Introduction -2 – The Three Categories of Suffering

The three categories of suffering are dukkha dukkhatā, saṅkhāra dukkhatā, and vipariṇāma dukkhatā.

June 20, 2021; revised June 10, 2022

Three Categories of Suffering

1. In the previous post, “Introduction – What is Suffering?” we discussed what is meant by suffering in Buddha Dhamma. Here we continue that discussion. The three categories of suffering are stated in the Dukkhatā Sutta (SN 45.165): “…Dukkha dukkhatā, saṅkhāra dukkhatā, vipariṇāma dukkhatāimā kho, bhikkhave, tisso dukkhatā.”

  • It does not make sense to try to translate the names of the 3 categories: Dukkha dukkhatā, saṅkhāra dukkhatā, vipariṇāma dukkhatā. Instead, it is better to understand the meanings of those 3 types of suffering. Here, dukkhatā means “type of dukkha.”
  • Thus, we can say that the 3 categories of suffering are dukkha-dukkha, saṅkhāra-dukkha, and vipariṇāma-dukkha.
  • We can briefly identify them as follows.
    – Saṅkhāra- dukkha is associated with our efforts (based on mano, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra) to try to acquire and maintain rupa to our liking.
    – Vipariṇāma-dukkha arises when rupa (both internal and external) change against our liking.
    – Our efforts with saṅkhāra-generation lead to more kamma vipāka, and that is dukkha-dukkha. 
  • That is why all three types of dukkha WILL NOT stop until saṅkhāra-generation via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” stops.
What Is Suffering Based on?

2. What is our whole world? We sense external rupa through our five physical senses (internal rupa) and then think about them. Thus we can sum up our world as what we experience through our INTERNAL six senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind). If any of our internal 6 senses stop working or get weaker, we suffer.

  • Using those sensory faculties, we experience 6 types of rupa in the external world: visuals, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and dhammā. If those are not our liking, we suffer. On the sixth type of rupa, see “What are Rūpa? – Dhammā are Rūpa too!
  • Those twelve (six INTERNAL and six EXTERNAL) make up “our world.” Everything is included in those twelve—all 12 lead to suffering, not only in this life but also in future lives.
  • Let us first discuss the three types of dukkha that we experience during a lifetime.
Three Types of Dukkha During Lifetime

3. Any rupa undergoes change (sometimes unexpected change), leading to suffering. First, let us consider whether we can keep our physical bodies (internal rupa) and their associated sensory faculties to our satisfaction.

  • We may be able to maintain our five physical senses to our satisfaction for many years. And this is why people do not even take time to think about these concepts.
  • We start feeling this hidden suffering when we pass middle age. For example, eyesight, hearing, and tasting will get weaker.  Our bodies start sagging and the brain will become weaker too. That is vipariṇāma-dukkha.
  • So, what do most of us do? We start looking for ways to “prop them up”: We can take temporary measures by wearing glasses, hearing aids, adding more spices/flavor to food, and doing cosmetic procedures to try to maintain the body’s appearance. There is absolutely nothing wrong with some of these “fixes”; for example, we need to see, so we need to take precautions to protect our eyes and start wearing glasses. Ditto for hearing aids and even for adding spices to food. Even doing some cosmetic procedures (coloring the hair, for example) may be needed to maintain a  level of self-confidence, as may be the case.
  • These “remedies” require effort and are part of saṅkhāra-dukkha.

4. Note that those two types of dukkha can also arise due to external rupa too.

  • For example, our houses, cars, or any other “valuable thing” are also sankhata, just like our physical bodies. They also undergo (both expected and unexpected) change and will cease to exist in the future. That also contributes to our vipariṇāma-dukkha.
  • Here also we need to put in work to repair them and to try to maintain them to our satisfaction. That is also part of saṅkhāra-dukkha. 
  • During both types of saṅkhāra generation, we will generate kamma that will lead to kamma vipaka. Those manifest as dukkha-dukkha. For example, if a woman gets a “facelift” she needs to go to a surgeon and also needs to pay. If we need to repair a car, we need to take it to a mechanic and pay him too. All these activities involve dukkha-dukkha.
Mental Stress – Big Part of Saṅkhāra-Dukkha

5. The main cause of suffering is in our MINDS. For example, a wealthy person may suffer due to a loss of something he has, and a poor person may suffer due to the inability to get what he wants. Either person becomes distraught due to his/her mind activities: attachment to what one has or craving for what one desires. This is another aspect of the Pāli term anicca. It is mostly mental and is called “sankhāra dukkha.” It arises through the struggles we engage in trying to maintain things to our satisfaction.

  • For example, when we buy a nice house, there are endless things that need to be done to “maintain it to our satisfaction”; this is also part of sankhāra dukkha. Sometimes we don’t even realize this suffering. Think about how much work we do to prepare a nice meal; then we enjoy it in 10-15 minutes, and then we need to spend more time cleaning up. We slaved through hours to get a brief sensory pleasure.
We Engage in Sankhara Due to Avijja

6. The suffering that we discussed so far arises from one aspect of anicca: Things are subjected to decay, and destruction, and nothing in this world is exempt from that; this is part of what is called “viparināma dukkha,” suffering that arises due to changes and decay (both expected and unexpected.)

  • Saṅkhāra-dukkha is associated with maintaining our internal rupa and acquiring and maintaining external rupa. All such efforts require thinking, speaking, and bodily actions; they involve mano, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra. See, “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means.”
  • Dukkha-dukkha arises even without us realizing it, while we seek remedies for viparināma dukkha with various activities involving involve mano, vaci, and kāya saṅkhāra. That leads to the kamma generation. Part of those kammā will bring vipāka in this life mostly as physical work.
  • If they involved abisaṅkhāra, then those will lead to kamma vipāka in future lives, as we will discuss below.
Three Types of Dukkha in the Rebirth Process

7. “Saṅkhāra” means “san” + “khāra” or our efforts to accumulate/maintain things in this world (both internal and external) to our satisfaction. Any saṅkhata (both internal and external) arises due to due to such efforts. See, “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means.”

  • (Note that any action to live in this world involves saṅkhāra. For example, breathing is a kāya saṅkhāra that does not have kammic consequences. Those that involve lobha, dosa, and moha are a special type of saṅkhāra; they are abhisaṅkhāra. But this distinction is not always emphasized (like in “avijjā paccyā saṅkhāra,” but one needs to be able to figure that out. )
  • In the end, all such efforts are in vain. No matter how much effort we make, our bodies will fall apart at old age (or even earlier), and when we die, we will have to leave behind all those external “valuables” that we accumulated with much effort. That is why we say saṅkhāra arise due avijja, i.e., “avijjā paccaya saṅkhāra.” All our efforts (based on “san” (greed, anger, and ignorance) are due to avijja!
  • Abhisaṅkhāra” generation is the root cause for the generation of all types of sankhata, internal and external. That takes place via Akusala-mula Paticca Samuppada.

8. In that broad sense, the three types of dukkha can be attributed to the three stages of a sankhata: uppāda (arising,) vaya (destruction,) and existence (ṭhiti.) The three stages are stated in the “Saṅkhatalakkhaṇa Sutta (AN 3.47).”

  • The three types of dukkhatā correspond to the three lakkhana of a sankhata.
    – A sankhata arises due to Paticca Samuppāda starting with “avijjā paccayā sankhāra.” Thus the “uppāda lakkhana” of a sankhata is associated with saṅkhāra dukkhatā.
    – Any sankhata will eventually be destroyed and has the “vaya lakkhana.” That is the vipariṇāma dukkhatā.
    – In between the birth and death, a sankhata exists (tithi). However, it undergoes unexpected change (aññathā), and that gives rise to Dukkha dukkhatā. That is expressed by, “titthassa sankata lakkhanan, dukkha dukkhata.
  • Note that such unexpected changes (aññathā) take place due to vipāka of kamma done previously with (abhi)sankhāra via “avijjā paccayā sankhāra.” Thus, Dukkha dukkhatā manifests as kamma vipāka.

9.  The Petakopadesa — a Commentary in the Tipitaka — explains how the three types of dukkhatācorrespond to the three lakkhaṇa of a sankhata. See “5. Hāravibhaṅgapañcamabhūmi” in the first paragraph. It is sort of hidden!

Tattha tīṇi saṅkhatalakkhaṇāni tisso dukkhatā uppādo saṅkhatalakkhaṇaṁ, saṅkhāradukkhatāya dukkhatā ca saṅkhatalakkhaṇaṁ, vipariṇāmadukkhatāya dukkhatāti aññathattaṁ ca saṅkhatalakkhaṇaṁ, dukkhadukkhatāya ca dukkhatā,.”


10. The worst category of suffering in the rebirth process arises as kamma vipāka giving rise to rebirth in the apāyās. Beings in the apāyā encounter harsher suffering, and in the niraya (lowest realm), that is all one feels.

  • A person who made money by killing another or stealing from another may live well in this life (at least outwardly) but will be subjected to much suffering in the upcoming births. This is the worst category of dukkha-dukkha, which arises due to immoral actions of the past. Until the death of the physical body, even an Arahant is subjected to dukkha-dukkha.
  • Therefore, the third category of suffering, dukkha-dukkha, arises from immoral acts (pāpa kamma/akusala kamma.) The severity of suffering depends on the severity of the violation. Paṭicca samuppāda (“pati+ichcha” leading to “sama”+”uppāda”) describes the underlying mechanism; see, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha”+” Sama+uppäda,” where it is briefly discussed how one’s actions lead to effects that are similar “in-kind.”
  • The results of our actions are not going to be according to our wishes. Rather, they will be according to root causes (lobha, dosa, moha) and prevailing conditions at any time. Paṭicca samuppāda is Nature’s law-enforcing mechanism.
Dukkha-Dukkha in Rebirth Process Is Delayed Results of “Bad Saṅkhāra”

11. All our actions (including speech and thoughts) are initiated by saṅkhāra. Thus, dukkha-dukkha arises from the worst forms of saṅkhāra (involving lobha, dosa, moha,) which we call immoral actions (pāpa kamma/akusala kamma.) This dukkha-dukkha is the main form of suffering that we discussed in the previous post, “Introduction – What is Suffering?

  • Everything happens due to a reason (causes). If one does a good deed, that will lead to good results, and bad deeds will lead to bad results. This is the basis of science and also how nature works. “Every action has a reaction.” It is guaranteed, sooner or later.
  • This is why rebirth is a reality of nature. Some people live lavishly with money earned by immoral deeds. They WILL suffer the consequences in future rebirths.
  • It also explains why different people are born with different levels of health, wealth, beauty, etc., and why there are innumerable varieties of animals with different levels of suffering. Those are all results of bad deeds done in previous lives.
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Next, “Avijja paccayā saṅkhāra“, …………..

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