My friend Charles Martin has a compelling look at the Buddhist concept of dukkha, the omnipresent suffering and unsatisfactoriness that is "at the root of the four noble truths," according to the Shamhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen.
Charles can be forgiven for calling me both a Buddhist and a Jew -- I no longer consider myself the former -- but in his excellent explorations of the Dharma, and especially dukkha, he calls my interpretation of the difference between the two "wrong" -- well, thanks, Charlie, for causing me more tsuris. Right in the middle of all this dukkha, that's the last thing I need.
Actually, Charlie originally asked me to explore the similarities and differences between dukkha and tsuris, that great Yiddish word for suffering (I love that Charlie even asked the question).
Here's what I said to him, in an e-mail:
Tsuris is to dukkha as irritable bowel syndrome is to amoebic dysentery. For some reason, Yiddish (at least those words that have seeped into the modern Western vernacular) just isn't set up to communicate profound concepts or deep emotions. Dukkha, as I understand it, has to do with an inherent disequilibrium in life -- an inability be freed from the suffering that comes from clinging.
Tsuris, on the other hand, is about aggravation. Something that's vexing you at the moment. While Jews are never without this emotional baggage, the word tsuris itself doesn't convey some lasting, inherent unsatisfactoriness, the way dukkha does. It's more a pain in the butt that you hope will go away.
Pretty interesting: within these two words, you can see the difference between the two religious traditions (and the myriad cultures that adhere to them) pretty clearly.
So, Charlie, I wasn't talking only about dukkha representing "Big Stuff." I was talking about dukkha representing the inherent nature of suffering, whereas the Jewish view, at least the Ashkenaz view as conveyed in Yiddish, is that suffering is inherent, yes -- but only in my life.
(Why me?!! Oy. Such tsuris.)
Suffering is so central to both Judaism and Buddhism, but the differences in viewpoint could not be more vast, and the differences dwell right in the words. In Buddhism, dukkha is (again quoting Shamhala's dictionary) "everything, both material and mental, that is conditioned, that is subject to arising and passing away, that is comprised of the five skandhas (aggregates, or individual qualities), and that is not in a state of liberation." The Yiddish Dictionary Online merely defines tsuris, however, as "trouble, distress, problem" -- all states that one ardently wishes can and will just go away.
In Judaism, suffering is both omnipresent and targeted; both unavoidable and yet, somehow, from the complainer's perspective, inherently unjust. The Psalms are a great example of lyrical tsuris: King David begs, beseeches, complains, and whines; then, relieved of his tsuris, he thanks, lauds and extols the virtues of a God who can both bestow and banish the kind of suffering that we all experience, but that we (Jews) always hope to be rid of.
Buddhism says it's inherent in merely living. Only through realizing that can we overcome it. That's the Big Stuff, Charlie, that dukkha represents.
Oy. I need a nap.