Buddha’s concept of dukkha

The Buddha’s Concept of Dukkha

by Dr. Kingsley Heendeniya

Fundamental structure

The Buddha did not discover dukkha. Everyone before and in his time knew there is dukkha in existence. What he discovered was the structure of the arising and cessation of dukkha. He realized that whenever a ‘thing’ is dependent on some ‘other thing’ and when this ‘other thing’ is impermanent, the ‘thing’ upon which the ‘other thing’ depends too is impermanent; and whatever is impermanent is dukkha. This is the fundamental structure of dependent origination of existence or being, of birth, decay, death and dukkha. ‘When this is that is. When this arises that arises. When this Is not that is not. When this ceases that ceases’. So, upon what precisely is this ‘thing’ dukkha dependent? The Teaching of the Buddha for 45 years is the answer to this question.

Definition of dukkha

In Dhamma, dukkha is defined in a variety of ways. The conventional and easily understood definition is that dukkha is sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair, separation from loved ones, from associating with those you do not like and from not getting what you want. After describing this worldly concept of dukkha, the Buddha made a quantum leap and declared, ‘In short, the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, determinations and consciousness affected by holding are dukkha.’ No one before the Buddha, in this epoch, had made the stunning statement that this body in fact is dukkha. Since dukkha is feeling, and since there must be a person that feels, it follows that so long as there is a person who thinks‘this body is mine or it belongs to me’, there shall always be dukkha. In other words, dukkha depends on the persistence of the primordial ignorance that this body is not ‘mine’.

Spectrum of dukkha.

The word ‘dukkha’ cannot be expressed in any other word to capture the full spectrum of its meaning as taught by the Buddha. In addition to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair, it describes dissatisfaction, discontent, frustration, disappointment, un-fulfillment, suffering. It refers to conflicts that arise within ourselves and with others from adherence to feelings, perceptions, intentions, conceit, ideas, views and opinions of ourselves and of the world around us. It refers to problems, disputes and all unprofitable things that originate from in-born tendencies to like and dislike, from inclinations to cling, want and appropriate. It refers to the danger of attaching ourselves to sensual desires that change, fade and do not last. ‘I do not see a single form, Ananda, from the change and alteration of which there shall not arise dukkha in one who desires and lust for it’ says the Buddha.

Nature of dukkha

Dhamma is about the nature of this body and its interaction with the world around it – and with nothing else. It is wrong to extrapolate it to things such as politics, psychology, science, evolution and so on. While discussion of Dhamma with other things is interesting, it is a waste of time. Time is the very essence of existence. We have wasted millions of years in ignorance, from not awakening to the arising of dukkha and the way to escape from it, from not hearing the Dhamma and practicing it that it is foolish to waste time when given the opportunity once in the life-stream. The Buddha thus frequently tells his disciples, ‘Both formerly and now, what I teach and describe is dukkha and the cessation of dukkha…Virtue, learning, discussion, serenity and insight lead to right view and penetration of the Dhamma…Meditate. Do not delay or you will regret later.’ Finally, a few minutes before he passed away he repeated what he had also said on many occasions, ‘It is the nature of determinations to disappear. Strive with diligence.’ [Vayadhamma sankhara, appamadena

Unique view of dukkha

We can now take a look at dukkha in the precise unique way of the Buddha. The key word is ‘determinations’ or sankhara in Pali. That is why he chose it to phrase his last words. Determinations are one of the five aggregates affected by holding [upadana]. The five aggregates [khanda] themselves are not dukkha. There is dukkha only when they are affected by holding. The result is dukkha. The feeling of dukkha arises only when we are attached to them and delight in the khanda.  Why is that? Why is delight and holding to this body dukkha? The answer is far from obvious. In fact it seems preposterous that delight or pleasure or desire is dukkha. The secret of the Dhamma is in this riddle. Its core understanding is to unravel it.  In a periodic statement the Buddha says, ‘All things have desire for their root, attention provides their being, contact their origin, feeling their meeting place, concentration confrontation with them, mindfulness control of them, understanding is the highest of them and deliverance is their core.’

Determinations of dukkha

Let us now understand sankhara, one of the five khandas, conjoined In consciousness with feeling and perception. Determinations are things upon which other things depend. Thus, feelings depend on contact. Contact depends on the five senses. The five senses depend on consciousness. Birth depends on holding to desire for being. Aging and death depends on birth. In this fundamental structure of dependent arising [and cessation], for  example, ‘contact’ as we have seen is the determination or necessary condition for what it determines, namely feeling. In other words, determinations determine the determined – and determinations are themselves determined by other determinations. Determinations are bound with what they determine. They are not what they determine. As the Buddha says, ‘Determinations determine the determined. That is why they are called determinations.’ Negativity of determinations The question can now be asked, ‘Are there determinations that do not determine anything’? The answer is that there cannot be because determinations must determine something.  Furthermore, determinations are negative. They deny the existence of the positive as when the determination ‘altruism’ denies the existence of ‘selfishness’. But while a determination is negative, it immediately asserts the existence of and essence of the positive. Altruism implies selfishness. When we know what ‘altruism’ means, we shall know what ‘selfishness’ means.  When we come to understand dukkha, we shall arrive at experiencing bliss. Since feelings are bound to this body and this body and feelings are impermanent, we shall experience why what is impermanent is dukkha.

Impermanence of determinations

The Buddha says, ‘This world is unstable.’ When we understand why what is dependent on some other things is unstable, we shall understand why what is unstable is dukkha. When we understand that this body is unstable and impermanent, we shall understand that it is foolish to be attached to the body from regarding it as belonging to me. All our vicissitudes, our likes and dislikes, our natural ingrained habit of making inferences from this body, arise from determinations or intentions of one sort or another. Thus, the Buddha says, what is volitional is dukkha. It is the gist of the insight of dukkha. This is the unique description of dukkha by the Buddha: ‘All determinations are impermanent. All determinations are dukkha’.


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