When I asked for a story about taking, an adult I know told me that in his rebellious youth, he decided not to pay for underground train tickets, which in his city used the “honor system”. Instead, he carried around sufficient money to pay the fine if he was caught. Implementing this decision was simple – he just didn’t purchase the monthly card that would have allowed him the train rides he needed. Official checks of passengers’ cards were rare. After a time, however, he noticed that he was always anxious while riding the trains. Later, he had frightening dreams in which he was challenged for payment on the train. Finally, he could no longer ignore his inner discomfort. He gave up his resistance to conformity and purchased the monthly train tickets. His anxiety and nightmares disappeared. He looks back on this extended memory as a lesson in the inescapability of ethics. Even in the case of social rebellion, our specific actions matter. We can’t hide from the results of our own actions.
Sometimes, youthful exuberance or rebelliousness can take the form of stealing street signs or other acts of mild vandalism. Who really is harmed? Well…people who get lost looking for a new address are inconvenienced. But more importantly, the thief may feel a (false) sense of power and feel encouraged to bolder types of mayhem. Graffiti in public places may make the “artist” feel important, but it makes many in the general public (including me) feel our goodwill has been abused. Recently, in some cities, man-hole covers have been stolen for their scrap metal value. This creates a clear and present danger to motorists and pedestrians. Sometimes home owners cut down old and precious trees on public property to enhance their views. All of these acts are done privately, but all create a significant negative effect on a great many other people. These are clear examples of taking what is not offered.
Some words of the Buddha:
“Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given; taking only what is given, expecting only what is given, by not stealing he abides in purity.” MN 27.13 tr. Nanamoli/Bodhi
“Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given; he does not take by way of theft the wealth and property of others in the village or in the forest.” MN 114.5 tr. Nanamoli/Bodhi
In the second paragraph quoted above, the last phrase, “in the village or in the forest” could refer to taking things when other people can see you (in the village) and also when they can’t (in the forest). If you catch yourself looking around to see whether anyone is watching or not, you might be thinking of doing something that’s not beneficial for yourself or others.
These quotes speak directly to the usefulness of the second precept. If we are scrupulous about not taking things that haven’t been offered to us, a type of inner security and calm is ours. This is a treasure we can only have through our own efforts, through directing and (dare I say) purifying our own actions.