Tag Archives: dukkha

Lost in Translation


“Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories [aggregates] of clinging objects.”

This is the 1st noble truth (1NT) as translated from the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta {Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth} as you often see it. Now, maybe I’m overstepping my bounds in calling this into question. I am but a novice when it comes to Buddhism. I don’t know Pali or Sanskrit, can’t read anything in any Asian character. As far as my foreign language goes, I know about 14 sentences in Spanish (thanks public schools!). But to me there is something that is being fundamentally left out of a translation like this, in so much that “suffering” is left to stand all alone. If you read other translations, you will find suffering substitued for “pain” or “stress”. Kind of all pointing at the same thing. But even these still seem to miss the mark.

The word dukkha is what we see being translated into suffering/stress/pain here. Dukkha is much more than the common translation suffering would imply though. Dukkha is the description for the fundamental delusion and off-centerdness of our experience of life. It has its root in its antonym sukha, which has as its root a word meaning a wheel that is in kilter, or an axle that is precise which would allow a wheel to spin flawlessly. This fits in well with other circular imagery found in Buddhism, like the wheel of Samsara.

So why do we translate dukkha? Why not leave it as it stands like we do with karma, satori, or any of the other terms commonly used in Buddhism? It almost seems more appropriate to do so. Often times I’ll see the word suffering used as a way to express physical pain or frustration or anger or any of the other types of “conventional” suffering. These are all things that fall within the wheelhouse of dukkha, but so is a birthday celebration, an unexpected kiss from a loved one, or the joy you receive watching your child play with her toys. These too, are dukkha. They are dukkha because they are phenomenal expereinces. “Birth is suffering” – and not just from the perspective of the mother! Birth is suffering because it brings us into the world of samsara, one filled with clinging to that which is temporary. It is not death in and of itself that is dukkha, but the fact that our existence here is marked by death, and can only ever be temporary, fleeting as fast as the Mayfly blinks in and out of existence. It is all dukkha because it is part of the up and down bumpiness that life as a human generally entails. A wheel out of kilter.

Buddha’s prescription is simply to put the wheel back on its axle, to be able to experience a joy that isn’t fleeting or temporary or bound up by any of the sensory experiences we so desperately cling to. His medicine for our illness is something beyond the aggregates. This is liberation.

So I’m keeping dukkha, dukkha. Suffering seems to imply something is wrong physically, when it should imply that physically is wrong.




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