Buddhism Suffering (Dukkha)
by
Carol Anderson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0127

Introduction

Dukkha is a Pali word, which appears in Sanskrit as duḥkha, and it is most often translated as “pain,” “suffering,” “stress,” or “dis-ease” (and as an adjective, “painful, stressful”). The concept of dukkha is one of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism. It is also one of the most difficult teachings to understand in a comprehensive manner. The focus of this article is largely on the Pali sources, with inclusion of relevant Sanskrit sources when necessary. Our contemporary understandings of this term are hampered by the very ubiquity of the word in Indian sources: doing a comprehensive study involves so many references that doing such a survey is almost unthinkable. At the same time, popular literature on dukkha is often prefaced with the disclaimer that it is extremely difficult to define the term. There is, therefore, relatively little in-depth scholarly literature on the term because scholars familiar with the literature in original sources understand the term. On the other hand, there are many studies in a variety of fields that range from medicine and psychology to comparative theology and interreligious dialogue that seek to engage the concept of dukkha. Only one scholar has laid out this dilemma and has done so, so very succinctly that it is well worth reading his overview of the literature on dukkha (Fonner 1998, pp. 99–100, cited under In Buddhist-Christian Dialogues). Given these challenges, the best introduction to dukkha is in the various Primary Sources. In these passages, dukkha is perhaps best left untranslated, as many have done (e.g., Collins 1998, cited under General Overviews). The sources gathered together in General Overviews provide those new to the topic with readily accessible and accurate introductions to the topic; they are usually brief. The section Translating Dukkha focuses on the intricacies involved in translating dukkha, from linguistic analyses to the challenges associated with the term. The articles and books discussed under Classical Studies provide a glimpse of the ways in which the term was located within the study of philosophy in the 1960s and 1970s, largely as a response to earlier interpretations of dukkha as a pessimistic or nihilistic concept. Recent Scholarship brings together studies carried out in the last fifteen years, and each of the studies is rooted in the methodological conviction that the only way to understand core Buddhist concepts lies in the intersection of the teachings. There are a few studies that explore the concept of dukkha/duḥkha outside of Buddhism; the best of those are discussed In Non-Buddhist Sources. There is a rich literature in which the term dukkha is applied to contemporary discussions of medicine, ethics, and psychology; these studies are examined under In Contemporary Ethical Reflection. Finally, some of the best examinations of dukkha have been done under the auspices of Buddhist-Christian interfaith dialogues, as presented in the final section In Buddhist-Christian Dialogues. In all of this research, however, it is vital to understand that one of the key challenges to studying dukkha/duḥkha is that the term is so widespread it defies containment; perhaps for that reason, we lack substantive surveys of the term in the field that reach across the breadth of Buddhist teachings and practices.

General Overviews

The following studies offer insights into the nature of dukkha, some rather briefly, by locating dukkha in the context of other Buddhist teachings. Gethin 1998 offers a succinct overview of dukkha within the framework of foundational teachings, as the title of his book indicates. Collins 1998 locates dukkha within his exhaustive study of nirvana but is useful in the sense that he carefully critiques the metaphor of dukkha as an “illness.” Collins 1982 discusses the three types of dukkha found in Pali sources. Harvey 1990 is broader than either of the Collins studies and is thus a useful starting point. Rahula 1974 is the classical overview of Buddhist teachings and is now dated, but it remains useful for the way dukkha is integrated throughout the book.

  • Collins, Steven. Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511621499E-mail Citation »

    Again, in only a few pages, Collins lays out the three kinds of dukkha (pp. 191–193).

  • Collins, Steven. Nirvāṇa and Other Buddhist Felicities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511520655E-mail Citation »

    While this book is an exhaustive study of the teachings on nirvana, Collins provides a very good introduction to dukkha along the way—use the index as a guide. Collins also provides references that challenge the notion that dukkha should be understood as an “illness” for which the Buddha produced a “cure.”

  • Gethin, Rupert M. L. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Gethin provides a useful overview of the meanings of dukkha/duḥkha in chapter 3. One caveat, however: Gethin uses the metaphor of dukkha as disease and the path as the cure to explain dukkha, and this is a contested metaphor, albeit a very common one (see Collins 1998, p. 230).

  • Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    Harvey provides a very thorough introduction to the place of dukkha in Buddhism throughout this introduction, although he has later revised his translations of such phrases as “four noble truths” (see Harvey 2009 under the section Translating Dukkha). His overview, however, is very good.

  • Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. 2d ed. New York: Grove, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    Using the index as the guide to Rahula’s overview of dukkha, this is a good starting point for understanding the complexities of the term. Originally published in 1954.

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