The Pali word dukkha (duhkha in Sanskrit), usually translated as “suffering,” sits at the heart of the Buddha’s four noble truths—which boil down to (1) dukkha exists, (2) dukkha arises from causes, and (3) we can end dukkha (4) by following the Buddha’s path to awakening. This central term is best understood alongside the related word sukha. The prefix su- generally means “good, easy, and conducive to well-being,” and the prefix du- correspondingly means “bad, difficult, and inclining toward illness or harm.” On the most basic level, then, sukha means pleasant while dukkha means unpleasant. The noble truth of suffering, however, does not simply refer to bodily pain; its meaning is far more subtle and rich.

One can also feel mental pleasure and pain. Here, the twin prefixes are employed again. A “good mind” (su-manas) is contrasted with a “bad mind” (du-manas) to yield the Pali words most often used to describe happiness (somanassa) and sorrow (domanassa), also known as mental pleasure and mental pain. Here, happiness and sorrow simply refer to the experience of a painful or pleasurable feeling, which is different from emotional pleasure or pain. When Buddhist teachings talk about emotions, such as love and hate, they are describing our disposition toward the things we encounter. This important distinction can be easily lost in translation.

Dukkha is further used to describe the disappointment that comes when the things we are fond of inevitably change and slip through our hands. The Pali term for this is viparinama­-dukkha, meaning the suffering of change, which the second noble truth explains is caused by craving and attachment. We experience emotional pain when we crave either pleasure or the absence of pain, and don’t get what we want. Mind- fulness practice is designed to help us abandon this craving by replacing it with emotional equanimity.

Beyond the physical, mental, and psychological sense of dukkha, we might add an existential sense of these words. In Pali texts, the feeling that the very conditions of the world we inhabit are unsatisfactory is called sankhara-­dukkha, or the suffering of conditioned reality. The fact that all beings must consume to live and that we will age, become ill, and die are also sources of suffering.

Fortunately, there is a corresponding state of existential well-being—the liberation from suffering that comes about with awakening.

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