The Rectification of Names

On Duhkha

Robert Aitken

"DUHKHA is everywhere," the Buddha said, by way of introducing his Four Noble Truths. "There is a cause of duhkha, there is liberation from it, and the way to this liberation is the Eightfold Path." When we translate duhkha as "suffering" we get a certain worldview, but it may not be Buddhist.

Suffer comes from the Latin sufferre, meaning "endure," "undergo," or "bear." The modern dictionary meaning of the word is "to endure something painful." I don't think the Buddha was suggesting that we can get rid of pain and its endurance. He himself experienced a severe stomachache at the end of his life. I think he was referring to the fact that as human beings we agonize about death, and about our lack of freedom. We have the greatest difficulty in acknowledging our impermanence and our dependence. Once we truly accept our temporary niche in the interdependence of all things, then, as the Buddha taught, we can be free of duhkha.

My Sanskrit dictionary shows "uneasy," "unpleasant," "uncomfortable," and "difficult" as the secular meanings for duhkha—milder, it seems, than the Buddha intended. Some translators use "unsatisfactoriness," again surely too mild a word (and too awkward and unfamiliar).

I suggest that we consider using "anguish" in this context. It seems to put the Buddha's practice in the human realm, where it belongs. Animals suffer, that is, they endure pain. Human beings endure pain in the same way, and suffer is the appropriate word for such a condition. But human agony over mortality is something else. We despair because we can't endure it, and this is what aroused the Buddha's compassion. We need a word that does not imply endurance.

Is there a better word than anguish? I'd like to hear other opinions.

Robert Aitken Roshi is the leader of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen community based in Hawaii. His books include Taking the Path of Zen and The Mind of Clover.  Image: Frank Olinsky.

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