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.
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.
Bondage of Samsara
However, with all that said, I think that any translation actually does justice to the word. The best translation for dukkha might be “misfortune” and “unfortunate,” or maybe even “bondage.” The thing about misfortune is that It contrasts nicely with the Buddha being the Fortunate One. It also evades the moral connotation of the word “bad.”
On the other hand, I have to confess that “bondage” makes more sense. Since Buddhism is a path to freedom, liberation, and release from the prison of rebirth.
Practitioners, both in the past and now what I teach is the bondage [of samsara]. and the ending of this bondage [through nirvana] (MN 22 Forrest).
The problem is that is is hard to justify this translation from the dictionaries or commentaries. But it could be that a “bad space” refers to the bondage of samsara. This needs more research.
- Brasington, Leigh. “Dukkha is A Bummer.” Leigh Brasington’s Web Site. http://www.leighb.com/bummer.htm
- Olendzki, Andrew. “What’s in a Word? Dukkha.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Winter 2020. https://tricycle.org/magazine/dukkha-meaning/