The four noble truths are the central teaching of the Buddha. The first truth is that in life there is suffering. This is often mistakenly summarized as “life is suffering.” Life isn’t just suffering, there are good times and bad times. But suffering is not far away. Every high is followed by a low, every birth is followed by a death.
In the Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22), the Buddha said, “What I teach now as before, O Practitioners, is suffering and the end of suffering.” That is not all the Buddha taught, but it was a central theme of his.
The Problem of Translation
The Pali word dukkha is usually translated as “suffering.” But most scholars of Buddhism rightly believe that this gives the wrong impression. As the Pali-English Dictionary (2008, 324) explains, “There is no word in English covering the same ground as Dukkha does in Pali. Most people, for example, don’t view discouragement or discomfort as suffering, but dukkha includes this. It encompasses both physical and mental pain.
One translator translates dukkha as “stress.” But this again gives the wrong impression. Stress doesn’t cover all that dukkha covers. Another common translation is “pain,” which is again a poor translation. Although in some contexts physical pain is meant, I don’t believe we can eliminate all pain. Pain is inevitable, dukkha is not.
Most believe that the best translation of dukkha is “dissatisfaction” or “unsatisfactoriness.” This covers all that the word mental dukkha covers, but this is clumsy and unappealing.
I would argue that the best translation of dukkha is “unhappiness.” This covers all mental dukkha and instantly stands in contrast to the goal of happiness. This may be a slight shift to a more psychological interpretation, which is fine for Buddhist Naturalists.
In fact, translating dukkha as “unhappiness” brings Buddhism into the sphere of Positive Psychology, “the science of happiness and flourishing.” As Miriam Akhtar explains (2012, 2), “Positive Psychology is a new branch of science. It’s the scientific study of optimal functioning and well-being – how to feel good, function well and flourish.” For one who doesn’t just take the Buddha’s word for it, this is important.
I should say a word about happiness. There are two kinds of happiness, one based in pleasant feelings and one that is a state of mind. When I use the term happiness I am speaking of that state of mind. The Greeks called this eudaimonia, and it is usually translated as “human flourishing.” It is an inner peace, a deep contentment, that is not dependent on outward circumstances. To me, this is true happiness. The other kind of happiness is hedonic, and can never last.
In the Sutras
Now let’s return to the Sutras (Suttas in Pali). Let’s first look at the Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22). Using “unhappiness” to translate dukkha, it reads, “What I teach now as before, O Practitioners, is unhappiness and the end of unhappiness.” That is not all the Buddha taught, but it was his central theme. In this sense, the Buddha was the first Positive Psychologist.
Secondly, let’s take the Dukkhata Sutta (SN 45.165) as another example. Using “unhappiness” to translate dukkha, it reads, “Bhikkhus, there are these three kinds of unhappiness. What three? Unhappiness caused by pain, unhappiness caused by conditioned existence, unhappiness due to change. These are the three kinds of unhappiness. It is for the full understanding, clear knowledge, ending and abandonment of these three forms of unhappiness that the Noble Eightfold Path is to be cultivated.”
Physical pain is an inevitable part of life, but we don’t need to let it make us unhappy. We don’t need to add mental pain and suffering to it. This is what Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teaches people. It teaches people to have quality of life in the midst of pain. The results have been transformative for many people.
Then there is unhappiness caused by conditioned existence. All things are imperfect and cannot give lasting happiness. If you look to build your happiness on things, you will be greatly disappointed. There is always flaws in things.
Then there is unhappiness due to change. Anything you can gain, you can lose. All good times will eventually lead to bad times. This is because we act as if things last. Nothing lasts. People leave, they divorce, they lose their jobs, they get sick, and they die. As the Band Rush said their song Tom Sawyer, “Changes aren’t permanent, but change is.”
Thirdly, let’s take another example, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11). Again using “unhappiness” to translate dukkha, it reads, “Now this, practitioners, this is the noble truth of unhappiness: Birth causes unhappiness, aging causes unhappiness, sickness causes unhappiness, death causes unhappiness; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair causes unhappiness; association with the unpleasant causes unhappiness; separation from the pleasant causes unhappiness; not to get what one wants causes unhappiness. In short, the five aggregates of reactivity causes unhappiness.”
Unhappiness is the result of being born, of aging, of sickness, and of death. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair all result in being unhappy. Being associated with unpleasant things or being separated from pleasant things both cause us to be unhappy. And not to getting what we want makes us unhappy. In short, aversions and attachments of our mind and body cause unhappiness.
Translating dukkha as unhappiness has several advantages. First, it accurately covers all the mental qualities covered by dukkha. There are times when we will still need to translate dukkha as “pain” when the context is referring to physical pain.
Second, translating dukkha as unhappiness brings it into the realm of Positive Psychology. In one sense, it already was dealing with the same things as Positive Psychology, the difference is that this makes it explicit. The advantage for Buddhist Naturalist committed to the scientific method, is that Buddhism can be tested. Does it lessen or even eliminate unhappiness? My own personal experience is that it does, and many meditators can confirm this.
Third, translating dukkha as unhappiness is that it best communicates the message of Buddhism, “What I teach is the cause of unhappiness and the end of unhappiness.” For those of us who do not believe in rebirth and the afterlife, the goal is to find happiness in this life.
The one caveat is the definition and understanding of happiness. We have to be clear that we are talking about the eudaimonia type of happiness.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
• Akhatar, Miriam. 2012. Positive Psychology: Self-help Strategies for Happiness, Inner Strength and Well-being. Oak Saybrook, CT: Watkins Publishing.
• Compton, William C. and Edward Hoffman. 2013. Positive Psychology: the science of Happiness and Flourishing. 2nd edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
• Davids, T.W. Rhys and William Stede. 2008. Pali-English Dictionary. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers.