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Translations of
Englishsuffering, unhappiness, pain, unsatisfactoriness, unease, stress
(IAST: Duḥkha)
(MLCTS: doʊʔkʰa̰)
(Pinyin: )
(Rōmaji: ku)
(UNGEGN: tŭkkh)

(RR: ko)
Sinhalaදුක්ඛ සත්‌යය [si]
(dukkha satyaya)
(Wylie: sdug bsngal;
THL: dukngal
Thaiทุกข์ [th]
(RTGS: thuk)
Bất toại
Glossary of Buddhism

Duḥkha (/ˈdkə/), 'unease', "standing unstable," commonly translated as "suffering", "pain", or "unhappiness", is an important concept in Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. Its meaning depends on the context, and may refer more specifically to the "unsatisfactoriness" or "unease" of mundane life, not being at ease when driven by craving/grasping and ignorance.[1][2][3][4][note 1]

While the term dukkha has often been derived from the prefix du ("bad" or "difficult") and the root kha, "empty", "hole", a badly fitting axle-hole of a cart or chariot giving "a very bumpy ride",[5][6] it may actually be derived from duḥ-stha, a "dis-/ bad- + stand-", that is, "standing badly, unsteady", "unstable".[7][8][9][10]

It is the first of the Four Noble Truths and it is one of the three marks of existence. The term also appears in scriptures of Hinduism, such as the Upanishads, in discussions of moksha (spiritual liberation).[11][12]

Etymology and meaning[edit]

Duḥkha (Sanskrit: दुःख; Pali: dukkha) is a term found in the Upanishads and Buddhist texts, meaning anything that is "uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult, causing pain or sadness".[13][14] It is also a concept in Indian religions about the nature of life that innately includes the "unpleasant", "suffering", "pain", "sorrow", "distress", "grief" or "misery."[13][14] The term duḥkha does not have a one-word English translation, and embodies diverse aspects of unpleasant human experiences.[2][14] It is often understood as the opposite of sukha, meaning "happiness," "comfort" or "ease."[15]


Axle hole[edit]

The word has been explained in recent times as a derivation from Aryan terminology for an axle hole, referring to an axle hole which is not in the center and leads to a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. According to Winthrop Sargeant,

The ancient Aryans who brought the Sanskrit language to India were a nomadic, horse- and cattle-breeding people who travelled in horse- or ox-drawn vehicles. Su and dus are prefixes indicating good or bad. The word kha, in later Sanskrit meaning "sky," "ether," or "space," was originally the word for "hole," particularly an axle hole of one of the Aryan's vehicles. Thus sukha ... meant, originally, "having a good axle hole," while duhkha meant "having a poor axle hole," leading to discomfort.[5]

Joseph Goldstein, American vipassana teacher and writer, explains the etymology as follows:

The word dukkha is made up of the prefix du and the root kha. Du means "bad" or "difficult". Kha means "empty". "Empty", here, refers to several things—some specific, others more general. One of the specific meanings refers to the empty axle hole of a wheel. If the axle fits badly into the center hole, we get a very bumpy ride. This is a good analogy for our ride through saṃsāra.[6]

'Standing unstable'[edit]

However, according to Monier Monier-Williams, the actual roots of the Pali term dukkha appear to be Sanskrit दुस्- (dus-, "bad") + स्था (stha, "to stand").[7][note 2] Regular phonological changes in the development of Sanskrit into the various Prakrits led to a shift from dus-sthā to duḥkha to dukkha.

Analayo concurs, stating that dukkha as derived from duh-stha, "standing badly," "conveys nuances of "uneasiness" or of being "uncomfortable."[8] Silk Road philologist Christopher I. Beckwith elaborates on this derivation.[16] According to Beckwith:

...although the sense of duḥkha in Normative Buddhism is traditionally given as 'suffering', that and similar interpretations are highly unlikely for Early Buddhism. Significantly, Monier-Williams himself doubts the usual explanation of duḥkha and presents an alternative one immediately after it, namely: duḥ-stha "'standing badly,' unsteady, disquieted (lit. and fig.); uneasy", and so on. This form is also attested, and makes much better sense as the opposite of the Rig Veda sense of sukha, which Monier-Williams gives in full.[9][note 3]


The literal meaning of duhkha, as used in a general sense is "suffering" or "painful."[note 4] Its exact translation depends on the context.[note 5] Contemporary translators of Buddhist texts use a variety of English words to convey the aspects of dukh. Early Western translators of Buddhist texts (before the 1970s) typically translated the Pali term dukkha as "suffering." Later translators have emphasized that "suffering" is a too limited translation for the term duḥkha, and have preferred to either leave the term untranslated,[15] or to clarify that translation with terms such as anxiety, distress, frustration, unease, unsatisfactoriness, not having what one wants, having what one doesn't want, etc.[18][19][20][note 6] In the sequence "birth is painful," dukhka may be translated as "painful."[21] When related to vedana, "feeling," dukkha ("unpleasant," "painful") is the opposite of sukkha ("pleasure," "pleasant"), yet all feelings are dukkha in that they are impermanent, conditioned phenomena, which are unsatisfactory, incapable of providing lasting satisfaction.[citation needed] The term "unsatisfactoriness" then is often used to emphasize the unsatisfactoriness of "life under the influence of afflictions and polluted karma."[22][23][24][25][26][note 7]


Early Buddhism[edit]

Duḥkha is one of the three marks of existence, namely anitya ("impermanent"), duḥkha ("unsatisfactory"), anatman (without a lasting essence).[note 8]

Within the Buddhist sutras, duḥkha has a broad meaning, and is divided in three categories:[27]

  • Dukkha-dukkha, aversion to physical suffering – this includes the physical and mental sufferings of birth, aging, illness, dying; distress due to what is not desirable.
  • Viparinama-dukkha, the frustration of disappearing happiness – this is the duḥkha of pleasant or happy experiences changing to unpleasant when the causes and conditions that produced the pleasant experiences cease.
  • Sankhara-dukkha, the unsatisfactoriness of changing and impermanent "things" – the incapability of conditioned things to give us lasting happiness. This includes "a basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all existence, all forms of life, because all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance."[28] On this level, the term indicates a lack of lasting satisfaction, or a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.

Various sutras sum up how life in this "mundane world" is regarded to be duḥkha, starting with saṃsāra, the ongoing process of death and rebirth itself:[note 9]

  1. Birth is duḥkha, maturation is duhkha, aging is duḥkha, illness is duḥkha, death is duḥkha;
  2. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are duḥkha;
  3. Association with the unbeloved is duḥkha; separation from the loved is duḥkha;
  4. Not getting what is wanted is duḥkha.
  5. In conclusion, the five clinging-aggregates are duḥkha.

Early emphasis is on the importance of developing insight into the nature of duḥkha, the conditions that cause it, and how it can be overcome. This process is formulated in the teachings on the Four Noble Truths.

Chinese Buddhism[edit]

Chinese Buddhist tradition has been influenced by Taoism and Confucian theory that advocates that duhkha (古:十Ten directions, 口 hole or opening) is associated to the theory of seven emotions of endogenous disease through the formation of the spirit of the po a term that relates to the Western psychological notion of ego or the theological reference to the human soul. This theory is expounded in the application of traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment and prevention of pain and suffering from illness, disease and ignorance.[30] [31]

Literal suffering and awakening[edit]

Awakening, that is, awakening to one's true mind of emptiness and compassion, does not necessarily end physical suffering. In the Buddhist tradition, suffering after awakening is often explained as the working-out or untangling of karma of one's previous present life.


In Hindu literature, the earliest Upaniads — the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya — in all likelihood predate the advent of Buddhism.[note 10] In these scriptures of Hinduism, the Sanskrit word dukha (दुःख) appears in the sense of "suffering, sorrow, distress", and in the context of a spiritual pursuit and liberation through the knowledge of Atman (soul/self).[11][12][32]

The verse 4.4.14 of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad states:

English Sanskrit
While we are still here, we have come to know it [ātman].
If you've not known it, great is your destruction.
Those who have known it – they become immortal.
As for the rest – only suffering awaits them.[11]
ihaiva santo 'tha vidmas tad vayaṃ na ced avedir mahatī vinaṣṭiḥ
ye tad vidur amṛtās te bhavanty athetare duḥkham evāpiyanti

The verse 7.26.2 of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad states:

English Sanskrit

When a man rightly sees [his soul],[34]
he sees no death, no sickness or distress.[note 11]
When a man rightly sees,
he sees all, he wins all, completely.[36][note 12]

na paśyo mṛtyuṃ paśyati na rogaṃ nota duḥkhatām
sarvaṃ ha paśyaḥ paśyati sarvam āpnoti sarvaśaḥ

The concept of sorrow and suffering, and self-knowledge as a means to overcome it, appears extensively with other terms in the pre-Buddhist Upanishads.[38] The term Duhkha also appears in many other middle and later post-Buddhist Upanishads such as the verse 6.20 of Shvetashvatara Upanishad,[39] as well as in the Bhagavada Gita, all in the context of moksha.[40][note 13] The term also appears in the foundational Sutras of the six schools of Hindu philosophy, such as the opening lines of Samkhya karika of the Samkhya school.[42][43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Translations of duhkha:
    * Nyanatiloka Thera 2004, p. 61: dukkha (1) 'pain', painful feeling, which may be bodily and mental [...] 2. 'Suffering', 'ill'.
    * Huxter 2016, p. 10: "dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering) (....) In the Introduction I wrote that dukkha is probably best understood as unsatisfactoriness."
    :[3] "(...) the three characteristics of samsara/sankhara (the realm of rebirth): anicca (impermance), dukkha (pain) and anatta (no-self)."
    See also the Anuradha Sutta: To Anuradha
  2. ^ Monier-Williams 1899, p. 483, entry note: : "according to grammarians properly written dush-kha and said to be from dus and kha [cf. su-khá]; but more probably a Prākritized form for duḥ-stha, q.v."
  3. ^ Beckwith notes similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism, and argues that the Greek philosopher Pyrrho (c. 360 – c. 270 BC) based his new philosophy, Pyrrhonism, on elements of Early Buddhism, most particularly the Buddhist three marks of existence. According to Beckwith, Pyrrho translated dukkha into Greek as astathmēta.[17] Becwith's views are not supported by mainsream scholarship.
  4. ^ Harvey (2013, p. 30): ""suffering" is an appropriate translation only in a general, inexact sense [...] In the passage on the first True Reality, dukkha in "birth is dukkha" is an adjective [...] The best translation here is by the English adjective "painful," which can apply to a range of things."
  5. ^ Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, p.10: "there has been a lot of argument over how to translate the word dukkha; and again, the choice of translation must depend heavily on the context.
  6. ^ Contemporary translators have used a variety of English words to translate the term duḥkha; translators commonly use different words to translate aspects of the term. For example, duḥkha has been translated as follows in many contexts:
    • Suffering (Harvey, Williams, Keown, Anderson, Gombrich, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ajahn Succito, Chogyam Trungpa, Rupert Gethin, Dalai Lama, et al.)
    • Pain (Harvey, Williams, Keown, Anderson, Huxter, Gombrich, et al)
    • Unsatisfactoriness (Dalai Lama, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Rupert Gethin, et al.)
    • Stress (Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Anuradha Sutta bottom)
    • Sorrow
    • Anguish
    • Affliction (Brazier)
    • Dissatisfaction (Pema Chodron, Chogyam Trunpa)
    • Distress (Walpola Rahula)
    • Frustration (Dalai Lama, Four Noble Truths, p. 38)
    • Misery
    • Anxiety (Chogyam Trungpa, The Truth of Suffering, pp. 8–10)
    • Uneasiness (Chogyam Trungpa)
    • Unease (Rupert Gethin)
    • Unhappiness
  7. ^ Unsatisfactory:
    • Analayo (2013), Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization: "Dukkha is often translated as “suffering”. Suffering, however, represents only one aspect of dukkha, a term whose range of implications is difficult to capture with a single English word [...] In order to catch the various nuances of “dukkha”, the most convenient translation is “unsatisfactoriness”, though it might be best to leave the term untranslated."
    • Gombrich, How Buddhism Began: "The first Noble Truth is the single word dukkha, and it is explicated to mean that everything in our experience of life is ultimately unsatisfactory";
    • Dalai Lama, Thubten Chodron, Approaching the Buddhist Path, p.279 note 2: "Duhkha (P. dukkha) is often translated as "suffering," but this translation is misleading. Its meaning is more nuanced and refers to all unsatisfactory states and experiences, many of which are not explicitly painfull. While the Buddha says that life under the influence of afflictions and polluted karma is unsatisfactory, he does not say that life is suffering."
    • Roderick Bucknell, Martin Stuart-Fox, The Twilight Language, p.161: "Thus dukkha at the most subtle level appears to refer to a normally unperceived unsatisfactory quality";
    • Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, p.10: "there has been a lot of argument over how to translate the word dukkha; and again, the choice of translation must depend heavily on the context. But what is being expressed is that life as we normally experience it is unsatisfactory."
  8. ^ Beckwith: "The Buddha says All dharmas [= pragmata] are
    anitya "impermanent"
    dukkha "unsatisfactory, imperfect, unstable"
    anatman "without an innate self-identity"[10]
  9. ^ Paul Williams: "All rebirth is due to karma and is impermanent. Short of attaining enlightenment, in each rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance with the completely impersonal causal nature of one's own karma. The endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and redeath, is samsara."[29]
  10. ^ See, e.g., Patrick Olivelle (1996), Upaniads (Oxford: Oxford University Press), ISBN 978-0-19-283576-5, p. xxxvi: "The scholarly consensus, well-founded I think, is that the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya are the two earliest Upaniads.... The two texts as we have them are, in all likelihood, pre-Buddhist; placing them in the seventh to sixth centuries BCE may be reasonable, give or take a century or so."
  11. ^ Max Muller translates Duḥkhatām in this verse as "pain".[35]
  12. ^ This statement is comparable to the Pali Canon's Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) where sickness and death are identified as examples of dukkha.
  13. ^ See Bhagavad Gita verses 2.56, 5.6, 6.22-32, 10.4, 13.6-8, 14.16, 17.9, 18.8, etc; [41]


  1. ^ Huxter (2016), p. 10.
  2. ^ a b Harvey (2015), p. 26–31.
  3. ^ a b Anderson (2013), p. 1, 22 with note 4.
  4. ^ Nyanatiloka Thera (2004), p. 61.
  5. ^ a b Sargeant 2009, p. 303.
  6. ^ a b Goldstein 2013, p. 289.
  7. ^ a b Monier-Williams 1899, p. 483, entry note: .
  8. ^ a b Analayo (2013).
  9. ^ a b Beckwith (2015), p. 30.
  10. ^ a b Alexander (2019), p. 36.
  11. ^ a b c Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4 April 2014, trans. Patrick Olivelle (1996), p. 66.
  12. ^ a b Paul Deussen (1980). Sixty Upaniṣads of the Veda, Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass (Reprinted). pp. 482–485, 497. ISBN 978-81-208-1468-4.
  13. ^ a b Monier-Williams 1899, p. 483.
  14. ^ a b c Rhys Davids & Stede (1921), p. 324–325.
  15. ^ a b Walpola Rahula 2007, Kindle Locations 542-550.
  16. ^ Beckwith (2015), p. 28.
  17. ^ Beckwith (2015), p. 22-23.
  18. ^ Walpola Rahula 2007, Kindle locations 524-528.
  19. ^ Prebish 1993.
  20. ^ Keown 2003.
  21. ^ Harvey (2013), p. 30.
  22. ^ Dalai Lama 1998, p. 38.
  23. ^ Gethin 1998, p. 61.
  24. ^ Smith & Novak 2009, Kindle location 2769.
  25. ^ Keown 2000, Kindle Locations 932-934.
  26. ^ Bhikkhu Bodhi 2011, p. 6.
  27. ^ "What Are the Three Kinds of Suffering?"https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhism-by-the-numbers-the-three-kinds-of-suffering/
  28. ^ Bikkhu Bodhi, dead link
  29. ^ Williams 2002, p. 74-75.
  30. ^ "Huang di nei jing su wen". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 11 September 2023.
  31. ^ Soothill, William Edward; Hodous, Lewis (2006). A dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms: with Sanskrit and English equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali index (Repr. - Transferred to digital printing ed.). London New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7007-1455-1.
  32. ^ Robert Hume, Chandogya Upanishad, The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, Oxford University Press, pages 261-262
  33. ^ Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Retrieved 16 May 2016 from "SanskritDocuments.Org" at Brihadaranyaka IV.iv.14, Original: इहैव सन्तोऽथ विद्मस्तद्वयं विद्मस् तद् वयम्न चेदवेदिर्महती विनष्टिः । ये तद्विदुरमृतास्ते भवन्त्य् अथेतरे दुःखमेवापियन्ति ॥ १४ ॥
  34. ^ Paul Deussen (1980). Sixty Upaniṣads of the Veda. Motilal Banarsidass (Reprinted). pp. 188–189. ISBN 978-81-208-1468-4.
  35. ^ Chandogya Upanishad 7.26.2, Max Muller (Translator), Oxford University Press, page 124
  36. ^ Chandogya Upanishad 7.26.2, trans. Patrick Olivelle (1996), p. 166.
  37. ^ Chandogya Upanishad 7,26.2. Retrieved 16 May 2016 from Wikisource छान्दोग्योपनिषद् ४ ॥ षड्विंशः खण्डः ॥, Quote: तदेष श्लोको न पश्यो मृत्युं पश्यति न रोगं नोत दुःखताँ सर्वँ ह पश्यः पश्यति सर्वमाप्नोति सर्वश इति ।
  38. ^ Paul Deussen (1980). Sixty Upaniṣads of the Veda, Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass (Reprinted). pp. 112, 161, 176, 198, 202–203, 235, 455, etc. ISBN 978-81-208-1468-4.
  39. ^ Paul Deussen (1980). Sixty Upaniṣads of the Veda, Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass (Reprinted). p. 326. ISBN 978-81-208-1468-4.
  40. ^ Paul Deussen (1980). Sixty Upaniṣads of the Veda, Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass (Reprinted). p. 305. ISBN 978-81-208-1468-4.
  41. ^ Sargeant 2009.
  42. ^ Original Sanskrit: Samkhya karika Compiled and indexed by Ferenc Ruzsa (2015), Sanskrit Documents Archives;
    Second Translation (Verse 1): Ferenc Ruzsa (1997), The triple suffering - A note on the Samkhya karika, Xth World Sanskrit Conference: Bangalore, University of Hungary, Budapest;
    Third Translation (all Verses): Samkhyakarika of Iswara Krishna John Davis (Translator), Trubner, London, University of Toronto Archives
  43. ^ Samkhya karika by Iswara Krishna, Henry Colebrooke (Translator), Oxford University Press


Printed sources

External links[edit]