukkha excellent essay by Bhikkhu Analayo
Nye Joell Hardy's online book on Dukkha
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Leigh Brasington / EmailAddr / Revised 27 Oct 21