English Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey has written a fine paper in which he discusses “Dukkha, Non-self, and the Teaching of the Four ‘Noble Truths” (PDF here).
In but a few words, the Buddha seeks to sketch the human, or really creaturely, condition (Harvey translation and internal notes):
Now this, monks, for the spiritually ennobled, is the painful (dukkha) true reality (ariyasacca): [i] birth [i.e., being born] is painful, aging is painful, illness is painful, death is painful; [ii] sorrow, lamentation, (physical) pain, unhappiness and distress are painful; [iii] union with what is disliked is painful; separation from what is liked is painful; not to get what one wants is painful; [iv] in brief, the fi ve bundles of grasping-fuel are painful. (SN.V.421)Harvey, p. 29
Today I’ll simply comment on i. and ii.
i. Biological Conditions
Harvey observes that the first list consisting of being birth, aging, getting ill, and dying are all “biological conditions,” all of which tend to give rise to what is painful (dukkha).
To see the veracity of the Buddha’s claim, let’s examine aging in American culture. It’s not the case that getting older, on its own, is dukkha. It’s just a phenomenon, a fact. But it is the case that getting older tends, in American culture, to engender dukkha: “I don’t want to be ugly, irrelevant, out of the game, passed by; I don’t want my youth to end; and I don’t want to accept that I’m getting closer to death.” A similar analysis applies to getting ill.
Of course, as Shankara would say, “The ‘I am the body’ idea is the source of all misery.” While we’re still on the diagnosing stage (i.e., we’re just considering what dukkha is), it’s clear in the case of biological conditions that attachment to being the body or to being in the body or to possessing the body are creating dis-ease.
ii. Life’s Vicissitudes
Harvey suggests that the “second set of features refer to physical or mental pains that arise from the vicissitudes of life” (pp. 30-31). I would say: “that tend to arise.”
The idea here is that the seemingly endless ups and downs of sentient life can give rise to dukkha. It’s not that change itself is distressing, but it is true that, for many people, change in the form of loss is and thus generates sorrow and lamentation. Or consider a second obvious case: if Jane tells herself the story about her being “change-averse,” then any change as small as her significant other’s rearranging her bedroom furniture can make her feel ill at ease.
Getting the Point
What can scarcely be overemphasized is the almost all-pervasive not-quite-right-ness embedded most people’s takes on life. This is the existential flavor of dukkha: “I can’t quite get my bearings. I can’t seem to settle down. I’m itching in my own skin. Something doesn’t feel right. Something feels off. I must always be improving something or other.” And so on. Dukkha hints at the low-level frantic restlessness that is catapulting us onward. In the arms of dukkha, we feel disturbance.