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Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Concept of Dukkha

The Concept of Dukkha

To understand the concept of Dukkha is very important if you want to understand the central teachings of Buddhism. The word Dukkha is not only keyword to the Four Noble Truths but to the other important teachings of the Buddha as well i.e. The Three Characteristics of the World (Ti-lakkana ) which is the Buddhist view of the this world and The Philosophy of Dependent Origination ( Paticca-samuppada ) which is the Buddhist understanding of how things work and relate to one another for their very existence.

So not understanding Dukkha in its true sense means not understanding Buddhism itself. As a result, you could be cherishing a pessimistic attitude, not just towards Buddhism but probably towards your own life as well.


Many translations of the word Dukkha into English have now been around for almost a century and a half since Buddhism was introduced to Europe. Dukkha has been translated into English as suffering , illness and unsatisfactoriness. I would like to say that none of these retains the true meaning of Dukkha but instead the word Dukkha covers all these meanings and more.

Actually, Dukkha embraces the whole of existence, whether sentient or non-sentient, animate or inanimate; happiness, suffering, like, or dislike, a pleasant or unpleasant condition or a neutral one, all come under Dukkha . Each of these is classified as Dukkha not necessarily because it is a kind of suffering as it is understood but simply because it is changing constantly, all the time, at any moment. All those things, happy or unhappy, they come and go, begin and end. The whole process of this world just operates in this way. For this very reason, they are Dukkha . The Buddha taught us in His First sermon in a very simple way: whatever is impermanent or changing, all that is Dukkha . (Yad aniccam tam Dukkham). Before he said so he observed the whole world and found nothing but a process of change. So changing means the world. The very characteristic of our existence that remains there all the time is but change whether for better or for worse.

We fall ill and we suffer. That is suffering and that suffering is Dukkha . It comes and goes. We enjoy good fortune and that fortune is not everlasting but will one day go. Human beings are born and will definitely die. That is Dukkha .

We get into a bus and sometimes we have to sit next to some one who appears to us very unpleasant. That is Dukkha . If you react to the situation by thinking, "Today I am very unlucky to be meeting such people, I am stupid to be here on this bus", then you are creating Dukkha . We meet someone somewhere in our life and at a certain point, we each have to go our own way. So we feel sad. That is Dukkha. If you do not try to experience the meeting or the departing mindfully, as it is, but reacting - again, you are creating Dukkha out of it. We want a Mercedes Benz car and we get it. We are happy but now people say a BMW, or a Rolls Royce is better, more luxurious. We are no longer content with our Mercedes Benz. This is Dukkha. We feel frustrated at work. This is Dukkha. We want a word of thanks from someone, from our boss, from our neighbours but we are criticised instead. Therefore, this is Dukkha. To get it is all right. An appreciation is good. But if that makes us get caught up in that sort of esteem then we cling to it. We keep expecting to it more and more. This is Dukkha .

We want our child to behave in a certain way but it turns out just the opposite. So we feel disappointed. Disappointment is again Dukkha. All these bear the nature of arising and falling away. They come and go.

In this world, we feel anxious, despairing, frustrated, irritated, upset, disappointed, discomfort, anguish, painful and disgusted. Therefore, these are Dukkha in their nature, not because the Buddha said they are Dukkha .

Sometimes we have a success and feel very satisfied with our own performance. However, this satisfaction itself is again Dukkha , simply because it does not stay forever. In a higher stage of meditation practice, you do not feel any mental annoyance at all. It is very calm and peaceful. It is called Sukha - happiness. Again, this happiness is Dukkha, not because it causes unhappiness or suffering at that moment but because it does not stay forever. It changes. It starts and finishes. So it is Dukkha . You see Dukkha does not cover only the negative side of life but the positive one as well.

Actually Dukkha , I emphasise again, means the world. I just cannot see anything, which is not Dukkha . Alternatively, to put it in a very simple way, all we experience is Dukkha - whether it is through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind. To Buddhist analysis the world means only what we experience in our daily life through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. We experience the so-called world through these six sense doors. It is all Dukkha because of its inability to be satisfactory.

What to do then? Dukkha ! Suffering! Oh no, I do not want that, nobody wants to hear it, it attracts no one to listen to it. We want to end Dukkha , which appears mostly in a painful manner in this world. Can we just ignore or run away to get rid of it? It will not work. The human habit is to ignore it because they do not want it. With the desire to end Dukkha , you may form a serious idea of getting away from it. The idea itself is all right. Nevertheless, once you are caught in that idea, then that clinging again becomes Dukkha . Without understanding, what we tend to do is to cling to that idea.

So what to do?

There are two things we can do; first is to recognise that there is Dukkha and then to try to understand the nature of Dukkha . It means to learn about it as it is, and try to experience it the way it is without reacting in a habitual way, without judging its value.

The Lord Buddha said there is Dukkha instead of saying I am suffering or you are suffering. Notice this. Dukkha is there, not personal, it is common to Asians and Europeans, to Burmese, Sri Lankan, British, American and others. Dukkha is experienced in the same way by a homeless person and by Queen Elizabeth. Being with someone you do not really like is felt in just the same way by anybody whether it is to Princess Diana or a poor woman. Separation is painfully experienced by anybody ... be it the first lady of Peru or a wife of an Unknown Soldier. Death brings painful experience to any one related to it. Mr. Onassis, the then richest man in the world found no relief over the death of his son. This kind of painful experience spares no one, rich or poor. You do not want to become old; neither do I. But this experience is just there as a fact.

The human experience is there. And Dukkha is there. It is the common bond that we all share.

What we have to do in this stage is, may I repeat again, to recognise that there is Dukkha. Dukkha is there but it needs recognition. It requires an acknowledgment. This is a starting point. From this, we can go on. The Lord Buddha spoke in a very clear and precise way. Dukkha must be understood, it must be penetrated (parinnyeya ).

To understand it we must first be aware of the facts on which our daily life is based. This awareness is called mindfulness or Sati. With mindfulness, your mind will become contemplative, receptive, and not impulsive, not rejecting. Then investigate the real nature of that fact. This is called investigation of nature=Dhamma vicaya. Both form factors of enlightenment ( Bojjhanga ). The remedy in Buddhism is the Noble Eightfold Path. Each of us has to walk on the Path on our own to get to our destination.(Paccattam veditabbo=the truth is understood individually , one of the six characteristics of the Buddha's teaching.)

To summarise my talk,the Lord Buddha said, "Look at the world as a pleasure, then as a danger and then there is liberation from that danger."( Assada , adinava , and nissarana ).With understanding of Dukkha, compassion starts growing in our heart. Suffering is the object of compassion.

May you all be happy !!\

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