P(r)etty Larceny: The Second Precept of Buddhism…

“I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking that which is not given.”
–The Second Precept

In my last post on the first precept of Buddhism, I mentioned the “subtleties” of this precept. For example, the commandment in the Holy Bible admonishing against killing is widely understood to refer, specifically (and possibly, solely), to the killing of human beings; whereas, in the Buddhist canon, “not killing” refers to all sentient beings, i.e., birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals, including human beings. Another significant difference is that in Buddhism, “not killing” (causing harm) is the first precept, but in the Holy Bible, it is the sixth commandment. Mind you, this is not necessarily because preserving life is not of primary value in Christian religions, but rather because the first commandment of the Holy Bible instructs believers that nothing is more important than loving God, an entity that is nonexistent in Buddhism.

Now, supposedly, if we love “God” with all of our hearts, minds, and souls, this should significantly influence how we feel about and treat our fellow human beings; but unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. We come to believe, largely through family indoctrination and social engineering, that some humans are better than others; that animals are not as “good as” humans; and that some humans are not as “important” as animals. With the Christian “Holy Crusades” being among the best of the worst examples of this type of thinking, modern examples of dehumanization include the branch of the Lutheran Church known as the Missouri Synod, which at one time did not welcome Black people; and until only recently, the racial segregation that existed within the clergy of the Mormon Church. One of the most current and distressing examples is the late Reverend Fred Phelps (1929-2014) of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, and their website, God Hates Fags.com.

The second precept requires observant Buddhists to “refrain from taking that which is not given.” On the surface, it appears to equate with the Holy Bible’s eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” and we should be so lucky – but we are not. The second Buddhist precept refers to much more than respecting another’s physical property, or their rights to that property. So, yes, outright stealing is never condoned, but there are other kinds of stealing, much more subtle than taking your neighbor’s ox or Maserati…

Let’s say that your workplace allows you to take paid time off to vote on Election Day, either during the first four hours of your work shift, or the last four hours. Even if you do vote during either of those times, you could still engage in behavior constituting the “taking of that which is not given.” It should go without saying that if you decide to vote in the morning, and your shift normally starts at 8 a.m., this does not mean that you should sleep for two extra hours, or go to the House of Pancakes first, and then hope that you can find time for voting. You have been given those four (paid) hours so that you have time to find parking, stand in line, and possibly, argue that despite their claiming that they have no record of your ever having voted in that precinct for the past 22 years, that you have done just that. Now, let’s say you accomplish all of this in two hours. What’s next? Immediately proceeding to your place of employment would be the right thing to do. Deciding to go to the salon and get your nails filled in during the remaining two hours would be “taking that which is not given.” You’re getting paid to vote, not to get your nails done.

Now for an example a little more outrageous: Let’s say you’re about to set out on your family vacation, and the only thing left to do is drop off the dog at your friend’s house. Though you couldn’t be happier that your Pookie will be safe with someone who loves her, you do wonder how he’ll feel when he discovers that she just popped out a litter of 17 puppies. Unfortunately, you’ve been too busy to tell him that you’ll be dropping them off, too… But he should understand how crazy things get when one is preparing to go on vacation, and you were just too busy to ask if he’d mind – and why should he? It’s now just going to be “Pookie love” times 17! What’s not to love? This, too, is a form of stealing, or “taking that which is not given.” You’ve stolen his time in that you’re now taking much more time than he had planned to give, even if he would have willingly given it had you asked – yet, you did not ask.

To “take that which is not given” is to take advantage of a person or situation by using them, or manipulating a situation to your benefit, without regard for their feelings, welfare, ownership, safety, graciousness, or kindness – and this is assuming that we know them. If we do this to someone we do not know, it’s just cold, calculated callousness on our parts. The second precept requires us to reevaluate our definitions and concepts of theft, or what it means to “steal,” and because of the way it’s worded, we can’t simply laugh it off and say, “Oh, it’s easy not to do that! I would never take another’s possessions! I’m not a thief!” The same is true of both the first precept and the Holy Bible’s sixth commandment, both of which refer to “not killing.” Extremely narrow interpretations of some of the broadest of evils serve only to “prettify” decidedly ugly intentions. When only human beings (or human beings of whom we approve) can be “murdered,” but everything else is fair game (literally and figuratively), it’s easy to think that we “value (all) life” or don’t engage in “theft.”

Early in my Buddhist education, I learned that following the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path is easier to comprehend if we, first, focus on one of the steps because they are all related. For example, if I focus on Right Speech, I cannot accomplish this to the extent I should unless I also, eventually, incorporate at least six of the other steps: Right View, Right Intention, Right Action, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. And in a certain sense, it would be difficult to not observe Right Livelihood and maintain Right Speech at the same time. So, in practicing one “step,” we are necessarily compelled to address the others. But that’s another post… It is the same with the Five Precepts. In “taking what is not given,” not only am I practicing a form of theft, I could also be “killing,” if not a person, then, a mood, an opportunity, someone’s happiness, or even future benefits (mine or another’s).