Theravada Buddhism 1: What is dukkha? How pervasive is dukkha? What are the causes of

and remedies for dukkha? Does this emphasis on dukkha make Theravada Buddhism a

pessimistic or realistic philosophy-religion?

Dukkha is intrinsic to the Four Noble Truths and stands as its first truth that is suffering exists. In

this paper, I will attempt to identify what exactly dukkha is and how it affects the lives of

believers of Buddhism and non-believers. I will talk about existence, attachment and

impermanence as its cause and elaborate on the Eight Fold Path and one-minded concentration as

its remedies. I will try to prove its all-pervasive nature and attempt to establish that it gives

Buddhism a realistic rather than pessimistic outlook.

The term ‘dukkha’ is significant to Theravada Buddhism because of its association with the first

of the Four Noble Truths – that life is dukkha. To understand what the Buddha meant by the Four

Noble Truths, one must first understand what dukkha means. The word dukkha is usually

translated to mean suffering but this is an overly simplistic view of dukkha. In the Buddhist

sense, it refers to anything that is conditioned that is anything that is not absolute or independent

of other things.   “When the Buddha said “life is dukkha,” he didn’t mean that life contains

dukkha. He meant exactly that life is dukkha. Life is conditioned. Life is temporary.” (O’Brien,

“Dukkha,” par.4)

Dukkha is manifest in different ways in man. The first of these lies in Anitya or Anichcha which

means constant change or impermanence. It refers to dependent origination (Pratitya-

samutpada). “On ignorance depends karma; On karma depends consciousness; On consciousness

depends name and form; On name and form depends the six organs of sense; On the six organs

of sense depends contact…On birth depends old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, misery,

grief, and despair.” (Radhakrishnan and Moore 278) Anitya or Anichcha is the law of

impermanence and dependent origination. It holds that nothing remains itself for more than a

moment and thus, forming attachments to these impermanent objects can be the very cause of

dukkha. “But the first (Identity) was virtually traversed, in Buddhist thought, by the fundamental

law of anichcha (anitya)…so for Buddhists there was no intelligent or accurate thinking on any

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basis which ignored this law of impermanence.”(Alexander, Selbie and Gray 133)

Dukkha’s second manifestation is in Anatman or Anatta meaning no permanent self-identity.

This theory of Anatman accepts the existence of five aggregates (Skandhas). The Skandhas 

include physical processes (rupa) like solidity, fluidity, heat, motion i.e. material sense organs

and their corresponding objects and mental processes (nama) which includes the last four

aggregates. The four aggregates of nama are sensation processes (vedana), perceptual processes

(sanna), volitional processes (sankara) and consciousness processes (vainnana). Despite

accepting these five aggregates, this theory rejects the idea of Atman or ...

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