The Rolling Stones are one of the biggest bands in rock & roll history. They got together in 1962, but it was a song that came out 3 years later that really made them.

“I can’t get no satisfaction!”

Keith Richards apparently came up with the idea for the song in his sleep. Mick Jagger then wrote the lyrics by a hotel pool in Clearwater, Florida.

“When I’m drivin’ in my car, and the man come on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more about some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination

I can’t get no, oh, no, no, no, hey, hey, hey
That’s what I say
I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no satisfaction.”

The words describe a man who goes through life, never feeling satisfied. One reason why the song became so popular, apart from the catchy tune of course, was the fact that it evoked a familiar feeling among many of its fans.

I usually can’t get no satisfaction either. Despite trying. And trying.

What does Mick Jagger and a catchy song from the 1960’s have to do with Buddhism you might ask? On first look, not much, but if you really dig deep down, it has everything to do with it.

For it can help you understand one of Buddhism’s most important concepts: dukkha.

Suffering, not getting satisfaction, unease

Dukkha comes from the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, and is often translated as “suffering”. While suffering is the most common word used in English for the concept of dukkha, it doesn’t capture the whole meaning.

Rather, dukkha is a sort of existential angst that comes from living life. Suffering, lack of satisfaction, unease, are all words that can be used to get a grasp of what dukkha means.

See where Mick Jagger comes in? Despite being a famous rock star, and having the world at his feet, he still can’t get no satisfaction. That’s how life basically is. Despite having what you need, you always crave for more.

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is a Buddhist text which allegedly records Siddharta Gautama’s first sermon. In it, the Buddha defines what dukkha is:

“Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.” — Buddha

While mental suffering that comes from objective factors such as death or physical pain are dukkha, much of the anguish that comes with dukkha is actually self-inflicted. It comes from various cravings you have.

You want to be rich and famous, but are stuck working the late shift at McDonald’s? That’s dukkha.

You are working hard 24/7 trying to deliver on deadlines, but you still get passed over on the promotion? Again dukkha.

You are trying to be a good person, but some bad person makes a false accusation against you and trips you up? Dukkha.

All of these examples point at different types of sufferings, dissatisfactions, or unease. Yet, they are all examples of dukkha. You have certain hopes and expectations about life, but they turn out to be untrue. You have certain cravings, but they don’t get fulfilled. That’s all part of living in the world.

This is what Buddha realized when he was sitting under that bodhi tree two and a half thousand years ago. Life is not very pleasant. Life is suffering, both mental and physical.

You grow old. People die. You want something, but don’t get it. You suffer injustice. Instead of money, life gives you lemons. And despite trying hard to make lemonade, you just end up with some awfully tasting liquid.

Yup, shit sucks…

Life is fleeting, and your mind leads you astray

The most frustrating thing about life is that it passes. Sometimes, you might actually even experience a happy moment. That’s the problem though. It’s just a moment. It passes. Then back to bad old suffering.

This process describes one of the three marks of existence. Impermanence, or in Buddhist language anicca. The other mark has to do with your own changing self. While the word anatta, or no-self, is interpreted differently in various Buddhist traditions, the crux has to do with the fact you don’t have a permanent self. It’s always changing. Life is change.

One time you are up. The other down. This causes suffering. This causes dukkha. However, let’s take a deep dive into what is actually at the root of this. It’s your tendency to cling. To want what you can’t have. To worry about stuff you can’t control.

With this realization, you can also start applying what the Buddhists see as the solution to all these problems. As one of my favorite Buddhist texts the Dhammapada says, it’s all in the mind.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.”— Verse 1 of Buddha’s Dhammapada

The stuff you want, or must have, are an illusion. You don’t actually need them. It’s just your mind leading you astray.

Realizing this, and always keeping it in mind when shit hits the fan, you are on your way to navigating the bad stuff life throws at you. You might never reach Enlightenment, but that’s OK.

Keeping perspective can help you lead a life that is much less unsatisfactory than what other people experience. Even billionaires, or rock stars. Sounds unbelievable, but it’s true.

Just look at how many rock stars die of drug overdoses. They have the money. They have the fame. They are doing what they always dreamed of doing. Yet, they are still unhappy. They still can’t get no satisfaction. So they drown themselves in alcohol and drugs.

Life is about having a good axle

According to some linguists, the word dukkha comes from the old Sanskrit word for axle hole. More than three millennia ago, Aryan tribes from the plains in the north invaded India and took over much of the country.

That’s why Sanskrit and many of the northern Indian languages like modern Hindi are much more closely related to languages like English, German, or Russian, then they are to the Dravidian languages of southern India. Some Indo-European tribes went west, and became Europeans. Others went south, and became Indians.

Initially, these tribes were nomadic, and the center of their world were carts drawn by horses and oxes. These were on wheels, connected through axles. You can imagine having good axles was incredibly important. With good axles, you could travel long distances. On bad axles, you couldn’t.

Bad axle holes became the source of the word dukkha. Good axle holes became the source of another word, sukha. This is having an authentic state of happiness, as opposed to the existential suffering and unease you get with dukkha.

It’s not easy to experience sukha, while dukkha is basically your everyday state. Understanding the origin of these words, gave me a new perspective on what you need in life. All you need is a good axle, and you can travel great distances!

And even if you end up with a bad axle, that still isn’t the end of the world. People get dealt shitty cards in life all the time. It’s how you deal with it that counts. Just get as far as you can.

While not actually being Buddhists, guys like Albert Camus or Viktor Frankl came up with ways to overcome a life of dukkha. One had you smile in defiance of life’s struggles, just like Sisyphus smiles doing his never-ending backbreaking task. The other had you find meaning in your suffering. Both of these are good strategies to adopt.

Steps to overcoming a life of dukkha

The first thing you need to do is accept how life is. It’s not perfect. Stuff you want, you will not always get. Your best laid plans will usually come to nothing. Despite your hard work.

The key is to be realistic about this. It will make things hurt a lot less in the end. As Lama Surya Das says in his book Awakening the Buddha Within, life is difficult.

“What Buddhism does say is that life, by its nature, is difficult, flawed, and imperfect. That’s the nature of life, and that’s the First Noble Truth. From the Buddhist point of view, this is not a judgement of life’s joys and sorrows; this is a simple, down-to-earth, matter-of-fact description.” — Lama Surya Das

So the first step is understanding how life is and accepting it. This is already huge. Getting a perspective on the nature of life, is half the battle. Most people never even get here.

The second step is living with this knowledge. Meditation can help. It can calm your mind, but also aid you to reach higher levels of understanding. Life is a prison, but much of it is self-imposed.

The third step is thus to get rid of attachments. Your views about what you need to do, what you want, and what you must have are what is holding you down. You should shift your perspective. About yourself and the world.

Of course, you can go full in and become a Buddhist, and spend your time in meditation and prayer. And maybe if you are lucky, you will achieve Nirvana that way.

Just keep in mind that different Buddhist traditions have different ideas on this. The Theravada Buddhists, the old-school ones in places like Sri Lanka or Thailand, believe you can escape life and reach this blissful state.

However, the Mahayana Buddhists, which are basically the majority of the different schools in places like Tibet, China, and Japan, believe that no one can reach the state of Nirvana, until everyone does.

For me, learning about dukkha has been incredibly enlightening. While I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, these teachings gave me a great perspective on how the world works. I have combined them with insights from other traditions and philosophers, and they help me navigate the different complexities of life in this world.

Maybe they can do the same for you.



An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.
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2 thoughts on “Dukkha: The Buddhist Concept You Need To Know”

  1. Been studying this material myself recently – happy to see this post. I agree with your position that just by remaining aware of the true nature of reality, like the eternal background suffering of our own desires, we can begin to live a more fulfilled life.

    1. Yup! I think the fact that you are aware of how things work makes you happier overall.

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