Understanding dukkha

This essay is inspired by teachings given to me by a Venerable Bhikkhu in Sri Lanka. I take no credit for the wisdom contained in these words. Any mistake made in conveying these teachings are my own.

In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11), given by the Buddha after his awakening, the first noble truth is outlined as:

jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ—saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā.

“Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha—in short, the five clinging aggregates are dukkha.”

On a first glance of this statement it’s easy to think that we understand what the Buddha means here by aging, illness, and death being dukkha. Surely these things are dukkha, are they not?

We don’t need a Buddha to tell us that these things are dukkha. Pretty much everyone understands it to be the case. But of course, the Buddha doesn’t mean here what we ordinarily think of these things being dukkha.

The key word in this formulation of the first noble truth that’s easily overlooked is saṃkhittena (in short). In short, the five clinging aggregates are dukkha. This means that every statement preceding this one is an example of the the five clinging aggregates being dukkha. The Buddha uses what everyone knows as a starting point because they will be able to relate to the teaching, but skillfully subverts the meaning at the very end by saying “in short” and then introducing the teaching unique to the Buddha—pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkha.

So in order to properly understand the meaning of any of the initial statements we need to understand how they are dukkha in the context of the five clinging aggregates.

Let’s consider aging as an example. Why do beings suffer due to aging? The Buddha gives us the answer in the Saccavibhanga Sutta (MN 141):

Jarādhammānaṃ, āvuso, sattānaṃ evaṃ icchā uppajjati: ‘aho vata mayaṃ na jarādhammā assāma; na ca vata no jarā āgaccheyyā’ti. Na kho panetaṃ icchāya pattabbaṃ. Idampi: ‘yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ’.

“To beings subject to aging there comes the longing: ‘O might we not be subject to aging, and aging not come to us.’ But this cannot be attained by mere desiring. So not getting what is wanted is dukkha.”

Let’s do a simple thought experiment to investigate what this means. Suppose that in a hypothetical universe everyone is born with the body of an elderly person. They carry that same sort of body throughout their entire lifespan.

Would it be possible for the thought “O might we not be subject to aging” to arise for these beings? Of course not. Why not? Because they do not know of a state where the body has not aged (youth, as we know it). Since they have no longing for a different kind of body, it’s not possible for them to suffer dissatisfaction due to the elderly (from our perspective) nature of their bodies.

So we see that it is only due to the fact that there is such a state called youth for our bodies, that it is possible for the thought “O might we not be subject to aging” to arise for us. It is this idea that youth is satisfactory (aging is unsatisfactory) that makes aging dukkha. This dissatisfaction has nothing to do with the aging of the body—it has only to do with the idea of youth.

Suppose that one of our friends comes along and promises us something. Then the following day he gives us exactly the opposite of what was promised earlier. Wouldn’t we consider this person as a liar? A deceiver?

The mind promised us satisfaction (youth is satisfactory). But what did it give us later on? Dissatisfaction when we grew old. If this mind shows us satisfaction and gives us dissatisfaction, then is it really any different to our deceiving friend that promised us one thing and gave us the opposite?

As we saw earlier, dissatisfaction only resulted because we believed the mind when it said that youth is satisfactory. We believed the mind because we didn’t know that it was deceiving us.

A magician is able to deceive us by showing us one thing but keeping the rest hidden up his sleeve. But suppose that we uncovered what the magician kept hidden from us, that we discovered all of his secrets. Then would the magician be able to deceive us any longer? Of course not.

In the Phenapindūpama Sutta (SN 22.95) the Buddha compares consciousness to a magician’s trick (Māyūpamañca viññāṇaṃ). This is because, like a magician, it deceives us by hiding something from us. What does it hide from us? When it shows us satisfaction (greed / lōbha), it hides the fact that clinging to this satisfaction will result in dissatisfaction. When it shows us dissatisfaction (aversion / dōsa), it hides the fact that this dissatisfaction was caused by clinging to satisfaction in the first place.

When this mind deceives us by showing us either satisfaction or dissatisfaction, all we have to do is understand that it’s deceiving us by uncovering the other extreme that’s being hidden from us.

Craving (tanhā) and attachment (upādāna) are conditioned by ignorance (avijjā). What is ignorance? Not knowing that the mind is deceiving us. So identifying the deception (delusion / mōha), is cessation of ignorance. With the cessation of ignorance, craving and attachment cease as a result. There’s no need to “let go” of attachment or anything of the sort. With understanding of deception attachment falls away naturally and effortlessly.

Suppose that the mind forever maintained the position of satisfaction without changing. Would there be any deception in this case? Of course not. It only became a deception because the mind changed from satisfaction to dissatisfaction. If the mind never changed then there would be no deception at all. Thus we see that change is dukkha (yad aniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ).

Can we stop the mind from changing? Is it under our control? Can we have of our consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus; let my consciousness not be thus.’? Of course not. Thus we see that this mind is nonself (yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā).

Aging, illness, death, union with what is displeasing, and separation from what is pleasing are all variations of not getting what is wanted. These wants and desires developed due to not understanding that the satisfaction promised by consciousness is a deception. Consciousness is deceptive because the other aggregates it sustains itself on (form, feeling, perception, and intention) are inconstant, making consciousness itself inconstant. So we see that the five clinging aggregates are dukkha.

If these six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) were born at any time in the past, weren’t they born to support a consciousness that constantly deceived us? If these six senses are born at any time in the future, will they not be born to support a consciousness that will constantly deceive us? So we see that birth is dukkha.

When the deceptive nature of this mind is understood, is it possible to consider the mind to be “me, mine, my self” any longer?


I really like the way the centrality of ‘saṃkhittena’ here has been clearly articulated (although I do not agree with the translation ‘five clinging aggregates’ but prefer ‘clinging to the five aggregates’ or ‘five clung-to aggregates’). I think SN 22.1 has a very helpful explanation.

Regards :deciduous_tree:

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The translation is a deliberate choice due to the following reasons:

“Clinging to the five aggregates” or “five clung-to aggregates” for me evokes a notion of something separate that is clinging to the aggregates (like a self). But as we see in MN 109, the Buddha says that clinging is neither the same thing as the pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā, nor is it something separate from the pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā:

“Na kho, bhikkhu, taṃyeva upādānaṃ te pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā, nāpi aññatra pañca­hu­pādā­nak­khan­dhehi upādānaṃ. Yo kho, bhikkhu, pañcasu upādā­nak­khan­dhesu chandarāgo taṃ tattha upādānan”ti.

“Monk, clinging is neither the same thing as the five clinging-aggregates, nor is it separate from the five clinging-aggregates. Just that whatever passion & delight is there, that’s the clinging there.”

Also in the forward direction of paticcasamuppāda we see the arising of pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā (upādāna paccaya bhavō) always with attachment. This means the aggregates always arise accompanied by clinging, however mundane and unexciting the experience is. The reverse direction of paticcasamuppāda shows the cessation of clinging along with the cessation of pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā (sakkāya nirōdha). According to paticcasamuppāda cessation of clinging couldn’t possibly happen without also the cessation of pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā.


Possibly. However, the translation ‘five clinging aggregates’ can evoke a notion that the physical body clings, or vedana clings, or perception clings. I think suttas such as SN 22.79 or SN 22.81 or SN 12.12 indicate it is the sankhara aggregate that clings:

And why, bhikkhus, do you call them formations? ‘They construct the conditioned,’ bhikkhus, therefore they are called formations. And what is the conditioned that they construct? They construct conditioned form as form; they construct conditioned feeling as feeling; they construct conditioned perception as perception; they construct conditioned volitional formations as volitional formations; they construct conditioned consciousness as consciousness. ‘They construct the conditioned,’ bhikkhus, therefore they are called formations SN 22.85.

Here, bhikkhus, the uninstructed worldling… regards form as self. That regarding, bhikkhus, is a formation (sankhara). That formation—what is its source, what is its origin, from what is it born and produced? When the uninstructed worldling is contacted by a feeling born of ignorance-contact, craving arises: thence that formation is born. SN 22.81

Anyway, I just wanted to mention how much I liked your articulation of ‘saṃkhittena’. I thought it was exceptionally well-explained, at least for me.

Kind regards :palm_tree:


Yes, the Buddha also said there are three types of dukkha: 1) dukkhe dukkha 2) viparinama dukkha 3) sankhara dukkha. SN38.14

For dukkha to be comprehended (SN 56.11), it must be seen at all three levels.

with metta


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SN 22.1 supports a view that all of the above three dukkha are forms of clinging thus fall within the statement: ‘saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā’.

He assumes feeling to be the self, or the self as possessing feeling, or feeling as in the self, or the self as in feeling. He is seized with the idea that ‘I am feeling’ or ‘Feeling is mine.’ As he is seized with these ideas, his feeling (vedanā) changes (vi­pari­ṇāma) & alters ­(añ­ñathā) he falls into sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair over its change & alteration. SN 22.1


Correct. This means that there is clinging at various levels as well.

As I understand it, dukkhe dukkha-the suffering of suffering, refers to the actual pain of suffering we have to go through. Viparinama dukkha refers to suffering caused by people and circumstances changing. Sankhara dukkha refers to that which is impermanent being unsatisfactory at the level of the aggregates.

Full comprehension of Dukkha requires experience of all three levels. Most people have access to the first two. Sankhara dukkha needs Samatha and Vipassana. Without them working jointly, it will be difficult to remove clinging from aggregates. Removing clinging from the other two kinds of suffering won’t be sufficient for Nibbana or even stream entry.

With metta


Could you be kind enough to explain these three with some examples?

Based on my reading of the suttas, dukkhe dukkha refers to the dukkha of clinging to physical pain or unpleasant vedana (per SN 36.6); viparinama dukkha refers to the dukkha of clinging to change (per SN 22.1); and sankhara dukkha is the dukkha of mental proliferation or clinging to craving (per DNp 154, where Buddha attained the ‘visankhara’).

My impression is the mind clings to the aggregates. I think you would have to provide evidence from the suttas that clinging exists within each aggregate and that clinging must be removed from the aggregates.

SN 22.85 states a Buddha has five aggregates & that those aggregates are unsatisfactory. I have not read anything in the suttas that state an arahant, let alone a stream-enterer, removes the unsatisfactoriness of the aggregates. The aggregates by their very nature are always unsatisfactory, both before enlightenment & after enlightenment (per SN 22.59; AN 3.136). I think you probably need to provide some quotes to support your point of view.

If, friend Yamaka, they were to ask you: ‘Friend Yamaka, when a bhikkhu is an arahant, one whose taints are destroyed, what happens to him with the breakup of the body, after death?’—being asked thus, what would you answer?

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

Good, good, friend Yamaka!

SN 22.85


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Dukkha associate with Jhana come under which category?

I suppose it would come under #2 and #3. If there is suffering when jhana is lost or ends, such as described in AN 4.123, it would seem to come under #2. If there is clinging to jhana, that clinging itself would come under #3.

People generally do not suffer about pleasurable feelings unless those feelings change. However, people generally suffer over painful feelings or ‘dukkha vedana’, which is probably why dukkha dukkha is specifically mentioned.

Regards :seedling:

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Dukkha Vedana and dukkha sacca (Truth) are different (taking this discussion further).

Dukkha sacca can be seen in sukkha vedana, due to its anicca nature.

With metta


“Pleasant feeling is pleasant in remaining, & painful in changing(ie: Viparinama Dukkha), friend Visakha. Painful feeling is painful in remaining (ie:Dukkha Dukha) & pleasant in changing. Neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling is pleasant in occurring together with knowledge, and painful in occurring without knowledge (ie:Sankhara Dukha).”


Within brackets are my additions.