Although there is no satisfactory equivalent English word for dukkha it has been variously translated as suffering, unsatisfactory, frustration, unhappiness, anguish, dis-ease, (opposite: sukha, ease, well being). It is essentially transience and all that arises from the experience of transience.
For the Buddhist, the primary characteristic of sentient existence is the fact of dukkha. This is signified in the first of the Four Noble Truths: “there is dukkha”; this means the truth about suffering is the fact of its universality. The Buddha is said to have made no other claim than that he was the teacher of the fact of suffering, its origin, cause, and remedy (the Four Noble Truths).
This term is found in ancient literature. Traditional Buddhists define dukkha in a number of different ways:
1. In the Four Noble Truths dukkha is represented as birth, old age, sickness, and death; grief, sorrow, physical and mental pain; involvement in what one dislikes and separation from what one likes; not getting what one wants; in summary, the five groups of grasping (or craving) are the source of suffering.
2. Threefold dukkha is ordinary physical and mental pain, that is, pure or intrinsic suffering, suffering as the result of change, suffering owing to the impermanent and ephemeral nature of things; and sufferings due to the formations of individuals and their temporal or finite states.
3. It is maintained that all transient beings, whether gods, humans, pretas (deceased), animals, or inhabitant of hell, are subject to dukkha. Gods suffer the least since they are in a hierarchy of different beings, and the inhabitants of hell the most. Humans lying midway experience a mixture of suffering and happiness; this makes them best fitted to escape from their temporary surroundings, because the mixture gives them both the opportunity and the impetus to discriminate the nature of reality.
While Buddhism does asset the universal nature of suffering as a cardinal doctrine, it does not deny of fail to appreciate the existence of happiness (sukha) where it is found. However, what it does maintain is that people’s conception of happiness, their attachment to and yearning after it, will sooner or later bring sorrow because the object of happiness is impermanent (anicca). Consequently, by the fact that happiness is temporal, it is further proof of dukkha.
It is through the comparison with nibbana that it is comprehended that everything else possesses or is associated with suffering. Hence suffering is a subject embodied in Buddhism meditational practice.
The discernment of suffering involves precisely the recognition that even things which appear to provide happiness are ephemeral and that the attachment to them therefore only yields suffering. But so ingrained is humankind’s desire for mundane happiness, it is said, that it is harder to comprehend the truth of the universality of suffering, that to split a single hair into one hundred strands.
Buddhism rejects that suffering is either self-caused (the Upanisadic view) or caused by another (either God, or the gods, or by chance), but hold instead that the causation is “caused” or has an “origin.” The character of this causation is set out in the doctrine of paticca-samuppada. The notion of “vicarious suffering” is central within Mahayana Buddhism.
The bodhisativa volunteers to remain within the round of rebirths and postpone his entry in nibbana in order to identify with and help alleviate the suffering of other sentient beings.
The most cherished example of “vicarious suffering” is the Buddhist tradition is the jatakamala tale of how the Buddha, in a former existence, was a tigeress who gave her own body as meat for her cubs to feed upon to save them from starvation.
Vietnamese monks and nuns publicly burning themselves to death as an act of witness to the suffering inflicted on the people during the war instanced the tradition of “voluntary sacrifice” as a feature of Mahayana Buddhism in recent times. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 296-297