Thich Nhat Hanh seems to deny a major teaching on dukkha/suffering common to both Theravada and Tibetan teachings -- the idea of all-perasive suffering ("the suffering of composite things",samskara dukkhata)-- found in many places in the Pali and Tibetan canons. Below are some excerpts. A link to the whole chapter is at the end.

I think his interpretation may well reflect a misunderstanding of all-pervasive suffering -- it does not deny joy; it simply says the only lasting happiness comes from addressing conditioned existence in general (or emptiness/shunyata and inherent/intrinsic existence in Mahayana terms); it cannot be found by only addressing worldly suffering directly.

Or maybe I am misunderstanding him. But he is pretty emphatic, even to the point of implying that the Pali Canon was corrupted to reflect this teaching before it got written down. He also suggests removing dukkha from the Three Dharma Seals/Marks, replacing it with nirvana (rather than just adding nirvana to make four seals, as is usually done)

My questions -- does this reflect Zen teachings in general, or is it limited to Thich Nhat Hanh and/or some schools? If some Zen schools or teachers do teach all-pervasive suffering, can someone point me to references? I'd also be interested in other Zen teachings that reflect Thich Nhat Hanh's strong objection to the doctrine of all-pervasive suffering.


The following quotes (with my emphasis added) are from Chapter Five, "Is Everything Suffering?", from The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, by Thich Nhat Hanh,

Since the Buddha said that the First Noble Truth is suffering, many good students of the Buddha have used their skills to prove that everything on Earth is suffering. The theory of the Three Kinds of Suffering was such an attempt. It is not a teaching of the Buddha.

The first kind of suffering is "the suffering of suffering" (dukkha dukkhata), the suffering associated with unpleasant feelings, like the pain of a toothache, losing your temper, or feeling too cold on a winter's day. The second is "the suffering of composite things" (samskara dukkhata). Whatever comes together eventually has to come apart; therefore, all composite things are described as suffering. Even things that have not yet decayed, such as mountains, rivers, and the sun, are seen to be suffering, because they will decay and cause suffering eventually. When you believe that everything composed is suffering, how can you find joy? The third is "the suffering associated with change"(viparinama dukkhata). Our liver may be in good health today, but when we grow old, it will cause us to suffer. There is no point in celebrating joy, because sooner or later it will turn into suffering. Suffering is a black cloud that envelops everything. Joy is an illusion. Only suffering is real.


This dialogue is repeated in many sutras:

"Monks, are conditioned things permanent or impermanent?"
'They are impermanent, World-Honored One."
"If things are impermanent, are they suffering or well-being?"
"They are suffering, World-Honored One."
"If things are suffering, can we say that they are self or belong to self?"
"No, World-Honored One."

By the time the Buddha's discourses were written down, seeing all things as suffering must have been widely practiced, as the above quotation occurs more frequently than the teaching to identify suffering and the path to end suffering.


The theory of the Three Kinds of Suffering is an attempt to justify the universalization of suffering. What joy is left in life? We find it in nirvana. In several sutras the Buddha taught that nirvana, the joy of completely extinguishing our ideas and concepts, rather than suffering, is one of the Three Dharma Seals. This is stated four times in the Samyukta Agama of the Northern transmission. Quoting from yet another sutra, Nagarjuna listed nirvana as one of the Three Dharma Seals. To me, it is much easier to envision a state where there are no obstacles created by concepts than to see all things as suffering. I hope scholars and practitioners will begin to accept the teaching that all things are marked by impermanence, nonself, and nirvana, and not make too great an effort to prove that everything is suffering.

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    When you quote someone or text you have to be extremely careful and never take it as a just text level. Said or written things are not meant for general audience. It is meant for specific awareness level. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 20:16
  • I sometimes disagree with Thich Nhat Hanh's wording, but that is unimportant. I don't think anyone can meaningfully state that things suffer. If you are seeking a root cause for Being, the only sane answer is that Being exists to manifest Joy. This has the side benefit of completely explaining the statement: "Samsara is Nirvana." (if that is of interest to you)
    – user2341
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 12:42
  • “Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.” ― Alan Wilson Watts
    – user21513
    Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 0:22

5 Answers 5


Thich Nhat Hanh made an error because he was attempting to rationalize another error. If Thich Nhat Hanh actually understood the teachings, he would not state the teaching of 'samskara dukkhata' is false but instead, simply rectify the error in the interpretation of the teaching.

The spirit of what Thich Nhat Hanh said is correct, namely, there is no inherent or pervasive suffering in the five aggregates & there is a state of bliss & freedom living beings can experience, which is called Nirvana. The teachings explain quite unambiguous that it is attachment (upadana) to the five aggregates that is suffering rather than the five aggregates themselves.

As for the Three Characteristics, the 2nd characteristic is not 'suffering' but 'unsatisfactory'. The five aggregates are unsatisfactory (in that because of their impermanence they cannot bring lasting happiness) but the five aggregates are not 'suffering'.

In short, the idea of all-pervasive suffering ("the suffering of composite things",samskara dukkhata) does not exist in the Pali suttas because the term 'samskara dukkhata' does not mean "the suffering of composite things" but means "the suffering of mental constructing".

Thich Nhat Hanh has correctly said that nirvana is the joy of completely extinguishing our ideas and concepts. However, Thich Nhat Hanh does not intellectually understand that the word 'samskara' has many meanings dependent on context and, in the context of the compound 'samskara dukkhata' means 'ideas and concepts'.

Thus, using the language of Thich Nhat Hanh, the three kinds of dukkha are translated correctly as: "suffering about pain" (dukkha dukkhata); "suffering of ideas & concepts" (samskara dukkhata) and "suffering about change" (viparinama dukkhata).

Intellectually, Thich Nhat Hanh was wrong but spiritually Thich Nhat Hanh was correct.

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    That seems to be what TNH is saying, e.g. elsewhere in the referenced chapter, "A table will only make us suffer if we attribute permanence or separateness to it. When we are attached to a certain table, it is not the table that causes us to suffer. It is our attachment."
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 18:39
  • TNH, despite being nominally from the Zen tradition, seems to have some difficulty with the Mahayana concepts (as well as Theravada one here), resulting in his attempts to re-translate the heart sutra. He also support a materialist view of Buddhism which I think is veering too much towards nihilistic views.
    – Yinxu
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 3:59
  • Nihilism is a 'self-view'. TNH is not teaching about self-view therefore TNH is not teaching nihilism. Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 6:19
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    "not 'suffering' but 'unsatisfactory' - There is no difference in the texts between these two things except in English.
    – Yinxu
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 15:27
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    There is a difference in the texts between unsatisfactoriness & suffering, such as Dhammapada 278: - "All conditioned things are unsatisfactory" — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification. accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.20.budd.html Suffering is the emotional trauma of the mind. Unsatisfactoriness is a never ending universal characteristic of all conditioned (material & mental) things. A Buddha destroys all suffering on this mind but a Buddha does not end unsatisfactoriness, which can never be ended. Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 16:40

My interpretation would be that all things are not suffering, for several reasons.

First of all, the first Noble Truth needs to be seen in context with the other Noble Truths - it says in life there is suffering, but also that there are causes and a path to the cessation of suffering. Most composite entities are not alive and so cannot follow the path. It stands to reason that most composite things follow a natural path to physical decomposition and recomposition, which doesn't necessarily include (mental) suffering.

Second, in the sutra's the words 'conditioned things' often refers to Sankhara, which is a term that largely refers to mental phenomena. To extend this to try and construct a doctrine which implies that the whole physical world is suffering is an error in conception.

Without clinging there can be no suffering, and clinging is a property of mental formations. I would say that Thich Nhat Hanh may well be right. Others are likely better placed to comment on Zen beliefs and practices regarding suffering.


"All-pervasive suffering" is one translation of Sankhara-dukkha. Here are several other translations.

Does that analysis of dukkha comes from one sutta? Dukkha Sutta (SN 38.14) says,

There are these three forms of stressfulness, my friend: the stressfulness of pain, the stressfulness of fabrication, the stressfulness of change. These are the three forms of stressfulness.

Instead of looking for a translation of Sankhara-dukkha and instead of translating it as "everything is suffering" or "life is suffering" or "all-pervasive suffering", it might be better to figure out what sankhara means.

Note this series of comments, where Ven. Yuttadhammo implies that "life is suffering" doesn't accurately quote what the Buddha said.

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

  • Do you know a better English-language paraphrase/summary/approximation of the First noble truth? – ChrisW

  • 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. – yuttadhammo

One more story, I read this somewhere:

Thich Nhat Hanh said that, when he was seven years old, he saw a picture of the Buddha on the cover of a Buddhist magazine.

He was sitting on the grass ... very peaceful ... smiling. And I was impressed. Around me people were not like that, so I had the desire to be someone like him.

I take it that we're meant to understand that the Buddha himself found a way to escape 'suffering'.

Wikipedia says,

As suffering is not an inherent aspect of existence[4] sometimes the second seal is omitted to make Three Dharma Seals.[5][6]

Those footnotes reference Thich Nhat Hanh, but also two other authors, Rulu and Hsing Yun (who I think are both Chinese).


From the Theravada perspective.

Whatever is felt is included in suffering - Raho,gata Sutta & Maha Kamma,vibhaṅga Sutta

Feeling are 3 types which are related to unsatisfactoriness (everything is not satisfactory or unpleasant):

  • Pain is suffering on its own but pleasant when it changes (dukkha-dukkhatā)
  • Pleasure in itself is not suffering but leads to suffering since it changes and ends hence Whatever is felt is included in suffering (vipariṇāma-dukkhatā)
  • Neutral feeling are suffering as conditioned existence birth, old age and death is unsatisfactory (Sankhara-dukkha) {what is satisfactory is Nirvana which is not associated with any sensation} and also this can very well lead to the above two types of suffering. This is painful when unknown and pleasant when known.

The main reason for our continued existance which opens us to future situation of suffering (birth, decay, mishaps and death) is craving towards pleasant feeling, aversion towards unpleasant and being ignorant of reality when experiencing neutral feelings. [Pahāna Sutta, Cūla Vedalla Sutta, Avijja Pahana Sutta 2]

Coming back to conditioned existance which associated with unsatisfactoriness of existance (Sankhara-dukkha) is suffering as you are not exempt from birth, aging and death. This is associated with ignorance. This can become a pleasure if known (eradicate ignorance) but painful when unknown (with ignorance). Conditioned existance is not unpleasant entirely but connected to it. [Cūla Vedalla Sutta]

  • I didn't cite it, but TNH also doubts in this piece that craving is the sole cause of suffering: "Another common misunderstanding of the Buddha's teaching is that all of our suffering is caused by craving. In the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma,the Buddha did say that craving is the cause of suffering, but he said this because craving is the first on the list of afflictions (kleshas). If we use our intelligence, we can see that craving can be a cause of pain, but other afflictions such as anger, ignorance, suspicion, arrogance, and wrong views can also cause pain and suffering." Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 20:03
  • I did not mean that. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 20:16

No this does not reflect Zen teachings. Thich Nhat Hanh is his own man in his attempt to reconcile Buddhism with popular views such as scientific materialism. He even recently attempt to try to re-translate the Heart Sutra to fit his own conceptions. I could be wrong my judgement of him, he could in actual fact be practicing skillful means to teach Buddhism to skeptical, pleasure seeking westerners who do not want to hear that all things are suffering. In fact the Buddha himself did not teach the doctrine of suffering to laymen because of the risk of misunderstanding. You can see from the sutta quoted above that he taught it specifically to advance monks.

By itself not teaching suffering is ok, there are examples of suttas where the Buddha taught about better births which are more pleasurable than our current life to lay Buddhists who has good ethics. Mahayana Sutras like Pure Land sutras are also employ skillful means of teaching the reward of bliss first for practicing Buddhism such as the Pure Land of Supreme Bliss of Amitabha. However I think Thich Nhat Hanh harms the cause of Buddhism when he starts going around claiming that various doctrines does not reflect the teachings of the Buddha, as if he knew better than all the previous masters who agreed on the teachings of the Buddha and preserved them.

In fundamental Buddhist doctrine: All conditioned existence are ultimately suffering.

However from a conventional point of view many of the states of existence will be described as extremely blissful and peaceful.

As I understand it, everything is suffering in the sense that they are ultimately unsatisfactory because of impermanence.

Sure the experience of the Jhana/Chan/Zen is supremely blissful and peaceful compared to physical suffering or even physical pleasures. The fact is that even the state of the Jhanas are themselves impermanent and subject to dependent origination. It is of course better to be in meditative Jhana rather than indulging in immoral pleasures because negative consequences result from the latter.

However if you are attached to the pleasures of Jhana you will experience suffering when you are out of that state. Ultimate you must be detached to them all and that detachment is Nirvana. That is also the realization that all conditioned existence is suffering.


So I got side tracked with some of the claims regarding suffering here including the claims of Thich Nhat Hanh. As some posters pointed out, the error is in the 'scope' of 'all'.

Here is the Four Dharma Seals:

  1. All compounded things are impermanent
  2. All conditioned phenomena and experiences are unsatisfactory
  3. All phenomena are non-self
  4. Nirvana is true peace

A Chinese translation:

  1. 一切行無常印 - All 'conditioned experience' (sankhara) are impermanent
  2. 一切行苦印 - All conditioned experience are suffering
  3. 一切法無我印 - All dharmas are not self
  4. 涅槃寂滅印 - Nirvana is the end (of suffering)

The Three Suffering

  1. Dukkha-dukkha, the dukkha of painful experiences.
  2. Viparinama-dukkha, the dukkha of the changing nature of all things.
  3. Sankhara-dukkha, the dukkha of conditioned experience.

Chinese: 三苦

  1. 苦苦 "Suffering of Suffering"
  2. 壞苦 "Suffering of (Pleasures) becoming broken"
  3. 行苦 "Suffering of Sankhara - mental formation"

In the Three Realms, the Desire Realm - that is the realm of sensuality suffers from all three types including pain, loss of pleasure, and impermanent conditioned mental formations.

The Form Realm - corresponding to the Four Jhanas do not suffer from pain, but from losing what is pleasurable through impermanence, and conditioned mental formations.

The Formless Realm - corresponding to the Formless Jhanas suffer from neither pain nor pleasure but continue to suffer from the impermanence of mental formations. So the Chinese translation does not include the word 'pervasive'. However suffering is pretty pervasive from an experiential basis in any of the three realms...

But as some posters point out there is a case where there is the end of suffering, as long we are talking about Nirvana, the detachment from your pain, pleasure and mental formations, outside of the scope above.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 16:38

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