This is from a book on the precepts for lay people which was written by Shi Faxun, who has kindly given permission for us to serialise it over the coming weeks.
Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not freely given.
I will respect the property of others.
Conditions Under Which A Violation is Considered to Have Occurred
• Object: Anything belonging to another legally
• Knowledge: The perception of the item as belonging to another
• Intention: The thought/intention of stealing
• The Act: The action of taking the item
• Consequence: The actual misappropriation of the article. Thinking of the article as our own.
A complete act of stealing constituting a full violation of the precept involves these five factors.
• One has legal rights to the property or its use
• The “stealing” was a mistake
• Between parties in a relationship of trust / intimacy
• With regards to discarded / abandoned articles
• Borrowing something
There is no offense if you have legal rights over the article and are therefore at no fault for using it. For example, in a work situation, you may have the legal rights to use something even if you were not the owner of the item. However, if you use it for unethical purposes or in ways the owner did not give permission for it to be used, then there is an offense.
There is also no offense if an identical item is taken by mistake, such as an umbrella or stationery. When an item taken from a person with whom one has a relationship of trust or intimacy, such as between husband and wife, siblings or close friends, or when one can be sure that the other party would not mind, then also there is no offense. If an item has no owner, such as a discarded article (garbage), no offense is committed. Similarly, there is no offense when one borrows an item with permission. However, there is an offense if one borrows an item and does not return it.
How the Precept is Violated
• By commanding or instructing others to do it
• Rejoicing in the act
The violation can be committed directly by one, by asking someone else to steal, or by facilitating the theft. One could also violate this precept by rejoicing in the act, perhaps out of revenge.
Categories of Stealing
Stealing is basically taking what is not given, either without the knowledge or the willing consent of the owner. Examples are shoplifting in the supermarket, burglary, pick pocketing, etc. Robbery is taking by force what is not given, either by snatching or by compelling another to hand over their property under threat. Cheating is using deceptive means for material gain, such as when storekeepers use false weights and measures. Fraud is making false claims or telling lies in order to gain possessions belonging to someone else. Coercion or embezzlement happens for example where an unethical official misappropriates an item, exerts control over the item, or asks for a bribe.
The Intensity / Severity of Violation
• Value of the stolen item
• “Spiritual nobility” of the victim
Stealing under any circumstances is always an offense. The severity of the offense is also dependent on the motivation behind the theft. If a person steals out of survival or poverty, then the karmic effect is less intense than a person stealing out of greed. Stealing out of hatred is also more serious than stealing out of greed.
In addition, the severity of the offense will also depend on the value of the stolen item and the “spiritual nobility” of the victim. Stealing five million dollars is certainly a more serious violation than stealing five dollars. Stealing from a person of high virtuous qualities (for example an arahant/arahantini) is a more serious offense that stealing from an ordinary person with lesser virtuous qualities. Likewise, stealing from a personal benefactor is more serious than stealing from an unrelated person.
If someone steals an alms bowl from a mendicant monastic, who depends on the bowl for receiving alms with, the offense is certainly more severe than stealing an expensive bowl from a rich person. If someone steals from the donation box in the temple, again, the ensuing karma will be heavier than stealing from a rich person. This is because the temple collects donations from many people, and so, stealing the donation box is as good as stealing from many people, hence creating very bad karma. Also the temple is using the money for the benefit of many people, so this stealing affects many people.
The Aim / Purpose of the Precept
• To respect others’ property
• Social justice
• To guard against greed
• To encourage honesty and right livelihood
The fundamental purpose of the precept is to protect the property of individuals from unjustified confiscation by others. It exhorts us to abide by right livelihood, which, in an ethical way, brings about honesty and justice in society. Not only do we learn to live simply and not to take more than our share, we learn not to enrich ourselves at the expense of the suffering of others. By abstaining from stealing, we free others from fear. The belongings of others are also safe with us, and those around us would have no reason to fear that we would steal what belongs to them. This precept guards us against our own greed. By not stealing, we do not create the bad karma that leads to poverty in future lives.
Quotes from Scriptures
Furthermore, abandoning taking what is not given (stealing), the disciple of the noble one abstains from taking what is not given. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the second gift, the second great gift… (AN8.39)
Second Mindfulness Training by Thich Nhat Hanh
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.
If we are not mindful, there is also a possibility of violating this precept subtly. For example, it is not right when one brings home from our workplace small items such as office supplies, over which we have no rights as these are meant to be used at work. An employee may idle away time on the job for which he or she is being paid, and conversely, an employer could violate this precept by not adequately compensating employees for work done, and/or exploiting the employees. When we use someone else’s telephone to make long-distance calls without the consent of the owner and leaving the owner to take care of the bill, this too is a transgression. Similarly, it is a violation when one brings articles into a country without declaring them to customs in order to avoid paying duty on them. Keeping this precept reminds us to be mindful, to reflect on the way we live, and to learn to guard against our subtle greed, unfairness or exploitation of others.
Can one steal out of poverty?
There is a segment of the society which feels victimised by the modern economic system. They feel that multi-national companies such as Internet providers, phone companies, banks, chain stores, etc, have been ripping consumers off by charging high processing fees and interest rates, among other unjustified actions, and compelling consumers to contribute to their coffers. Some have argued that we have the right to steal for survival and have even outlined “ethics” for stealing – to take only what one needs, from multi-national companies who can afford the losses.
To reply to this, let us first take a look at the impact of modern advertising.
Most of us are exposed to a myriad of commercial advertisement – in trains/buses, along the highways, and on various media platforms such as the Internet, TV and radio. However, we often do not reflect on the impact that these have on us. Quite un-mindfully, we tend to believe what the advertisers say and we literally buy into this consumerist system. In reality, these commercial messages compel us to believe that we must possess certain things and if we do not, we are deemed inadequate or marginalised. Our unlimited wants are misinterpreted as basic needs, and often with undesirable outcomes. We start to believe that we need certain things when in fact we only want more.
The precept of not stealing sets the boundaries; it stops one from taking possessions which belong to others.
Once we hit the boundaries, we bounce back to check our mind and action. The practice of mindfulness enables us to examine our mind. In fact it is our mind – the state of wanting something we do not have – that makes us feel poor, unhappy and dissatisfied. If we are not mindful, the discontented mind will compel us to steal. By looking deeply into ourselves, we will be able to find the underlying reasons which make us unhappy. Seeing the state of wanting and grasping, how it makes us and others suffer, we naturally begin to drop the thought of “wanting.” The only way out of poverty is through cultivation, to overcome the undesirable state of mind which traps us in inadequacy. Only when our evil roots – wanting, ill-will, and ignorance – are up-rooted, will we feel rich within and be truly happy. Only then will we become free and not be a slave to consumerism. The precept of not stealing also addresses what I will call the “sickness” of contemporary culture. It emphasises social responsibility.
Not only should we respect the property of others, but we should also not exploit them by enriching ourselves at the expense of others. In a capitalist culture, trying to maximise our profits fans our greed. This precept reminds us to be mindful and not become a slave to greed.
Stealing is never an answer to poverty or want. If we believe that it is alright to steal, we are creating insecurity and chaos. How would you feel living in a society full of thieves? Applying the “take from the rich” concept, the losers in the end are the consumers. Consider this – by stealing from a giant chain store – although they could probably write off the losses – the cost would subsequently be passed on to other consumers.
This is unfair to innocent consumers and also creates social disharmony and insecurity. According to Buddhism, if one is poor, he or she cannot become rich by taking others’ possessions. The Law of Karma and its results show that we are responsible for our actions and the results we experience due to them. In fact, if we steal, we are planting the seeds of poverty. If we constantly feel poor, such a mental state will certainly lead us to poverty! Conversely, generosity and sharing our belongings are the causes of wealth.
In the Parinirvana Sutta (佛遗教经), the Buddha said, “Contentment is the greatest happiness.” If we are contented, even if we sleep on the floor, we are happy; if we are not contented, even if we are in heavenly realms enjoying luxury, we feel dissatisfied. Ajahn Brahm, an Australian monk, goes to prisons to teach meditation. One day after a meditation session, the inmates asked him to share his story as a monastic. He told the inmates that there are walls surrounding the monastery just like walls surround a jail. Monastics wake up early, have only one meal a day and stop eating after mid-day. They do not have coffee breaks, and eat only what is donated to them. They sleep on simple beds, without TV, radio or newspapers. After hearing his story, the inmates told Ajahn that it is better for him to live with them in jail! Monastics live simple and frugal lives, yet they feel happy within. Regardless of being rich or poor, the mind is crucial.
VENERABLE FAXUN graduated from Singapore’s Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1989 where she was President of the Buddhist Society. She was ordained in Taiwan in 1992 by Venerable Wu Yin of Luminary of Bhikkhuni Sangha and underwent five years o f basic monastic education in the Luminary Buddhist Institute, also in Taiwan. Upon completion of her monastic training, Venerable Faxun returned to Singapore in 1997 and served in the Sagaramudra Buddhist Society, where she conducted adult’s and children’s Dharma classes in English and Mandarin. In 2001, Venerable continued to pursue her education by doing a Bachelor of Arts and Education degree at the University of Western Australia, where she majored in linguistics and Asian studies. While in Australia, she also taught meditation at the Sagaramudra branch in Perth, which she helped to manage. In 2009, she completed her Honours Degree with a thesis entitled The “Other” Path: The Bhikkhuni Quest for Liberation. Since then, Venerable has been teaching at various Buddhist centres in Singapore, Malaysia and Western Australia, and contributing articles to Buddhist magazines.