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; April 21, 2023 

Three Categories of Suffering

1. In the previous post, “Introduction – What is Suffering?” we discussed what suffering means 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 three categories: Dukkha dukkhatā, saṅkhāra dukkhatā, vipariṇāma dukkhatā. Instead, it is better to understand the meanings of those three 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.

2. The three types of suffering are associated with the characteristics of a saṅkhata, as pointed out in the Tipitaka Commentary Peṭakopadesa, “5. Hāravibhaṅgapañcamabhūmi:” 
Tattha tīṇi saṅkhatalakkhaṇāni tisso dukkhatā: uppādo saṅkhatalakkhaṇaṁ saṅkhāradukkhatāya dukkhatā ca, vayo saṅkhatalakkhaṇaṁ vipariṇāmadukkhatā ca, aññathattaṁ saṅkhatalakkhaṇaṁ dukkhadukkhatāya dukkhatā ca, imesaṁ tiṇṇaṁ saṅkhatalakkhaṇānaṁ..”

“Three saṅkhata lakkhaṇa correspond to three types of suffering (tisso dukkhatā):
(i) uppāda is a saṅkhata lakkhaṇa that corresponds to saṅkhāra dukkhatā. A saṅkhata arises due to (avijja paccayasaṅkhāra. That itself takes effort (suffering). Furthermore, it will also lead to future suffering.
(ii) vayo is a saṅkhata lakkhaṇa corresponding to vipariṇāma dukkhatā. Any saṅkhata is destroyed (vaya), and that leads to vipariṇāma dukkhatā.
(iii) aññathatta is a saṅkhata lakkhaṇa corresponding to dukkha dukkhatā. Any saṅkhata undergoes unexpected changes (aññathatta) during existence, and that is dukkha dukkhatā.

  • All three types of dukkha WILL NOT stop until saṅkhāra-generation via “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” stops.
What Is Suffering Based on?

3. 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 our six internal senses stop working or weaken, we suffer.

  • Using those sensory faculties, we experience six types of rupa in the external world: visuals, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and dhammā. If those are not to 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.
  • First, let us discuss the three types of dukkha we experience during a lifetime.
Three Types of Dukkha During Lifetime

4. Any rupa changes (sometimes unexpected) 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 the time to think about these concepts.
  • We start feeling this hidden suffering when we pass middle age. For example, eyesight, hearing, and taste will get weaker.  Our bodies start sagging, and the brain becomes 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 and hearing aids, adding more spices/flavor to food, and doing cosmetic procedures to maintain the body’s appearance. There is absolutely nothing wrong with some of these “fixes”; for example, we need to see, so we must take precautions to protect our eyes and start wearing glasses. Ditto for hearing aids and even for adding spices to food. Some people resort to cosmetic procedures (coloring their hair, for example) to maintain self-confidence. 
  • These “remedies” require effort and are part of saṅkhāra-dukkha.

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

  • For example, our houses, cars, or other ” valuable things” 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.
  • We also need to work to repair them and 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 must go to a surgeon and pay. If we need to repair a car, we must take it to a mechanic and pay him. All these activities involve dukkha-dukkha.
Mental Stress – Big Part of Saṅkhāra-Dukkha

6. The leading cause of suffering is in our MINDS. For example, a wealthy person may suffer due to losing something he owns, 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 desire. This is another aspect of the Pāli term anicca. It is primarily mental and is called “sankhāra dukkha.” It arises through the struggles we engage in to maintain things to our satisfaction.

  • For example, when we buy a lovely house, endless things 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

7. The suffering we discussed so far arises from one aspect of anicca: Anything in this world is subjected to decay and destruction; nothing in this world is exempt from that. That is part of “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 such kammā will bring vipāka into this life, primarily as physical work.
  • As we will discuss, if they involve abisaṅkhāra, those will lead to kamma vipāka in future lives.
Three Types of Dukkha in the Rebirth Process

8. “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 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 particular 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.

9. 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 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.

10.  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. 

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


11. 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; 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 past immoral actions. 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 will not be according to our wishes. Instead, 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”

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

  • Everything happens due to a reason (causes). Doing a good deed will lead to good results, and evil 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 evil deeds done in previous lives.
Saṅkhāra-Dukkha Gives Rise to All Dukkha

13. The “Vicayahāravibhaṅga” in  the Petakopadesa states the following: “Saṅkhāradukkhatāya pana loko anupādisesāya nibbānadhātuyā muccati, tasmā saṅkhāradukkhatā dukkhaṁ lokassāti katvā dukkhamassa mahabbhayanti.”

  • The meaning is “If saṅkhāra-dukkha can be overcome, one will get to Nibbāna. Therefore, saṅkhāra-dukkha is the one with great danger (mahabbhaya or mahā + bhaya.)”
  • An average human perceives the cultivation of (abhi)saṅkhāra as “pleasure.” An extreme example is raping a woman seeking sensory gratification. That involves vaci (planning/thinking) and kāya (implementing) abhisaṅkhāra. It could be enjoyable at that time. However, he will pay for that brief gratification for millions of years. Unimaginable but true!
  • Thus, any such “pleasure” is short-lived (vipariṇāma dukkha) and will bring unimaginable dukkha-dukkha in the future. One must “see” the “hidden suffering in sensory pleasures” before getting to the Sotapanna stage. 
  • Until then, humans see the cultivation of (abhi)saṅkhāra as “pleasure.”
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Next, “Avijja paccayā saṅkhāra“, …………..

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