Taking what is not offered or given, that is, stealing

I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking what is not given (the second precept)

Whoever replaces an evil deed
With what is wholesome
Illuminates the world
Like the moon set free from a cloud.
(Dhammapada 173, tr. Fronsdal)

The second guideline that the Buddha prescribed for a wholesome life, is: “I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking what is not given (offered).” Most religions recognize this principle as essential. You could even say that most people in civilized societies would agree that taking things without permission is a bad idea. You only need to think about how you feel when someone steals from you to understand how important this idea is.

Words from a Thai master:
Stealing, is there anyone in the world who likes it? If the world liked stealing, there probably wouldn’t be laws forbidding it — and what human society doesn’t have such laws? The fact that we have these laws shows that we don’t like stealing. Even things about to be stolen don’t like to have people steal them. Animals, for instance, when they’re cornered by thieves, will try to run away. Thieves and robbers usually complain that their work is hard — always having to lurk and keep out of sight, going without food and sleep. The fact that they complain shows that they don’t like their work. So why do they do it? … [Ajahn Lee Dhammadharo, The Craft of the Heart]

Before you can develop the quality of freedom from grasping at things, you have to recognize that sometimes you do have an inclination to take things that are not offered. This impulse may not be immediately obvious. Perhaps it is absent altogether. But just in case, let’s give it some thought.

What makes us take things that aren’t offered?

The instinct to survive is part of our basic human equipment. In some cases, this urge can lead to a sense of entitlement, a feeling that more must be gotten, regardless of circumstances. If one is unconscious of this compulsion, it can grow into a habit of grabbing and hoarding things indiscriminately. A sense that there might not be enough later can (temporarily) seem to justify taking something without stopping to think through the needs of others, or even our own true needs. There is plenty of encouragement in most modern cultures to take what we can get, and even take pleasure in having more than others. Pushing others out of the way to “get what’s coming to you” is admired in some (few?) places. This is a social standard the second precept is designed to help us understand and resist.

Often, absentmindedness is behind our thoughtlessly taking something that isn’t ours. If you notice something and no obvious owner is nearby, you might just adopt it — “finders keepers”. Perhaps you’re just “cleaning up” someone else’s abandoned dessert or drink and then find that – oops! – it wasn’t abandoned after all. The second precept is a reminder to be careful even in these mundane situations.

Questions to ask yourself

Has this thing (whatever it is) been offered to you? Is it possible that someone else has a claim on it? Might someone come looking for it later? Why do you want it? Are you hungry? Short of towels (or clothes, or whatever it is)? Try to recognize the impulse – is it the opposite of generosity? Or plain thoughtlessness?

If someone you know displays a new acquisition with pride, how do you react? Do you wish it were yours? Or do you join with the person in appreciating the thing that is making her (temporarily) happy?

Before cutting yourself a big slice of pie, consider how many people this particular pie is meant to serve.

Taking a sick day from work to attend to personal business (or pleasure) is considered socially acceptable in some places. Does that make it OK? Would the boss or owner agree with you?

If you are given too much change at a shop, do you feel it’s important to call attention to the error?

How do you feel when someone cuts into line in front of you? How do you feel when you cut into line in front of others? This is a common form of taking what is not given.

Consider the situation where people are waiting, and you are taking longer than necessary with your business. Sometimes exercising a feeling of petty power over others is a way of taking what’s not offered.

If some of the questions above hit a nerve, that’s a signal they might need more attention. Be honest, be curious. If you’re confused, discuss it with a trusted friend.

One example

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.

Laws and intentions

Some people might think that breaking any law or regulation automatically contradicts the precept against taking what is not offered. In most cases, abiding by local and national (and international) laws provides a foundation for wholesome action. There are, however, some situations in which things are not quite so straightforward. In some places, deliberately discriminatory laws may be in effect. For example, until recently in America, some states had laws on their books allowing those pursuing private transactions (in housing, employment, etc.) to discriminate against others on the basis of skin color or religion or nationality. Those shameful laws were finally removed through civil disobedience and legal challenges. Also, it can happen that rules laid down by different layers of government are in conflict with each other, such as federal and state laws. So while it’s good to be a law-abiding citizen, it’s not good to be too mechanical about it; sometimes you have to try to look into the intent of the laws you’re following.

It is also possible that an action may be legal but unethical. For example, tax laws are not perfect. With the right advice, it is easy to exploit weaknesses in the system and arrange to pay less tax than you know was intended for someone in your situation. What do you think? Would that be a case of taking what is not given?

Public property

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.

Wider applications

Could the precept against stealing apply to using more than your share of the earth’s resources? Is wasting water or power a form of inappropriate taking? Would you consider adding a lot of pollutants to the air a form of taking (using up) what is not yours? If yes, is your living space much larger than you need? Is it as resource-efficient as it can be? Do you drive unnecessarily? Run the air conditioner at an unreasonably low temperature, or keep the lights on in empty rooms?

Are you willing to inconvenience yourself to avoid taking more than your share? If yes, in what ways are you willing to curb your usage? Are you willing to do it without getting any praise for it? I know one person who has resolved not to fly in airplanes anymore because of the massive air pollution they generate. Many people participate in voluntary simplicity of various kinds. How might you choose to practice a more generous attitude towards your usage of the earth’s limited resources?

Abiding in purity

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.

The Buddha was very direct in his instructions regarding this precept; there’s not a lot of wiggle room. You are invited to affirm, preferably daily, your intention to respect the property and rights, even the boundaries, of others. Then you’re responsible for noticing when that intention is challenged and for doing your best, in each moment that the temptation comes up. You can set the intention every day. You can test it when you notice the urge to take something you shouldn’t.

What is the opposite of refraining from taking what is not offered?

The opposite of the second precept is to habitually (or occasionally) take what is not offered, to steal, or to disregard the rights and needs of others. The precept offers you protection from committing unwholesome acts, and can help you replace feelings of regret with feelings of self-knowledge and self-control. Following the training rule provides protection and peace to others by sheltering them from any innate selfishness in you. This gift of safety to yourself and others can bring a type of joy that doesn’t depend on anyone but yourself.

Further development

Once you feel you understand the value of the second precept and can keep (most of) your actions within its boundaries, you can further develop this skill by actively seeking to strengthen your own generosity towards others. As you gradually abandon the unwholesome impulse to take things for yourself, you may see new opportunities to preserve things for others, or make appropriate gifts. You may discover a particular inclination towards preserving something valuable (for example, wilderness, animals, financial security) for future generations.