The goal of the Buddha's doctrine is said to be the eradication of 'dukkha' variously translated as anguish, stress, unsatisfactoriness, pain... what is the definition of this term as given in the suttas? What is the intended scope of this term?


The term is mentioned and described in a large number of suttas.

Generally, dukkha it is divided into three types: dukkha-dukkha, which is what we commonly think of as suffering: pain, aging, stress, unpleasant things, etc.; viparanama-dukkha, which is the suffering of change: this includes not getting what you want, and the fact that satisfaction is always temporary; and sankhara-dukkha, the fact that everything is conditioned (i.e., impermanent and essenceless.)

The etymology of the term dukkha may be helpful here; the image is of a faulty axle alignment. In other words, life is like the supermarket cart with the wonky wheel.

The scope is all-pervasive; it refers to the fact that nothing (outside of nirvana, which is unconditioned) is completely satisfactory.

  • Very good answer. Thank you. "sankhara-dukkha, the fact that everything is conditioned". Why should conditioned things lead to dukkha? Could your definition of sankhara perhaps be incomplete?
    – alex
    Jan 12 '13 at 13:34
  • Could you say a little more about the etymology of dhukkha? Jan 12 '13 at 13:48
  • re: etymology-- dukkha means "having a bad axle hole", as opposed to sukkha (pleasure) which means "having a good axle hole." With a bad axle hole, you are going to get a bumpy ride. Jan 12 '13 at 13:55
  • re: sankhara-- this is a difficult and complex term in Buddhist thought; it is often translated as "mental fabrications" or "dispositions" or the like. In very schematic terms, it means that our connection to the world is constructed by a mental process; everything we experienced is impermanent and essenceless and mediated. In other words, even if there were something completely satisfactory out there, we wouldn't be able to connect to it in an unmediated, complete way. Jan 12 '13 at 14:01
  • 1
    Dukkha has a larger semantic range in Buddhist doctrine than merely "pain"; as I mentioned in my answer, actual pain and suffering falls into one portion (dukkha-dukkha) of dukkha as traditional described. The unsatisfactoriness of sankhara is traditionally explained via the twelve nidanas. Jan 14 '13 at 8:22

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