Dukkha is A Bummer

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:

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 So first "suffering": "Suffering" seems too strong in some cases. So let's try "stress": 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":  

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:

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"? Well, I'd want to fix these up as 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":

Again, we've needed to introduce the article "a", but this is much more promising. Let's try it in the original quote: 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: 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:
  1. Dukkha
      Bummers happen.
  2. The Origin of Dukkha
      Craving causes bummers.
  3. The Cessation of Dukkha
      With the cessation of craving come the cessation of bummers.
  4. 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: And from SN 12.15: Not quite as smooth, but it still works. How about a more modern phrase: 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:

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).


Nye Joell Hardy's online book on Dukkha
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Leigh Brasington / EmailAddr / Revised 12 Oct 15