Mud And Lotuses: The Buddhist Meaning Of Dukkha

Without mud, there is no lotus. Could it be possible that life’s suffering can be the catalyst for wisdom? Mal Huxter explains the Buddha's four noble truths and how to adapt the wisdom of dukkha to clinical psychology.
Mal Huxter is a clinical psychologist, Dharma teacher and author.
dukkha in buddhism meaning
Mal Huxter is a clinical psychologist, Dharma teacher and author.

Most of us suffer in some way or other, even if it is just a minor unsatisfactoriness — the experience of not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want or being parted from what we hold dear to our hearts. These things are all a part of life and have always been so. All these things are dukkha.

The Meaning of Dukkha

Dukkha is the Pali term used to describe the first truth of suffering. Dukkha is often translated as suffering but it is better to consider it as unsatisfactoriness. It can be gross such as our struggles with mental torment, severe illness and death or it can be subtle, such as not getting what we want exactly how and when we want it.

The Buddha taught four noble truths.  These truths are the realities of:

  1. dukkha,
  2. the origins of dukkha,
  3. freedom from dukkha and
  4. the path leading to freedom.

By realising, for ourselves, the four truths we can not only reduce and possibly uproot our own dukkha, but also contribute to the reduction of suffering across the globe. The four truths also provide a sequence for how we can transform suffering to freedom.

During a recent retreat, Mal Huxter gave a Dharma talk describing not only the analogy of mud and lotuses but also explaining the four noble truths. Listen to the talk now:

  1. Mud & Lotuses: Talk 1 From A 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat Mal Huxter 38:14

The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths

Regardless of the school, sect or tradition of Buddhism, the four noble truths are the basis of the Buddha’s teachings. They were taught in the Buddha’s first discourse, which was to the five ascetics he had practised with. This discourse was called “The turning of the wheel of Dharma” because it set into motion what we now know as the liberating teachings of the Buddha.

Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha on the full moon in May on his 35th birthday. For a few weeks, he just stayed in the vicinity of where he was enlightened. At first, he thought that no one would understand the realities he had awakened to. However, according to the suttas (discourses of early Buddhism), a divine being suggested that some individuals “had little dust in the eyes” and thus could understand and see the Buddha’s Dharma.

Read more: In another article, Mal Huxter tells the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s, or later known as, the Buddha’s awakening .

The Buddha’s First Discourse

The Buddha believed that the five ascetics, who had followed him while he was practicing severe austerities, may understand the realities he had realised. Therefore, he set out and walked in stages from what is now known as Bodhgaya to what is now known as Sarnath, near Varanasi in northern India.

The five ascetics had previously held Siddhartha in high esteem but when they saw that he had shifted away from austere practices, they thought he was following the path of self-indulgence, had failed and abandoned him. When the five ascetics first noticed the Buddha had returned and was approaching them, they made a pact to not pay respects. However, as the Buddha came closer, they perceived a brightness and radiance that they could not resist. They greeted him respectfully, took his bowl and robe, offered water and prepared a seat for him.

The Buddha told them he had woken up to the truths of existence and that he was a fully enlightened one. At first, they were reluctant to listen to what the Buddha had to say, stating that he had given up living a life of austerities and therefore it was not possible for him to be awake. The Buddha, however, repeated that he was fully awakened. He asked them if they had ever known him to not tell the truth, and the five ascetics said no. Eventually, they were willing to listen, opened their hearts and heard the Dharma.

The Buddha first spoke of the middle way, about how the path was not one of extremes, neither indulging in the senses nor one of self-mortification. Then he expounded the four noble truths. These four realities are, in effect, a pair of cause-effect relationships: suffering and its causes; freedom from suffering and its causes.

Read more: Explore the four seals of Buddhism and how they form the foundational principles of the Buddhist path.

First Noble Truth

As already mentioned, dukkha is better considered as unsatisfactoriness. In the turning of the wheel of Dharma sutta, the Buddha said birth, aging, sickness and death are dukkha. Getting what one doesn’t want, not getting what one wants and being parted from what one holds dear is dukkha. Furthermore, clinging to a self as if it is permanent, lasting and separate from an interdependent connection is dukkha.

Second Noble Truth

The Buddha’s second truth is based on natural relationships, principles and facts of life.

From a Buddhist perspective, dukkha arises because of interdependent, often cyclic interactions between external (objective) events in the environment and / or internal events such as sensations, thoughts and emotions, and internal (subjective) responses and reactions to these events. The way we interpret and relate to experience influences the extent to which dukkha arises.

The extent of our dukkha is contextually dependent on tendencies that incline towards:

  • Greed – craving, clinging and addictions to pleasant feelings,
  • Ignorance – not knowing, misapprehension and misperception,
  • Hatred – aversion, avoidance, rejection, condemnation and struggle with unpleasant feelings.

In the first sutta, the Buddha explained the origin of suffering is craving: Craving for sensual pleasures, for existence and craving for non-existence. Here desire can be distinguished from craving. Desire can include wholesome and healthy aspirations and intentions. Craving on the other hand, relates to a thirst and obsessively driven insistence that we have or not have something. Craving leads to grasping, which leads to clinging, which leads to becoming and generally being bound to cycles of suffering.

Third Noble Truth

The third truth, freedom, is the result of waking up to our patterns of dukkha and realizing its causes. In Sanskrit it is called Nirvana, which according to Thanissaro, (1996) literally means Un (nir) + binding (vana).

Nirvana results from reducing and eventually abandoning craving and therefore greed, ignorance and hatred and exiting unhelpful interdependent cycles that feed and reinforce dukkha. When there is no cause for psychological suffering, it does not arise. When we can release craving we can be at peace and deeply contented to just be present with the way things are.

Fourth Noble Truth

The fourth truth is the eightfold path, which represents the path to psychological freedom. The eight factors on this path are divided into three categories, which are all related interdependently. These three categories are wisdom, ethics or healthy lifestyle, and cultivation (meditation).

The eight factors, as they relate to these three categories, are:

  • view,
  • intention,
  • speech,
  • action,
  • livelihood,
  • effort,
  • mindfulness and
  • concentration.

Read more: Buddhist teacher Jason Murphy reflects on the five faculties of Buddhism and how they address the suffering experienced in the mind and body.

Releasing Dukkha From Life

Regarding the four noble truths the Buddha said the first truth, dukkha, is to be understood; the second truth, the origins of dukkha, is to be abandoned; the third truth, that of liberation, is to be realised; and finally, the fourth truth, the eight fold path ‘leading to the cessation of suffering”, is to be developed.

Personally, I find this description of the four noble truths as a sequence of tasks most profound. It explains how suffering can be transformed to wisdom and freedom.

The Lotus Analogy

The lotus plant is often a symbol of Buddhism because its beautiful flower has grown from the slime, sludge, and smelly mud at the bottom of a pond. It provides a wonderful analogy for life’s difficulties, because when approached skilfully, dukkha, can provide the stimulus for the growth of wisdom.

Without mud, there is no lotus. Could it be possible that life’s suffering can be the catalyst for wisdom?

Discover thousands of free guided Buddhist meditation practices, inspiring Dharma talks, and music to accompany your Buddhist practice.

Applying The Wisdom Of Dukkha To Clinical Psychology

Currently, I work as a clinical psychologist in Australia. I work with individuals and groups with many different presentations, but I believe generally they all want to be free from dukkha in all its forms.  As a psychologist, I adhere to evidence-based practices for the conditions being treated and have trained in and utilise a range of contemporary mindfulness and compassion-based approaches. I have integrated the insights and strategies of contemporary psychology with the wisdom and meditation practices found in Buddhism. When I have needed to understand the specifics of psychopathologies and what works with whom, I have accessed scientifically validated contemporary psychology. When I have needed to understand the nuances of mindfulness, compassion and meditation or been confronted with existential questions that Western psychology cannot answer, I have turned towards the Buddhist framework and its practices.

In my opinion the Buddhist framework is too broad and comprehensive to be considered as a single therapy. For me it is more an umbrella paradigm under which I can understand the effectiveness of many mental health therapies. The Buddhist framework also provides contextual understanding of how to adapt and use specific practices, such as mindfulness and compassion, skilfully, effectively and for specific clinical populations.

As part of the Insight Timer community, Mal Huxter offers free guided meditations in order to reduce the suffering of others and increase their wellbeing and happiness. Start practicing meditation with these handpicked and popular guidances:

  1. Mindfulness Of Sound With Bells And Birds Mal Huxter 8:00
  2. Relaxing With The Breath Mal Huxter 12:08
  3. Resting In Awareness Mal Huxter 15:21
  4. Mindfulness Of Breath At Three Places Mal Huxter 16:41
  5. Loving Kindness Mal Huxter 17:24

On The Path To Wisdom & Happiness

When I ask participants of groups that I conduct about the meaning of wisdom I am honoured to hear what they say. Everyone is unique and descriptions of wisdom vary. However, the themes that emerge are consistent.

The meaning of wisdom could be summarised as

“knowing what leads to wellbeing and happiness and being able to act in helpful ways, as well as knowing what leads to suffering and unhappiness and being able to restrain and not act in ways that feed into it.”

In groups I also enquire about the cause for wisdom. On reflection almost everyone says that it is based on life experience. In my view, life’s experience does not always lead to wisdom. However, if we can look at life skilfully, a lotus flower of wisdom can grow.

Read more: In another article, Mal Huxter explores mindfulness in Buddhism and contemporary psychology and clarifies the differences between the serenity and insight aspects of meditation.

Collectively Averting Suffering

There is an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) saying that goes:

‘If I continue to do what I’ve always done, then I’m going to get what I’ve always got.’ (Forsyth & Eifert, 2007, p. 11).

If we continue to act in ways that cause dukkha, we will continue to experience dukkha. If, however, we do something different, such as developing the factors on the eight-fold path, then we can cultivate wisdom and exit the cyclic patterns that cause us suffering.

In current times we are facing the challenges of global proportions. These challenges include political conflict, poverty, inequality and climate change. The scientific evidence is clear that human activity is contributing to climate change. It is my view that actions driven by greed, ignorance and hatred have at least partly contributed to the dramatic shifts in climate that we are all being affected by. It is also my view that by collectively cultivating wisdom and reducing and uprooting the tendencies towards greed, ignorance and hatred, we may also contribute to averting detrimental climate change.


Forsyth, J. P., & Eifert, G. H. (2007). The mindfulness & acceptance workbook for anxiety: A guide to breaking from anxiety, phobias and worry using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 

Thanissaro B. (1996) The wings to awakening. Barre, MA: The Dhamma Dana Publication Fund.

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