The first of Buddhism’s noble truths is that “life is suffering.” Whether you believe that the price of joy is pain or not, some suffering is an inescapable fact of life. This week’s idiom, shikuhakku, explores this very core of human existence.

Shikuhakku (四苦八苦)

Meaning: To be in dire distress, be hard put into it, the four and eight kinds of suffering, experiencing a lot of trouble, to struggle intensely, the struggle is real 

Literal translation and kanji breakdown: Looking at shikuhakku as a whole, it literally translates to “four sufferings (四苦) and eight sufferings (八苦).” This alludes to the Buddhist concept of the pain of mundane life, and is often referred to by its original Sanskrit name “duhka” in English.

Shikuhakku: The Origins

Shikuhakku is a Buddhist term describing the four and eight kinds of suffering in the world — suffering that is part of the package when you’re alive. The four types are: birth, old age, disease and death. The eight kinds of suffering encompass the previous four, plus another four: parting from loved ones, meeting people one dislikes, not getting what one seeks, the pains of the five skandha. The five skandha, in turn, are collections of material and mental factors that contribute to craving, and thus suffering. They are comprised of: form (or matter), sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. 

Shikuhakku: Similar Expressions

  • 七転八倒 Shichitenbattou Writhing in agony, tossing about because of great pain
  • 艱難辛苦 Kannanshinku Trials and tribulations, difficulties
  • 気骨が折れる Kibone ga oreru To be mentally exhausted, to be tired from worry, burned out
  • 千辛万苦 Senshinbanku A thousand hardships and ten thousand hardships, many hardships

Using “Shikuhakku” in a sentence

Shikuhakku works well in daily conversation as hyperbole when describing the pains of mundane tasks or general life struggles.

記事を書くのに四苦八苦した。Kiji wo kaku no ni shikuhakku shita. I struggled writing the article.

締め切りに間に合うため一生懸命頑張って四苦八苦した。Shimekiri ni maniau tame isshokenmei ganbatte shikuhakku shita. I worked myself into the ground trying to meet this deadline. 

奨学金の返済に四苦八苦している。Shougakukin no hensai ni shikuhakku shiteiru. I’m really struggling to make my student loan payments right now.

Want more? Follow our weekly Yojijukugo Japanese Idiom series, published every Friday. Learn the meaning of “chinpunkanpun” here, “souseki-chinryu” here and “taifu-ikka” here.