What does a Buddhist view of dukkha have to say about an area of ethical life that, albeit nearly everywhere evident, goes largely unremarked upon? Let me turn to the first two Noble Truths in order to set up what I wish to argue.
The First Noble Truth is that life as we know it is dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, disquiet). Life as we know it, life before setting and without ever having set a foot onto a Buddhist path, is full of pain, suffering, unrest, ill-at-easedness. This metaphysical premise is, I take it, based on very keen and insightful empirical observations.
It is not true, of course, that at any instant someone is feeling disquieted, but it is true that someone will continue throughout his life to face disquiet. This is guaranteed since ilness, injury, aging, and death assure us that it shall be so. Another major metaphysical premise concerning impermanence is tragically posed against the Second Noble Truth, which is that the cause of dukkha is tanha (clinging, attachment and aversion, “thirsting”). We cling to what shall pass on, and we hold aversions to those some phenomena that come into existence. We are in big trouble, it seems.
This is enough to set up the following discussion, which is what is of most concern for me. I notice how often someone’s afflictions, being voiced, thereby harm others, and this somehow passes below our concern about ethical life. We pay close attention to wrong action and its connection with guilt; to feeling shame due to the way in which we fall short in the eyes of others; even, in the Christian tradition, to the sorts of unsavory thoughts we have, about which a Christian can be quite torn up. Yet we seem to think nothing of how our presences can inflict harm on others. We don’t seem to think it matters that not taking care of ourselves, we can make for foul company and, in turn, can ooze foulness onto others. We take matters much too lightly in not having a rich and subtle enough ethical vocabulary to say that this, actually, isn’t OK.
The philosopher Graham Priest, in “Compassion and the Net of Indra,” a chapter in the collected volume Moonpaths: Ethics and Emptiness (Oxford University Press, 2015, 221-39), makes this plain, reiterating the Buddhist argument that (a) I am implicated in others’ dukkha and (b) I can implicate others in my dukkha. So:
[D]isquiet in others occasions disquiet in other sentient creatures of sufficient awareness, such as me. In one way, we are all very familiar with this phenomenon. Negative emotions of others, even of those we simply pass in the street, tend to be communicated to us. We naturally respond to fear, hostility, anger, in a like manner. Fear in others can trigger a wave of fear in us; the hostility of another triggers a hostile response; and so on.
And even further: “I take it,” Priest concludes, “that disquiet in others does affect us, even if we are not conscious of this” (my italics). If Priest is right, then others’ disquiet can adversely affect us knowingly or, indeed, unconsciously because such disquiet can leave us feeling fearful, hostile, angry, and unnerved.
“So what is so troubling about all this anyway? It happens all the time.” You answered your own question. What is so troubling about this just is that it happens all the time. And, as I have already suggested, even more pernicious is that our ethical lives remain impoverished to the extent that we don’t believe that it’s an intelligible ethical claim to say: “Quit your careless bitching. Stop your inconsiderate complaining. Enough with the spewing. Next time check yourself before you enter the room.”
What now strikes me as being even more disturbing is that we have built a modern culture on the presumption of self-importance, on the idea that it’s a good idea to spew your shit, to get it out there, to unload, to vent your spleen. What you’re going through matters. well, sure, up to a point. But how you’re going through it is what really matters.
Now, if Buddhists are right and I’m inclined to think they are, then all of this in modern culture is pretty much backwards. One should take care of one’s thoughts, one’s actions, and one’s speech. Vigilantly, very vigilantly. One should blush, to say the least, whenever one discovers that one is thinking, speaking, or acting based on a high degree of self-importance. One should be very, very observant and mindful when it comes to the sorts of things one thinks, says, and does, not to mention the way in which one’s presence is felt. And it should be entirely apt for others to make a potent, intelligible ethical claim that you’re not keeping your shit together and it’s spoiling things for everyone else.
If you wish to investigate why you are disquieted in a disinterested, inquisitive manner, then–marvelous!–all to the good. If you wish to ease yourself of your attachments and aversions, then so much the better. Otherwise, best to keep your dukkha to yourself for fear of spreading this noxious odor, this dangerous toxin….