Suffering (Dukkha)

Carol Anderson

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Suffering (Dukkha)

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Dukkha is a Pali word, which appears in Sanskrit as duḥkha, and it is most often translated as “pain,” “suffering,” “stress,” or “dis-ease” (and as an adjective, “painful, stressful”). The concept of dukkha is one of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism. It is also one of the most difficult teachings to understand in a comprehensive manner. The focus of this article is largely on the Pali sources, with inclusion of relevant Sanskrit sources when necessary. Our contemporary understandings of this term are hampered by the very ubiquity of the word in Indian sources: doing a comprehensive study involves so many references that doing such a survey is almost unthinkable. At the same time, popular literature on dukkha is often prefaced with the disclaimer that it is extremely difficult to define the term. There is, therefore, relatively little in-depth scholarly literature on the term because scholars familiar with the literature in original sources understand the term. On the other hand, there are many studies in a variety of fields that range from medicine and psychology to comparative theology and interreligious dialogue that seek to engage the concept of dukkha. Only one scholar has laid out this dilemma and has done so, so very succinctly that it is well worth reading his overview of the literature on dukkha (Fonner 1998, pp. 99–100, cited under In Buddhist-Christian Dialogues). Given these challenges, the best introduction to dukkha is in the various Primary Sources. In these passages, dukkha is perhaps best left untranslated, as many have done (e.g., Collins 1998, cited under General Overviews). The sources gathered together in General Overviews provide those new to the topic with readily accessible and accurate introductions to the topic; they are usually brief. The section Translating Dukkha focuses on the intricacies involved in translating dukkha, from linguistic analyses to the challenges associated with the term. The articles and books discussed under Classical Studies provide a glimpse of the ways in which the term was located within the study of philosophy in the 1960s and 1970s, largely as a response to earlier interpretations of dukkha as a pessimistic or nihilistic concept. Recent Scholarship brings together studies carried out in the last fifteen years, and each of the studies is rooted in the methodological conviction that the only way to understand core Buddhist concepts lies in the intersection of the teachings. There are a few studies that explore the concept of dukkha/duḥkha outside of Buddhism; the best of those are discussed In Non-Buddhist Sources. There is a rich literature in which the term dukkha is applied to contemporary discussions of medicine, ethics, and psychology; these studies are examined under In Contemporary Ethical Reflection. Finally, some of the best examinations of dukkha have been done under the auspices of Buddhist-Christian interfaith dialogues, as presented in the final section In Buddhist-Christian Dialogues. In all of this research, however, it is vital to understand that one of the key challenges to studying dukkha/duḥkha is that the term is so widespread it defies containment; perhaps for that reason, we lack substantive surveys of the term in the field that reach across the breadth of Buddhist teachings and practices.

Article.  5063 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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