Is the existence of dukkha a conventional or ultimate truth?

I am confused, because on the one hand, it is usually mentioned together with two other marks of existence, which clearly look like the ultimate truth: "self" is conventional, and ultimately there is no self, and permanence of phenomena is conventional too, and ultimately everything is impermanent.

On the other hand, dukkha looks like something conventional: suffering, or lack of satisfaction, depends only on the existence of the sufferer, and ultimately, there is no sufferer, there are only empty aggregates.

Moreover, if I were the last sentient being to become enlightened, there would still be no self, and phenomena would still be impermanent. But there would be no suffering. I don't know how to wrap my mind around this asymmetry.

4 Answers 4


There is no asymmetry because the word 'dukkha' in the context of the Three Characteristics (tri-lakkhana) does not mean 'suffering'; just as the word 'dukkha' in the context of feelings (vedana) does not mean 'suffering'. 'Dukkha' only means 'suffering' in the context of the Four Noble Truths.

'Dukkha' in the context of the Three Characteristics means 'unsatisfactoriness'; namely, the inability of impermanent (conditioned) things to bring permanent lasting true happiness. (Only the unconditioned Nibbana can bring true lasting happiness). Thus, the teachings state:

yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ, yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā

That which is impermanent is unsatisfactory; that which is unsatisfactory is not-self.

SN 22.15

In the Pali, many words, such as 'dukkha', 'dhamma', 'nirodha' & 'sankhara' have different meanings in different contexts thus, in each different context, must be translated differently & appropriately.

The Buddha was fully enlightened thus perfectly coherent. There can be no contradictions in a Buddha's teachings. It is the famous translators & gurus who are misinterpreting the teachings.

In summary, as shown in the quotes below, only the ‘dukkha’ of attachment & egoism is real ‘suffering’ (mental torment/trauma). The ‘unsatisfactoriness' of conditioned things (dukkha lakkhana) and painful feelings (dukkha vedana) are not suffering (unless they are attached to).

Context 1 - Dukkha as suffering

In summary, (all) suffering is clinging to the five aggregates (as ‘I’, ‘me’ & ‘mine’).

1st noble truth


‘I am’ is a construing. ‘I am this’ is a construing. ‘I shall be’ is a construing. ‘I shall not be’… is a construing. Construing is a disease, construing is a cancer, construing is an arrow. By going beyond all construing, he is said to be a sage at peace.

MN 140


He is seized with the idea that ‘I am form’ or ‘Form is mine.’ As he is seized with these ideas, his form changes & alters, and he falls into sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress & despair over its change & alteration.

SN 22.1


By & large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments, clingings & biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of awareness, biases or obsessions; nor is he resolved on ‘my self.’ He has no uncertainty or doubt that just suffering, when arising, is arising; suffering, when passing away, is passing away.

SN 12.15

Contex 2 - Dukkha as pain

Here a bhikkhu is an arahant, one whose taints are destroyed, the holy life fulfilled, who has done what had to be done, laid down the burden, attained the goal, destroyed the fetters of being, completely released through final knowledge. However, his five sense faculties remain unimpaired, by which he still experiences what is agreeable and disagreeable and feels pleasure and pain. It is the extinction of attachment, hate, and delusion in him that is called the Nibbana-element …

Iti 44


When the Blessed One had entered upon the rainy season, there arose in him a severe illness, and sharp and deadly pains came upon him. And the Blessed One endured them mindfully, clearly comprehending and unperturbed.

DN 16

Context 3 - Dukkha as unsatisfactoriness

“What do you think of this, O monks? Is form permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, O Lord.”

“Now, that which is impermanent, is it unsatisfactory or satisfactory?”

Unsatisfactory, O Lord.”

“Now, that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard that as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?”

“Indeed, not that, O Lord.”

SN 22.59


Then, friend Yamaka, how would you answer if you are thus asked: A monk, a worthy one, with no more mental effluents: what is he on the break-up of the body, after death?

Thus asked, I would answer, ‘Form is impermanent… Feeling… Perception… Fabrications… Consciousness is impermanent. That which is impermanent is unsatisfactory. That which is unsatisfactory has ceased and gone to its end.

Very good, my friend Yamaka. Very good.

SN 22.85

Dukkha - contexts 3 & 1

All conditioned things are unsatisfactory — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

Dhammapada 278

Contexts 1, 1 & 2, 1 & 1 and 1 & 3

Tisso imā āvuso dukkhatā, dukkhadukkhatā saṅkhāradukkhatā vipariṇāmadukkhatā.

There are these three kinds of suffering, my friend: suffering due to/about pain; suffering due to/of mental concocting; and suffering due to/about change.

SN 38.14

Note: That 'attachment is dukkha' is an ultimate truth because every experience of suffering is bound up in attachment.


According to the Wikipedia article Four Dharma Seals, some schools of Buddhism teach "Three Dharma Seals" as including Nirvana but excluding Dukkha (for example Google finds The Three Dharma Seals by Thich Nhat Hanh) because "suffering is not an inherent aspect of existence".


Is the existence of dukkha a conventional or ultimate truth?

Existence is Dukkha.
Existence is conventional.
By realizing ultimate truth /(four noble truths) one can liberate from Dukka. They had fully transcended all existence, and were able to perfect the awesome deportment wherever they went.


Dukkha is one of those that have a conventional dimension and also an "ultimate" dimension--which means that it is happening at a microscopic level.

When speaking about the perceivable interdependent dissatisfaction especially in accordance with one's perfectionistic desires, this is regarding the conventional truth of things. For example: life being hard work, one's developments fading, not getting what one wants.

Ultimate truth regards the principles not perceivable, the micro-moment dissatisfaction, at a level that is disregarded by "conventional truth." This could be one's cells changing, energy being stolen from place to place, the hidden war of energy exchange, inevitable dependency and weakness, etc.

The difference between conventional and ultimate truth is delineated here and also here.

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