Dukkha is traditionally translated as suffering, but I heard from a scholar of Eastern history that it's better translated as being unexpected. In my interpretation (not just in what I heard), that suffering only describe what you feel, not the reason making it. Therefore, being unexpected is a better translation.

Is this reasonable? If suffering is still a good fit, then what would be the equivalent Pali/Sanskrit word for being unexpected?

3 Answers 3


I generally translate dukkha as 'discontentment' which captures the dual ideas that:

  • something is not as the self expects, and...
  • the self is not happy with that unwanted circumstance.

'Being unexpected' implies (in English, at least) a sense of surprise that doesn't necessarily pertain. One can be discontent with the fact that a given meal tastes bad, but not at all surprised by it if one knows the cook. And 'being unexpected' seems to miss the affect of the tension between what one wants and what one gets.

But that being said, I don't know exactly how your tradition is approaching it, so 'being unexpected' might work perfectly within context.

  • Assuming "discontentment" is better than "suffering", do you think it's a good idea to change to it? Is there any reason to keep using "suffering"?
    – Ooker
    Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 17:44
  • @Ooker: It's one of those things that will work out as it works out. 'Suffering' has history and tradition on its side in the West; it's the original translation, which will always carry weight. It creates unnecessary and misleading associations with Christian theosophy (martyrdom and the suffering of Jesus), but a skilled buddhist teacher can walk students through and around that. I use 'discontent', but I don't have a following. If others decide to use it, it might eventually supplant 'suffering'. (shrug...) Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 20:28
  • @Ooker: Honestly, I think it's more important to have people wrestle with the metaphysical concept than argue over terminology. If we get the sense of the idea, the words are mere conventions; doesn't really matter which we use so long as we get what it's pointing at. That's a pedagogical issue, not a philosophical or spiritual one. Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 20:30

That's not a bad translation, although it may sound too neutral to convey the original idea. A pleasant surprise can be unexpected, does that make it dukkha? No.

Another word I can think of, along the similar lines, is simply "wrong" in the sense of "not supposed to be this way". I feel that's closer to the connotation of the Sanskrit/Pali du-.

That said, when I asked a native speaker of a language that derives significant part of its vocabulary from Sanskrit/Prakrit what this word meant to them, they insisted that in their language "dukkha" simply means "sadness" or "melancholy" or "grief" etc. - i.e. to them it definitely seems to be a word describing an emotion, not the objective world.

So for my own purposes I came to translate it, however crudely, as "the feeling of wrongness" or "the feeling of something being not-as-it-should".

Another facet this word has in suttas is the meaning that whatever is dukkha is unreliable or faulty or treacherous or deceptive, i.e. on the surface it looks like one thing, but when you take it for real and try to rely on it, then it does not work as expected and turns out to be not quite the thing it appeared to be.

If you take these two together, "being wrong or not as it should be" and "being unreliable" - you can see how "being other than expected" could make sense, but you should remember we are talking about an emotion here, so it's that feeling of frustration due to an irreconcilable mismatch between expectations and reality is what we call dukkha.

  • What is the language that native speaker used?
    – Ooker
    Commented Nov 24, 2021 at 5:04
  • I don't remember, maybe Marathi? One of the Indian languages.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 24, 2021 at 12:59

Dukkha isn't a state of "being" something (e.g. "being unexpected") -- instead, dukkha is "made" (or it's a state of "making" something) -- that is taught in the second Noble Truth.

  • So a state of making... Being (be eating), editor? «smile» dukkha?
    – user22139
    Commented Nov 24, 2021 at 0:15

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