Duḥkha (/ˈdkə/; Sanskrit: दुःख; Pāli: dukkha) is an important concept in Hinduism and Buddhism, commonly translated as "suffering", "unhappiness", "pain", "unsatisfactoriness" or "stress".[1][2][3][4][5][6] It refers to the habitual experience of mundane life as fundamentally unsatisfactory and painful. 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).[7][8]

Translations of
Englishsuffering, unhappiness, pain, unsatisfactoriness, 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

Etymology and meaningEdit

Duḥkha (Sanskrit: दुःख; Pali: dukkha) is a term found in ancient Indian literature, meaning anything that is "uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult, causing pain or sadness".[9][10] 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."[9][10] The term duḥkha does not have a one-word English translation, and embodies diverse aspects of unpleasant human experiences.[3][10] It is opposed to the word sukha, meaning "happiness," "comfort" or "ease."[11]

The word is commonly explained 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.[12]

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.[13]

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").[14] Regular phonological changes in the development of Sanskrit into the various Prakrits led to a shift from dus-sthā to duḥkha to dukkha.


Contemporary translators of Buddhist texts use a variety of English words to convey the aspects of duḥkha. 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[11] or to clarify that translation with terms such as anxiety, distress, frustration, unease, unsatisfactoriness, etc.[15][16][17] Many contemporary teachers, scholars, and translators have used the term "unsatisfactoriness" to emphasize the subtlest aspects of dukkha.[18][19][20][21][22] Contemporary translators have used a variety of English words to translate the term duḥkha,[note 1].

Within the Buddhist sutras, duḥkha is divided in three categories:[25]

  • Dukkha-dukkha, The suffering of suffering - This includes the physical and mental sufferings of birth, aging, illness, dying; distress from what is not desirable.
  • Viparinama-dukkha, The suffering of change - 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, All-pervasive suffering - the duḥkha of conditioned experience. 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."[citation needed] On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, 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 samsara, the ongoing process of death and rebirth itself:[note 2]

  1. Birth is duḥkha, 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.

Duḥkha is one of the three marks of existence, namely duḥkha ("suffering"), anatman (not-self), anitya ("impermanence").

The Buddhist tradition emphasizes 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.


In Hindu literature, the earliest Upaniads — the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya — in all likelihood predate the advent of Buddhism.[note 3] 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).[7][8][27]

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.[7]
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],[29]
he sees no death, no sickness or distress.[note 4]
When a man rightly sees,
he sees all, he wins all, completely.[31][note 5]

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.[33] The term Duhkha also appears in many other middle and later post-Buddhist Upanishads such as the verse 6.20 of Shvetashvatara Upanishad,[34] as well as in the Bhagavada Gita, all in the context of moksha.[35][note 6] 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.[37][38]

Comparison of Buddhism and HinduismEdit

Both Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize that one overcomes dukha through the development of understanding.[note 7] However, the two religions widely differ in the nature of that understanding. Hinduism emphasizes the understanding and acceptance of Atman (self, soul). The connection is the distress and suffering caused by an individual situation that can counter a person's wish and perception. Duhkha, in particular, specifies the sense of disappointing feelings that come from the gulf between a person's perception and desires and real facts of their experience. The Hindi Language, duhkha generally means "difficult to do" or "to have hardship in doing" as it is inflexible.[39] Brahman, while Buddhism emphasizes the understanding and acceptance of Anatta (Anatman, non-self, non-soul) as each discusses the means to liberation from Duḥkha.[40][41] The rooting meaning of duhkha is used in various ways in different schools of Indian thought; this includes Buddhism.[39]


According to the Silk Road philologist, Christopher I. Beckwith, the ancient Greek philosopher, Pyrrho, based his new philosophy, Pyrrhonism, on elements of Early Buddhism, most particularly the Buddhist three marks of existence.[42] Pyrrho accompanied Alexander the Great on his Indian campaign, spending about 18 months in Taxila studying Indian philosophy. Diogenes Laërtius' biography of Pyrrho[43] reports that Pyrrho based his philosophy on what he learned there:

...he even went as far as the Gymnosophists, in India, and the Magi. Owing to which circumstance, he seems to have taken a noble line in philosophy, introducing the doctrine of acatalepsy (incomprehensibility), and of the necessity of epoche (suspending one's judgment)....

A summary of Pyrrho's philosophy was preserved by Eusebius, quoting Aristocles, quoting Pyrrho's student Timon, in what is known as the "Aristocles passage."

"Whoever wants to live well (eudaimonia) must consider these three questions: First, how are pragmata (ethical matters, affairs, topics) by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude?" Pyrrho's answer is that "As for pragmata they are all adiaphora (undifferentiated by a logical differentia), astathmēta (unstable, unbalanced, not measurable), and anepikrita (unjudged, unfixed, undecidable). Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our doxai (views, theories, beliefs) tell us the truth or lie; so we certainly should not rely on them. Rather, we should be adoxastoi (without views), aklineis (uninclined toward this side or that), and akradantoi (unwavering in our refusal to choose), saying about every single one that it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.[44]

According to Beckwith's analysis of the Aristocles Passage, Pyrrho translated dukkha into Greek as astathmēta. This gives insight into what dukkha meant in Early Buddhism.

...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 as "(said to be fr. 5. su + 3. kha , and to mean originally 'having a good axle-hole'; possibly a Prakrit form of su-stha37 q.v.; cf. duḥkha) running swiftly or easily (only applied to cars or chariots, superl[ative] sukhátama), easy".... The most important point here is that duḥ + stha literally means 'dis-/ bad- + stand-', that is, 'badly standing, unsteady' and is therefore virtually identical to the literal meaning of Greek astathmēta, from a- + sta- 'not- + stand', both evidently meaning 'unstable'. This strongly suggests that Pyrrho's middle term is in origin a simple calque.[45]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ 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[23][24]
    • 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
  2. ^ 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."[26]
  3. ^ 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."
  4. ^ Max Muller translates Duḥkhatām in this verse as "pain".[30]
  5. ^ This statement is comparable to the Pali Canon's Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) where sickness and death are identified as examples of dukkha.
  6. ^ See Bhagavad Gita verses 2.56, 5.6, 6.22-32, 10.4, 13.6-8, 14.16, 17.9, 18.8, etc; [36]
  7. ^ For a general discussion of the core Indian spiritual goal of developing transcendent "seeing," see, e.g., Hamilton, Sue (2000/2001), Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford U. Press), pp. 9-10, ISBN 978-0-19-285374-5.


  1. ^ Malcolm Huxter (2016). Healing the Heart and Mind with Mindfulness: Ancient Path, Present Moment. Routledge. p. 10. ISBN 978-1-317-50540-2., Quote: "dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering) (....) In the Introduction I wrote that dukkha is probably best understood as unsatisfactoriness."
  2. ^ "Translating Dukkha as Unhappiness". June 2017.
  3. ^ a b Peter Harvey (2015). Steven M. Emmanuel (ed.). A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 26–31. ISBN 978-1-119-14466-3.
  4. ^ Carol Anderson (2013). Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon. Routledge. pp. 1, 22 with note 4. ISBN 978-1-136-81332-0., Quote: "(...) the three characteristics of samsara/sankhara (the realm of rebirth): anicca (impermance), dukkha (pain) and anatta (no-self)."
  5. ^ Bhikkhu, Thanissaro (2004). "Anuradha Sutta: To Anuradha". accesstoinsight.org. Retrieved 15 October 2019.
  6. ^ Nyanatiloka Thera (1952). "dukkha". In Nyanaponika Thera (ed.). Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines (5 ed.). Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society (published 2004). p. 61. ISBN 9789552400193. dukkha (1) 'pain', painful feeling, which may be bodily and mental [...] 2. 'Suffering', 'ill'.
  7. ^ a b c Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4 April 2014, trans. Patrick Olivelle (1996), p. 66.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ a b Monier-Williams 1899, p. 483.
  10. ^ a b c Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 324–325. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7.
  11. ^ a b Walpola Rahula 2007, Kindle Locations 542-550.
  12. ^ Sargeant 2009, p. 303.
  13. ^ Goldstein 2013, p. 289.
  14. ^ 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."
  15. ^ Walpola Rahula 2007, Kindle locations 524-528.
  16. ^ Prebish 1993.
  17. ^ Keown 2003.
  18. ^ Dalai Lama 1998, p. 38.
  19. ^ Gethin 1998, p. 61.
  20. ^ Smith & Novak 2009, Kindle location 2769.
  21. ^ Keown 2000, Kindle Locations 932-934.
  22. ^ Bhikkhu Bodhi 2011, p. 6.
  23. ^ "Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion".
  24. ^ https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.086.than.html bottom
  25. ^ "What Are the Three Kinds of Suffering?"https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhism-by-the-numbers-the-three-kinds-of-suffering/
  26. ^ Williams 2002, p. 74-75.
  27. ^ Robert Hume, Chandogya Upanishad, The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, Oxford University Press, pages 261-262
  28. ^ 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 ॥
  29. ^ Paul Deussen (1980). Sixty Upaniṣads of the Veda. Motilal Banarsidass (Reprinted). pp. 188–189. ISBN 978-81-208-1468-4.
  30. ^ Chandogya Upanishad 7.26.2, Max Muller (Translator), Oxford University Press, page 124
  31. ^ Chandogya Upanishad 7.26.2, trans. Patrick Olivelle (1996), p. 166.
  32. ^ 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 ।
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ Paul Deussen (1980). Sixty Upaniṣads of the Veda, Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass (Reprinted). p. 326. ISBN 978-81-208-1468-4.
  35. ^ Paul Deussen (1980). Sixty Upaniṣads of the Veda, Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass (Reprinted). p. 305. ISBN 978-81-208-1468-4.
  36. ^ Sargeant 2009.
  37. ^ 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
  38. ^ Samkhya karika by Iswara Krishna, Henry Colebrooke (Translator), Oxford University Press
  39. ^ a b Takeda, Ryūsei (1985). "Pure Land Buddhist View of "Duḥkha"". Buddhist-Christian Studies. 5: 7–24. doi:10.2307/1390296. JSTOR 1390296. Retrieved 21 November 2020.
  40. ^ Johannes Bronkhorst (2009). Buddhist Teaching in India. Wisdom Publications. pp. 23–25. ISBN 978-0-86171-811-5.
  41. ^ Peter Harvey (2013). The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism. Routledge. pp. 34, 38. ISBN 978-1-136-78336-4.
  42. ^ Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (PDF). Princeton University Press. p. 28. ISBN 9781400866328.
  43. ^ "The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers". Peithô's Web. Archived from the original on 10 July 2019. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
  44. ^ Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (PDF). Princeton University Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 9781400866328.
  45. ^ Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Princeton University Press. p. 30. ISBN 9781400866328.


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External linksEdit