The closest we get to a description of dukkha, which is usually translated as “suffering,” is this:

Now this is the noble truth of dukkha. Rebirth is dukkha; old age is dukkha; illness is dukkha; death is dukkha; association with the disliked is dukkha; separation from the liked is dukkha; not getting what you wish for is dukkha. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are dukkha (SN 56.11 PMT).

As I have mentioned in a previous article, there “is no word in English covering the same ground as Dukkha does in Pali.” I have tried numerous times to come up with an alternative, but have failed every time. I have come to the conclusion that no translation works.

As Access to Insight website says:

One helpful rule of thumb: as soon as you think you’ve found the single best translation for the word, think again: for no matter how you describe dukkha, it’s always deeper, subtler, and more unsatisfactory than that.

This is true. And that is the reason that I believe that it should not be translated. Just like we had to learn Buddha, Darma, karma, and nirvana, we are going to have to learn the word dukkha.

So the best we can do is use the Pali word and then define it as the painful, unsatisfactoriness, and bondage of conditioned existence. This definition is pulled from the teaching of the Buddha himself.

The Buddha said:

Practitioners, there are three forms of dukkha. What three? Dukkha characterized by pain, dukkha characterized by the [bonadge of] mental conditioning, and dukkha characterized by the [unsatisfactoriness] of change [making everything and everyone unreliable]. These are the three forms of dukkha. The Noble Eightfold Path is to be developed for the spiritual insight into these three forms of dukkha, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, and for leaving behind these three forms of dukkha” (SN 45.165 Forrest).

Pain can refer to physical or mental pain. So suffering is included here. Bhikkhu Bodhi and others usually suggest that unsatisfactoriness is the closest meaning, but that it is too unwieldy. And the whole idea of samsara, rebirth, fetters and conditioned existence suggests the idea of bondage. But so does freedom, liberation, and the blowing out of the fires of attachment, aversion, and delusion.

Update June 20, 2022

I have decided that going forward, I will translate the Pali word dukkha as “unhappiness.” This is because the opposite of dukkha is happiness (sukha), and the opposite of happiness is “unhappiness” (OED). Please remember that unhappiness includes all the aspects of conditioned existence – the pain, unsatisfactoriness, and bondage of it.

References

  • “Dukkha”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 5 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca1/dukkha.html