Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Opening to insight: Dukkha and suffering

The Pali term dukkha is frequently translated as "suffering."  However, many translators prefer the term "unsatisfactory."  But it appears that context may be very relevant to which translation is most appropriate.

The three marks of existence are impermanence (anicca), suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and non-self (anatta).  Everything is impermanent, and this is unsatisfactory.  No matter what we do, no matter how enlightened we may become, this characteristic of the impermanence of conditioned existence does not disappear.  Suffering is another matter.  This is evident by an examination of the Four Noble Truths.

The first noble truth is as follows:
"This is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha."

"Suffering" as a translation for dukkha seems to work here.  The second noble truth indicates that craving is the origin of dukkha.  Again, "suffering" as a translation for dukkha works.  We suffer in so far as we have craving for essentially anything that has to do with conditioned existence.  The third noble truths tell us that there is the possibility of the cessation of dukkha.  The fourth noble truth tells us that the path to the cessation of dukkha is the Noble Eightfold Path.  "Suffering" as a translation works well in these contexts.  However, while the suffering of an arahant, an enlightened one, may cease, the unsatisfactory characteristic of conditioned existence does not.  The difference is that the arahant, who is no longer subject to craving, need not suffer because of it.

I am not a Pali scholar and so must rely on the expertise of others.  As many Pali scholar's have argued, there is no satisfactory English equivalent for the word dukkha.  Translating it as "suffering" works in some contexts but not in others as does translating it as "unsatisfactory."

This is not a semantic quibble but affects how we think of what we are doing when we are meditating and following a spiritual path.  It is pessimistic and not reflective of the Buddhist view to say that suffering is a mark of existence and, by implication, inescapable.  It is more accurate to say that conditioned existence is unsatisfactory but that we need not cling to what is impermanent and be subject to craving; by following the path, we can escape suffering.

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