Translation Issues (1): dukkha and ‘suffering’

The Pāli word dukkha has so often been translated as ‘suffering’ that it might seem to have become the standard translation of the term. We have got used to seeing the teaching of the first Noble Truth, in the Buddha’s Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma, rendered something like this:

Monks, there is the noble truth that ‘this is suffering’ (dukkha): birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, association with the unloved is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not getting what one wants is suffering; in short, the five constituents (khandha) when appropriated are suffering.[i]

When dukkha is translated in this way, it is hard for the unwary reader not to see the Buddha’s message as a rather pessimistic portrayal of our human condition, fHarvey Introduction to Buddhismocussed on the vale of tears, but not noticing the beauty of the dawn. But the British Buddhist scholar, Peter Harvey, remarks that dukkha is ‘suffering’ only ‘in a general inexact sense’.[ii] The issue is that our English word ‘suffering’ can be a noun (‘the mute suffering of the innocent’), a present participle (‘suffering blame’) or an adjective (‘those suffering boys’). The word dukkha, however, is an adjective. When the Buddha said that ‘birth is dukkha’ he meant more precisely that birth is painful, in the sense that birth is an occasion when the experience of suffering tends to arise. Harvey goes on to translate dukkha as ‘painful’ rather than ‘suffering’. By translating dukkha in this way, the Buddha’s first Noble Truth looks more like a factual reminder that the human state is unavoidably painful. But does it always work to translate dukkha as ‘painful’?

In fact, the Pāli word dukkha has two distinct applications. Firstly, it is used in relation to vedanā, ‘feelings’ or ‘felt experience’. According to the Buddhist analysis, there are three sorts of feelings, sukha, ‘pleasant’, dukkha, ‘unpleasant’ or ‘painful’, and asukhamadukkham, ‘neither pleasant nor unpleasant’ or ‘neutral’. Of course, some dukkha-vedanā are very unpleasant and certainly count as suffering. But the word dukkha, in relation to vedanā, covers a broad spectrum of more or less unpleasant feelings.

Secondly, dukkha is used in relation to all conditioned things. There is a well-known stanza in the Dhammapada:

sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā’ti
yadā paññāya passati
atha nibbindati dukkhe
esa maggo visuddhiyā.

‘All conditioned things are unsatisfactory’ –
seeing this with understanding
one turns away from the unsatisfactory.
This is the path to purity.[iii]

To say that ‘all conditioned things’ (sabbe saṅkhārā) are dukkha is to say that they are imperfect. Being conditioned they arise and cease, and cannot totally satisfy.

Margaret Cone’s new Pāli dictionary clearly distinguishes these two senses of dukkha. As an adjective dukkha means (1) ‘painful; unpleasant; bringing pain or distress; uneasy; uncomfortable; not what one wants; wrong’. It also means (2) ‘(used to characterise all experience) unsatisfactory; bringing distress or trouble’.[iv]

But if the word dukkha has two different meanings, can we translate it with one English word at all? Bhikkhu Anālayo thinks not. He argues that the translation of dukkha as ‘suffering’ simply ‘does not do justice to the different dimensions of this Pāli term… in its early Buddhist usage’.[v] Sometimes dukkha means ‘unpleasant’ or ‘painful’, in relation to feelings, but this does not necessarily imply ‘suffering’. But when dukkha is used in relation to conditioned things, it embraces pleasant as well as unpleasant feelings, and it therefore hardly makes sense to say that dukkha is ‘suffering’. Rather, dukkha in this sense means ‘unsatisfactory’. The Buddha’s first Noble Truth is that the human condition is unsatisfactory rather than suffering. Anālayo suggests that we just use the Pāli term dukkha, only translating it when the context makes clear that it means ‘unpleasant’ or ‘unsatisfactory’:

Our ability to understand early Buddhist thought suffers from the inadequate translation of dukkha as “suffering.” Although in general it is preferable to translate Buddhist doctrinal terminology, in this case it might be better just to use the Pāli term. When translation appears to be required, “painful” or “unpleasant” could be employed if the context concerns one of the three feeling tones; “unsatisfactory” would be the appropriate choice if the term dukkha applies to all conditioned phenomena. In this way, the import of the early teachings could be more adequately conveyed and misunderstandings be avoided.[vi]

Anālayo’s judgement that we cannot do justice to the meaning of dukkha with one English word, ‘suffering’, is in fact borne out by a discussion in an early Buddhist text. The sixth of the seven books of the Theravādin Abhidhamma Piṭaka is called the Yamaka, ‘The Book of the Pairs’. The chapter on ‘Pairs on Truths’ (sacca-yamaka) begins by asking:

Is dukkha, the truth of dukkha? Is the truth of dukkha, dukkha?

The first of these questions concerns the relationship of the term dukkha to the term ‘truth of dukkha’ (dukkha-sacca), which is the first of the Four Noble Truths. This distinction is a way of distinguishing dukkha (1) ‘unpleasant’ from dukkha (2) ‘unsatisfactory’. The answer ‘Yes’ to this question tells us that the scope of the term dukkha (1) is entirely contained within the scope of the term ‘truth of dukkha’, which means dukkha (2). The answer to the second question, however, is not ‘Yes’, but:

Apart from dukkha bodily feeling and dukkha mental feeling, the remaining truth of dukkha is truth of dukkha but is not dukkha feeling; dukkha bodily feeling and dukkha mental feeling are both dukkha feeling and truth of dukkha.[vii]

The answer to the second question implies the distinction between dukkha (1) ‘painful’ and dukkha (2) ‘unsatisfactory’. The ‘truth of dukkha’ implies that the meaning of dukkha in the formulation of the Noble Truths is dukkha (2), and that this dukkha in fact includes pleasant feeling (sukha-vedanā), which is by definition not dukkha (1). However, since pleasant feeling is impermanent and liable to change, it is therefore unsatisfactory.

Caroline Rhys DavidsThe formulation of the distinction between dukkha (1) and dukkha (2) in the Yamaka was not yet very clear to Mrs Rhys Davids when she was editing the text for publication by the Pali Text Society more than a century ago;[viii] in her introduction to vol.1 she writes of her trouble understanding this difficult work, and the lack of anyone to explain it, ‘unless indeed our friends in the Burmese vihāras are able to come forward and help us’.[ix] In the introduction to vol.2, she records her gratitude to several Burmese teachers who responded to her request for help. Among those teachers is Ledi Sayadaw, whose lengthy reply, in what Mrs RD calls ‘nervous, lucid Pāli’,[x] is included as an Appendix in the PTS ed., and is wonderfully entitled, landana-pāḷi-devī-pucchā-visajjanā, ‘Reply to the Questions of London’s Pāli Queen’.[xi]

The Pāli Queen’s translation of extracts from Ledi Sayadaw’s article soon appeared in the Journal of the Pali Text Society.[xii] In clarifying the Yamaka pair discussed above, which distinguishes dukkha from the truth of dukkha, Ledi Sayadaw first explains the meaning of dukkha (1):

Here the word dukkha means pain which is experienced, and has the essential mark of “unpleasant”.[xiii]

He then explains the meaning of dukkha (2):

But in [such doctrines as] the “Truth concerning dukkha”, and [the Three Marks] “impermanence, dukkha, not-self”, we are considering dukkha in the sense of a state of fear and danger, having the essential mark of no peace, no safety, no good fortune. This is obvious, for pleasant feeling, from the point of view of enjoyment of life, is not dukkha; it is just happy experience, with the essential mark of the “agreeable”. But as included under dukkha when used to mean “no peace”, then this pleasurable feeling becomes just [one aspect of] dukkha.[xiv]

He compares the situation to one of a very sick man, who if he were to enjoy rich food would end up in great pain. He would know that such sukha would also be dukkha; and this is the meaning of the first noble truth, that even sukhafeelings are in the end unsafe, unsatisfactory, dukkha. In fact, anyone who holds onto experience, thinking “this is mine!”, is like a fish who has swallowed a bait. As the Buddha says:

Monks, one who rejoices in material form rejoices in dukkha, and rejoicing in dukkha is not free from dukkha, so I say. Monks, one who rejoices in feeling, perception, formations and consciousness, rejoices in dukkha, and rejoicing in dukkhais not free from dukkha, so I say.[xv]

In this way, Ledi Sayadaw explains how the truth of dukkha includes bodily and mental unpleasant feeling but is not limited to that narrower meaning of dukkha. This distinction, which is clear though mostly implicit in early Buddhist texts, was made explicit in the Abhidhamma. Anālayo makes the same distinction clear in contemporary English. The word dukkha should be understood in two sense: as meaning ‘painful’ or ‘unpleasant’, in relation to feelings; and as ‘unsatisfactory’, in relation to the Buddha’s teaching of the noble truths. To translate dukkha as ‘suffering’ obscures rather than reveals the Buddha’s teaching. The first Noble Truth should rather be translated something like this:

Monks, there is the Noble Truth that ‘this is unsatisfactory (dukkha)’: birth is painful (dukkha), ageing is painful, sickness is painful, association with the unloved is unsatisfactory, separation from the loved is unsatisfactory, not getting what one wants is unsatisfactory; in short, the five constituents (khandha) when appropriated are unsatisfactory (dukkha).[xvi]

In this translation, the Noble Truth points to shift in perspective on the human condition, one that recognises that life is characterised, not so much by suffering, as by unavoidable sources of painful feeling and existential unsatisfactoriness. This is not pessimism so much as turning towards the situation with open eyes. This in turn raises the question of why the human condition should be this way and what can be done about it; which of course is a question that the other three Noble Truths, and indeed the whole of the Buddha’s teaching, tries to answer.

[i] From Saṃyutta Nikāya 56: 11, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, my translation.

[ii] Peter Harvey (2013), An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, p.53.

[iii] Dhammapada v.278.

[iv] Margaret Cone (2010), Dictionary of Pāli, Bristol: Pali Text Society, p.410. Cone also translates dukkha as a noun, with the same distinction of two broad meanings.

[v] Anālayo (2019): ‘Craving and dukkha,’ Insight Journal, 45: 35–42, p.35.

[vi] Anālayo (2019), Insight Journal pp.36–7.

[vii] This translated is adapted from the new translation by C.M.M Shaw and L.S. Cousins (2018), The Book of Pairs and Its Commentary. A translation of the Yamaka and Yamakappakaraṇaṭṭhakathā. Vol.1, Bristol: Pali Text Society, p.279. Shaw and Cousins consistently translate dukkha as ‘suffering’, which somewhat obscures the point being made in this pair.

[viii] Caroline Rhys Davids, ed., The Yamaka: The Sixth Book of the Abhidhamma-Piṭaka, London: Pali Text Society. Vol.1 was published in 1912, Vol.2 in 1913.

[ix] Vol.1 p.xv.

[x] Vo.2 p.vii.

[xi] Vol.2 pp.219–86.

[xii] JOPTS 7 for 1913–14, pp.115–64. She acknowledges the help of Mr S.Z. Aung.

[xiii] ettha hi dukkhasaddo asātalakkhane anubhavanadukkhe vattati (Yamaka Vol.2 p.248). I have had to modify the Pāli Queen’s translations a bit. Her solution to the problem of translating dukkha was to translate it ‘Ill’. This did not catch on, perhaps because this use of ‘ill’ diverged too much from conventional usage.

[xiv] dukkhasaccan ti ca aniccaṃ dukkhaṃ anattā ti ca ettha pana asanti-akhema-asīva-lakkhane sappaṭibhayatā dukkhe vattati. tathā hi sukhā vedanā loke anubhavaṭṭhāne dukkhā nāma na hoti, sātalakkhaṇā sukhā eva hoti. (Yamaka Vol.2 p.248).

[xv] Saṃyutta Nikāya 22: 29, pts iii.31 (my translation).

[xvi] From Saṃyutta Nikāya 56: 11, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, my translation. Would it work to leave dukkha untranslated here? Or might doing so diminish the literary effect of the teaching?

‘Does It Float?’: Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism

Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Yale University Press, 2015

Stephen Batchelor, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, Yale University Press, 2017

Yale University Press were kind enough to send me review copies of Stephen Batchelor’s books when they were published. But reviewing them is difficult, as they are polemical, in favour of a particular new interpretation of Buddhism over undesirable forms of traditional Buddhism. In the end I’ve decided to comment just on the argument for secular Buddhism made in these books, independent of my response to the idea. Stephen Batchelor is something of a hero of mine: a pioneer of existentialist Buddhism,[1] and a prophet of Buddhism without belief in karma and rebirth. I enjoyed interviewing him in 2004, about his book Living With the Devil, which I still believe marks an important new interpretation of the meaning of Māra, the Buddhist version of the devil.[2] But I was not so enthusiastic about the part of his 2010 book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, which attempted to rediscover the teaching of the historical Buddha. His Pāli scholarship seemed at times dubious and his arguments occasionally tendentious.[3]

Closely reading After Buddhism, his 2010 follow-up to Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, I am once again troubled by his at times dubious Pāli scholarship. But then, in Secular Buddhism, his 2015 collection of essays, I read (p.17) how he himself admits his Pāli is not very good. He recalls (pp.17–18) his reading of the early Buddhist discourse, the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, in which the newly-awakened Buddha is reported to have doubted the point of teaching the Dharma, for

people love their place [ālaya]: they delight and revel in their place. It is hard for people who love, delight and revel in their place to see this ground [ṭhāna]: “because-of-this” conditionality [idappaccayatā], conditioned arising [paṭicca-samuppāda].[4]

This passage becomes important for Batchelor’s own formulation of the Buddha’s awakening in terms of its being an existential shift in perspective rather than a mystical insight into the nature of reality. But Batchelor then admits (p.19) how a friendly critic had pointed out that ālaya doesn’t mean ‘place’ but ‘attachment’, and how ṭhāna doesn’t mean ‘ground’ but ‘fact’ or ‘state’.[5] Batchelor then muses about whether his translation is an example of incompetent scholarship or a creative mistake.

With this in mind, it hardly seems necessary for me to go through After Buddhism, pointing out all the Pāli mistakes. It suffices to say that Stephen Batchelor admits his Pāli is a bit rough and ready. This is not a great start for someone who wants to ‘recover the dharma that existed prior to the emergence of Buddhist orthodoxies’ (p.28). In fact, it leads to my first observation on the project in these two books of developing a ‘secular Buddhism’: that this ought not be described as a recovery of the original meaning of the Buddha’s teaching, but rather as an interpretation of the Dharma for the modern world. Following good practice from Biblical studies, one should distinguish exegesis from interpretation. To say that the Buddha’s awakening should be understood as an existential shift in perspective rather than a mystical insight is an interpretation (of the Dharma for the modern west), whereas to explain what ālaya means, and what it means for people to love their ālaya, is exegesis.[6]

His translations of ālaya and ṭhāna aside, Batchelor comes up with some lovely new interpretations of early Buddhist terms and concepts. For instance, he renders taṇhā as ‘reactivity’ (After Buddhism, p.74). An exegesis of the word taṅhā would have to say that, etymologically, it meant ‘thirst’, the Sanskrit equivalent tṛṣṇā being derived from the verbal root tṛṣ, ‘be thirsty’; though in use it means a self-centred ‘craving’ or ‘desire’. But in practice the word is used in Buddhist psychology to indicate the tendency of the mind to react with self-centred craving, which is at the root of our continued existence in saṃsāra. Hence ‘reactivity’ is a nice interpretation of the word in modern English, that gets into western concepts some of what it means as a Buddhist technical term. Likewise, his rendering of appamāda as ‘care’ (After Buddhism, p.102), instead of the usual ‘heedfulness’, manages to capture a technical term in just the right English word.

Generally, though, I would say that Batchelor is not the best exegete of Pāli texts, partly because his Pāli is not very good, but mostly because his purpose really is to argue for a new interpretation of early Buddhism, and he confuses interpretation with exegesis. This is apparent in what has become the signature teaching of his secular Buddhism, the ‘four tasks’. These are a re-casting of the four noble truths (dukkha, ‘suffering’; samudaya, ‘arising’; nirodha, ‘cessation’; and magga, ‘path’) as four ‘tasks’ (that suffering is to be comprehended; arising is to be let go of; ceasing is to be beheld; and the path is to be cultivated) (After Buddhism p.69; Secular Buddhism, p.94). The tasks come out in fully secular form as: Embrace life, Let go of what arises, See its ceasing, Act! (After Buddhism, p.70). Batchelor derives support for his interpretation from an article by K.R. Norman;[7] but this article is an example of scholarly exegesis, which clarifies some difficult Pāli syntax by suggesting a particular account of how the discourse evolved. One might add that the ‘four tasks’ are right there in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma’, traditionally regarded as the first sermon.[8] The Buddha presents each of the four in terms of a ‘task’ (kicca), meaning, ‘what is to be done’. Suffering is ‘to be comprehended’ (pariññeyya), its arising is ‘to be let go of’ (pahātabba), its cessation is ‘to be beheld’ (sacchikātabba), and the path to its ceasing is ‘to be cultivated’ (bhāvitabba).[9] So the ‘four tasks’ are, to my mind, simply a way of drawing attention to how the Buddha is said to have presented the truths as tasks.

What I find puzzling about Batchelor’s project here is his rejection (Secular Buddhism, pp.95–6) of the idea that the four truths represent the Buddha’s appropriation of a medical formula. It is in fact quite likely that the four truths represent a version of an ancient Indian medical diagnostic formula, in which dukkha, ‘unsatisfactoriness’, is the disease; the arising of dukkha is the pathogen, namely, taṇhā, ‘reactivity’; the state of health is the cessation of dukkha; and the cure is the eightfold path.[10] Certainly, the Buddha is often compared in early discourses to a skilful physician. Therefore, from the very beginning, the Dharma was presented in non-religious, this-worldly, secular terms, as a practical teaching, namely, as what are called the four noble truths. It only takes some exegesis to make this clear; interpretation is not particularly necessary.

However, Batchelor is determined to develop what (in Secular Buddhism, p.80) he calls ‘Buddhism 2.0’, a form of Buddhism that would present the Dharma not just in an updated traditional form, but in a new way that overcomes the cultural divide separating modern western practitioners from their Asian forebears. Let us grant Batchelor that such an updated Buddhism is desirable; and it is certainly part of the vision of the Triratna Buddhist movement, in which I practise, to develop such a Buddhism in this way. But why then does Batchelor so often try to develop Buddhism 2.0 through a comparison with sheer caricatures of traditional Buddhism? In this sense, the argument of After Buddhism is seriously compromised by the fallacy of false dilemma. This means arguing by presenting a choice between ‘my way’ and the Buddhist ‘highway’, presenting the highway as a send-up of dogmatic metaphysical claims, and concluding falsely that ‘my way’ must be right.

For instance, in After Buddhism (p.8), Batchelor characterises the Buddha’s teaching of emptiness (suññatā in Pāli) as ‘a condition in which we [he means advanced practitioners] dwell’; ‘emptiness discloses the dignity of a person who has realized what it means to be fully human’. He then contrasts this understanding of emptiness with that of the later philosophy of Mādhyamika, in which emptiness is ‘an ultimate truth that needs to be understood through logical inference’ and ‘a privileged epistemological object that, through knowing, one gains a cognitive enlightenment’. So, the Buddhist understanding of emptiness is either the Buddha’s original teaching, or the later Mādhyamika version; the latter is evidently merely a conceptual attainment, therefore we should go with the Buddha’s original teaching. But anyone who has studied anything about Mādhyamika knows that Batchelor’s account of emptiness here is a mere caricature. Indeed, Batchelor himself must know that he what he has written is mere caricature, as he has himself translated Nāgārjuna’s foundational work on Mādhyamika, the Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā.[11] Anyone who studies this work knows that ‘Misperceiving emptiness / Injures the unintelligent / Like mishandling a snake / Or miscasting a spell.’[12]

Then again, he quotes from the Udāna, a collection of discourses in the Pāli canon, one of which he cites in translation: ‘There is, monks, an Unborn, Unbecome, Unmade, Uncompounded’ and so on. He comments: ‘This ex-cathedra declaration of a transcendent reality lying beyond the conditioned world sits uncomfortably with the suspension of judgement and suspicion of ultimacy advocated elsewhere in the same body of texts’ (p.25). But this is a tendentious exegesis of a Pāli text, for the sake of his interpretation of it as dogmatic etc., in comparison with the more sceptical texts he prefers. Later (pp.137–49) he explains how the problem is the translation (by Maurice Walshe), and that the passage can be translated in ways that have less ‘ontological gravity’. But this is a translation issue, not a problem with religious Buddhism or even with a metaphysical claims.

Then again he tries to show up the dogmatic nature of religious Buddhism by claiming that ‘later Buddhists’ proposed a form of atomism (p.189) and that ‘Buddhist proponents of rebirth’ proposed that mind is a substance (dravya) (p.300). Atomism and substantialism are evidently supposed to make these later Buddhists sound like traitors to the sceptical, anti-metaphysical kind of Buddhism that Batchelor, quite reasonably, wants to argue is the Buddha’s original teaching. Again, this is false dilemma: the Buddhist Abhidharmikas may not have been sceptics but they used the concepts of atomism and subtance in highly specialised Buddhist ways, in relation to Indian philosophical concerns of their time. They would not have had much trouble in countering his arguments.

In Secular Buddhism (p.107), Batchelor evokes the famous parable of the raft. The Buddha describes someone who builds a raft to cross a river in their path: would it be wise to continue on their way, having crossed over, by putting the raft on their head?[13] Developing the comparison, Batchelor argues that there is no need to ask of Buddhism 2.0, ‘is it really Buddhism?’: ‘The only relevant question is “Does it float?”’. If we understand Buddhism 2.0 here simply in terms of the body of ideas that Batchelor has developed in his recent books, one would have to say that, although it has some lovely design features, and many of us wish it well on its voyage, it is unfortunately made of poor quality scholarship and is lashed up with false arguments.

This review is also published in Western Buddhist Review.

[1] Especially in Alone With Others (1983), Flight: An Existential Conception of Buddhism (1984), and The Faith to Doubt (1990).

[2] See Dharma Life magazine, 2004 (details); reprinted in Challenging Times, ed. Vishvapani, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham, 2012.

[3] Reviewed in Western Buddhist Review 6.

[4] First discussed in After Buddhism p.55, in ch.3 A Fourfold Task, in which he presents what has become his single most important ‘secular Buddhist’ teaching. The passage is from the Ariyapariyesā Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 26.

[5] I would also point out that idappaccayatā doesn’t mean ‘“because-of-this” conditionality’, but ‘the state of having this as condition’, i.e. it just means ‘conditionality’ in the peculiar Buddhist sense.

[6] In Secular Buddhism, p.81, Batchelor explains that his account of ‘Buddhism 2.0’, with its four tasks, is an interpretation; but he also admits he is easily ‘seduced’ by the idea that it is ‘what the Buddha originally taught’.

[7] K.R. Norman (2003), ‘The Four Noble Truths’, Collected Papers II, Oxford: PTS, pp.210–23, online at

[8] It can be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya at 56: 11.

[9] Batchelor consistently (After Buddhism p.69, Secular Buddhism pp.94–5) gets the Pāli wrong: these four things ‘to be done’ (kicca) are in the grammatical form of gerundives, whereas he cites nominal forms.

[10] See Anālayo (2016), Mindfully Facing Disease and Death, Cambridge: Windhorse, pp.9–11.

[11] Stephen Batchelor (2000), Verses from the Center, New York: Riverhead.

[12] Verses from the Center, p.123. Batchelor’s rendering of the (Tibetan version of the) Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā is poetic rather than philosophical.

[13] The parable is from the Alaggadūpama Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 18.