All Buddhists should know the meaning of dukkha and the meaning of sukha.
Well, let me share a little life story with you, and I’ll show you why the meanings of dukkha and sukha are so vital to your development.
When I was a young(er) man I never felt good about life. I was discontent, longed for more, and never felt satisfied. Basically, I was living with dukkha—meaning suffering and dissatisfaction.
Then I learned all about Buddhist Dukkaha and Sukha, and the understanding that this Buddhist wisdom brought to my life led to a profound personal transformation.
Meaning Dukkha And Sukha in Buddhism?
To Buddhists, dissatisfaction is “Dukkha”. A Pali word, Dukkha means pain, suffering, or more specifically, dissatisfaction
When I was young, I had too much dukkha in my life. If I’d known about dukkha and sukha back then, things would have been different. Instead, I learned the painful way.
My motto might as well have been:
“I can’t get no, oh, no, no, no, hey, hey, hey
That’s what I say
I can’t get no:
I can’t get no Sukha [the authentic state of happiness]
The crazy thing is: Life was great back then. So why the hell did I not feel good about life?
I’d moved out of home, away from my father’s alcoholism and family problems. I was in a happy, loving, passionate relationship. And I was touring England on stage as an actor.
But in my young, naïve, and ignorant mind the stages weren’t big enough, the home I’d moved into wasn’t fancy enough, and my girlfriend (ah, let’s not go there).
Later in life, I would learn to be happy even though I had far less. The drought in my bank account didn’t stress me. My unemployed status was no cause for alarm. My student loan was a triviality. Because even though situations were not favourable, my mind was in the right place. I had sukha, meaning happiness, pleasure, and bliss.
The universe taught me a valuable life lesson: Dissatisfaction is a state of mind. Happiness, unhappiness, content, discontent, are all mental phenomena.
Why couldn’t I have learned this sooner? Because society demands that we be dissatisfied in life.
Believe it or not, society demands that we have dukkha, that we be dissatisfied.
Think about sex.
For the species to evolve we need to procreate. The more we procreate, the more likely it is that the population will increase. An increase in population causes more diversity in the human genome. That, in turn, equals faster evolution. That’s why sex naturally relates to evolution.
What would happen if we made love once and were content forevermore?
There would be a serious decrease in population and, if this were to continue indefinitely, humans would soon be extinct.
When we make love, we are satisfied, we experience sukha, for a time. But that satisfaction runs out. Then we need to do it again. And so, we repeat the same action, which leads to births and evolution.
The point is: Dissatisfaction (dukhha) generates evolution.
Societal evolution is generated through dissatisfaction too. We want more, so we work harder. By working we help the system to evolve (unfortunately the system evolves in the wrong direction—but that’s an argument for a different article).
Dissatisfaction breeds evolution. So there is an essential role in dissatisfaction, especially as pertains to nature.
The problem is that human dissatisfaction [dukkha] is enabling the one-per cent to manipulate most people. People are intentionally kept unhappy and dissatisfied so that they work towards the betterment not of society as a whole but of the one per cent who have power.
Buddhism could change all that.
What Buddhist Sukha And Dukkha Means In Your Life
The Buddhist philosophy of Dukha and Sukha can change our lives. How? By making it so we are satisfied with life [so we have sustained happiness called sukha].
Buddhism naturally creates contentment. It does this largely through mindfulness.
Robert Wright is the author of the exceptional and enlightening “Why Buddhism Is Right”. Wright teaches about the link between religion and evolutionary biology. He tells THE DAILY MEDITATION, “I think of mindfulness meditation as almost a rebellion against natural selection. Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda, and Buddhism says, ‘We don’t have to play this game.”
Natural selection says we continuously strive for a better life for ourselves. Buddhism says, “Screw that. I am happy as I am right now.”
When the Buddha reached enlightenment, he told his followers that the leading cause of suffering is the impermanence of happiness and satisfaction.
We feel good for a time, but it runs out.
Psychology teaches us that not only does satisfaction run out, but we sense when we are going to become dissatisfied, and we feel stressed about the upcoming low.
Dukkha works like this:
- We do something pleasurable
- We feel satisfied
- Satisfaction equals happiness
- We want happiness to last. But the satisfaction wears off.
- We feel stressed because we are losing happiness, and we are losing satisfaction.
- So, we seek more satisfaction (often through unhealthy means).
Buddha’s Tips on Dukkha and Sukha
To cure the disease, Buddha said, we much first understand it.
So how do we understand it?
- Buddha said dissatisfaction is like a disease. He defined “dukkha” as suffering and dissatisfaction.
- This is unhappiness and dissatisfaction that happens to us all.
- When we experience dissatisfaction, we look for reasons for it. We say, “I am unhappy because I lost my job” instead of just “I am experiencing unhappiness.”
7 Steps for Mastering Buddhist Dukkha and Sukha
1: Accept that dissatisfaction and unhappiness are inevitable
Buddha explained that Dukkha (dissatisfaction) is inevitable.
Dukkha is caused by lifecycle, change, and a lack of control.
- Lifecycle: The stages of birth, illness, death and so on.
- Change: The mind likes stability (which appears safe), and fears change. But change is a vital and omnipresent part of life.
- Lack of control: This relates to change. Simply put, we do not like being powerless to circumstances.
The enlightened person knows they cannot control these things. They are a part of reality.
Accept them. How? Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness means to observe things as they are in the present moment, without judgment.
Here’s how to do it:
- Take ten deep breaths and focus on breathing
- Continue to focus. When you feel a negative sensation label it (“this is dissatisfaction”, “this is unhappiness” or using the Buddhist definitions dukkha / sukha) This trains the mind to see dissatisfaction and unhappiness for what they are and nothing more.
- Notice that when you feel negative, you give a reason for it (“I feel bad because I didn’t get the promotion”)
- Aim not to create those reasons from step 3, and instead focus on the pure energy of dissatisfaction, accepting it for what it is.
Mindfulness is simplicity. And there is beauty in this simplicity.
Many psychological studies have proven that naming emotions in this way gives us power over them because we come to recognise the true nature of things, and we limit emotions to the perceptions that they are.
2: Stop creating reasons for everything
One of the root causes of all suffering and dissatisfaction is the simple fact that the mind does not interpret things for what they are. We imagine. We exaggerate. We judge.
When we experience an emotion (“excitement”) we judge it (good) and look for reasons for it (“I feel good because I just booked a vacation to that meditation retreat”). By the time the mind has finished this auto-piloting, we have lost sight of reality.
- Emotion is emotion.
- Happiness is happiness.
- Unhappiness is unhappiness.
- Dissatisfaction is dissatisfaction.
- Dukkha is dukkha
- Sukha is sukha
It’s all just a feeling and nothing more. When we train the mind to see emotions for what they are, we gain emotional control.
3: Express gratitude for the present moment
Gratitude is huge.
When we feel dissatisfied, we judge the present moment as not being good enough. This single judgement pulls us out of the present moment.
When we think “This moment isn’t good enough” we start looking for another moment. This separates the body from the mind because the mind journeys off in search of a better moment while the body is locked in the present moment.
One enlightened strategy to stop dissatisfaction is to express gratitude for the present moment. There is always something to be grateful for. Enlightened people focus on having gratitude for the present moment.
4: Understand the real meaning of dukkha
Every time I see a Buddha statue, I’m reminded of both happiness and suffering. Buddha dealt with both.
Dukkha means suffering and dissatisfaction.
By understanding the nature of dukkha, we gain wisdom (panna).
The simple act of understanding what suffering is gives us the intellectual insight we need.
When we understand, we become less afraid of negative emotions. We become less reactive. We are more able to keep calm.
So, what are the different kinds of dukkha (suffering)?
- Dukkha-dukkha: the dukkha of painful experiences (mental and physical).
- Viparinama-dukkha: the dukkha of change, which includes being unhappy because you’re not getting what you want.
- Sankhara-dukkha: this is basic dissatisfaction pervading all things. This is similar to the feeling that things are never as good as we expect them to be.
By understanding these definitions of dukkha and gaining wisdom (panna) we are then able to label dukkha (which is beneficial for the reasons we discussed above in point #1).
5: Take the middle way (majjhima patipada) to develop panna (wisdom)
We previously looked at How To Achieve Enlightenment.
Enlightenment is spiritual freedom, where we are liberated from suffering (from unhappiness and dissatisfaction).
Buddha taught that the key to enlightenment is controlling dukkha. The root cause of dukkha is ignorance, and the cure for ignorance is wisdom.
To cultivate wisdom, we practise the Noble Eightfold path:
- right view
- right intention
- right speech
- right action
- right livelihood
- right effort
- right mindfulness
- right concentration.
This path is what Buddha calls the “middle way” (majjhima patipada).
The middle way is the way between two ignorant ways. The first is the ignorance through which we try to drown out unhappiness by constantly indulging. The second is when we self-mortify in a fruitless effort to gain liberation. My guide to Pratyahara talks about this in more depth.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the healthy, balanced way, because it is the path by which we act healthily towards ourselves, meeting our needs without indulging, and refusing excess but not mortifying.
This is the path that leads to enlightenment and Nibbana.
6: Trace the root causes of Tanha (craving)
Dissatisfaction and unhappiness have beginnings. By tracing the dissatisfaction / unhappiness back to its root we can weed it out of the mind.
The root cause of suffering is Tanha, which is basically craving.
To give a modern-day example of tanha: you see your neighbour driving a Mercedez when you’re in a clapped-out old banger (pardon my British slang). You feel dissatisfied because you want to be in the Mercedez. This Tanha then develops as you feel dissatisfied with the other things you have, thinking them not good enough.
Wind it back.
To turn dissatisfaction into happiness
- Think about the last time you felt dissatisfied (or think about how you’re feeling right now if you are currently dissatisfied).
- Trace it back to tanha (think back to when you started feeling dissatisfied).
- Notice the feeling of craving for something. Touch base with that. How does it feel? Be mindful of it.
- Change the way you think about the situation by putting a positive spin on it. For instance, you felt dissatisfied because your neighbour has a newer, faster car. See that situation in a new light. Maybe you’re happy because actually your neighbour is a cool guy and you’re happy for him. Put a positive spin on it.
- Tell yourself, “My craving / dissatisfaction is just a feeling. There is no reason for it. It is what it is.”
And that is how you can master the Buddhist dukkha and sukha.
These techniques help train the mind to stop dissatisfaction and to be happy with what we have.