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I have an intuitive agreement with the idea that impermanence does mean that everything either is or ends in suffering.

But I am not sure it makes rational sense.

Can anyone explain the arguments for and against this characterization of dukkha?

E.g. perhaps something has innate value, is its own end, but only relative to some time and place, such that we are not separated from the value of it when it passes. Surely, one might cliam, that would mean it is not dukkha.

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8 Answers 8

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There is a convolution of meanings for dukkha which depends on context. One translation for dukkha is "unsatisfactoriness".

Of course, it is not stated there is no feeling of satisfaction or pleasure born of impermanent things, as that would be absurd. I just ate a big sandwich and I can tell you I don't feel hungry, I feel satisfied with respect to hunger. I also would be lying if I said it was a painful experience.

In the introduction of the Majjhima Nikāya translation, Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

The unsatisfactoriness of the conditioned is due to impermanence, its vulnerability to pain and its inability to provide complete and lasting satisfaction.

So, one may find satisfaction on conditioned things. But that satisfaction is doomed to be be partial and/or temporary. Therefore, it is not satisfactory in its greatest sense; it's, thus, dukkha.

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  • hello thiago, i found that this didn't answer my question, cos i wasn't talking thins being innately unsatisfactory, but either being or ending in that, as in when we no longer have the nice big sandwich :)
    – user2512
    Jan 6, 2015 at 20:28
  • Im afraid i dont understand then. Can you elaborate on your question? Ill try to revise the answer once its clear to me
    – user382
    Jan 6, 2015 at 21:34
  • i have to find quotes? i thought it was standard reading of the pali canon to say that even what brings us pleasure will be painful "separation from the pleasant is dukkha"
    – user2512
    Jan 6, 2015 at 21:36
  • I'm sorry, feel free to correct me if you notice I still don't understand. The example you gave in your question is dukkha in the "bigger sense" (first noble truth sense) described above by Bodhi. The sandwich example is dukkha also in that sense. It is not dukkha experience, however, in the ordinary sense of painful experience (which the word "dukkha" is also used) -- it passed, it was pleasant, but it it is not an "existential, permanent satisfaction", grossly speaking. I believe variant terms for different kinds of dukkha are used in some texts, but I'm not quite familiar with this.
    – user382
    Jan 6, 2015 at 22:49
  • The "even what brings us pleasure will be painful" refers to something else (though related): its known as the danger of sense pleasures, and our tendency to develop craving/clinging to such things, thus further developing ignorance, etc. In this way, the Buddha recommends "sense pleasures should be regarded as dukkha".
    – user382
    Jan 6, 2015 at 22:56
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After you eat the sandwich you will be hungry again.

After years of enjoying a loved ones company they or you will die.

After paying your electric bill you will have to do it again next month.

After having good physical health for several years you will get heart disease or cancer.

After buying your new car it will eventually need a new transmission and you will have to buy anothet car.

After a major promotion at work you will eventually become to old to work and you will retire.

After enjoying a sunset, it will become dark outside.

It is all impermanent.

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Not 'all' end in Dukkha, rather anything that follows Akusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda will end in Dukkha. But there is another version of Paṭicca Samuppāda which is the Kusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda which is the way to Nibbāna and does not end in Dukkha.

It is also said the way to Nibbāna is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, and beautiful in the end. So for one who is treading the Kusala-mula version of Paṭicca Samuppāda no Dukkha will touch him/her.

The main point is that there are two types Paṭicca Samuppāda, one which is the painful endless cycle of becoming and the other of liberation. So it is not right to say "everything either is or ends in suffering"!

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"If we translate anicca as impermanent, the connection among these Three Characteristics might seem debatable. But if we translate it as inconstant, and consider the Three Characteristics in light of the Buddha’s original question, the connection is clear. If you’re seeking a dependable basis for long-term happiness and ease, anything inconstant is obviously a stressful place to pin your hopes — like trying to relax in an unstable chair whose legs are liable to break at any time."

~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu "All About Change" https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/PurityOfHeart/Section0008.html

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  • interesting, thanks
    – user23322
    Feb 3 at 6:31
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everything either is or ends in suffering

That which you say ends in suffering can be said on that account to be a creating of that which is there when it ends, for that reason also a suffering and not something that should be.

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The word 'dukkha' is used in three different ways in the Pali suttas:

#1. 'Dukkha vedana', which refers to 'painful feelings' at sense contact. The fully enlightened continue to experience 'dukkha vedana', as explained in Iti 44

#2. 'Dukkha lakkhana', which is the 'unsatisfactory characteristic' or lack of pleasure in impermament things, which is the subject of the 2nd sermon (SN 22.59). The fully enlightened continue to experience or directly see 'dukkha lakkhana', as explained in Dhammapada 278, as follows:

“All conditioned things are unsatisfactory (dukkha #2)”—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering (dukkha #3). This is the path to purification.

#3. Saṅkhāra Dukkha, which means the mental suffering of self-becoming, attachment & craving, which is the subject of the Four Noble Truths. This type of 'dukkha' the fully enlightened have completely ended so it never arises again.

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The Dukka (translated as 'suffering' in English) explained by Lord Buddha in Dukka Ariya Sacca is not the sorrow we feel due to hardships, etc. in day to day lives. Even non Buddhists are aware of such things, and you don't need a Buddha to explain it. The Dukka Ariya Sacca described in 4 Noble Truths, refers to a much deeper concept. This is elaborated in Saccavibhaṅgasutta (aptly named as it means to elaborate the truth).

As someone who studied Dhamma in my native language, I find it quite difficult to explain this in English. This is one of the most subtle and deep portions of Dhamma. So, you should do your own research and study in order to understand Dukka properly. Please excuse me for the long answer, but I don't think summarizing is possible without destroying the meaning.

Lets take the eye for an example; Your eye receives a picture (bunch of photons). When this picture is received, and it is combined with the mind, to result cakkha vinnana which results vedana (sense), Saññā(signal), Saṅkāra, vitakka and papanca. (Refer: Madhupiṇḍikasutta for more details).

This process results us building a world around us. Which is not the reality. In this interpretation, when you see things, lets say your house, your family, your kids, etc. it results the view of 'nicca' or constant/permanent world around us. Lord Budhdha explains to us about the view of 'anicca' (non constant or impermanent view), which helps us see through this bubble we have built around us. Anicca in this context means; effects will cease to exist, when the causes for those effects are ceased (93. Dutiyadvayasutta). Personally, I view this as an explanation of a process rather than a 'thing'. We deceive ourselves (moha) by interpreting this process as a constant world, and convince ourselves that there is a 'self' that perceives that world.

Take for an example, a man comes in front of you.

  • If you are a parent of that man - your see a son.
  • If you are married to that man - you see your husband.
  • If you are one of his kids - you see a father.
  • If he a friend of yours - you see a friend.
  • If you are holding a grudge against him - you see an enemy.

Did the man change from occasion to occasion or person to person? did the photons that traveled from his body to your eyes changed in these occasions? Everyone saw the same man, but each party interpreted that picture differently, based on the associations formed in their mind. Like this, we only feel our mind. The picture from outside is just a helping stimulus. The feeling, the reality we build in our mind is personal to us. Based on the abstraction we have built up in our own mind, we generate attachments; ether lobha (attraction), dosa (repulsion) or upekhā (neither attraction nor repulsion). This is the reason, while the parents, wife, kids may love the man in the above example, the person who holds a grudge views the same man as an enemy. Man's picture that has met their eyes were evaluated against different abstractions, and placed in different characters in each receiver's world. None have see the man, everyone had seen a reflection of their own mind. And we constantly try to find happiness in this made up world.

Let me prove that this conceptual world is personal to us. Lets say a homeless person who have not had a meal in days received a Pizza. How would it taste to him? Could be the best Pizza he ever had. A billionaire is given the same Pizza to eat. He would view it as 'crappy food' and even reject it. That same billionaire gets kidnapped and thrown in a room where he have to starve for days. Would he view the Pizza with the same contempt after being starved? Did the Pizza change? Why did the Homeless man and Billionaire view the same Pizza differently? Its because their conceptual worlds are different. Why did the same Pizza was viewed differently by the Billionaire before and after starvation? Its because the concepts in his conceptual world changed.

While we live in our conceptual world, in the reality the picture that stimulated the eye is no more. The picture of the man has met our eye, generated a stimulus and ceased to exist in that form. This is why Lord Buddha teaches us 'cakkhu aniccaṁ' - eye is impermanent. But in our conceptual world we see a Son, a Husband, a Father, a Friend or an enemy (a person) who continues to exist. None of those classifications came to us with the picture of the man that met our eye. All that is assigned by our own mind. Concepts associated to the external stimulus builds the conceptual world that each person lives in. The main reason behind building this conceptual world is to ascertain yourself that 'you' exist. The logic is simple; 'because I see the world, I exist'.

'Ditto dittamattam' - What you see is simply a picture. It ends then and there. 'vinñāṇaṁ vinñāṇaṁattam - What you learned or 'got to know' (as a result) ends there. The reality is that these are two processes. Since the causes of these cease to exist, their effects cease to exist too. Its us who combine these two and build up a whole world around us fooling ourselves to believing a 'nicca' (constant) conceptual world exists.

See, 22.85. Yamaka Sutta; where it discuss the question: 'Is there a re-birth for Arahant after death?'. A monk named Yamaka was in the view that Arahant is not re-born after death. To break this wrong view Maha Sariputta Thero asks Yamaka Thera the following questions:

  1. Do you think the rupa became Arahant? Yamaka Thera answers: no.
  2. Do you think vedana became Arahant? Yamaka Thera answers: no.
  3. Do you think sanna became Arahant? Yamaka Thera answers: no.
  4. Do you think sankhara became Arahant? Yamaka Thera answers: no.
  5. Do you think vinnana became Arahant? Yamaka Thera answers: no.
  • Was there an Arahant without the above 5 elements? Yamaka Thera answers: no.
  • Do you think those 5 elements was the Arahant? Yamaka Thera answers: no.
  • Then what Arahant won't be born after death?

While we view that an Arahant will not be re-born after death in the conceptual world, we must realize that the aforementioned process cannot be recognized as a person or animal (satva, puggala saññā) in reality. Just a cause and effect relationship of 5 skhandha which cease to exist when causes of those skhandha ceases (Referred as: skhandha udayabbaya).

Lord Buddha teaches: 'Yadaniccaṁ taṁ dukkhaṁ' - everything that is 'anicca' results 'Dukka'. This does not mean the suffering we feel in our body or mind or loss in material world. The Dukka Ariya Sacca discussed in 4 noble truths must be perceived through wisdom. Its not a thing you can feel. It is not a thing in your mind. It refers to 4 characteristics of elements:

  1. Pīḷana (Pīḷana atto): This refers to dissolution of cause. If we take the example of the eye; can the photons that bring the picture maintain the picture constantly? No it can't. Can the eye maintain the picture constantly (on its own)? No it can't either. The moment the photons provide the stimulation, the picture was created, and the next moment it ceases to exist. The next moment, a new set of photons provide a new stimulus and eye can generate a new picture which ceases to exist the next moment.
  2. Saṅkhata (Saṅkhata atto): refers to the elements that are the results of a cause. The picture that resulted due to the stimulus from the photons.
  3. Viparināma (Viparināma atto): since the causes cannot maintain a constant existence, and they continue to change, the effects have to undergo changes as well. This transforming characteristic is referred to as Viparināma. The photons provided the stimulus ceased to exist in that form, the resulting picture also ceased to exist.
  4. Santāpa (Santāpa atto): Refers to the maturity of nama and rupa. It is explained that this is related to Tejo dathu which is related to the ability to mature or grow.

Dukka Ariya Sacca is referred to as Dukka due to the above 4 characteristics. Take note that those 4 characteristics exist in everything. Things we evaluate to Happiness, Sadness or upekhā (neither sad nor happy) all things have above 4 characteristics, making Dukka Ariya Sacca a universal truth.

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  • this reads a bit like the claim that, because everything is impermanent, it is like a picture of things, and so any value (I don't mean pleasure we partake in with) it has is likewise a mirage. is that right?
    – user23322
    Jan 31 at 5:36
  • The Dhukka Arya Sathya explains characteristics of the perceived world. The ultimate question however is not about the outer world. What started as a bunch of photons stimulating a sense, ended up being a person, animal or a thing and we ended up forming attachments of different sorts to them. These attachments result us with different sensations which binds us to Sansara. The biggest sensation we strive through all of this is to ascertain that 'I exist'. In the end its all a process which makes up the cycles of Sansara.
    – Sampath
    Jan 31 at 10:42
  • the 1st paragraph of this answer appears wrong. Mar 21 at 3:01
  • the following statement is wrong. "Lord Buddha teaches: 'Yadaniccaṁ taṁ dukkhaṁ' - everything that is 'anicca' results 'Dukkha'. This does not mean the suffering we feel in our body or mind or loss in material world. The Dukkha Ariya Sacca discussed in 4 noble truths must be perceived through wisdom." Mar 21 at 3:34
  • the suffering felt in the body or mind or loss in material world is the subject of the Dukkha Ariya Sacca discussed in 4 noble truths, that is, the 1st Sermon of The Buddha Mar 21 at 3:35
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Impermanence is a profound concept. It says that feelings do not die or live forever. They are impermanent. They arise , change and vanish.

Let us say a good feeling arises...It will arise based on some condition. Let us say the a good food gives rise to good feeling of satisfaction... Impermanence says that good feeling is not always achievable. Sometimes the food is impure. Sometimes the stomach is not right. Sometimes there is no food.Sometimes there is no body to feed. Bad feeling is inevitable,if there was a good feeling about something.

Why this is so ? Because all aggregates are impermanent... all sanskars are impermanent. Why are sanskars impermanent..? because sanskars are a result of conditioning.. and all conditioning are impermanent...

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