1st noble truth: translation question about "is"

The 1st noble truth states:

Idaṃ kho pana bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ: jātipi dukkhā jarāpi dukkhā vyādhipi dukkho maraṇampi dukkhaṃ appiyehi sampayogo dukkho piyehi vippayogo dukkho yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ saṅkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā

The beginning is translated as such: “The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha), monks, is this”. My question is not about the translation of “is” here at the beginning.

My question is about the terms: “jātipi dukkhā jarāpi dukkhā vyādhipi dukkho” etc.

From SN 38.14, the Pali words: “dukkhadukkhatā saṅkhāradukkhatā vipariṇāmadukkhatā” are translated as “the stressfulness of pain, the stressfulness of fabrication, the stressfulness of change” (Thanissaro) or as “the suffering due to pain, the suffering due to formations, the suffering due to change” (Bodhi).

I suppose SN 38.14 could therefore also be translated as: “suffering about pain, suffering about formations, suffering about change”.

Given Bhikkhus Thanissaro and Bodhi use different words in their respective translations, it appears an implicit word (e.g. ‘of’, ‘due to’ or ‘about’) that links the two co-joined Pali words in SN 38.14 does not exist.

Similarly, in the 1st noble truth, is there anything implicit in the Pali that requires the translation ‘birth is suffering’? Or is a translation such as ‘suffering due to/of/about birth’ equally valid?

We’re on a roll tonight! Today has been a random day off for me, no real work done, just messing around on forums and some quiet time. Tomorrow I’ll get back to it.

I disagree with Ven Bodhi’s translation here. To me, it implies that the suffering is caused by or at any rate distinct from the thing. But it’s not. It’s not that suffering is caused by (“due to”) pain, but that painful feeling is inherently suffering. That’s its nature. Ven Thanissaro’s is grammatically preferable, but then there’s his choice of renderings.

Anyway, I recently translated SN 38.14, and I rendered it like this:

The suffering inherent in painful feeling; the suffering inherent in conditions; and the suffering inherent in change.

But to answer your question, no, there is nothing in the Pali, explicit or implicit, that justifies the use of “due to” or “about”, and in fact I think this is incorrect. Pali commonly uses cases to express causality and these are not found here.

With jātipi dukkhā and so on, the specific syntax is different. At SN 38.14 we have compounds, which do not specify a relation between the elements, whereas here we have separate terms that are declined in agreement. There’s no verb that specifies “is” here. Now, Pali often omits this, so this is nothing unusual. Nevertheless, it means the context is open to a little wiggle room.

Having said which, by far the most common and straightforward reading of such as passage is to say “birth is suffering”, and in fact I can’t think of anyone who translates it differently.


Notice the difference in construction between ‘sampayogo dukkho’ and ‘saṅkhāradukkhatā’. In the former case, we have two separate words, as indicated by the Nom. Sg. ending -o in ‘sampayogo’. The latter word is instead a compound word, which is formally indicated by the use of the connecting morphem -a- (not sure about its exact status in the Pali grammar, it can be merely the final stem vowel) in ‘saṅkhāra’. Should ‘saṅkhāradukkhatā’ be understood as two separate words, it would read ‘saṅkhāro dukkhatā’ or ‘saṅkharā dukkhatā’.

The literal translation of compound words into English could thus be ‘pain suffering, formation suffering, change suffering’, which doesn’t make much sense. To make it more readable, the translators have to come up with a connecting word - and their choice of the said connector is a pretty complicated issue meriting a separate discussion.

The translation of phrases where separate word are used, e.g. ‘sampayogo dukkho’ or ‘sabbe saṅkharā dukkhā’ (notice how ‘dukkha’ is in plural in the latter example, matching the Nom. Pl. of ‘saṅkharā’). I am no authority on the matter, but to me they look pretty much like condensed doctrinal statements, grammatically resembling English-language media headlines. So, you normally read ‘Explosion in Baghdad. Ten People Dead’ instead of ‘There was an explosion in Baghdad. Ten people are dead’. However, using this style in a contemporary English translation could be bewildering, to say the least.

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Thank you. Whilst this was not my question, I am not sure the Nakulapita Sutta supports the above view about vipariṇāmadukkhatā & thus also the other two contexts (since suttas also explain suffering ends via non-clinging to painful feelings).

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Sorry, I don’t quite understand: can you explain some more for me?

The Nakulapita Sutta appears to state “he does not fall into sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress or despair over…change & alteration (vipariṇamati)”.

Thank you for your answer Bhikkhu Sujato. I also can’t think of anyone who translates it differently. Yet because I assume arahants do not suffer about life, sickness, aging & death, the rending of “is” sounds too absolute.

Indeed, yes. At SN 22.1 we have:

taṃ rūpaṃ vipariṇamati aññathā hoti. Tassa rūpa­vi­pari­ṇāmañ­ñathā­bhāvā uppajjanti soka­pari­deva­duk­kha­do­manas­supāyāsā
But that form of theirs changes and perishes, which gives rise to sorrow, crying, pain, sadness, and distress.

Here the Pali uses the ablative (the long ā at the end of rūpa­vi­pari­ṇāmañ­ñathā­bhāvā) which has the literal meaning of “from”, and the common applied meaning of “due to”. Both the ablative and the instrumental are used in this sense.

So here change is said to “give rise to” suffering, while in SN 35.14 it is suffering. Of course, it’s both: it is itself suffering and it causes suffering. Just bad stuff all round when it comes right down to it!

Indeed, they don’t suffer “about” these things, in the sense that they don’t worry about them. But the things themselves are still inherently suffering, and they still experience this. The Buddha suffered; he said he could only get away from his back pain in deep meditation. The point is he had no mental attachment to the pain, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t hurt.

In fact, of the three kinds of suffering in SN 35.14, I’d suggest that an arahant still experiences all of them …

Thank you Vstakan for your helpful & thoughtful post.


You are welcome :slight_smile:

That reminded me of SN 22.85 where Ven. Yamaka, corrected by Ven. Sariputta, replies to the questions about the post-mortal fate of the Buddha as follows:

If they were to ask me this, friend, I would answer thus: ‘Friends, form is impermanent; what is impermanent is suffering; what is suffering has ceased and passed away. Feeling … Perception … Volitional formations … Consciousness is impermanent; what is impermanent is suffering; what is suffering has ceased and passed away.’ Being asked thus, friend, I would answer in such a way.

So, even when talking about the Buddha, monks still acknowledged the suffering inherent in the five khandhas. Analogously, change is still suffering even if one becomes an arahant, one is simply no longer affected by this suffering.

This appears to be a matter of translation because the word ‘dukkha’ in respect to the three characteristics has been translated by some as ‘unsatisfactory’ rather than ‘suffering’.

To say the aggregates of a Buddha are ‘unsatisfactory’ (due to their impermanence) is quite a straightforward description that does not require any additional interpretation or explanation of what ‘suffering’ may mean in the context.

On the internet, Acharya Buddharakkhita & N.K.G. Mendis have translated thus:

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


“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.”


The same translation, if correct, would apply in the context of the Yamaka Sutta.

Personally, it is the translation I prefer because obviously the aggregates of a Buddha are unsatisfactory (in that they are subject to sickness in life, they cannot bring any true lasting happiness in life & do not last forever).

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I just woke up from sleep and what you posted above was the 1st thing to come to mind.

To me, these two word compounds do make some sense & would be rendered: “suffering connected to pain”; “suffering connected to change”, “suffering connected to death”, etc.

To conclude, my purpose in asking the question was to check if the connector “is” is implicit or explicit in the 1st noble truth and it appears that purpose has been satisfied.

Thank you again.

There is no English word that can render the full range of meanings of the Pali dukkha, just as the English ‘sin’ can hardly be satisfactorily translated into Pali. So, if ‘unsatisfactoriness’ works for you, why not? :slight_smile:

I did not post that one single English word works in all contexts. The quote made of the translation of the Dhammapada by Acharya Buddharakkhita shows two different English translations of dukkha used in the one sentence.

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

I think words used should express what is clearly visible in meditation.

“Suffer the little Children to come unto me; for Thus is the kingdom of Heaven”.

Discuss ‘suffer’ in THIS context. Then we will see the difficulty in translation so that expression is unambiguous…

I’m no linguist, so I may be off-base here, but I think that usage of ‘suffer’ is an archaic one meaning to tolerate/allow or maybe even carry.


click “translations, word origin, and more definitions”

Looks like the etymology is composed of ‘sub-’ meaning ‘below’ and ‘ferre’ meaning ‘bear’, so maybe “to bear from below” or “carry”. Carry is from the Latin ‘carrus’ which is a wheeled vehicle meant to carry a load (a load is another archaic meaning of carrus) and probably related to the word ‘carriage’.

So in the biblical quote I would say that archaic usage has almost a positive meaning, but the more common meaning today is decidedly negative. For this reason, I think suffer is a quite appropriate word for dukkha in most cases. Conveying the sense that it is a burden. Then the happiness/freedom/ease is in gradually lessening/letting-go of the burden, how much more so would be the complete laying down of the burden, or detachment from it.

A while back I was working on a little study of that famous first twin verse of the Dhammapada. There a buffalo attached to a heavy cart is a metaphor for suffering and it’s cause; touching on the burden, cart, and bearing discussed above. Maybe I will finish it and post to the essays section.

“Unsatisfactory” can certainly be appropriate too, it seems to me that is more of a characteristic (lakkhana?) of suffering based on insight. It just doesn’t have the same gut-level straightforward impact that suffering does, to me at least. In common usage, unsatisfactory can be kind of superficial.

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I personally take ‘dukkha’ to have three definite, distinct & separate meanings in three different contexts.

The 1st context is ‘dukkha vedana’, where I take it to mean ‘painful’ or ‘unpleasant’ feelings. These feelings appear to not be suffering because the scriptures describe arahants & Buddhas experiencing dukkha vedana without suffering.

The 2nd context is ‘suffering’ or ‘mental torment’ as described in the Noble Truths. I find the Nakulapita Sutta (SN 22.1) to be a most excellent discourse that emphasises the mental suffering of attaching to the five aggregates as ‘self’.

The 3rd context is ‘lakkhanna’, where I interpret ‘dukkha’ to be not something mental but a characteristic of impermanent things, thus meaning ‘unsatisfactoriness’ or ’ lacking in the capacity to bring true happiness’.

‘Dukkha lakkhanna’ may appear to be something mental since impermanent objects are certainly ‘unpleasant’ or ‘unattractive’ when seen clearly. However, I personally prefer to not view it that way since I prefer to regard the three characteristics as being inherent in all conditioned things, which includes material things.

Linguistically, the word ‘dukkha’ certainly has the most basic meaning of ‘difficult to bear’ or ‘hard to endure’.

Some scholars, be they right or wrong (I personally don’t know), have offered additional meanings:

If we take du to mean "difficult: and khama to mean “endure,” then dukkham means “difficult to endure.”

If we take du to mean “ugly” or “evil” and kha (from ikkha) to mean “look,” then this aspect has the meaning “once seen, it is ugly.”

By separating the components of dukkham and taking du to mean “ugly” and kham to mean “void, empty,” we arrive at the meaning “uglily void.”

Or another way to phrase it would be that the Arahants and Buddhas also suffer until their parinibbana…

You may phrase it that way but I certainly do not. For me, Arahants and Buddhas are completely free from suffering.

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Well maybe an ever better way to phase it would be that until their parinibbana there is still suffering but no longer anyone who suffers.