The extremely important Pali word dukkha gets translated using a number of different English words: suffering, stress, unsatisfactoriness. But none of these words really capture what the Buddha was saying when he used the word dukkha. It does mean "suffering" and "stress" and "unsatisfactoriness" - but it includes all the minor annoyances of life as well. It's basically "getting what one does not want" and "not getting what one does want". It covers all those little niggling feelings that life is not perfect.
In a number of discourses, the Buddha says:
"What is the Noble Truth of dukkha? Birth is dukkha; aging is dukkha; illness is dukkha; death is dukkha; grief, lamentation, bodily pain, mental pain and despair are dukkha; having to associate with what is displeasing is dukkha, separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not getting what one wants, that too is dukkha: In brief the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha."
So what if we plug in the usual English words and see what we get. But rather than using whole long sentence above, let's work with
"Having the flu is dukkha."
"Losing your sunglasses is dukkha."
So first "suffering":
"Having the flu is suffering." - yeah, OK
"Losing your sunglasses is suffering." - not really, you wimp
"Suffering" seems too strong in some cases. So let's try "stress":
"Having the flu is stress." - yeah, but I want to change "stress" to "stressful"
"Losing your sunglasses is stress." - once more "stressful" would work better
"Having the flu is stressful." - yeah, OK
"Losing your sunglasses is stressful." - if losing sunglasses is stressful, you need a vacation for sure
Again, "stress" seems too strong in some cases. And changing "stress" to "stressful" changes a noun to an adjective; we lose something thereby. What about "unsatisfactoriness":
"Having the flu is unsatisfactoriness." - too weak and I want to change "unsatisfactoriness" to "unsatisfactory
"Losing your sunglasses is unsatisfactoriness." - again "unsatisfactory" would work better
"Having the flu is unsatisfactory." - that's a weird way to speak for sure
"Losing your sunglasses is unsatisfactory." - it works, but it's weird - and again we are going from a noun to an adjective
Maybe instead of using the usual English words, what if we try working from the literal meaning of dukkha - "dirty hole". The hole originally refered to the axle hole in a cart wheel. In order for the wheel to turn smoothly, the hole needs greasing. But the grease can also cause dirt and pebbles to collect in the hole, thus giving an unsatisfactory ride. So a dirty hole produces unpleasantness.
So let's try the literal meaning of dukkha:
"Having the flu is [a] dirty hole."
"Losing your sunglasses is [a] dirty hole."
Well, we need to insert the article "a" since Pali has no articles. But this is actually much less meaningful than anything above. So is there any English phrase that is close to "dirty hole" and means things are not quite right? How about "bad space"?
"Having the flu is a bad space."
"Losing your sunglasses is a bad space."
Well, I'd want to fix these up as
"Having the flu put me in bad space."
"Losing your sunglasses puts you bad space."
Well, this is a little better, but we've strayed rather far from the simple "Having the flu is dukkha."
What other English phrases mean somthing like "put me in a bad space"? How about "bummed me out". Or even better, the shortened "bummer":
"Having the flu is a bummer."
"Losing your sunglasses is a bummer."
Again, we've needed to introduce the article "a", but this is much more promising. Let's try it in the original quote:
"What is the Noble Truth of dukkha? Birth is a bummer; aging is a bummer; illness is a bummer; death is a bummer; grief, lamentation, bodily pain, mental pain and despair are bummers; having to associate with what is displeasing is a bummer, separation from what is pleasing is a bummer; not getting what one wants, that too is a bummer: In brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are all bummers."
The downsides seem to be only the need for "a" and the need at times to make "bummer" plural. But this better captures the range of dukkha than "suffering" or "stress" or "unsatisfactoriness" and it doesn't generate weird constructs either. It keeps the word as a noun, and a noun with an embedded verb sense since a "bummer" bums one out.
And very importantly, it capture the fact that the Buddha wasn't teaching that dukkha "resides" in the object, but in ones mind - see for example the sutta on the Two Arrows at SN 36.6.1 If aging and death are dukkha, the end of dukkha doesn't imply the end of aging or death; the end of dukkha implies not getting all bummed out when these things occur. This gives a much clearer picture that the end of dukkha doesn't come from changing the external world, but by changing ones reactions to the external world:
"Bummer! I lost my sunglasses at the beach."
"Well, it's only sunglasses, don't get all bummed out about it."
Of course, we should check this more carefully by plugging "bummer" into a few more of the Buddha's teaching. How about the Four Noble Truths:
The Origin of Dukkha
Craving causes bummers.
The Cessation of Dukkha
With the cessation of craving come the cessation of bummers.
The Path of Practice that Leads to the Cessation of Dukkha
The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the cessation of bummers.
That works. Let's try another:
"I teach only dukkha and the end of dukkha."
"I teach only bummers and the end of bummers."
"One has no uncertainty or doubt that, when there is arising, only dukkha is arising; and that when there is passing away, only dukkha is passing away."
"One has no uncertainty or doubt that, when there is arising, only bummers are arising; and that when there is passing away, only bummers are passing away."
Not quite as smooth, but it still works. How about a more modern phrase:
"May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering."
which actually is
"May you be free from dukkha and the causes of dukkha."
and converts to
"May you be free from bummers and the causes of bummers."
Yep, that's what we are after.
Well, maybe "bummer" is too flippant for such a serious subject. I seriously doubt it will make it into the acidemic world and I'm certain I won't be seeing any translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi or Thanissaro Bhikkhu using "bummer" rather than "suffering" or "stress". But maybe just thinking about dukkha from a hippy slang perspective will help you more deeply understand what the Buddha was teaching.
1. In SN 36.6 - The Sallatha Sutta (The Dart) - the Buddha says:
It is as if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart. So that person will experience feelings caused by two darts. It is similar with an untaught worldling: when touched by a painful feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. So he experiences two kinds of feeling: a bodily and a mental feeling.
It is as if a man were pierced by a dart, but was not hit by a second dart following the first one. So this person experiences feelings caused by a single dart only. It is similar with a well-taught noble disciple: when touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry or grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. He experiences one single feeling, a bodily one.
Clearly the well-taught noble disciple doesn't get bummed out. Two other suttas that have a similiar theme are SN 1.38 and SN 4.13 - both are about physical pain without mental pain (i.e. no bummers).