Dependent Origination
and Emptiness

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One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination. MN 28.28

Appendix 3

Why "Suffering" Is a Poor Choice for Translating "Dukkha"

Someone asked the following question:

Translating dukkha to mean bummers makes it more user friendly and better captures dukkha's range. I agree, but I don't understand why it is so important to make such a big deal about dukkha including life's minor annoyances. It's my perceived major crises that I need Buddhism for. Don't we all think we can handle the minor annoyances just fine? Maybe this point is troublesome for me because most of my dukkha comes from (my perception of) big things; maybe yours (and most people's) comes from smaller annoyances. Or, maybe your point is that we don't realize how much suffering is or can be generated by the little annoyances.

My main point is that "suffering" leaves too much out that "dukkha" actually includes. This is important because we are either running towards things we think will give us pleasure, or running away from things that we think will give us displeasure = dukkha. All this running away is not primarily generated by what we would term "suffering", but it's still controlling our lives – often unconsciously, especially if it's a long way from suffering – yet it's still dukkha.

In later Buddhism, three unwholesome personality/temperament types are discussed: The Greedy type, the Aversive type, and the Deluded type.1 In brief, the Greedy type primarily seeks to find pleasant experiences, the Aversive type primarily seeks to avoid unpleasant experiences, and the Deluded type is unsure exactly what to do. Of course, we all have all three tendencies, but one may predominate. And obviously both greed and aversion are rooted in delusion. But this typology may be helpful in understanding our own actions and the actions of others.*

Now consider these three types in relation to dukkha. For the aversive types, all that aversion is dukkha; both the object of the aversion is dukkha and the aversion itself is dukkha. Dukkha, and fear of dukkha, run their lives to a large extent – even though it may mostly not be labeled "suffering." Because we all have all three of the these tendencies, greedy and deluded types also get caught in aversion – dukkha; again it may not feel like suffering, but it's still dukkha. And the deluded types – all that confusion they deal with is dukkha, even though it might not be classified as suffering.

So "suffering" as a translation of "dukkha" leaves out so much of what the Buddha was pointing to when he used the word "dukkha." "Bummer" has it's limitations as well – the death of a loved one is indeed suffering, not just a bummer – but "bummer" does have a broader range, I think, than "suffering. And "bummer" definitely does a better job of putting the responsibility back on you, unlike the word "suffering."

* For more on the three types, see The Three Buddhist Personality Types: Which One Are You? at

1. Vsm III.74, pp 96ff


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