Buddhism A–Z
What is Suffering (Dukkha) in Buddhism?
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In his first sermon after his enlightenment, the Buddha spoke of four truths. These can be called the Four Noble Truths and are considered the essential summary of the Buddha’s teachings.

The first noble truth is that “life is dukkha.” Dukkha, a Pali term, is most often translated as “suffering.” But scholars of Pali say there really is no one English word that takes in all the connotations of dukkha, and many translators prefer “stressful,” “unsatisfying,” or “imperfect.”

Dukkha can refer to bodily pain, unpleasant emotions, or a nagging sense that something isn’t quite right. Even pleasurable experiences are dukkha because they are temporary and lead to suffering when they end. Ultimately dukkha is inherent to life itself.

The Buddha said that birth, aging, sickness, and death are dukkha. Parting from the beloved and encountering the disliked is dukkha. Most important, the “five clinging aggregates.” Here, the Buddha is referring to the skandhas, the five aggregates that make up every individual being: form, the senses, conception, discrimination, and awareness.

Dukkha has no one cause, but the immediate cause of dukkha is tanha. This is a Pali word that is often translated as “greed” or “desire” but is closer in meaning to “craving” or “thirst.” This craving can be extinguished by the practice of the Buddha’s teachings, especially the Eightfold Path. By replacing ignorance with wisdom, tanha naturally ceases, and dukkha also.

The Three Marks of Existence

In several sermons the Buddha described the three marks of existence, in Pali, as suffering or dukkha, impermanence (anicca), and being without permanent intrinsic self (anatta). These marks apply to all conditioned things; both beings and phenomena.

This teaching may sound terribly bleak. But because we don’t understand the nature of existence, we pursue the things of this world to make us happy and keep us safe. This is an illusion. As we come to appreciate the true nature of reality, we let go of the futile pursuit. And then we can learn to cultivate a deeper kind of happiness.  
The Buddha said, “If by forsaking a limited ease, he would see an abundance of ease, the enlightened man would forsake the limited ease for the sake of the abundant.” (Dhammapada, verse 290, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation)

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