Translation Issues: 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?