Dukkha as ‘triggering’, and the Twelve Nidhanas as a Social process involving multiple individuals, not multiple lifetimes.
I now translate dukkha (Pali, ‘suffering’) as ‘trigger’, as the traumatic conditioning of the nervous system that triggers distress. That our bodies and senses, as they encounter certain stimuli, trigger stress, trauma, physical and emotional suffering. Thus, to get ‘relief from suffering’ is to get to the point where such stimuli no longer triggers distress or suffering. Then one’s body, senses and mind are able to receive stimuli without being triggered. This is achieved through meditation and investigation into the causes of suffering.
Likewise, this applies to the ‘triggering’ of craving and the need to satiate craving, which is never ‘extinquished’ unless one understands how craving is ‘triggered’ in the brain, CNS and behavior, and thus ‘abandons craving’ and ‘extinguishes’ (nirodha) craving.
This is not a linguistic translation, but a cultural translation; a translation to a culturally equivalent and culturally relevant term that a modern western person can understand.
All of this can be dovetailed neatly into dozens of passages from the early suttas that discuss the 12 Nidhanas and the five skandhas, the causal links that result in suffering or relief, beginning with ignorance (of the causes of suffering), construction (of the conditions that cause suffering), contact (with conscious, sensate beings), body, feelings, senses, (triggered) conditioned response, consciousness.
When one is completely free of triggered responses, one’s senses are clear and unconditioned. “Seeing, one just sees” (without being triggered); “hearing, one just hears” (without being triggered), etc. One’s senses are fully awake and engaged, but not triggered or conditioned in such a way as to cause suffering to oneself or anyone else.
One can apply this as a practice at very subtle levels. What I try to do is notice the very subtle ways that I am triggered that cause me suffering, and consciously release or refuse to react to that trigger. I can observe all the ways that I am conditioned to respond to certain visual and audio cues, tactile cues, social cues, cues from the environment, and decide whether I want to respond in a particular way. I try to notice all the ways that I am socially conditioned by fear, egotism, judgement, racism, misogyny, craving, consumerism, conformity, competition, and many other aspects of capitalism. I try to notice them and try to choose whether and how I will respond.
Learning is beneficial and useful conditioning. When I play guitar, I don’t want to have to think about every note. I want my musical ability to be ‘conditioned’ in such a way that much of the mechanics of playing guitar is automatic, spontaneous. So not all conditioning is bad; most of it is useful and beneficial. What is detrimental is ‘triggering’, the kind of traumatic conditioning that causes distress, interpersonal conflict, craving; suffering. This kind of triggering is healed by meditation; this is a problem that meditation can resolve. Meditation weakens and uncouples traumatic conditioning. It breaks the link between the triggering stimuli and the traumatic response. In behavioral psychology, this is called ‘extinction’ of the conditioned response; in early dharma, this is called nibbana, to ‘extinguish’ a cause of suffering.
In terms of the 12 nidhanas: they are usually interpreted as a cyclical process that happens to one individual, in either one, or three or multiple lifetimes. No one that I’ve ever read on the subject has ever considered that this multi-stage process might be happening between and amongst multiple individuals, rather than multiple lifetimes. But nothing in Buddha’s world happens by itself; everything happens because of multiple causal factors and conditions interacting both sequentially and simultaneously.
One could define the first link (nidhana), ignorance, as the general species-wide and social condition that is the foundational cause of all suffering. Individuals who are formed in this social process begin as a kind of ‘blank slate’, ignorance as a state of not knowing, having had no prior experience. The sankharas, or constructing actions, are all the social and environmental conditions that directly shape the developmental conditioning of individuals. The next three links—consciousness, name and form (parts of the body), and six fold sense bases—describe those features of individuals that are prone to being conditioned by the constructing actions. Then there is contact between the constructing actions and the individual. In other words, social conditions which precede individuals come into contact with conscious sensate human beings. Feeling, craving, clinging follows as the individual is shaped by that conditioning. This conditioning or shaping process is becoming, the developmental process of the human being. It is the process of becoming an individual, with a sense of a separate self. Birth is the completion of the process by which the individual is fully formed by the social conditioning, and by which the conscious being becomes a separate self. Once this developmental process is complete, what follows is old age, sickness and death.
[I should note, as well, that the 12 Nidhanas describe the conception, prenatal development and birth of the individual. The Buddhists used this model to explain how sensate consciousness developed within the fetus before physical birth. At conception, the human being at first has no consciousness, ignorance. Then the ‘constructing actions’ of gestation create the fetal consciousness, parts of the body (name and form) and six-fold sense bases, and so forth. In other words, consciousness doesn’t transmigrate from a prior life, but is constructed as part of fetal development.]
There is another translation of dukkha that is ‘dissatisfaction’, as in chronic dissatisfaction with life, in large and small ways. This is a result of our evolution, in which we are conditioned to constantly seek food, shelter and secure relationships in order to survive. As many have said, “we evolved to survive, not to be happy.” If we were completely satisfied with the first morsel of food we ever ate, such that we never wanted food again, we would die. So we are programmed by evolution for satiation to last only a few minutes after consuming anything: food, drink, sex, toys, pleasurable experiences—so that we will go out and seek more of the same. This generally tends to keep us alive, but chronically dissatisfied. This is dukkha. We can deal with this condition by reducing our needs to a minimum such that they are easily satisfied, without being burdensome to ourselves, our loved ones and society as a whole. Again, this is a problem that meditation can resolve, or at least help a great deal. Meditation reduces craving, reduces the triggering that causes craving, and induces a sense of contentment with what one has.