On 'kha' in dukkha and sukha

The following is a continuation of this topic…

For some weeks now I was toying with an alternative understanding of dukkha based on its root kha. Some have already mentioned that kha was the wheel’s axle-hole, suggesting dukkha could have meant a ‘bumpy ride’ whereas sukha would be a ‘smooth ride’. Others pointed out correctly that the wheel-metaphor is not to be found in connection with dukkha.

Turns out that kha is a much more general term for space, canal, hole, i.e. a spatial source trough which things come to be experienced. Based on this I understand dukkha to be a source of suffering-pain-unsatisfactoriness, or just ‘bad’.

What difference does it make? ‘Birth’ then would not be suffering per se, but a source of suffering. So ‘via birth’ suffering comes to be. Same with old age - not every old age is cosmic suffering - but it can be, when everything hurts, teeth are falling out etc.

The following is from: Bäumer, B., & Vatsyayan, K. (Eds.). (1988). Kalatattvakosa: A Lexicon of Fundamental Concepts of the Indian Arts (Vol. 3). Motilal Banarsidass. p.106f.

The word kha means:
a. the axle-hole, i.e. the round, free space in the centre of a wheel through which the axis runs (RV etc.).
b. Any hole, a cavity, an opening through which something may pass and, by extension, a fountain-head, canal or river-bed (RV etc.; cf. different objects compared to various holes in BrUp V.10.1).
c. The apertures of the body, seven upper (the ears, the nostrils, the eyes and the mouth, AV) and two lower (hence, the body is called navakham puram in BhagPur IV. 29. 7, cf. navadvara pura in SvUp 111.18), which are the outer openings pierced by the Self-born (KathUp II. 1.1)…
(d) The sense organs; since our senses operate through these external bodily apertures.
(e) Space as one of the five elements that compose the world (PraUp VI.4, MundUp II.1.3, SvUp 11.12).
(f) A symbol of brahman (kham brahma, ChUp IV. 10.4, BrUp V.1.1, kham lingam atmanah, BhagPur IIL5.32).
(g) The cavity of the heart, the mystic space where one may realize brahman, etad vava tat svarupam nabhasah khe ’ntarbhutasya yat param tejah, “This is indeed the nature of the space within the cavity (of the heart) that supreme splendour” (MaitUp VII.ll).
(h) The atmosphere, the sky, and antariksa, i.e. the space between heaven and earth, frequently occur in this sense in the Epics, Puranas and classical Sanskrit literature. … …


Is it also possible that this “wheel” root of dukkha/sukkha is simply too old?

Did people remember this etymology popularly at the time of the Buddha? He presumably wouldn’t teach via example with reference to knowledge/examples others would not understand.

For instance kaya comes from the same etymological root for “who/what/when/where”, but the Buddha does not play on kho and kaya. The etymological link between them is too obscure/old afaik.

I think the most probable etymologies are dukkha > duḥkha > duḥstha > dus- (bad) + stha ‘stand, stay, be in a state’, literally ‘ill-being’; or adjectival formation with -ka, which is a bit less elegant. Sukha is more difficult do explain, my impression is that it is possible an analogical form, but I am no great specialist in the diachronical use of this term. Alternative etymologies don’t make much sense to me linguistically.

Why do you think that ‘stha’ is much more probable than the straight-forward ‘kha’? In that case wouldn’t we expect a simple ‘duttha’ or so?

Not so much the wheel, but the quoted article shows that the Upanisads knew ‘kha’ as ‘opening’, ‘hole’, ‘space’ - so that connotation would be almost contemporary with the Buddha and would have been known by him.

Do we know that the Buddha studied the Upanishads? The Brahmin religion as attested to in Buddhist literature is very different from how the Brahmin religion describes itself. Late Vedic literature knew the kho/kaya connection too, but the Buddha doesn’t comment on it. Just food for thought.

Some concepts mentioned in the EBT do come from the Upanisads - the whole deal with atman for example. Which doesn’t mean that the Buddha ‘studied’ them. But that is not at all what I suggested. ‘kha’ is not a metaphysical brahmin concept - it’s a pretty normal word for ‘space’ or ‘opening’ as the examples show. I merely reacted to the question if the Buddha’s contemporaries knew it. Yes they did, because it was casually mentioned in the Vedas, the Upanisads, and later too.

In any case we don’t have an etymological discussion of dukkha and sukha in the suttas, but because of its central position in the Buddhadhamma I think we’re not done understanding the terms. I guess you are aware that some people hold that according to Buddhism the whole existence/life is suffering.

This is first of all non-sensical, but also refuted by several suttas. So how understand ‘dukkha’ then? My proposition based on ‘kha’ is that the khandhas etc are a source of suffering. They are holes through which suffering seeps in. Which btw also goes nicely with the image of the asavas.

We don’t have too many references for the semantic connection of asavas and dukkha in the suttas, but they don’t have to be alien either. See e.g. AN 4.195

do you see anything on account of which asavas productive of painful feeling might flow in upon such a person in future lives?

I don’t suggest that they belonged together, merely that they used similar imagery.

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Thinking about it, axle hole makes more sense if you take into account the symbolism of the Wheel of the Dhamma. I was always puzzled why this particular symbol is prominent in Buddhism, and the axle-hole etymology could provide a clue there.

I’d agree with this as khanda also means ‘mass’ /mountain, bringing with it the idea of the burden, and it is a long term perspective on suffering rather than sudden interplay between sadness and happiness. This latter view doesn’t lead to total dispassion, but only emotional resilience.

With metta

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I was meditating quietly this morning when my mind started murmuring ‘I wonder if upekkha fits in this scheme?’

Though now I have paid the thought more attention I think it might be different as is khā

Here I have a feeling the meaning is derived more from the upa- upe- as in ‘above’, ‘superscript’, riding above the hardness and weariness, in some senses.

Again, I’m not a pali scholar. :slight_smile:

with metta

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It sounds interesting but I guess it doesn’t work for several reasons.
E.g. ‘kha’ is neuter, upekkhā feminine.
‘upa’+‘iks’ (the normal derivation) gives us a nice sandhi, a+i = e. Without the sandhi we’d have ‘upe’+‘kha’, and ‘upe’ is not really a word I’m afraid

Could someone confirm? Maybe I missed a possibility after all

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Among the many speculations and theories I have come across that have tried to explain the meaning of “kha” and “dukkha”, I read one somewhere that said people have made a mistake in thinking that the problem with the axle-hole is that these holes are sometimes irregular and thus give a bumpy ride. Another problem with them is that for the cart to work properly, these holes have to be lubricated - presumably in the Buddha’s time with animal fats or some vegetable oil - and after being on the road for some time these holes would be filthy, smelly and grimy and clogged with all kinds of crud and effluents, including manure, sewage and roadkill carrion probably. Quite defiled!

Now consider that one of the meanings of “kha”, according to the above dictionary entry, is any kind of aperture through which things flow, including the various orifices of the male and female body.

I think there is special vitality and poignancy that comes from experimenting with the standard explanation of dukkha like this:

"Birth is shitty, aging is shitty, death is shitty; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are shitty; association with the unbeloved is shitty; separation from the loved is shitty; not getting what is wanted is shitty. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are shitty.

Doesn’t it disturb you when people think that Buddhism’s main claim is that the whole life is suffering and shitty? People think that the first truth is “Everything is suffering!” Every EBT practitioner I think can confirm that no, not everything is shitty, and most of all not everything that is suffering is equally suffering.

It’s simply impossible to tell people “you might not know it, but actually right now you are incredibly suffering”. “Oh really? Thanks for letting me know - and bye-bye”.

It doesn’t reflect the teachings either - jhanas are suffering? stream-entry is suffering? metta is suffering? having dhamma-conversations with one’s friends is suffering? then seeing a Buddha is also suffering, and listening to him, and practicing his teachings - everything would be complete suffering up until the very last point of arahantship… This is non-sense

So what I was looking for was an understanding of dukkha that allows for a less harsh (and wrong) interpretation. My finding based on ‘kha’ would be “There is an opening-for-bad in life. What is the opening-for-bad? Birth etc…”

Is this a valid position?

Everything isn’t emotional suffering- obviously, but would you agree that everything is impermanent and therefore ultimately theoretically unsatisfactory, as then there wouldn’t be a permanent and lasting Self, soul or a God?

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I never understood this argument of the suttas, or rather it would work only for philosophers who need to justify their experience with an eternal principle. Who does that??

If I walked into the cinema and told people “How can you laugh at this joke if it doesn’t give you permanent joy? It’s completely pointless!” or if I tried to convince people that their delicate curry or five-course french meal is actually not giving them satisfaction - because it’s not eternal?

People would rightly think I’m crazy. Again: so I’m not supposed to enjoy a good dhamma discussion because the joy that comes of it is not eternal?

The argument that something is suffering because it’s not eternal joy is I think a view that only Buddhists chose to relish on, nobody else

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I think it’s all a matter of degree. Some of the things in life are gross, rotten, and thoroughly miserable. Other things are much more shiny and pleasant, but there is a thin tainted layer of something not quite right smeared over it so that it doesn’t shine fully. Even jhanas are like that. If there were no bondage and defilement in jhanas, there would be no need to keep pursuing the path of liberation and purification while in them.

I think the Buddha thought that no matter which way you turn in this world, and which states you attain short of the supreme one, there is always something cankered and afflicted about your experience, some tincture of the corruption of death, some haunting cause of melancholy, anxiety or grief. Even the devas are afflicted with their lives, which is a long process of dying. The deathless liberation from all suffering is hard to attain.

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I’m sorry but that is obviously correct but also misses my point. The first truth says “old age IS dukkha” not sometimes, not to some degree - it’s an apodictic statement “it IS dukkha”. So either the Buddha philosophizes here like a butcher and aims at the simple-minded folks, or the word ‘dukkha’ needs a new understanding. No?

I don’t understand the problem you are raising.

sorry that it’s still not understood :thinking:
The problem is simple: Is ‘dukkha’ correctly translated by: suffering, unsatisfactoriness, stress, shitty?

Why not? If those are not good enough, how about “imperfect”? Like metal, even when it is very highly refined, always contains some defilement and imperfection in it, and so can be refined further, so our states of existence are always defiled in some way.

The dedicated practitioner of the path becomes more and more sensitive to these subtle defilements, and so becomes ever more determined to strive onward. The coarse pleasures of life are found, upon more careful attention, to be big shaggy pleasure-pain mixtures, whose swirling, anxious, unsettled character provides no comfortable resting point.

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