Is the dukkha of the noble truths the same as the dukkha of the tilakkhana?

Dukkha, as it appears in the noble truths, originates in the subject in consequence of that subject’s tangha and likewise ceases with the cessation of that tangha. We thus could contextualize this form of dukkha as both conditional and primarily psychological.

The word dukkha also appears as the second of the three marks of existence. In this case, dukkha is a property of objects/sankharas and originates from their nature as anicca. This meaning of dukkha thus seems to be inherent rather than conditional as well as ontological rather than psychological.

While an arahant would no longer experience dukkha of the first variety, the sankharas they encounter would still contain inherent unsatisfactoriness. All that has changed with regards to them is that the arahant has gained complete insight that all sankharas are unworthy of attachment because of that inherent unsatisfactoriness.

Would it then be correct to say that these two cases of dukkha are really just a matter of one word having two meanings? I am inclined to say yes; however, there do seem to be a few pathways to arguing against this:

A) one could assert that an individual only encounters the second form of dukkha because their tangha results in continued rebirth in samsara, ie the world of sankharas.
B) one could take a phenomenological approach in which the only “real” objects are mind-attended objects and thus the unsatisfactoriness of sankharas only has metaphysical significance when they have been taken up and clung to by the mind.

Would appreciate thoughts on this matter!


This is actually a misunderstanding (and a very common, understandable one at that). The dukkha of the First Noble Truth includes the inherent dukkha that is samsāric existence (birth, aging, sickness, death, the sense bases, the aggregates, etc.) It also includes psychological / ‘subjective’ examples, because all dukkha is caused by craving. The thing is that we are taking a samsāric perspective: it is that craving which causes a new life. When we remove it, we’re removed the condition for the production of more bhava and thus dukkha as a whole.

Subjectively there is no suffering in the sense of aversion or craving; much of our ‘suffering’ (mental suffering) is just aversion. However, the inherent painfulness of these phenomena included within the 1NT does not cease until they fall apart and bhava comes to an end—they are dukkha in and of themselves. This is how/why the dukkha of, say, the Buddha’s expositions on the aggregates, sense bases, elements, birth, etc. in the ‘three characteristic’ model is no different from the dukkha of the 1NT.

I think the phenomenological approach is not bad and has some support, but it is also missing out on some stuff. The Buddha does talk about the ‘burden’ of the aggregates and setting it down, and being free from that which is dukkha by not identifying with it. But still, it is ‘that which is dukkha’ and thus is inherent in the thing. I think this is significant even for arahants because it is not that we can just be reborn and exist dukkha-less, or have continuous experience permanently so long as we are arahants. The cessation of consciousness, rebirth, the aggregates, etc. is the ultimate goal precisely because it is the only full escape, otherwise an arahant might as well be reborn and stay an arahant. They know that even the presence of these things is a burden and less peaceful than the peace of Nibbāna, so there is still dukkha in them.

EDIT: Sorry for the random SN 5.7 citation; that was unrelated :laughing:

Hope that was helpful.


Yes. This is a very basic yet crucial understanding. The ‘ontological’ nature of ‘dukkha’ as a characteristic/property of impermanent conditioned/compounded phenomena is implicit in AN 3.136. An alternate translation here: SuttaCentral . Also, the suttas before & after SN 22.15.

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