Dukkha is a word in the Pali language of early Buddhism. It is usually translated as “suffering.”

The following is a standard translation of the Buddha’s first discourse entitled, “Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma.” This translation is by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering (SN 56.11 Bodhi).

But Bhikkhu Bodhi freely admits that suffering “hardly covers the many nuances and implications of dukkha” and the translation as suffering “is unsatisfactory and in some respects even misleading” (4). Walpola Rahula observes that “It is difficult therefore to find one word to embrace the whole conception of the term dukkha as the First Noble Truth’ (17).

Nyanatiloka notes that “the term dukkha is not limited to painful experience… but refers to the unsatisfactory nature and the general insecurity of all conditioned phenomena which, on account of their impermanence, are all liable to suffering, and this includes also pleasurable experience” (64-65).

My own suggested translation of dukkha is misfortune. Here is my translation of the passage:

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

You will notice that Bhikkhu Bodhi translated all the cases of dukkha with “suffering,” even though the first use is different, it is dukkhaṁ not dukkhā.  So my translation brings out this distinction.

Misfortune is defined as “an event or conjunction of events that causes an unfortunate or distressing result” (Merriam-Webster.com). And the word unfortunate means “marked or accompanied by or resulting in misfortune” (Merriam-Webster.com). All the unfortunate things in life, even if pleasant for a time, all add up to misfortune.

The Suttas teach that there are three kinds of misfortune. The misfortune “caused by (physical and mental) suffering”; the misfortune “caused by change”; and the misfortune “caused by conditioning” (Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism). Conditioned existence is not suffering. It can be quite pleasurable. But it is unfortunate because you are still a prisoner in the cycle of rebirth.

This also works well in explaining one of the titles of the Buddha, the Fortunate One. The Pali is bhagavā and it is usually translated as “the Blessed One.” But the correct meaning is the Fortunate One. Given that the Buddha put an end to misfortune (dukkha), it only makes sense that he would be the Fortunate One.

References

  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Somerville, MA:  Wisdom Publications, 2000.
  • 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.
  • Nyanatiloka. Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, 4th Ed. Kanday, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1997.
  • The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Robert E. Buswell, Jr., and Donald S. Lopex Jr., eds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught, Rev. Ed. New York: Grove Press, 1974.