A conversation with one of my students in ChaDao studies recently highlighted the perceived “watering down” that can occur with the teaching of Buddhism in the west.

Translation is the key, but historical traditions are the other area to consider on this.

As we know Siddathra Gutama, the Buddha, did not speak English. Not any language approximating contemporary historical western languages. He lived over 26 centuries ago. As such the constructs and interpretations of his language into contemporary English will be a difficult concept for many new students to Buddhism.

For example, people want to argue with the first of the Four Noble Truths, often translated as “life is suffering.” That sounds so negative to a western “positive / negative” speech and thought pattern.

Remember, he didn’t speak English, so he didn’t use the contemporary english word, “suffering.” What he said, according to the earliest scriptures, is that life is dukkha.

Does ‘Dukkha’ mean suffering? Well yes but no. Perhaps another way of discussing this is to say “Does Karma mean cause and effect?” The answer is no. But in the west this would come as a surprise.

“Dukkha” is Pali, a variation of Sanskrit, and it means a lot of things relating to experience of life.

For example, anything temporary is dukkha, including both happiness and suffering. -One could argue that both are one and the same but that’s a longer discussion on the heart sutra.

Some translations are now old I understand using the word “suffering” but replacing it with “dissatisfaction” or “stress.” Equally inaccurate but perhaps perceived as less negative.

We now realise translators crash into words that have no corresponding words meaning exactly the same thing in the other language, in this case, English. “Dukkha” is one of those words.

Understanding dukkha, however, is critical to understanding the Four Noble Truths, and the Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhism.

As no single English word neatly and comprehensively contains the same range of meaning and connotation as “dukkha,” It is perhaps better not to translate it. Otherwise, you’ll waste time meditating over a word that doesn’t convey what the Buddha meant in his teachings.

So, throw out “suffering,” “stress,” “dissatisfaction,” or whatever other English word is standing in for it, and go back to “dukkha.”

Do this even if—especially if —you don’t understand what “dukkha” means. Think of it as an algebraic “X,” or a value you’re trying to discover.

The Buddha taught there are three main categories of dukkha. These are:

Suffering or Pain (Dukkha-dukkha). Ordinary suffering, as defined by the English word, is one form of dukkha. This includes physical, emotional and mental pain.

Impermanence or Change (Viparinama-dukkha). Anything that is not permanent, that is subject to change, is dukkha. Thus, happiness is dukkha, because it is not permanent. Great success, which fades with the passing of time, is dukkha. Even the purest state of bliss experienced in spiritual practice is dukkha. This doesn’t mean that happiness, success, and bliss are bad, or that it’s wrong to enjoy them. If you feel happy, then enjoy feeling happy. Just don’t form an attachment to the sensation in its present form. Instead exercise mindfulness and let the sensation progress onwards to its next state.

Conditioned States (Samkhara-dukkha). To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. According to the teaching of dependent origination, all phenomena are conditioned. Everything affects everything else. This is the most difficult part of the teachings on dukkha to understand, but it is critical to understanding Buddhism.

This understanding is what takes us to the Buddha’s teachings on the concept of self. According to the doctrine of anatta there is no “self” in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence.

What we think of as our self, our personality, and ego, are temporary creations of the skandhas.

The skandhas, or “five aggregates,” or “five heaps,” are a combination of five properties or energies that make what we think of as an individual being.

Theravada scholar Walpola Rahula said;

“What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’, is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these five groups. They are all impermanent, all constantly changing. ‘Whatever is impermanent is dukkha’ (Yad aniccam tam dukkham). This is the true meaning of the Buddha’s words: ‘In brief the Five Aggregates of Attachment are dukkha.’ They are not the same for two consecutive moments. Here A is not equal to A. They are in a flux of momentary arising and disappearing.” (From What the Buddha Taught, page 25)

Life Is Dukkha

Understanding the First Noble Truth is not easy. For most of us, it takes years of dedicated practice, especially to go beyond a conceptual understanding to a realization of the teaching. Yet people often glibly dismiss Buddhism as soon as they hear that word “suffering.”

I think it is useful to dismiss English words like “suffering” and “stressful” and go onwards using “dukkha.” Let the meaning of dukkha unfold for you, without other words getting in the way. Explain it to others as a new word with a meaning of its own. This is how the English language expands to gain new terms.

The historical Buddha once summarized his own teachings this way: “Both formerly and now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.”

To teach other wise would only delay the process of learning the Dharma.