• Tõnn Sarv

Lost in Translation



Suffering or 'dukkha' seems to be an essential part of Buddhist teachings. It appears in the Four Noble Truths, in the Dependent Origination, etc. Sometimes the 'dukkha' is considered to have almost the same importance as the 'Three Gems' (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha).


Alas, the term 'dukkha' is frequently misunderstood, wrongly translated and quoted. In Pali, 'dukkha' means not only suffering but also any uncomfortableness or inconveniences. However, which is more critical, suffering is becoming to be an inevitable mark and characteristic of life and the existence in total.


It's widely accepted as if Buddha has been said,


Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering.

The original, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, SN 56.11 (S v 420), says:


jāti·pi dukkhā, jarā·pi dukkhā (byādhi·pi dukkho) maraṇam·pi dukkhaṃ, a·p·piyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tam·pi dukkhaṃ;

It's not said that all these phenomena ARE suffering or these are equal or just the same as suffering or 'dukkha.' In Pali, the sentence doesn't always need a verb, and the translators add the verb 'is,' though this is not the onliest option.


However, in such a way there arise an opinion, as if Buddha has been said, that all these things are inevitable sufferings for sure. It contradicts the Buddha's teachings in general, which purpose and goal are to get over of suffering, to be free of sufferings. Birth, aging, sickness, and death MUST NOT BE suffering, that is the core and the real issue of Buddha's teachings. Birth, aging, sickness, and death are said to be suffering only in the conventional worldly way, but in fact it is mental aversion to these that are the suffering. So in the noble dhamma they are optionally suffering.


From this lost in translation has been arisen an opinion, as if the Buddhist view is generally pessimistic or as if there is a belief, that life is suffering.


Such opinion is common even in Buddhist circles, including monks and highly acknowledged teachers and it's promoted by various temples and monasteries. As if the earthy life, circling in 'samsara', is permanent suffering, from which one can be saved only by death, 'nirvana.' It would take too long to explain here, why and how such kind of beliefs are originated and why these are still alive and widespread. Also, it would take too long to correct such misbeliefs. Enough for now perhaps to mention, that 'nirvana' is never meant death in Buddha's teachings.


However, it's true, with so widespread and prolonged lasting teachings it happens frequently, that the core and the original message disappears and people begin to believe and use entirely different things. It is noticeable with all the world religions and not only with these.


Among all the Buddhist nations, there are the most widespread various popular Buddhist customs and forms with magic, mystics, and traditions, which have almost no relations with Buddha's teachings. There are no differentials if the local culture has rooted in Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen, or whatever. It can be said that mostly, the Buddha's teachings are unknown anywhere.


However, the original teachings are not entirely lost, still can find knowledge and awareness, and also there are still venerable teachers who can explain the Buddha Dharma, both in traditionally Buddhist countries and in the Western world. Alas, the truth is, that the original Buddhist teachings are not very well known and understood.


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