On Not Stealing


The Bodhisattva Precepts in the Soto Zen tradition is a set of moral and ethical codes designed to guide anyone who aspires to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.  It is a set of ethics to practice, and, like any practice undertaken with sincerity, takes a great deal of time, mindfulness, patience and daily attention to develop and actualize. I personally do not view the Precepts as a laundry-list of forbidden sins, but rather as a guiding beacon to keep one from floating adrift into a dark night of the soul.  The precepts provide a formula for living in the light and for making best use of the precious time in a given lifetime.  They are simple statements, but not always so easy to live by:

The Three Jewels:

  • Take refuge in the Buddha
  • Take refuge in the Dharma
  • Take refuge in the Sangha

The Three Pure Precepts:

  • Do no harm in thought, word or deed
  • Do good
  • Actualize Good for Others

The Ten Grave Precepts:

  • Do not kill: honor life
  • Do not take what is not offered: refrain from stealing
  • Do not engage in sexual misconduct
  • Do  not lie: speak only the truth
  • Do not cloud the mind with mind-altering substances: proceed clearly
  • Do not speak of others’ errors and faults:  See the perfection in others
  • Do not elevate the self or disparage others: Realize the self and other as one
  • Do not withhold generosity: give generously
  • Do not be angry: Live harmoniously
  • Do not defile the Three Treasures

Each of these precepts has inspired a great deal of discussion and not a few great dharma talks.  But, when one looks carefully, one sees that each of these precepts is not so different from the others.  If I kill any being, I take a life which has not been offered to me. If I manipulate, coerce or violently force someone into sexual activity, I may do great harm as I take what is not offered willingly.  If I tell a lie to my spouse or co-worker, I take what is not offered to me–namely, the opportunity for s/he to make his/her own decision about how to respond to the facts which I have kept from him/her.  If I drink so much that I  impair my judgment, I steal my clear judgment from all of those with whom I interact.  Moreover, I steal from myself clarity of thought and expression.  If I speak ill of others, I steal from them the opportunity to be seen in the light of divine perfection, and I steal from my higher self the positive, higher energetic vibration of kind, compassionate thought.  If I elevate myself at the expense of another, I steal from that person their actual equality with me. Moreover, I steal from myself the truth–that all beings are interconnected and  are “neither pure nor impure”  according to the Prajnaparamita  (“form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness…”).  If I withhold generosity, I operate under the delusion that I own, that I possess, that something is mine to take.  The universe provides. Though I may “own” a huge tract of land, for instance, I could not make a single blade of grass grow on it or make one bird’s egg develop and hatch at the right time. One could, as I do, view lack of generosity as form of stealing from another something I am meant to merely use or borrow.  If I live in anger, I deprive others of a harmonious environment when I am in it. And, if I were to defile the Three Treasures, I would  steal the sanctity owed to them and to my soul.

The simple precept of not stealing, then, offers a much larger compass of relevance than one might initially assume.  Here are some other examples of actions that may involve taking what is not given:

  • Cutting in and out of other cars on the highway (depriving others of safety)
  • Allowing someone to give you sole credit for work to which others contributed (depriving others of credit)
  • Repeatedly unloading emotional detritus onto an acquaintance or friend who hasn’t encouraged you to do so (taking a friend’s time and energy in the service of responding to negativity)
  • Being late for an appointment (taking another’s time)
  • Placing too many, too high, or too few expectations on another person (depriving another of self-determination or, on the other hand, encouragement and rigor that may lead to increased success)
  • Using more water and electricity than you really need (recklessly consuming the world’s diminishing resources)
  • Buying things that you don’t really need, especially if they will pollute the environment and/or only terminate in a landfill (recklessly consuming the world’s diminishing resources; taking the natural world from the world)
  • Wasting someone else’s time (taking another’s time and energy)
  • Using my time at work to on-line shop for holiday gifts (using time and resources that don’t belong to me)
  • using my office printer to print the receipt of the gift I just bought for my mom (same as above)
  • not returning library materials on-time (taking from another patron the opportunity to borrow the materials)
  • not acknowledging a kind deed that someone has done on your behalf (taking the energy of their effort without mindfulness or gratitude)
  • not watering plants that live with you frequently enough (taking life from the plants)
  • not taking your dog on regular walks (taking proper exercise, healthfulness and happiness from your dog)
  • not recycling (recklessly consuming the world’s diminishing resources)
  • using your car to get somewhere when you could walk or ride your bike (recklessly consuming the world’s diminishing resources)
  • Not living mindfully moment to moment (taking your life from yourself, as it can only be lived in each moment)

I certainly can’t say that I live up to all of these every moment of every day.  But, the more I think about the precepts, and the more mindful I become in my life, the more invested I am in figuring out what constitutes “doing harm” and what constitutes “doing good”.  Do no harm. Do good.  We usually can’t see the end effects of all of our actions.  But, as all energetic outputs “inter-are” (a term which Thich Nhat Hanh so brilliantly coined), they do come back to us.  More often than not, we sense that something is not right with our words or actions before, as, or after they occur.  Learning from them is part of the practice.  Practice. Oh, how I like that word….

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “On Not Stealing

  1. Victoria Pitts-Taylor

    Thanks very much for this. It’s wonderful.

  2. Katie

    It’s really nice to hear about your practice of mindfulness. The very fact that you spending your time writing this post instead of watching TV, shopping, or some other form of entertainment is true testament to the fact that you are mindful about being mindful. And, that is kind of awesome!

  3. marietta

    you bring to light the simplicity of rightful living. i am honored to be connected to your light

  4. Thanks for your kind words, everyone. And, thanks for reading!!!!

  5. There’s a treasure trove of ideas, thoughts and wisdom in this blog waiting for me to dive into and start reading and discovering! Will definitely be visiting regularly and catching up on your wonderful archives!

    • Thank you, Shaz!! I am experiencing the same with your blog and memoirs. You have no idea how much I savor them when I have a moment or two to invest in such beauty. Lots of love!!! Thanks so much for all your support and kind words. Friendship knows no boundaries, does it? Huge hug!!

  6. Pingback: zen mamahood | Kelly Hogaboom

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