The Buddha said:

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

Suffering Due to Pain

Here we return to the problem of how to translate the Pali word dukkha. The most common translation is “suffering.” This is the word that Bhikkhu Bodhi uses above.

The translation “Suffering due to pain” is literally “dukkha due to dukkha” (Dukkhadukkhatā). Although Bhikkhu Bodhi usually translates dukkha as suffering, here he decided to translate the second occurrence of the word as “pain.” This is partly because “suffering due to suffering” makes no sense.

It is clear that the word dukkha has a narrow and wider sense. Bhikkhu Bodhi takes the narrow sense to be “pain” and the wider sense to be “suffering.” But is this right?

Bhikkhu Bodhi admits that the word suffering “hardly covers the many nuances and implications of dukkha. While for the sake of trabsperency I render dukkha as ‘suffering,’ in doing so I have to acknowledge that this rendering is unsatisfactory and in some respects even misleading” (Readings 4).

Here is a perfect example:

Bhikkhus, both formerly and now what I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering (MN 22 Bodhi).

If all Buddha taught is suffering and the end of suffering wouldn’t that be just a mundane goal? It turns the Buddha’s teaching into the ultimate psychotherapy. Take away suffering and life in samsara would be happy. But you would still be a prisoner in the cycle of rebirth. The Buddha is concerned about more than just suffering.

In his translation of The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bhikkhu Bodhi explains about dukkha:

The Pali word originally meant simply pain and suffering, a meaning it retains in the text when it is used as a quality of feeling: in these cases it has been rendered as ‘pain’ or ‘painful.’ As the first noble truth, however, dukkha has a far wider significance, reflective of a comprehensive philosophical vision” (25-26).

I don’t think “suffering” does justice to this “comprehensive philosophical vision.” Our misfortune is bigger than just suffering, although that is a part.

Dukkha as Misfortune

I have struggled myself to come up with a more adequate word. I have experimented with difficulty, unsatisfactory, adversity, and trouble. But the best I have found so far is misfortune.

The Pali-English Dictionary notes “There is no word in English covering the same ground as Dukkha does in Pali. Our modern words are too specialized, too limited, and usually too strong. ” I would suggest that misfortune comes the closest.  Since we must translate the word, misfortune seems the least unsatisfactory.

In English, the word “misfortune” is a noun referring to “an event or conjunction of events that causes an unfortunate or distressing result” (Merriam-Webster.com). Think of the three kinds of dukkha: suffering, mental constructions, and change. All three are “unfortunate” and potentially “distressing.” But they are “unfortunate” even if they are not at the moment “distressing.”

This is exactly the case with samsara. Just because you are not suffering doesn’t mean your situation is not unformatunate. In fact, it is even more unfortunate because you don’t realize the reality of your misfortune.

Another source defines misfortune as “an unfortunate state resulting from unfavorable outcomes” (Vocabulary.com). Our “unfortunate state” is being trapped in samsara, which results “from unfavorable outcomes” of karma and attachment.

Three Kinds of Misfortune

Let’s look at three passages where I have translated the word dukkha as misfortune. Here is the first one:

Practitioners, there are three kinds of misfortune. What three? The misfortune due to suffering, the misfortune due to [mental] constructions, and the misfortune due to change. These are the three kinds of misfortune. The Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for the acquaintance of these three kinds of misfortune, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, and for leaving behind these three kinds of misfortune” (SN 45.165 Forrest).

Calling dukkha “misfortune” makes it an objective evaluation rather than a subjective feeling like “suffering”. If you are a prisoner but don’t know you are a prisoner, are you suffering? No. But your situation qualifies as a misfortune and a calamity. It is the misfortune of conditioned existence that you are not yet aware of. Just because you don’t know you have a problem doesn’t mean that you don’t still have the problem.

Once you become aware of your misfortune, your situation becomes a hardship, a difficulty, and even brings a feeling of distress. The word misfortune covers the whole range.

Misfortune Due to [Mental] Constructions

The misfortune due to suffering is easy to understand, but what is the “misfortune due to [mental] constructions”? This is the misfortune we cause ourselves by our craving and aversion to things. They say it’s all mind over matter, if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. To paraphrase the Stoic Epictetus, it is not events that disturb us, but our interpretation of the events that cause us anxiety, fear, and suffering.

Misfortune Due to Change

And what is the misfortune due to change? This is the reality that all things are impermanent and unreliable. Everything breaks, people change, and everyone goes away in the end. Nothing lasts forever, not even the earth and sky. Even the gods pass away and are reborn as humans at some point. And even this Cosmos is but one manifestation of an endless cycle of big bangs and big crunches. Over and over again the flow and flux continue on and on. Nothing is stable, nothing lasts. The only escape is Nirvana.

The Buddha’s Main Message

Let’s look at another passage:

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

Suffering is a part of this message, but it is much bigger. There are, as we have seen, also mental constructions and change.

misfortune includes more than just pain and suffering, it also includes the fact that we are caught in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. We are in captivity to this cycle. But there is a way out. This is what the Buddha meant by Nirvana, which I translate as Liberation.

The First Noble Truth

And finally, let’s look at the first noble truth and see if we can catch the comprehensive philosophical vision of the Buddha:

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

You will notice I changed the noun into an adjective. The reflects the Pali, in which the first use of the word (dukkhaṁ) is different from the rest of the passage (dukkho or dukkhā). Troubling means “causing distress or anxiety” (OED). When you really see rebirth, old age, sickness, and death in its true horror it should cause “distress or anxiety.”

Buddhism is a message of liberation from the captivity we are born into. We are doomed to be born, get sick, grow old, and then die. Only to do it all over again. It is like the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Except the repetition is much much longer.

The Fortunate One said, “Practitioners, captivity [in the cycle of rebirth] has no known beginning. No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and wandering, hindered by ignorance and chained by selfish desire” (SN 15.1 Forrest).

Samsara is “captivity” in this conditioned reality, while Nirvana is Liberation from it. This is the central message of Buddhism. It is not merely peace of mind and lovingkindness, important as they are. Meditation is the means to see the chains that bind you so that you can set yourself free.

References

  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Nanamoli. The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, 3rd ed. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu. Reading the Buddha’s Discourses in Pali: A Practical Guide to the Language of the Ancient Buddhist Canon. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2020.
  • The Pali-English Dictionary. T.W. Rhys Davids and William Stede, eds. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt Ltd, , 2008.

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Revised and updated May 1, 2022 [reason: replacing’trouble’ with ‘misfortune’].