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Word Study: Dukkha (Part 3)

The Buddha said

Bhikkhus, there are these three kinds of suffering. What three? Suffering (dukkha) due to pain (dukkha) , suffering (dukkha) due to formations, suffering (dukkha) due to change. These are the three kinds of suffering (dukkha). The Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for direct knowledge of these three kinds of suffering (dukkha), for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning (SN 45.165 Bodhi [Pali added]).

Bhikkhu Bodhi has repeatedly lamented the fact that “suffering” is not a good translation of dukkha. It is just that there is no better translation. The best solution is to simply not translate it. But I don’t believe dukkha is going to become a well know English word anytime soon.

The Trouble with Translating

To show that there really isn’t a good English equivalent word for dukkha, I quote the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary, which states:

There is no word in English covering the same ground as Dukkha does in Pali. Our modern words are too specialised, too limited, and usually too strong. Sukha & dukkha are ease and dis-ease (but we use disease in another sense); or wealth and ilth from well & ill (but we have now lost ilth); or wellbeing and ill-ness (but illness means something else in English). We are forced, therefore, in translation to use half synonyms, no one of which is exact. Dukkha is equally mental & physical. Pain is too predominantly physical, sorrow too exclusively mental, but in some connections they have to be used in default of any more exact rendering. Discomfort, suffering, ill, and trouble can occasionally be used in certain connections Misery, distress, agony, affliction and woe are never right. They are all much too strong & are only mental (see Mrs. Rh. D.; Bud. Psy. 83–⁠86, quoting Ledi Sadaw).

I have been experimenting with several alternatives. Leigh Brasington suggested translating dukkha as “bummer.” This kind of works, but it is too Informal. Another word that does the same is “sucks.” There can be no doubt that rebirth, aging, sickness, and death suck. But again, it is too Informal.

If we go back to the etymology we might get a hint. Andrew Olendzki explains, “The prefix su- generally means “good, easy, and conducive to well-being,” and the prefix du- correspondingly means “bad, difficult, and inclining toward illness or harm.” Leigh Brasington, also traces the prefix du- back to “bad.” The PTS Pali-English Dictionary confirms this. In fact, the literal entomological translation would be something like “bad space.” It’s not that far to suggest that dukkha means that samsara is a “bad place.”

Since the prefix, du- in dukkha means “bad.” My suggestion, then, is to translate dukkha as a “badness” and “bad.” It refers to a bad circumstance or situation. A “bad” body would be one causing “suffering” or “pain.” So the context would decide the -kha part of dukkha. The problem is that the context is sometimes implicit, as in the first noble truth. It doesn’t say “life is dukkha.” For the Buddha was alive and free from dukkha. It must mean that “conditioned existence” is dukkha. And the Budhha has attained the unconditioned.

The Translations

Let’s look at three passages and see how this translation sounds.

First, what is the main message of the buddha?

Practitioners, both in the past and now what I teach is the badness [of conditioned existence] and the ending of this badness (MN 22 Forrest).

Second, what are the three kinds of dukkha?

Practitioners, there are three kinds of badness. What three? The badness due to suffering, the badness due to conditioned existence, and the badness due to change. These are the three kinds of badness. The Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for the spiritual insight into these three kinds of bad circumstances, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, and for leaving behind these three kinds of badness” (SN 45.165 Forrest).

Third, what is the first noble truth?

Now, this is the noble truth of the badness [of conditioned existence]. Rebirth is bad; aging is bad; sickness is bad; death is bad; association with the disliked is bad; separation from the liked is bad; not getting what you want is bad. In brief, the five (mind-body) processes subject to attachment are bad (SN 56.11 Forrest).

Honestly, I am still not satisfied. It is close but far from perfect. Maybe “bad circumstance” would be better.

Now, this is the noble truth of this bad circumstance [of being in samsara]. [This circumstance is bad because] rebirth is bad; aging is bad; sickness is bad; death is bad; association with the disliked is bad; separation from the liked is bad; not getting what you want is bad. In brief, the five (mind-body) processes subject to attachment are bad (SN 56.11 Forrest).

Maybe this is a little closer. You have the bad circumstance, the cause of the bad circumstance, the ending of the bad circumstance, and the path that leads to the ending of this bad circumstance. The bad circumstance is being in samsara, conditioned existence.

And maybe you are beginning to see why “suffering” is way off. It completely distorts the meaning and message of the Buddha. And you have to remember that samsara was common knowledge. His audience knew he was offering a way of escape from samsara. The Buddha was not offering merely peace of mind or a way to get to heaven.

Practitioners, both in the past and now what I teach is the bad circumstance [of being in samsara]. and the ending of this bad circumstance [through nirvana] (MN 22 Forrest).

The Buddha was offering more than a psychological pain killer. We are trapped in a prison for the mind. There is no way out except through the Noble Eightfold Path. What the Buddha taught us was the need to recognize how bad our circumstance is, and then he told us how to escape it.

However, with all that said, I still think the best translation for dukkha is “misfortune” and “unfortunate.” It contrasts nicely with the Buddha being the Fortunate One. It also evades the moral connotation of the word “bad.”


  • Brasington, Leigh. “Dukkha is A Bummer.” Leigh Brasington’s Web Site.
  • Olendzki, Andrew. “What’s in a Word? Dukkha.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Winter 2020.

Word Study: Taṇhā

The Buddha said:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence… (SN 56.11 Bodhi).

The common translation of taṇhā is “craving” (Bodhi, Sujato, Thanissaro, Ñanamoli, Peter Harvey, and Piyadassi). With so many translators using craving, why question it? Because I think it is off the mark. I think a better translation of taṇhā is “selfish desire.”

Here we must distinguish between a denotation and a connotation. The denotation is the literal meaning of the word, while the connotation is the feeling or indirect meaning of the word. With selfish desire, I am claiming that “desire” is the denotation while “selfish” is the connotation. The dictionary will give us the denotation, but only the context of the suttas will give us the connotation.

The Dictionaries

As we look at the dictionaries, it will be clear that the translation of “craving” is well supported. This is not in dispute. But what about the translation “desire.”

Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary explains that taṇhā literally means “thirst.” It gives its figurative meanings as “craving, hunger for, excitement the fever of unsatisfied longing.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines longing as “a yearning desire.” So desire is there, but hidden

The New Concise Pali English Dictionary defines taṇhā as “(a general) craving; strong desire.” Here desire is one of two possible translations. A.K. Warder, in his Introduction to Pali, gives the meaning of taṇhā as “desire, thirst, drive” (397).

According to Monier Williams, the Sanskrit tṛ́ṣṇā means, “desire, avidity.” The Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism by Damien Keown defines taṇhā (Skt. tṛṣṇā) as “Craving or excessive or inappropriate desire.” Under the entry desire, it says, “Desire for unwholesome things is generally known as tṛṣṇā….” Selfish desire is “inappropriate” and “unwholesome” desire

Oxford English Dictionary defines the English word desire as “strongly wish for or want (something).” In the case of thirst (the literal meaning of taṇhā, it would be to “strongly wish for or want” water. In life, it would be to “strongly wish for or want” lasting happiness for ourselves.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary says that although to desire and to crave both “mean to have a longing for,” there is a difference. “Desire stresses the strength of feeling and often implies strong intention or aim.” While to crave, explains Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, “stresses the force of physical appetite or emotional need.” I would argue that taṇhā is not a “force of physical appetite.” Rather, it follows you even into the non-physical realms of rebirth. Therefore desire is a better fit.

Seven Arguments

There are other reasons I think that “selfish desire” is a better translation than “craving.” Here are seven for you to consider.

First, there is already a Pali word that is defined as “craving,” and that is lobha. It is usually paired with dosa, which means “aversion.” A milder version of lobha is rāga, which means something like “attraction.”

Second, it seems to me that taṇhā should include both craving (lobha) and aversion (dosa), otherwise it is not inclusive enough. But how can craving include its opposite aversion? One is pulling near, the other is pushing away. Only selfish desire is inclusive of both, it includes the desire for something and the desire to be free of something.

Third, I think selfish desire is a better Dharma fit for taṇhā. The cure for selfish desire is to give up the self, and unselfishness sounds very close to the Buddhist idea of blowing out (nibbana) the fires of craving, aversion, and delusion.

Fourth, since taṇhā should cover all three fires of craving, aversion, and delusion, only translating taṇhā as selfish desire makes sense to me. Selfish desire not only leads to attraction (rāga) and aversion, it also leads to ignoring what does not interest the self, resulting in ignorance and delusion.

Fifth, if the cure is selflessness, wouldn’t the sickness be selfishness. The fires of attraction, aversion, and delusion cause selfish desire, but it is at the selfish desire step that we have a choice. We know that the Buddha said that ignorance was at the root of it all. But ignorance is interdependent with selfish desire. We don’t want to know, because it would interfere with our selfish desires. The obstacle is I, me, mine.

I also should point out that not all desire is bad. The desire that others be safe, healthy, and happy is a good desire because it is unselfish. The desire for awakening so that you become a more loving person is a good desire because it is unselfish. So taṇhā does not refer to unselfish desire, it refers only to selfish desire and desires.

I am not the only one to see this. Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, in his book Under the Bodhi Tree, explained that taṇhā refers to Ignorant desire” (181). According to him, “Taṇhā refers only to foolish, ignorant desires.” I used use selfish rather than foolish, for similar reasons. “If the word desire is used by itself,” he says, “it must be understood as foolish desire” (53).

Sixth, selfish desire fits better with the flow of dependent origination.

The Buddha said:

And what is dependent origination? Ignorance is a condition for formations. Formations are a condition for consciousness. Consciousness is a condition for name and form. Name and form are conditions for the six sense fields. The six sense fields are conditions for contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. Feeling is a condition for selfish desire. Selfish desire is a condition for grasping. Grasping is a condition for continued existence. Continued existence is a condition for rebirth. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be. That is how this entire mass of misfortune originates. This is called dependent origination (SN 12.1 R-Sujato).

Our senses come into contact with something, say the sight of a beautiful person. That sight produces a pleasant feeling. Instantly selfish desires arise. The self now wants to possess that person. We now have an attachment. All that can follow from this is “sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress.”

Seventh, I believe the translation “selfish desire” can be “elucidated by a delicate judging of the contexts in which” taṇhā appears. I think it better represents the Buddha’s teaching as a whole, his idea of selfless morality, the mark of existence known as no-self, and the ending of conditioned existence.

The importance of taṇhā in the Buddha’s teaching means that we should be very careful about how we translate it. Therefore we need to heed the words of A. K. Warder, “The meanings of the key terms cannot be guessed at, not determined by etymology (which in the study of philosophy especially is utterly irrelevant and misleading); they must be elucidated by a delicate judging of the contexts in which they occur, working if possible from concrete everyday language… to the less obvious dialogues of philosophers” (Introduction to Pali, xi).


It should not be thought that I think that craving is a wrong translation. It is not wrong, it is too thin. It does not take in the fullness of taṇhā. I contend the selfish desire is a fuller, more accurate dynamic equivalent translation.


  • Buddhadatta, A.P. Concise Pali-English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Delhpi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2014.
  • Davids, T.W. Rhys and William Stede. Pali English Dictionary. Waterloo, ON: Laurier Books Ltd, 2001.
  • Keown, Damien. The Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Warer, A. K. Introduction to Pali, 3rd ed. Bristol, U.K.: Pali Text Society, 2016.
  • Williams, Monier. Sanskrit-English Dictionary. University of Cologne, Germany, 1964.

Why Vitakka Means ‘Thought’ in Jhana

The Buddha said:

And what, bhikkhus, is right samādhi? It is bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome qualities, enters and remains in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and investigation, which has the rapture and joy born of seclusion. When thought and investigation are stilled, they enter and remain in the second jhana, which has the rapture and joy born of samādhi, with internal confidence and a unified mind, without thought and investigation. And with the fading away of rapture, they enter and remain in the third jhana, where they dwell with equanimity, mindful and aware, experiencing the bodily joy of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one dwells in joy.’ Abandoning pleasure and pain, and with the fading of the former joy and displeasure, they enter and remain in the fourth jhana, which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but is pure equanimity and mindfulness. This is called right samādhi (SN 45.8 Forrest).

The controversy is concerning the part I translated as “the first jhāna, which is accompanied by thought and investigation.” Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this as, “the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination.” Bhikkhu Thanissaro translates it as, “the first jhana… accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.” So we pretty much agree.

But Bhikkhu Sujato says that this is a “mistake.” He translates it as, the person “enters and remains in the first absorption… while placing the mind and keeping it connected.” The issue is translating vitakka-vicārā.

Bhikkhu Sujato wrote an article entitled “Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana.” You will instantly notice that none of the above translations render vitakka as “thinking” but as “thought.” Why does Bhikkhu Sujato change that to thinking? Perhaps because of its connotation. Thinking sounds more active, while thought sounds more reflective.

He explains:

Here’s one of the most often contested issues in Buddhist meditation: can you be thinking while in jhana? We normally think of jhana as a profound state of higher consciousness; yet the standard formula for first jhana says it is a state with ‘vitakka and vicara’. Normally these words mean ‘thinking’ and ‘exploring’, and that is how Bhikkhu Bodhi translates them in jhana, too. This has lead many meditators to believe that in the first jhana one can still be thinking. This is a mistake, and here’s why.

Normal Usage

Notice he admits that “normally these words mean ‘thinking’ and ‘exploring’.” In fact, the New Concise Pali English Dictionary gives the meaning of vitakka as “reflection; thought.” PTS Pali English Dictionary says that vitakka means “reflection, thought, thinking.” And concerning the meaning of vicāra, the New Concise Pali English Dictionary defines it as “investigation; management; planning.” The PTS Pali English Dictionary defines it as “investigation, examination, consideration, deliberation.”

Bhikkhu Sujato, in fact, quotes PTS Pali English Dictionary saying, “we find the combination vitakka & vicara rendered as ‘initial & sustained application.’” But this is out of context. Let me quote the whole sentence:

vitakka is often combined with vicāra or “initial & sustained application” Mrs. Rh. D.; Cpd. 282; “reflection & investigation” Rh. D.; to denote the whole of the mental process of thinking (viz. fixing one’s attention and reasoning out or as Cpd. 17 explains it “vitakka is the directing of concomitant properties towards the object; vicāra is the continued exercise of the mind on that object.”

When read in context, “initial & sustained application” is used “to denote the whole of the mental process of thinking.” It is clear that “initial & sustained application” is referring to thought. As Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it, “applied and sustained thought” (MN 4; MN 19).

Bhikkhu Sujato quotes suttas MN 19 and AN 3.101, claiming that they show that:

Even these most subtle of thoughts prevent one from realizing the true peace of samadhi, so they must be abandoned. Clearly, then, the right thought of the eightfold path, even thoughts of the Dhamma itself, must be abandoned before one can enter jhana.

I want to emphasize his words, “even these most subtle of thoughts prevent…. Jhana.” I want to show you clearly that this is wrong.

Mindfulness Meditation

The Buddha said:

When breathing in heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing in heavily.’ When breathing out heavily they know: ‘I’m breathing out heavily.’ When breathing in lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing in lightly.’ When breathing out lightly they know: ‘I’m breathing out lightly.’ They practice breathing in experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing out experiencing the whole body. They practice breathing in stilling the body’s motion. They practice breathing out stilling the body’s motion” (MN 10 Sujato).

So here the Buddha is teaching his followers how to meditate. So let me ask you a question. When you breathe in heavily and you notice that, “I’m breathing in heavily.” Is that not a thought? Notice the quotations. These are thoughts that you think – “I’m breathing in heavily.” These are mental and verbal notes that you think as you pay attention to the breath.

Now think with me. If thoughts block the attainment of the first jhana, why did the Buddha teach us to use thoughts as we meditate? According to Bhikkhu Sujato, by following the Buddha’s instructions you would be blocked from entering the first jhana. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t make sense to me either.

Here is an alternative view. The Buddha taught the use of reflective and observant thoughts in order for us to focus our minds. By noticing that we are “breathing in heavily” or “breathing in lightly” we bring the mind to one-pointedness. These thoughts bring us into the first jhana. That’s why the Buddha taught us to notice “I’m breathing in heavily” and “I’m breathing in lightly.”

Which is more reasonable? The Buddha taught mindfulness of breathing to block us from the first jhana, or to that the Buddha taught mindfulness of breathing to help us to enter the first jhana? I think there is only one reasonable conclusion.

In Experience

He then asks us to do an experiment: “Sit quietly, now, for five minutes. Watch your mind, and notice what happens when you think and when you don’t think.” The result will be that “most of the time you were thinking of this or that.”

This is a straw man. No one believes that in the first jhāna the “thought and investigation” are random thoughts that pop into your mind. Clearly, there is a difference between the skillful and unskillful us of the mind. And the unskillful use of your mind will prohibit one’s entrance into the first jhana.

We just saw in the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) that there is a skillful use of the mind. It is to use it to notice the breath, whether it is heavy or light.

A better test would be to sit quietly for five minutes and watch your breath. And make a mental note of its quality.

Why do you think most meditation teachers teach you to be mindful of the breath, noting your in-breath and your out-breath? You are supposed to think “in” on the in-breath, and “out” on the out-breath. This anchors the mind on the breath.

The Second Jhana

The Buddha said:

When thought and investigation are stilled, they enter and remain in the second jhana, which has the rapture and joy born of samādhi, with internal confidence and a unified mind, without thought and investigation (SN 45.8 Forrest).

Now it is true that “thought and investigation” have to be stilled before you can enter into the second jhana. But that is a change in meditation object. You now follow the rapture, as any experienced meditation teacher will tell you.

But Bhikkhu Sujato’s translation makes no sense, “As the placing of the mind and keeping it connected are stilled.” How do you still a connection? You can break a connection, but you cannot still it. And can you really have a “unified mind… without placing the mind and keeping it connected”? Sure, you don’t need to place it, but you certainly have to keep “it connected.”

It is clear that vitakka and vicārā exist in the first jhana and they cease to exist in the second jhana. In the second jhana, the meditator has a “unified mind” and is “without thought and investigation.” The Pali is avicāraṁ. The a is a negative prefix meaning, “not” vicāra. If vicārā means a “connected” mind then that connection ceases in the second jhana, which makes no sense. You can’t have a disconnected “unified mind.”

The verbal gymnastics he has to perform to make the sutta say what he thinks it is supposed to say is evident. My advice is to let the text speak for itself even if it contradicts what you think it should say.

How Language Evolves

Bhikkhu Sujato then appeals to a book by Julian Jaynes to prove that the Buddha didn’t mean “thinking” in the context of the first jhana. But who is this Julian Jaynes?

Julian Jaynes was an American researcher in psychology. He was not a Buddhist, he was not a linguist, and he was not an expert in ancient texts. Furthermore, many of his conclusions are disputed. For example, sociologist W. T. Jones, asked way back in 1979, “Why, despite its implausibility, is [Jaynes’s] book taken seriously by thoughtful and intelligent people?” Nowadays his work is largely ignored.

So it is strange that he uses him to prove that, “All abstract words are derived from more concrete words by way of metaphor.” He calls this “Axiom 1.” However, I have the book, and Julian Jaynes never said that. The closest I could find was, “Abstract words are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use” (51). So Axiom 1 is unfounded, so the whole structure falls.

So Bhikkhu Sujato uses a disputed authority that he misquotes to prove that the Buddha didn’t mean “thinking” in the context of the first jhana. [To be fair, he did say he was quoting from memory. But it is the foundation of one of his arguments. If you are going to appeal to authority, at least quote it correctly. ]

I agree that language evolves. I also agree that the Buddha gave certain words deeper meanings. But to say that vitakka and vicara mean “though and investigation” in every other place in every single sutta, with the sole exception of the jhana formula, I believe needs justification from the Early Buddhist Texts.

And I do think that “thought and investigation” in the jnana formula has “a more subtle, abstract, evolved meaning.” It refers to the subtle reflective use of the mind to notice the quality of the breath. And then to investigates its nature as impermanent, dukkha, and not atman.

Misunderstanding the Word ‘Thought’

Bhikkhu Sujato then asks, “How can such a coarse, ragged, disturbing thing as ‘thought’ continue, while everything else has become so refined?”

Why does thought have to be “coarse, ragged, disturbing?” Why can’t thought be refined, focused, and calming? Clearly, it can, otherwise, the Buddha would not have recommended using thoughts for meditation.

It seems clear that he misunderstands the word ‘thought’. For example, he says, “The English word ‘thought’, however, lacks such flexibility, and remains stubbornly and exclusively verbal.” Notice his words, “exclusively verbal.”

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘thought’ can mean “careful consideration or attention.” Nothing verbal here. says ‘thought’ can mean “consideration, attention, care, or regard.” Again nothing verbal here. Interestingly, says that ‘thought’ can also mean “meditation, contemplation, or recollection.” Collins English Dictionary says that ‘thought’ can mean “application of mental attention, consideration.”


Now when we turn to the Abhidhamma he has a stronger case. I think most scholars would agree that the adhidhamma does redefine vitakka and vicara. As he quotes in the Vibhanga saying that it:

gives a similar definition of vitakka in the context of jhana: takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā sammāsaṅkappo. This text also adds a similar definition of vicaracāro vicāro anuvicāro upavicāro cittassa anusandhanatā anupekkhanatā. Notice the last terms here: ‘sustained (anu- application (sandh) of the mind, sustained (equanimous) observation (ikkh)’.

And then he admits that we (those who translate vitakka as ‘thought’) “will, of course, reject these texts as inauthentic. And they are quite right; I would not try to argue that these definitions came directly from the Buddha.”

To me, that is case closed. Just because the definitions are later doesn’t mean they are wrong. They are wrong because they contradict the Early Buddhist Texts.

Defending Bhikkhu Sujato

I feel the need to be very clear. I highly respect and appreciate Bhikkhu Sujato and his work. He usually has a good sense of judgment. But here I believe that he has erred.

I think there are three reasons. First, he doesn’t give the proper range of meaning to the words “thought and investigation.” He is thinking of unskillful thoughts racing around one’s head. Which, of course, would block the entrance into the first jhana.

Second, I believe that personal experience tells him that thinking disturbs one’s meditation. Again, he doesn’t distinguish between skillful and unskillful thoughts here.

Third, he is not the only person who makes this mistake. Both Bhikkhu Analoyo and Ajahn Brahm, friends of Bhikkhu Sujato, make the same mistake. This is why it is important to remember that the Abhidhamma is not the word of the Buddha, but was composed hundreds of years after the Buddha’s passing.


  • Jaynes, Julian. The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. New York: A Mariner Book, 1990.
  • Jones, William Thomas. (1979) Mr. Jaynes and the bicameral mind: a case study in the sociology of belief. Humanities Working Paper, 23. Pasadena, CA: California Institute of Technology,  1979.
  • Sujato, Bhikkhu. “Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana.” Sujato’s Blog. December 2012.

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