Thoughts on the Word “dukkha/duḥkha” (Suffering?)

The burden of existence. From senshin.dk.

It is common knowledge that the Buddha taught that all conditioned things cause us to suffer. The fact that suffering is latent in our experience of the world became the cornerstone and “first noble truth” of the Buddha’s entire spiritual project. Taking the importance of this word into account, it is perhaps suitable to take some time to consider the Pali and Sanskrit word usually translated into English as “suffering”. In Pali this word is “dukkha” and in Sanskrit it is “du?kha”.

The formation of this word in both languages is almost identical. The basic component of both is the word “kha”, which, according to Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit-English Dictionary, can mean among other things “a cavity”, “an aperture of the human body”, “an organ of the sense”, “a hole in the nave of a wheel” and “empty space/sky”. To this word,

the prefix “dus” is added. The prefix “dus” means anything that is negative, bad or difficult. Therefore, combining the prefix “dus” and the word “kha”, we obtain a wide variety of (slightly strange) meanings such as “a negative cavity”, “a bad hole in the nave of a wheel” or “bad sky”. In addition, this word can be analysed as an adjectival compound. Thus, the sense would be something like “that which has a negative cavity” or “that which has bad sky”. Some scholars have preferred to take “kha” as meaning “a hole in the nave of a wheel” and explain that in ancient Indian culture, the word “dukkha”, at that time meaning having a chariot with bad wheels, must have developed into a term used more widely for anything negative. However, in all honesty, this explanation seems quite absurd.

However, with reference to the term “dukkha” in his meditation manual, the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa, the great commentator on the P.li canon explains kha as follows:

“kha. saddo pana tucche; tuccha. hi ak.sa. khan ti vuccati” (VM 494)

Furthermore, it is said that the word “kha” is in the sense of empty; since “kha” is empty space. Buddhaghosa, here, explains the word “kha” as meaning an empty space. This empty space is then qualified by being negative. Therefore, to have dukkha, would be to have a “negative space”. I feel that this explanation seems to reflect well the malaise and general unsatisfactory state denoted by the word “dukkha”. Certainly, it is a far better explanation than having a chariot with bad wheels!

From its etymology, the non-specific sense of the word is clearly conveyed. The term does not specifically refer to a particular type of suffering, whether it is subtle or extreme, it simply encompasses any type of negativity we may experience. Therefore, it is possible that the translation “suffering” is a bit too strong to convey the wide and generalised sense of the term “dukkha”. Perhaps a better translation for the term would be “unsatisfactory”. At a stretch, this translation covers the entire range of negativity a human can experience. For instance, waiting too long in a queue may be “unsatisfactory” but also breaking your leg on holiday might be too!

The problem with conveying the general sense of the term dukkha is equally shared with its counterpart sukha, often translated as “happiness”. In exactly the same way, to the word “kha”, meaning “space”, a positive prefix “su” is affixed. As a complete opposite to “dus”, “su” has a generalised sense of anything that is OK. Therefore, etymologically the term “sukha” means an “OK space”! Taken as an emotion, this encompasses the entire range of emotion that might be characterised as not negative. Therefore, its meaning is far more subtle than simply “happiness”. Happiness is perhaps too coarse an emotion to be used to describe the entirety of sukha. I tentatively suggest that the word “ease” is in fact a better translation. Therefore, I would retranslate the famous statement “Nirv??a is the highest happiness (sukha)” as “Nirv??a is the utmost ease”. Likewise, the statement “all conditioned things are suffering (dukkha)” would perhaps better be expressed as “all conditioned things are unsatisfactory”. Can you feel the difference?

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