The co-existing terms Dukkha and Sukkha in Pali are central to the Buddhist teaching. So much so that, traditionally, the Buddha is thought to have said: “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.”
Given the pivotal role that these terms play in understanding the long history of Buddhist teaching, at it’s core, we would do well to take a close look at their meaning. Dukkha is most often translated as Suffering, however the inadequacy of this translation is widely accepted.
The words dukkha and sukkha come from the root word kha, and the oldest traceable etymology of kha refers to the hole in the wheel of a cart, which connects the wheel to the axle. Dukkha would be a bad axle hole and Sukkha would be a good one. Ever since I heard this interpretation from Akincano Marc Weber, it has stuck with me. When dukkha is present, it is going to be a bumpy ride. It is a state of your cart, as a metaphor for your body and mind, that determines whether your ride is bumpy or smooth. It is a state of body and mind that determines how comfortable your experience of life is.
I found this explanation to be straightforward and satisfying. It is one step more meta than just the concept of suffering. It describes uncomfortability, while also identifying that the uncomfortability stems from misalignment.
I was imagining that the misalignment in the axle-hole gets amplified as the energy is transferred to the cart, going over bumps. So the act of aligning at the source is a way to leverage a specific internal relationship, towards yourself or your environment, that in turn colors your overall experience of the world, making it bumpy or smooth, because it hinges upon that specific point of leverage.
Dukkha as Fearfulness, Sukkha as Fearlessness
Recently, it has been occurring to me that the metaphor can be taken even deeper, and that is why my concept of dukkha has now changed.
Sure, being in a cart that has a misaligned axle-hole is uncomfortable in a physical sense, the bumps in the road might be more amplified than they otherwise would be with an aligned axle-hole.
But there’s something left to be desired with this conceptualization of dukkha. If the whole of Buddhist teaching, which is generally geared towards our psychology, can be distilled into teachings around dukkha, it seems that the interpretation of the metaphor for which the etymology of the word can be traced back to needs to have psychological dimension as well.
We’ve described the physical experience of a passenger riding in a cart with a misaligned axle-hole, a bumpy ride, but what is the psychological experience of a passenger riding in a cart with a misaligned axle-hole?
Accompanying the physical sensation of something being wrong within the structure of the design of the vehicle, there is a constant gnawing sense of insecurity. If we happen to hit an exceptionally bad bump in the road, this cart, with it’s misaligned axle-hole, is more likely than it should be to break down.
Versus the physical sensation of smoothness which brings a sense of comfort that, even if we hit bumps in the road, which one would expect on the kinds of roads that carriages ride on, we should expect to be able to keep going.
That, gnawing sense of insecurity of not being equipped to handle the turbulence that life might bring you, just as a matter of course, is, in my opinion, the distilled concept of dukkha, and resonates deeply with me as being central to the rest of the Buddha’s teachings. I would translate it as fearfulness: an emotion experienced in anticipation of some specific pain or danger.