Read this article by Ayya Khema and it has changed my understanding of Dukkha. Thought I'd share.
IX. Dukkha for Knowledge and Vision by Ayya Khema
The "twelve-point-dependent-origination" (paticcasamuppada) starts with ignorance (avijja) and goes through kamma formations (sankhara), rebirth consciousness, mind and matter, sense contacts, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and ends with death. Getting born means dying. During that sequence there is one point of escape -- from feeling to craving.
While this is called the mundane (lokiya) dependent-origination, the Buddha also taught a supermundane, transcendental (lokuttara) series of cause and effect. That one starts with unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). Dukkha needs to be seen for what it really is, namely the best starting point for our spiritual journey. Unless we know and see dukkha, we would have little reason to practice. If we haven't acknowledged the over-all existence of dukkha, we wouldn't be interested in getting out of its clutches.
The transcendental-dependent-origination starts out with the awareness and inner knowledge of the inescapable suffering in the human realm. When we reflect upon this, we will no longer try to find a way out through human endeavor, nor through becoming more informed or knowledgeable, or richer, or owning more or having more friends. Seeing dukkha as an inescapable condition, bound up with existence, we no longer feel oppressed by it. It's inescapable that there is thunder and lightning, so we don't try to reject the weather. There have to be thunder, lightning and rain, so we can grow food.
Dukkha is equally inescapable. Without it, the human condition would not exist. There wouldn't be rebirth, decay and death. Having seen it like that, one loses one's resistance to it. The moment one is no longer repelled by dukkha, suffering is greatly diminished. It's our resistance which creates the craving to get rid of it, which makes it so much worse.
Having understood dukkha in this way, one may be fortunate enough to make contact with the true Dhamma, the Buddha's teaching. This is due to one's own good kamma. There are innumerable people who never get in touch with Dhamma. They might even be born in a place where the Dhamma is being preached, but they will have no opportunity to hear it. There are many more people who will not be searching for the Dhamma, because they're still searching for the escape route in the human endeavor, looking in the wrong direction. Having come to the conclusion that the world will not provide real happiness, then one also has to have the good kamma to be able to listen to true Dhamma. If these conditions arise, then faith results.
Faith has to be based on trust and confidence. If these are lacking, the path will not open. One becomes trusting like a child holding the hand of a grown-up when crossing the street. The child believes that the grown-up will be watching out for traffic so that no accident will happen. The small child doesn't have the capacity to gauge when it's safe to cross, but it trusts someone with greater experience.
We are like children compared to the Buddha. If we can have a child-like innocence, then it will be possible for us to give ourselves unstintingly to the teaching and the practice, holding onto the hand of the true Dhamma that will guide us. Life and practice will be simplified when the judging and weighing of choice is removed. No longer: "I should do it another way, or go somewhere else, or find out how it is done by others." These are possibilities, but they are not conducive to good practice or to getting out of dukkha. Trust in the Dhamma helps to keep the mind steady. One has to find out for oneself if this is the correct escape route, but if we don't try, we won't know.
If dukkha is still regarded as a calamity, we will not have enough space in the mind to have trust. The mind will be full of grief, pain, lamentation, forgetting that all of us are experiencing our kamma resultants and nothing else. This is part of being a human being, subject to one's own kamma.
Resistance to dukkha saps our energy and the mind cannot stretch to its full capacity. If dukkha is seen as the necessary ingredient to spur one on to leave samsara behind, then one's positive attitude will point in the right direction. Dukkha is not a tragedy, but rather a basic ingredient for insight. This must not only be a thinking process, but felt with one's heart. It's too easy to think like that and not to do anything about it. But when our heart is truly touched, trust and confidence in the Dhamma arise as the way out of all suffering.
The Dhamma is totally opposed to worldly thinking, where suffering is considered to be a great misfortune. In the Dhamma suffering is seen as the first step to transcend the human condition. The understanding of dukkha has to be firm, in order to arouse trust in that part of the teaching which one hasn't experienced oneself yet. If one has already tried many other escape routes and none of them actually worked, then one will find it easier to become that trusting, child-like person, walking along this difficult path without turning right or left, knowing that the teaching is true, and letting it be one's guide. Such faith brings joy, without which the path is a heavy burden and will not flourish. Joy is a necessary and essential ingredient of the spiritual life.
Joy is not to be mistaken for pleasure, exhilaration or exuberance. Joy is a feeling of ease and gladness, knowing one has found that which transcends all suffering. People sometimes have the mistaken idea that to be holy or pious means having a sad face and walking around in a mournful way. Yet the Buddha is said never to have cried and is usually depicted with a half-smile on his face. Holiness does not stand for sadness, it means wholeness. Without joy there is no wholeness. This inner joy carries with it the certainty that the path is blameless, the practice is fruitful and the conduct is appropriate.
We need to sit down for meditation with a joyous feeling and the whole experience of meditation will culminate in happiness. This brings us tranquillity, as we no longer look around for outside satisfaction. We know only to look into ourselves. There's nowhere to go and nothing to do, it's all happening within. Such tranquillity is helpful to concentrated meditation and creates the feeling of being in the right spot at the right time. It creates ease of mind, which facilitates meditation and is conducive to eliminating sceptical doubt (vicikicha).
Sceptical doubt is the harbinger of restlessness, joy begets calm. We need not worry about our own or the world's future, it's just a matter of time until we fathom absolute reality. When the path, the practice and effort mesh together, results are bound to come. It is essential to have complete confidence in everything the Buddha said. We can't pick out the ideas we want to believe because they happen to be in accordance with what we like anyway and discard others. There are no choices to be made, it's all or nothing.
Tranquillity helps concentration to arise. Dukkha itself can lead us to proper concentration if we handle it properly. But we mustn't reject it, thinking that it is a quirk of fate that has brought all this grief to us, or think that other people are causing it. If we use dukkha to push us onto the path, then proper concentration can result.
Right concentration makes it possible for the mind to stretch. The mind that is limited, obstructed and defiled cannot grasp the profundity of the teaching. It may get an inkling that there is something extraordinary available, but it cannot go into the depth of it. Only the concentrated mind can extend its limitations. When it does that, it may experience the knowledge-and-vision-of-things-as-they-really-are.
The Buddha often used this phrase "the-knowledge-and-vision-of-things-as-they-really-are" (yatha-bhuta-ñana-dassana). This is distinct from the way we think they are or might be, or as we'd like them to be, hopefully comfortable and pleasant. But rather birth, decay, disease and death, not getting what one wants, or getting what one doesn't want, a constant perception of what we dislike, because it fails to support our ego-belief. In knowing and seeing things as they really are, we will lose that distaste.
We will come to see that within this realm of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and corelessness (anicca, dukkha, anatta), there is nothing that can be grasped and found to be solid and satisfying. No person, no possession, no thought, no feeling. Nothing can be clung to and found to be steady and supportive.
This is right view, beyond our ordinary every-day perception. It results from right concentration and comes from dealing with dukkha in a positive, welcoming way. When we try to escape from dukkha by either forgetting about it, running away from it, blaming someone else, becoming depressed by it or feeling sorry for ourselves, we are creating more dukkha. All these methods are based on self-delusion. The knowledge-and-vision-of-things-as-they-really-are is the first step on the noble path, everything else has been the preliminary work.
Sometimes our understanding may feel like one of those mystery pictures that children play with. Now you see it, now you don't. When any aspect of Dhamma is clearly visible to us, we must keep on resurrecting that vision. If it is correct, dukkha has no sting, it just is. Decay, disease and death do not appear fearful. There is nothing to fear, because everything falls apart continually. This body disintegrates and the mind changes every moment.
Without knowledge and vision of reality, the practice is difficult. After having this clear perception, the practice is the only possible thing to do. Everything else is only a side-issue and a distraction. From the knowledge-and-vision arises disenchantment with what the world has to offer. All the glitter that seems to be gold turns out to be fool's gold, which cannot satisfy. It gives us pleasure for one moment and displeasure the next and has to be searched for again and again. The world of the senses has fooled us so often that we're still enmeshed in it and still experiencing dukkha, unless the true vision arises.
There's a poster available in Australia which reads: "Life, be in it." Wouldn't it be better if it said, "Life, be out of it?" Life and existence is bound up with the constant renewal of our sense contacts, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling and thinking. Only when we have clear perception, will disenchantment set in and then the most wonderful sense contact will no longer entice us to react. It just exists, but doesn't touch our heart. Mara, the tempter, has lost his grip and has been shown the door. He's waiting at the doorstep to slip in again, at the first possible opportunity, but he isn't so comfortably ensconced inside any more.
This brings a great deal of security and satisfaction to the heart. One won't be swayed to leave this path of practice. When Mara is still calling, there's no peace in the heart. One can't be at ease and satisfied, because there's always something new to tempt us. With knowledge-and-vision-of-things-as-they-really-are and subsequent disenchantment, we realize that the Buddha's path leads us to tranquillity, peace and the end of dukkha.
Dukkha is really our staunchest friend, our most faithful supporter. We'll never find another friend or helpmate like it, if it is seen in the right way, without resistance or rejection. When we use dukkha as our incentive for practice, gratitude and appreciation for it will arise. This takes the sting out of our pain and transforms it into our most valuable experience.
IX. Dukkha for Knowledge and Vision