Dukkha in Buddhism Essay

This essay has a total of 2788 words and 17 pages.


Dukkha in Buddhism
















Philosophy of World Religions

Dr. Buckley
April 21,2000






Aimee L. Naylor





From its origins in India to its expansion North to Tibet and East through China and
eventually Japan, Buddhism has undergone many changes. These changes are usually
evidenced in its iconography, and somewhat in popular practice, but the essential tenets
remain unchanged. One of these tenets is “Dukkha” or the idea of inescapable
human suffering. The kinds and origins of dukkha are as varied as the regional practices
of Buddhism itself, ranging from the ancient and very symbolic, to the modern and very
pragmatic. Explanations of dukkha, no matter from what ideology they come, offer an
interesting insight into one religions standpoint on human suffering.



Dukkha is a fascinating concept that asserts that suffering is the lot of anyone born to
this existence, the so-called “bad news” of Buddhism. Unlike other religions
that assert that suffering is either the will of God, or an inheritance of original sin,
Buddhism places suffering squarely at the bearers doorstep, either by past bad karmic
actions, the discomfort we cause ourselves by searching for inherently unfulfilling paths,
or by the simple fact that by inhabiting a human form we are subject to the deterioration
of all physical matter. Aging, growing, living, and dying are all facts that even the
most enlightened cannot transcend.




Since all of the translations of Buddhist philosophy I’ve been able to consult are
in English, and for the most part done by Americans (with the exception of a few ) I will
begin by acknowledging the fact that by definition English translation/ relation of
Buddhist text are at least minimally affected by modern influence the fluctuation in
meaning of the same kinda of dukkha. I will clarify:



Buddhism is a religion of numbers. While in many religions the symbolism of numbers has
long been mystical, memorial, or even used as a way to teach the illiterate; Buddhism
makes use of numbers in so many ways as to make your head spin. The first and foremost
among those numbers being the Four Noble Truths: the first, as was mentioned earlier,
that we all, great and small, must suffer (dukkha). The second being that while there are
different kinds of dukkha we tend to bring it on ourselves because we seek satisfaction in
ways that are inherently dissatisfying. The third, and fourth noble truths are
respectively, that the possibility of liberationfrom dukkha exists for all, and that the
way to liberation is virtue, wisdom, and meditation; all delineated in The Eightfold
Path of Enlightenment. While these Four Noble Truths have been stated much more bluntly
or eloquently than I have managed here, it is most necessary to understand the first two
Noble Truths for our purposes.


In my research to list and define different kinds and origins of dukka, I was more
suprised to find that indeed, putting a finger (an English speaking finger at that) on the
word dukkha itself was quite a challenge. The word “dukkha” does not
translate well to English, it has an antonym in the word “sukkha” which means
satiated or comfortable, but dukkha is not the exact opposite. The literal Sanskrit word
means “wheel out of balance” but it is used in many ways such as “off
the mark” “frustrating” “hollow” and even
“pain”, but in most cases it is equated with the English word
“suffering”. So by agreeing that suffering has many different forms ranging
from minor inconveniences to blunt physical torture, and every emotional shade of grey in
between, “suffering” then becomes an adequate word.



Any book you pick up on Buddhism will touch on dukkha in some way. In fact, a good way to
tell a westernized translation from something translated as closely as possible to the
literal is to read the Four Noble Truths (also addressed in almost all Buddhist books).
The ones that come straight from China translated by a first year English student will say
something like: First Noble Truth: Life is Pain, Second Noble Truth: Life is Pain Because
of Attachments, Third Noble Truth: All Can Be Free From Attachments, Fourth Noble Truth:
Enlightenment. The ones that are published by a Yoga teacher from Berkeley, begin
something like: Life Can Have Hardships...

It is an interesting point to witness how unpalatable the idea of difficulty is to Western
consciousness when comparing the two versions.


There are so many kinds of dukkha, I cannot fit them all into this paper. There is
so-called “Ordinary” dukkha; which entails things that we encounter
constantly; this is also called Pain dukkha, but again there is a problem with translation
as we usually take “pain” to mean something strong and physical, when in fact
it may be included in the grey scale we discussed earlier.


Ordinary dukkha consists of everyday problems. Everybody has to endure emotional as well
as physical pain. Cars break down, accidents happen, and eventually someone you love
dies. In the Buddhist religion this is seen as an opportunity to keep a realistic outlook
on life. “Mental suffering takes place when we don’t get what we want or are
forced to live with something we don’t want (Hagan. Bp&s). But from a Buddhist
point of view this is seen as an opportunity to face, overcome, and accept as well as
being the counterpoint to the other things life has to offer : namely the enormous
potential for joy and transcendence.


This is an interesting point in that few, if any, other religions is everyday suffering
addressed. So often it is the constant stream of small trials we face that break us down
and turn us into the ugly creatures we so often are. By acknowledging this as a polarity
and a necessary evil Buddhism addresses an issue so often overlooked in the contemplation
on human suffering.


One of the m ost common things that cause us pain is change.
Man above all resists change; so much so that even when people are in a painful or
dangerous situation they will continue in this fashion rather than risk the uncertainties
of change. Change is traumatic, even when it is a happy one. This is evidenced by the
fact that events such as getting married, having a child, and winning the lottery register
among the most stress producing events in a persons life (Comer, Abnormal Psych.ch.5)


The Buddha knew that not only was Pain an inevitable fact of human life but also change.
“Change Dukkha” is caused by any change in ones circumstances that cause us
discomfort; all aspects of our lives and ourselves is in constant flux, and as a result we
try to “nail” things down. This fixation on fixation is a cause of dukkha .
By externally trying to manipulate, control or force our circumstances we set ourselves up
for disappointment. Dukkha is funny in that one cause can encompass all forms of dukkha,
as is apparent when our disappointment resulting from our reaction to change becomes pain
dukkha because of the fruitless outcome. The attempts we unconciously make to keep things
as we want are an endless source of dukkha, and most of the time we are completely
unaware. Taken to the extreme on one hand and the mundane on the other, most of our
personal and social rituals are based in the hope of making things concrete. Opening a
bank account, getting married, or joining a fellowship of any kind are all common ways of
trying to ensure that things on which we depend (spiritual/mortal crutches) don’t go
away or disappear. Societies are full, both in secular and religious practice of rituals
that are meant to bind, from having a Delchamps gold card, to baptizing a child, we
forever seek to align ourselves with something, depending on the person, in order to
protect ourselves from the unknown that change represents. However, reality is change and
in Buddhist philosophy the awakened mind seeks not to solidify but to de-construct, losing
the attachments, great and small that are the plague of human existence. All that exists
changes, and being at peace with that change is a major step in the path to enlightenment.


The third and last major cause of dukkha is that of existence. The “dukkha of
existence” is the distress caused by the question of being human; “Who am
I?” “Who or what, if anything, is experiencing my experience?”
“Where or how is the experiencer?” It is from the dukkha of existence that we
are introduced to the five skandhas which when examined offer the Buddhist answer to all
these philosophical questions to which we do not posses the answer, not the least of
which is: “What happens when we die?”


In the Buddhist faith it is believed that the individual is composed of five Skandhas, or
complex conglomerates, for lack of a better term. The first being a form and
‘material’, the last four being of the mind and therefore immaterial. The
five skandhas are said by Buddha to be what makes up a person, the body being the vehicle
with its own attributes and, and the mind composing the other characteristics of an
individual. This could also be described as mind and body; Nama mind, Rupa body, in
sanskrit. A quick reference chart follows:

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