There's a wrinkle in the teachings about the three levels of suffering. The Pali Canon, in SN 38.14 -- Dukkha Sutta -- has it thus (leaving things uninterpreted for the moment):

  • the suffering of pain (dukkha-dukkhatā)
  • the suffering of fabrication (sankhāra-dukkhatā)
  • the suffering of change (vipariṇāma-dukkhatā)

The Tibetan teachings typically have it in the following order (Gampopa, Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Chapter 5, has the reverse):

  • the suffering of suffering -- overt, obviously painful stuff.
  • the suffering of change -- suffering implicit in pleasure because of impermanence, so it will end
  • all-pervasive suffering -- suffering due to conditioned existence itself, and the aggregates which are of the nature of suffering

The Tibetan teaching is widely interpreted as I have indicated (though a lot of the descriptions of all-pervasive suffering shade into the definition of suffering of change, which they shouldn't IMHO).

A lot of commentators (such as Guenther on Gampopa) see SN 38.14 as the source of the the Tibetan teaching, and the first items of each do seem to line up nicely, as do the suffering of change in both. But after that there are problems, mainly, why did the order change.

Most pervasively, there is an interpretation (by contemporary teacher Bodhipaksa) of SN 38.14 where the two sufferings of change don't even totally line up, and maybe the whole correspondence is wrong and is more about the two-arrow teaching of SN 36.6 -- The Sallatha Sutta -- than levels of suffering, and referred to in this SE answer: that correct interpretation of SN 38.14 is roughly:

  • the suffering of pain (dukkha-dukkhatā) -- the initial pain -- the "first arrow"
  • the suffering of fabrication (sankhāra-dukkhatā) -- the constructed pain we add by resisting/resenting/etc the initial pain -- the "second arrow"
  • the suffering of change (vipariṇāma-dukkhatā) -- the suffering we get by seeking to cover the constructed pain with pleasure, which is impermanent.

The change in order, putting suffering of formations/conditioned existence in the middle, is the smoking gun, according to Bodhipaksa -- if the Tibetan interpretation of SN 38.14 were correct, then suffering of formations would absolutely have to come last.

So finally my question -- not which is "correct" but -- when did the Tibetan interpretation arise, if not an entirely new teaching, at least the change of order and interpretation of suffering of formations as universal, all-pervasive suffering rather than a personal, second-arrow kind of deal. Is is it in the Theravada anywhere?

The farthest back I can find it is Gampopa, whose Jewel Ornament of Liberation is (I believe) the first fully articulated, book-length Lam Rim text, after Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment which is the origin of the Lam Rim, but only has 68 verses and does not go to this level of detail. Seems that those are close enough to the beginning of Buddhadharma in Tibet that the next stop back, if there is one, is probably India or maybe a Nyingma teaching.

Addendum -- Toni Bernhard, Author of How to be Sick and other books, explicates the non-Tibetan, Bodhipaksa version of three sufferings.

Addendum -- There is another sutta with the same sequence as SN 38.14, namely SN 45.165 -- The Dukkhata Sutta. Well known contemporary scholar, translator and practitioner Maurice Walshe has this translation and interpretation of SN 45.165 that accords with the Tibetan reading, despite the sequence.


3 Answers 3


The words in SN 38.14 are not even attributed to Buddha, they are Sariputra's. I don't know why Theravada took them as the basis of their analysis.

Instead, the authoritative definition of dukkha is found in SN 56.11, the first and main sutra of Buddhism, The Sutra of Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion:

Now this, wanderers, is the nobles' truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are dukkha; association with the unloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; unsatisfied thirst is dukkha. In short, the five heaps of fuel (upadana-skandha) are dukkha.

As I understand, in Tibetan classification "the suffering of suffering" is a generalization of the apparent dukkha such as the pains of "birth, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair". "The suffering of change" is a generalization of "association with the unloved / separation from the loved" aka "the unsatisfied thirst", and "the all-pervasive suffering" stands for the "In short, the five heaps of fuel are dukkha". The sequence preserves the ordering of the original Buddha's quote.

  • Interesting proposal. Do you have a commentarial source for that connection? Also, the inclusion of "birth" as the first element kinda complicates your interpretation. Thanissaro Bikkhu has a piece (on rebirth) in which "birth" stands for samsara in general (iirc), which would make it more like all-pervasive suffering. Feb 3, 2016 at 21:52
  • No reference, sorry. I also have my own interpretation of the above, but you didn't ask for interpretation so I stayed away from that.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Feb 4, 2016 at 2:26
  • Actually, I am looking for references. Not to be picky, but the connection you cite -- basically a good one IMHO -- is an interpretation. ;))) It takes some parsing and reasoning to get to the desired threefold principle. And since there are two suttas with a direct connection (except for the wrinkle under discussion), I doubt if the Tibetan and (see my own answer) Theravada teachings are based directly on SN 56.11. Of course, any teacher uses all her resources to arrive at conclusions, so I'm sure the ideas behind SN 56.11 figures in, but indirectly. Also, you haven't dealt with "birth" ;-)). Feb 4, 2016 at 2:55
  • I did say I wasn't looking for interpretation, but I actually am interested in yours! Shall I edit the question to say that? Feb 4, 2016 at 2:57
  • I'd be happy to see a new question dedicated to detailed interpretations of the quote from SN 56.11.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Feb 4, 2016 at 12:48

Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism, footnote 4 on p. 282, lists these sources.

Visuddhimagga xvi. 34-5; Digha Nikaya iii. 216; Samyutta Nikaya iv. 259, v. 56; Nettippakarana 12.

The Visuddhimagga has them in the Tibetan order, but leaves me a little confused by

Equanimous feeling and the remaining formations of the three planes are called suffering due to formations because they are oppressed by rise and fall.

That sounds to me like impermanence, and "rise and fall" does seem to have that meaning in the Visuddhimagga. Here it is in full -- Visuddhimagga XVI:

  1. Its characteristic is the first genesis in any [sphere of] becoming. Its function is to consign [to a sphere of becoming]. It is manifested as an emerging here from a past becoming; or it is manifested as the variedness of suffering.

    But why is it suffering? Because it is the basis for many kinds of suffering. For there are many kinds of suffering, that is to say, intrinsic suffering dukkha-dukkha), suffering in change (vipariṇāma-dukkha), and suffering due to formations (sankhāra-dukkha); and then concealed suffering, exposed suffering, indirect suffering, and direct suffering.

  2. Herein, bodily and mental, painful feeling are called intrinsic suffering because of their individual essence, their name, and their painfulness. [Bodily and mental] pleasant feeling are called suffering in change because they are a cause for the arising of pain when they change (M I 303). Equanimous feeling and the remaining formations of the three planes are called suffering due to formations because they are oppressed by rise and fall. Such bodily and mental affliction as earache, toothache, fever born of lust, fever born of hate, etc., is called concealed suffering because it can only be known by questioning and because the infliction is not openly evident; it is also called “unevident suffering.” The affliction produced by the thirty-two tortures,10 etc., is called exposed suffering because it can be known without questioning and because the infliction is openly evident; it is also called “evident suffering.” Except intrinsic suffering, all given in the exposition of the truth of suffering [in the Vibhaòga] (Vibh 99) beginning

In looking for the Nettippakarana I found it described as:

an extra-canonical Buddhist scripture, ascribed to the Buddha's disciple Kaccana. It intends to be a manual for commentators on the Buddhist scriptures.

There is a Pali Text Society translation by Bikkhu Kanamoli, but it's not worth my time at this point to find my way around it. I am satisfied that the Tibetan interpretation does have Theravada branches, at least in the ordering. This may be hard to settle definitively.

Also, I can venture a personal interpretation like this -- it's the same dynamic at two levels. The two-arrow reading is an analysis of dukkha operating personally; the Tibetan (and now maybe Buddhaghosa) reading is more at the collective/universal level.


All conditioned phenomena has sensations associated with it. When we experience "the world" we Perceive the experience agreeable, disagreeable and neither agreeable nor disagreeable1. This in turn leads to pleasure, displeasure and neutral sensation or feelings which intern is linked to attachment, aversion and ignorance which is further linked with the suffering of change, the suffering of pain and the suffering of fabrication2. If you follow this order then it is also different from both presented. If you are looking from an intensity of pain perspective then it follows: the suffering of pain (pain), suffering of change (change from pleasure) and the suffering of fabrication (existance itself in neutral sensations).

Suffering of formation is due to ignorance which intern results in the other 2 roots and all sensations3. All your experiences of conditioned phenomena is through contact which in turn creates karma which in turn creates further experiences4. So suffering due to conditioned phenomena is universal as this create birth followed by possibility of unpleasant life experiences ending in death.


When a monk sees a form with the eye, (in him) the agreeable arises, the disagreeable arises, the agreeable-and-disagreeable [the neutral] arises


Source: Indriya Bhāvanā Sutta

2 Pahāna Sutta

3 Avijja Pahana Sutta 2

4 Nibbedhika (Pariyaya) Sutta

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