Chapter Two of Part Two of Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s book The Best Way to Catch a Snake is explanation of the Buddhist notion of Dukkha,1 which he explains like so:
Firstly, I think it will be helpful to try and explain this word dukkha. ‘Dukkha’ is a Pali [language] word and there really isn’t an equivalent word in the English language. While dukkha can mean suffering, it can also mean pain, both physical and mental, or sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, stress, anguish, misery, and frustration. We all know that life can be difficult at times, even downright depressing. We have all felt sad, let-down, and dissatisfied with life. Well, this is exactly what Buddha was getting at when he told us that there is dukkha. (pg. 96-97)
As Karma Yeshe Rabgye further explains, there are basically three kinds of dukkha:
- The dukkha of pain – this is the obvious one. This comes from feelings of actual physical suffering, but also feelings of loss, guilt, regret,
- The dukkha of happiness – this one is more subtle since happiness is such a nice feeling. This kind of dukkha comes when the good feelings ebb, and we feel the need to get them back. More on that later.
- The all-pervasive dukkha – this comes from the general conditions of life, the challenges of growing up, being hemmed in by society, and the inevitable decline in one’s life, among other things.
After reading Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s book, I was inspired to make this video and explore the concept further:
The second form of dukkha is, to me, often the hardest to perceive because we all want to be happy and we spend all our energies toward that end. The pursuit of happiness in of itself isn’t wrong, it’s just the way we go about it. A lot of the happiness in life is like sand slipping through the fingers in that we enjoy something, but either we lost interest (for example listening to our favorite song too much) or because conditions outside our control changed and we can longer sustain the happiness we had before.
Case in point, in the video I talked about winning a local Magic the Gathering tournament (well, getting 3-1 which was pretty good for a first-timer), but then the following weekend, I did another local tournament and only got 2-2. Although that is not a bad score, it was worse than my previous score, and so even though I got some great cards from it, I still felt let-down. That right there was dukkha.
I came in expecting to get another 3-1 or even better, but I came away with a worse score, not better. In other words, I couldn’t sustain the same winning record I had from the previous time. And, come to think of it, even if I did, eventually I would get 2-2 or worse. It is foolish to assume I would always have the same record or better. But that’s how the mind works.
This is an example of dukkha in my own life, but if you look at your own life, I bet you can find similar examples.
Essentially, what Karma Yeshe Ragye is saying is that if you look deep enough all things in this world are dukkha in some way or another. Buddhist literature sometimes uses very colorful and elaborate narrative to explain this,2 but basically the message is the same: there is no lasting refuge in this world. It will always slip from your grasp somehow, and you’re left with dukkha again.
Only when you learn to be at peace with yourself can you let go and be content. It’s as simple as that. Actually getting to that sense of contentment is no trivial task though, hence Buddhism has grown and developed as much as it had across the generations.
P.S. As I was writing this post, I accidentally deleted a paragraph for a moment. That caused me a sense of dukkha as well since I was going to have to type it again, though thankfully I found what I typed. 😉
1 For reference, the Sanskrit version of the same word is duḥkham (दुःखम्). This is in contrast to the Sanskrit word sukham (सुखम्) which means happiness, etc.
2 See the Parable of the Burning House in the Lotus Sutra for example.