I often see the first noble truth (duḥkha) stated as "life is suffering". I have yet to come across a passage in a Buddhist text which phrases it like this - mostly they don't talk about "life" in this sense. So where does the idea that "life is suffering" come from?

There's been some discussion about the definition and translation of the word "dukkha" also. Is there a definitive definition?

  • The first place I heard/read the following is forgotten to me now, but an alternate someone suggested is "Life contains suffering." or "Life has much suffering." – GreenMatt Sep 10 '15 at 13:31
  • Buddha did not teach that "life is suffering". IMO it should be "existence is suffering" – ruben2020 Sep 11 '15 at 1:03

11 Answers 11


Yuttadhammo wrote,

I don't know of any example where the Buddha actually said "life is suffering".


The first noble truth is simply "This is the truth of suffering." Nowhere in the enumeration of what is suffering does it refer to life.

"Life is suffering" isn't listed in fakebuddhaquotes; but it is the first item in a list of "Misunderstanding that arises from the teachings" on this page titled, "Common Buddhist Misunderstandings".

a) Life is suffering

The Buddha told us that "Life is Suffering". One who does not understand the Truth of this may think that life is meaningless and become negative and pessimistic. Actually, this theory is commonly misunderstood. People in society and even some Buddhists are trapped in this wrong and gloomy view.

To be honest this one actually claims that The Buddha told us that "Life is Suffering" though it then goes on to say that's misinterpreted.

The article is translated, perhaps from Chinese, in case that's relevant?

In this Article titled Life Isn't Just Suffering, Thanissaro Bhikku wrote,

You've probably heard the rumor that "Life is suffering" is Buddhism's first principle, the Buddha's first noble truth. It's a rumor with good credentials, spread by well-respected academics and Dharma teachers alike, but a rumor nonetheless. The truth about the noble truths is far more interesting.

In a comment to another answer, you wrote,

For example sukkhavedanā or "pleasant sensations" are also, in the broadest sense, dukkha! PTSD doesn't cope with that observation. For example: Nāññatra dukkhā sambhoti, nāññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhatī’’ti "Nothing other than dukkha arises, nothing other than dukkha ceases." This does not make sense if dukkha simply means "misery" or "sorrow". Because also we have experiences like ānanda, pamoda, pīti, sanutuṭṭha, sukha sukhita, somanassa.

Looking at the context of that quote (i.e. Vajira Sutta) I think that's a reference to dukkha as a characteristic of existence.

Given texts like Sabba Sutta perhaps it's reasonable (if a bit loose) to summarize "the aggregates" as "life" — and then the word "suffering" obviously comes as a translation of dukkha, though in context it might mean something else.

I suspect that (as well as being defined in isolation) the meaning of dukkha as it's used in a Buddhist context might be hinted at, defined, informed by or inferred from the second and third noble truths.

And that Vajira Sutta isn't easy to understand in isolation (i.e. if you're trying to use it as a stand-alone definition of dukkha) because I suspect that to understand it you should also understand identity-view.

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  • You seem to have taken my quote from Vajirā out of context. I certainly did not quote it in isolation, I quoted it as part of a discussion about different ways of translation dukkha and made the point that "suffering" did not account for this passage (or others like it) where it's meaning probably is, as you hint, related to the big idea of the Sabba Sutta (which does not mention the khandhas as I recall, but the six āyatanas instead). Dukkha as lakṣana is an adjective. Which doesn't fit the grammar, does it? We're looking at dukkha as noun here. – Jayarava Sep 9 '15 at 21:26

The first noble truth is actually amazingly relatable for the most part, as in no reasonable person could find fault with it. Since it doesn't appear to have been mentioned, I will post a full literal translation of the first noble truth from the Dhamma­cakkap­pa­vat­ta­na­sutta:

jātipi dukkhā Birth is dukkha

jarāpi dukkhā Old age is dukkha

byādhipi dukkho Sickness is dukkha

maraṇampi dukkhaṃ Death is dukkha

appiyehi sampayogo dukkho Association with the disliked is dukkha

piyehi vippayogo dukkho Separation from the beloved is dukkha

yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ Not obtaining one's wishes is dukkha

—saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā. In brief, the five clinging aggregates are dukkha

People have a tendency to focus overly much on the final one, which is terribly difficult to translate into english, it can be explained but can't be rendered in a pithy way which does justice to the meaning. Putting aside that which is difficult to translate, the rest of it is very straightforward, and are about the actual physical and emotional sufferings in life we can all relate to.

These points are easily understood at a conceptual level, and make an excellent starting point of investigation. For example with the emotional pain of "being separated from the loved", I noticed I would experience a piercing pain the chest in association with being rejected by someone I loved, and I would note that that person was not in fact stabbing me in the chest and that therefore the painful feeling warranted serious investigation since it did not make sense.

It should be noted that the first noble truth does not make irrational statements such as "Association with the beloved is suffering", we may reason that being separated from the loved is inevitable and so that kind of pleasure is like a honeyed barb, it is pleasant at first but will cut us later. Nevertheless the first noble truth does not deny the reality of that pleasure.

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In the first noble truth, the five clinging aggregates are defined as dukkha. Since all experiences are reduced to the five aggregates, I think the experience of all things (and not the things experienced themselves) is dukkha. At least this is how I have understood the First Noble Truth.

I don't have much knowledge about the translation/etymology of the word dukkha. However, if the modern usage of the word duḥkha in my native Nepali (which has roots in Saṃskṛtā and other Prākṛtas) is anything to go by, then it can be used to describe anything causing a minor annoyance to the biggest problems of life. From what I understand, it has similar connotations in other modern Indic languages as well. This, of course, does not mean that it was used similarly in Pāli.

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I believe that your assertion that, if you look in the Pali Cannon that you do not find the phrase, "life is suffering," is absolutely correct. I am not a renown scholar or monk, but in my own studies and readings, I have also never once come across that phrase, so if it is merely a personal failure to discover it, it is both of ours, at the least!

To my understanding, what was taught was the noble truth of dukkha, which is, in its essence, that all phenomena are conditioned by dukkha. Translating that in a way that is packaged neatly for a western audience, a way which lends itself to easy digestion by the western view... this is, in my estimation, the most likely culprit for that bumper sticker variation, fast food for thought, but this is admittedly mere speculation.

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Technically speaking, the Buddha did not say that Life is suffering. This is what he said (translations vary, so be warned)...

What is the Noble Truth of dukkha? Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, dissociation from the loved is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha: in short the five categories affected by clinging are dukkha.

First, dukkha is a word with no precise English translation, and it denotes things that we normally think of as suffering, but also things being "out of kilter". In fact, it's etymology comes from a wheel being out of kilter. I've seen dukkha translated as everything from stress to existential angst. However, suffering is the most common translation I've read, but has always been followed by a disclaimer that it's not a completely adequate translation.

Second, the Buddha didn't say all life was dukkha. Instead, he listed things that were dukkha (which covered much of life) and summed it up by saying the categories (aggregates/skhandas) subject to clinging were dukkha. Now these skhandas account for all our experience, but it's only if they're subject to clinging that they are dukkha. I imagine most Buddhists would say they are subject to clinging in most people and hence justify the expansion of dukkha to cover all life.

I hope this helps.

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  • 1
    I may be a crazy linguist, but I find that etymology is tremendously helpful! Thank you! – Cort Ammon Sep 9 '15 at 23:44
  • @CortAmmon my pleasure :). – R. Barzell Sep 10 '15 at 14:05

The most general form of this is usually given in the Pali, as sabbam dukkham. This phrase has worked its way into several English explanations of the Buddha's teachings. Translated literally it would mean all pain. From my limited understanding of Pali it does not seem to be grammatically correct as a cohesive sentence, and would need to be taken out of context. The word pain here is often translated "suffering" or "unsatisfactory" or such because it's clear from both this and other writings that the statement means more than just "dukkha-dukkha", "pain pain", and in some ways it refers to a sickness which is upon humanity.

However, I have not yet found any sutta where the Buddha just says sabbaṃ dukkhaṃ as its own sentence, or something which would look more grammatically correct to me. The fragment is found often in a larger context, like sabbaṃ dukkhaṃ nijjiṇṇaṃ bhavissatī’ti ("all pain shall be exhausted" -- e.g. Cūladukkhakkhandha Sutta (Pali, English), Devadaha Sutta (Pali, English). But I have not seen the fragment by itself indicating that the Buddha really believes that everything is painful.

Another specious claim seen in English-speaking places is "The Buddha never refers to "sabbaṃ dukkhaṃ," only "sabbaṃ idaṃ dukkhaṃ," "all of this is suffering." It seems to have the same grammatical funkiness to it that I don't like, and I have not yet found a Pali source that says this precisely. One of the closest I got was Anguttara Nikaya III.61 (Pali),

Imâni cattâri ariyasaccânî ti bhikkave mayâ dhammo desito... pe...viññûhî ti--iti kho pan ' etaṃ vuttaṃ. Kiñ c'etaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ? Channaṃ bhikkhave dhâtûnaṃ upâdâya gabbhassâvakkanti hoti okkantiyâ sati nâmarûpaṃ, nâmarûpapaccayâsaḷâyatanaṃ, saḷâyatanapaccayâ phasso, phassupaccayâ vedanâ. Vediyamânassa kho panâhaṃ bhikkhave idaṃ dukkhan ti paññâpemi ayaṃ dukkhasamudayo ti paññâpemi ayaṃ dukkhanirodho ti paññâpemi ayaṃ dukkhanirodhagâminî paṭipadâ ti paññâpemi.

Just to prove that I'm not pulling this out of nowhere, we have a translation into English:

'"There are these four noble truths" is a Dhamma taught by me that is unrefuted, undefiled, blameless, not faulted by knowledgeable brahmans & contemplatives': Thus was it said. And in reference to what was it said? Sustained by/clinging to the six properties, there is an alighting of an embryo. There being an alighting, there is name-&-form. From name-&-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. To one experiencing feeling I declare, 'This is stress.' I declare, 'This is the origination of stress.' I declare, 'This is the cessation of stress.' I declare, 'This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.'

So this is a straightforward statement of the four noble truths where instead of saying "everything is dukkha [pain/stress/suffering/sickness]" Gautama Buddha is saying "All of this phenomena-stuff (feelings due to being in the world) is dukkha," rather than "All life is dukkha."

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I can't comment on whether or not Buddha said those exact words (I rather doubt it, since he didn't speak English). That translation has always seemed to me to be a bit off the mark and doesn't get to the heart of the teaching.

For me it's simple: All life is not necessarily suffering. But life CAN include a lot of suffering if one chooses to cling to things that are subject to change and cessation (which is pretty much everything in our world...thoughts, feelings, objects including our bodies, etc.)

Relax. Nothing lasts forever, including whatever is happening right here and right now. Let it go.

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I believe that when the Buddha taught the 1st Noble Truth, he intended it to be interpreted by each listener based on the predisposition of their mind, therefore no interpretation is 'incorrect' - the main difference among various interpretations therefore is one of depth of insight.

There is not really such a thing as one unique truth - resonance with an insight depends on the framing context, such as the person's IQ score, culture and knowledge, and personality ... Each would experience the same insight differently.

Those who cannot accept that "Life is suffering" are welcome to use the interpretation "Existence means conflict".

Personally, I like "Life is suffering" because it helps combat the false expectation of wishy-washy wishful nonsense about "perfect balance", "perfect harmony", "everything is good"...

And I like "Existence means conflict" because that's also the insight of Daoism, Sufism (Islam), Vedanta (Hinduism), and yes, also of the Kybalion (hermetic Christian scripture) - and also Kiekegaard, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Schopenhauer, Kant, and Homer Simpson ;-)

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"I teach about suffering and the way to end it" Shakyamuni Buddha

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There is no such thing as the "five clinging aggregates" because the five aggregates do not cling. Only one of the aggregates, when under the influence of ignorance, clings. The proper translation is: "clinging to the five aggregates is dukkha". The entire problem of suffering is summarised as clinging. Birth, death, etc, are only dukkha when they are mixed with clinging. Suttas such as SN 22.1, SN 22.48 & MN 140 make it very clear the sole problem is clinging. .

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As for translations, the word "dukkha" has a different meaning in the different contexts of 'dukkha-vedana' (painful/unpleasant feeling); 'dukkha-lakkana' (characteristic of unsatisfactoriness) & 'upadana-dukkha' (mental torment due to clinging).

The Buddha certainly taught all conditioned things are unsatisfactory (dukkha) due to impermanence but this is not related to the 1st noble truth, which is about the mental suffering that originates from craving & becoming. A Buddha never stops experiencing dukkha-vedana & dukkha-lakkana but has ended, forever, the dukkha of the 1st noble truth.

The teachings at SN 22.59, SN 22.85 and Dhammapada 278 should make it abundantly clear that Buddhas always see (experience) unsatisfactoriness. In SN 22.85, it is correctly said the aggregates of an arahant are unsatisfactory. Unsatisfactory means 'cannot bring lasting happiness'. Impermanent things cannot bring lasting happiness but impermanent things are not 'suffering' or 'stressful'.

A rock or tree is not suffering or stressful. But a rock or tree is unsatisfactory since it cannot bring lasting happiness. Only Nibbana (non-clinging) is true happiness. .

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