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Pleasure and Pain

A closer look at two Pali wordsAndrew Olendzki

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Many teachers have said that one of the most difficult Buddhist words to translate is dukkha, and I would add that sukha is equally challenging. Sukha basically means feeling good, while dukkha means feeling bad, but the challenge is that we can and do mean this in many different ways. When referring to physical experience, these words usually mean pleasure and pain; in regard to mental experience, they come closer to gladness and sorrow; when applied to emotional experience, they can mean happiness and unhappiness or extend to something like well-being and anguish. Buddhist teachings take these terms even further to an existential level, where dukkha is the pervasive suffering of the first noble truth and sukha refers to its cessation in the ultimate welfare of awakening in this lifetime.

I suggest that what we have here is a hierarchy of nestling sukhas and dukkhas, with each higher level being capable of holding and reconciling the levels below. We hear, for example, that the Buddha experienced wracking bodily pains in the final days of his life. But presumably these did not give rise to unhappiness or diminish his awakening in any way. Compare here the popular saying...

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