Which aggregate(s) does dukkha belong to?

According to the First Noble Truth, there is dukkha, which is each aggregate subjected to clinging. I’ve always thought it was obvious that it refers to dukkha existing in your own experience, but I can’t seem to say exactly where. Is it all 5 aggregates? The 4 non-physical? Just mental formations? Just a mental sensation? If this is unanswerable, then the existence of dukkha becomes pretty doubtable/it implies self exists, but maybe there would be a good reason it’s unanswerable (usually the unanswerable questions aren’t relevant to dukkha, and this question seems to be very relevant to it, but it might not technically be necessary to know this to end suffering, so it could be classified as an unanswerable question that way)

Maybe dukkha does not exist in experience of any aggregate, and dukkha and the Noble Truths are more of a supernatural claim completely tied in to rebirth? Maybe dukkha is the lack of an experience? I would have thought it is experiencable since we are able to be aware of when it’s happening (consciousness conditioned by it, then recognition), unless we actually aren’t? Maybe we are too blinded by it to be aware of it, and we can only deduce that it happens?

SN12.2 makes clear attempts at identifying each link with aggregates and sense channels, and it does say that birth is “the manifestation of the aggregates, the obtaining of the sense bases” and death is “the breakup of the aggregates”, but not precisely the associated dukkha.

This somewhat sounds like an abhidhamma question, but I think understanding this directly is still quite relevant to the root texts and ones own path of understanding dukkha.

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Welcome to D&D, Bran.

I think to realize the extent of dukkha, it’s important to take what we consider to be self, I, me, mine, and tease it apart, hence the 5 Aggregates of Grasping/Clinging. Using imagery, one can imagine a “self” to be a collection of 5 different distinct aspects of self which can be separated, examined and be found to have the 3 characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and not-self. Conditioned and combined together, they create an illusion of a unified self.


"Friend Visakha, that clinging is neither the same as these five aggregates affected by clinging nor is clinging something apart from the five aggregates affected by clinging. It is the desire and lust in regard to the five aggregates affected by clinging that is the clinging there.” -MN 44

That desire and lust is what accompanies craving according to MN 44, and with the presence of craving, suffering has an origin. So, it doesn’t belong to an aggregate, but it sure does manifest on account of the attitude of craving in regard to feeling. And while form, perception, intention and consciousness may stand for that which is suffering, it will always be feeling that all things converge upon (AN 10.58), and the primary indication that suffering is present. Of course, this may give weight to the possibility that suffering is within feeling, but since it is only the case on account of the enduring presence of craving, it does not seem correct to say that one belongs to the other.

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As you may know, in the Buddha’s ‘first teaching’, the “Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma”, he describes dukkha ‘in brief’ as the 5 aggregates subject to clinging. (upadāna, lit. ‘taking up’).
So, at a deep level, all 5 aggregates when appropriated as I, me, and mine are dukkha.

This appropriation only ends with the realization of an Arahant, and with the end of that Arahant’s life there is parinibbāna, no further existence, no further dukkha, extinguishment.

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In the same mentioned sutta, this truth of dukkha is required ‘to be understood’, dukkha as a real, ever present state of affairs for all unenlightened beings.

Thank you for the interesting responses.

Suffering being a feeling could align with the behavior of feelings. We could guess that it’s a negative one, pain, which implies that it’s possible to have clinging/desire for suffering itself to go away (so, ask if this is a real experience). It could be that the experience of suffering includes a feeling though. The Buddha used the word pain and pleasure liberally at times (MN59 MN70), to the point dukkha might be considered a general and unskillful pain as well (although it’d probably be too confusing to mention often, because it’d be a suffering derived from another suffering)

I believe upadāna is a mental formation (“of something”). For example, even though we can cognize/be aware of will, this is still consciousness (“of will”) aggregate; or, even though we can recognize what we feel, this is still recognition (“of a feeling”) aggregate. So, for upadāna, in the sutta I mentioned, SN12.2, it says, in reference of a direct link to dukkha, “And what is grasping? There are these four kinds of grasping. Grasping at sensual pleasures, views, precepts and observances, and theories of a self. This is called grasping.” So, this would imply the answer is mental formations (or an experience that includes a mental formation). From that common wording of the First Noble Truth, this depends on dukkha somehow being the same as upadāna, which seems confusing to me as the 12 links imply that craving leads to suffering.

Hm, but, maybe it is possible to understand things that we don’t actually experience, like understanding math. It would not make much sense though to say “understand something that doesn’t exactly happen to you in order to stop it from happening to you” (which could be saved by claiming it’s supernatural). I’m intrigued by the possibility dukkha is purely supernatural, because it would imply many experiences we have are supernatural, but I have still always believed it’s like any other experience.

So, would you then say that dukkha is not a specific experience but a quality of experience itself? That’s a satisfactory answer.

The first important thing here is that the concept of dukkha is inseparably linked to the concept of atta: dukkha is dukkha for atta.

Dukkha is when there is a subjection of the atta to inevitable uncontrollable changes. The continuity of such changes is not important at all, only the fact that they are inevitable and uncontrollable is important, and that these changes are not about changes of anything and everything, but only in relation to the atta. The five aggregates are subject to such inevitable uncontrollable changes. All that can be and is an atta is the five aggregates, or, in other words, an atta can only be of the five aggregates. So there is no atta without subjection to inevitable uncontrollable changes, without dukkha, and such subjection is the very existence of aggregates.

For the ordinary person who knows what aggregates are, there is an unsolvable problem: there is the undeniable fact that ‘I am’, there is the fact that all that is me or mine is aggregates, dukkha, but there is no way to even imagine what ‘I am’ or ‘mine’ is without or outside aggregates - there is no understanding or even idea of how to save oneself from the subjection.
The ordinary person sees only two ways to solve the problem of dukkha: to destroy the aggregates if he is in an unpleasant situation, or to prolong their existence as long as possible if he sees his situation as pleasant. Generally speaking, for an ordinary person the solution to the problem of dukkha is to try to manage his situation - to manage the aggregates.

But the problem is not the aggregates. The problem is the fact of ‘I am’, which is the problem of appropriation of aggregates. Moreover, such appropriation is not a choice or an action of appropriation, but the very fact of acting on behalf of oneself, when in fact there is no self and one’s own, which would not be aggregates, which are subject to inevitable uncontrolled change and therefore by definition cannot be one’s own or one’s self - this is the ignorance.

This is why in the presence of ignorance we speak of the aggregates of clinging (appropriation), but not just the aggregates as in the case of the arahant: in the presence of ignorance, aggregates are always implicitly appropriated. The fact of the presence of the ignorance and the appropriation is the fact that there is something ‘mine’, ‘for me’ or even ‘I am’.


I don’t disagree, but as to whether or not it “belongs” to the feeling aggregate, that is a different story. Unpleasant feeling is certainly dukkha for the untrained, ordinary person, but that does not imply that dukkha is subordinate to feeling, i.e. manifesting exclusively within that “heap” (aggregate).

Further, the enduring “want” to be rid of the unpleasant feeling is craving, whereas upadana (clinging) applies to the disordered view that craving nurtures, so it would not be accurate to say there is clinging for suffering to disappear (although I think I know what you mean). There is sense desire that is assumed to be escape from unpleasant feeling, but again, the ordinary person does not look at their suffering as an enduring liability worthy of complete uprooting (as is described in the suttas) — the ordinary person is typically balancing out their imbalances with sensuality, and therefore does not “see” the issue at the level of view.

the enduring “want”

tanha? (which conditions upadana)

Yeah, the use of “craving/grasping/want/holding on/clinging/desire/thirst/lust” for the pali words can be semantically confusing sometimes. Bhikkhu Sujato used “grasping” for upadana and “craving” for tanha in SN12.2 for example.

We could look to the previous link/condition for tanha, vedana (feelings/sensations) as relevant, too. Perhaps, some feeling is suffering when one is afflicted by the ignorance of permanence and self as Sasha_A detailed, then accompanied by craving and grasping and becoming and birth and death.

Perhaps, some feeling is suffering when one is afflicted by the ignorance

That seems to be the case as described in the suttas. In fact, for the ordinary person, feeling in general is the condition for craving (the origin of suffering). Even amidst pleasant feeling there can be craving for a more preferable amount of it, not to mention the uncertainty of the neutral feeling. So, that liability is perpetual until the right view is understood.

I’d also like to reference SN12.1#2.12.

jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti.

“Rebirth is a condition for old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress to come to be.”

Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.

“That is how this entire mass of suffering originates.”

It seems to treat dukkha as separate from vedanā, taṇhā, upādāna, bhava, and jāti, but one could take dependent origination less literally and say that these generally condition dukkha by being it / having it as a characteristic, especially because the closing, general line said it was a guide on its origination (over all)

What MN 44 seems to indicate is that there is no separation, but also no fundamental location of that clinging, but it is the attitude of desire and lust that is the reason clinging is there. Suffering seems to follow along the same principle, in that, due to the presence of ignorance in regard to the full extent of experience, the mass of suffering does not come to an end.

Anything which arises and ceases is dukkha. Dukkha, like impermanence or not-self, is a perception.

By that, the five aggregates are dukkha, they are also impermanent, and what is impermanent is dukkha, and they are not-self. To relate this to dependent origination, is it a summary?

Doesn’t suffering happen when attachment (to that which changes) is broken (and not exactly when namarupa arises for example)?

The 5 aggregates are dukkha yes, with or without attachment. I don’t understand your last question sorry?

It sounds like a contradiction for ‘what arises and ceases is suffering’ and ‘desire is the root of suffering’/‘desire is a condition for suffering’, and/or ‘death is suffering (but not any other of the 12 links)’, because then, would desire be causing literally all that arises and ceases? It’s known that consciousness doesn’t arise from just desire, so there’s no way desire directly conditions everything.

This would be putting different teachings out of their own context together, so this isn’t a proper contradiction and probably a question of meaning. Maybe “Anything that arises and ceases is dukkha when ignorant of anicca and anatta” is more accurate

Like pain the aggregates as a whole arise because of ignorance and craving. As they arise from a condition they are dukkha. There are 3 types of dukkha: pain, dukkha of change and the dukkha of formations. On the 12 links it’s about root conditions, not all conditions.

Yes, a good summary of the problem.

When all fetters disappear, the arahant does not suddenly vanish. Hence the Buddha and other’s ability to spend considerable time teaching others.
The 5 aggregates remain operational until death, parinibbāna.

It looks like Theravadin opinion was that

Sorrow; Lamentation; Suffering; Grief; Despair; Application of mindfulness; Great effort is classified under 1 aggregate, under 1 base and under 1 element.


Sorrow; Suffering; Grief is classified with these states under the same aggregate, under the same base and under the same element.
They are associated with 3 aggregates, with 1 base and with 7 elements; partially associated with 1 base and with 1 element.

But, I see now that dukkha maybe isn’t exactly a tangible classifiable experience within the aggregates