January 2015: Everday Precept Practice

Fresh heirloom vegetables from the Myoshinji gardens

The Second Grave Precept: Non-stealing

For the month of January 2015, we focus on the Second Grave Precept: Non-Stealing, Abstaining from Taking things not given. This is expressed in the Zen Peacemaker Tenets as follows:

I will be satisfied with what I have. This is the practice of Non-stealing. I will not take anything not given and not encourage others to steal. I will freely give, ask for, and accept what is needed.

The Second and Third Grave Precepts are closely related. The Second Grave Precept, Non-stealing, emphasizes that we should not take things that others should rightfully have or take so much that others do not have enough. The Third Grave Precept, on the other hand, emphasizes not being attached to our possessions, not being greedy. These two are strongly interconnected. However, for clarity's sake, we will discuss “being satisfied with what I have” as part of the Third Grave Precept, as well as the related but different implication of the Third Grave Precept, chaste conduct, which addresses sexuality specifically.

Noble Eightfold Path

One of the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Action, includes abstaining from taking what is not given:

He avoids taking what is not given and abstains from it; what another person possesses of goods and chattel in the village or in the wood, that she does not take away with thievish intent.

The commentary on Right Action goes on to enumerate various ways that we do take what is not given. First, there is stealing from others secretively. Even taking advantage of someone's kindness, when we know that they need the item offered more than we do. Then there is “robbery,” which is identified as taking things forcefully or threatening someone so that they hand over to us what we want. There are many ways of coercion – making someone feel guilty if they do not give us the desired object, causing concern for the well-being of themselves or their loved ones, and of course, the most obvious, snatching something with physical force.

Another way of taking things not given is fraudulence, claiming something as one's own when it clearly belongs to someone else, in essence lying about it. Cheating or deceiving someone, for example, by over charging them, providing poor quality merchandise and so on are also ways of taking things not given. We are taking advantage of someone's trust, naivety or even helplessness to give them less than they are due and ultimately have more for ourselves. And how challenging it is to maintain a successful business without stepping over the line of engaging in deceptive, manipulative marketing strategies!

Economic Injustice

Housing for the wealthier middle classes rises above the insecure housing of a slum community in Lucknow, India (Photo credit: Tom Pietrasik, Oxfam)

It would be difficult to consider this precept without thinking of the profound and growing financial inequalities throughout the world, tangible evidences of taking things not given. In it's recent paper, “Working for the Few,” Oxfam International made the following comments:

In November 2013, the World Economic Forum released its ‘Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014’, in which it ranked widening income disparities as the second greatest worldwide risk in the coming 12 to 18 months. Based on those surveyed, inequality is ‘impacting social stability within countries and threatening security on a global scale.’ Oxfam shares its analysis, and wants to see the 2014 World Economic Forum make the commitments needed to counter the growing tide of inequality.

Some of the statistics reported:

  • Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
  • The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
  • The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
  • Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.

Despite some criticism of underlying assumptions that generated these statistics, they clearly point to drastic economic inequality in the world that is growing worse daily. Even common sense tells us that in order for such inequalities to exist, taking things not given has occurred. Not allowing resources to flow to the people who need them and declaring that we are more entitled to resources than others is a tragically clear example of taking things not given.

Kyojukaimon – Dogen Zenji's Teaching on the Precepts:

When the mind and objects are not discriminated, the gate of liberation opens.

Mountains and Rivers Order:

Be giving. Do not steal.

Upholding the precept of Non-stealing means giving freely according to what is needed and who needs it. As the Zen Peacemaker version of the precept states: I will freely give, ask for, and accept what is needed. We do not deny ourselves what we need nor do we deny others. When distributed in this free and unselfish way, there are more than enough resources to go around. No one has too much or too little.

We don't believe this is possible, though, and we hold on fiercely to what we have or aggressively try to accumulate more and more by whatever means in order to be sure we personally have enough. Dogen Zenji, however, is telling us that upholding this precept means to do the opposite. That we find liberation not in holding on to things, but in letting them flow freely – to us, when we need them, away from us, when someone else needs them. Sometimes we have difficulty asking for what we need or advocating for what others need. This too, is a violation of the precept.

Bodhidharma One-Mind Precept:

Self Nature is Inconceivably Wondrous
In the Dharma in which nothing can be obtained
Not giving rise to a thought of obtaining
Is called the precept of refraining from stealing.

Bodhidharma's One-Mind Precept is really saying the same thing. What, after all, gives rise to "a thought of obtaining"? Our drive to accumulate possessions to reinforce and protect our egos – to be better than others by having more, to gain a secure “self“ by accumulating enough possessions even if that involves taking others' share.

The Second Grave Precept Non-stealing can refer to taking material goods that are not ours, but also refers to many other things. How often have we guilted others into giving us more of their time or energy. Or how often have we monopolized someone's time knowing that others need it, too? Even prolonging our time with a sales clerk by unnecessary chatting or questions when there is a long line waiting is a form of violating this precept.

This precept also relates to the Eighth Grave Precept, Not Being Stingy. Taking things not given can also refer to withholding from others what should be given to them. How often have we not given time or quality attention to our spouse or children or even pets when we should? Again, though, the point of this precept is not to beat ourselves up about our inability to be everywhere at once, but to raise our awareness, in particular, to make ourselves more aware of others' needs and fundamental value and dignity.

Not taking things not given can also refer to not taking things that will belong to others – of all species - in the future such as the health and well being of our planet. Although it sounds almost like a cliché, it is still sadly true that so many of our short-sighted strategies for obtaining energy, satisfying our desire for instant mobility, unlimited food choices and the like are degrading the environment at a rate that will severely compromise the well-being of even our own grandchildren, let alone the next seven generations. We are literally stealing the earth's resources, even it's reserve of water, from all other living things – born and not yet born. Even if the earth is still habitable for those future generations, what will the quality of their life be like? Even now, as our planet is forever changed by incremental warming, rising ocean levels, pollution, the careless plundering of vital resources and habitats, resulting in the disappearance of entire species, we are undeniably stealing from all living things on this earth. Every careless action, no matter how trivial, adds to the cumulative effect of our disregard for life on this planet, present and future.

2014 People's Climate March in New York (Photo credit: M. Scott Mahaskey, Politico)

Precept 13 of Engaged Buddhism - Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh:

Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

This formulation of the precept brings to mind many things, among them, perhaps the most egregious violation of taking things not given, human slavery. The world's history is filled with the shameful attempts of one person or group to try to steal another's freedom by "owning" them. We have a legacy of sorrow and abuse that touches all of us. What many may not realize is that slavery has not been entirely eliminated. Across the globe, an estimated 35.8 million people are currently living in modern slavery. Slavery is hidden away in factories, on farms, and behind closed doors, in homes and other places in the cities and towns of the world’s richest and poorest nations. Victims of slavery can be as young as 5 or 6 years old.

According to the organization WalkFree, modern slavery is profitable, generating at least US$32 billion in profits every year. Many of us unwittingly support this practice by buying food or merchandise produced by forced labor. Or we buy products made by people who were paid unfairly low wages or forced to work in unsafe or demeaning conditions. Or we support companies who engage in these practices. While it is often hard to get accurate information and harder still to avoid patronizing these unethical business practices, we must not give in to apathy. We must continue to do the best we can and to help inform others. More information on eliminating modern slavery worldwide can be found at this site.

Stealing land and resources from indigenous peoples

Finally, when talking about this precept, the treatment of indigenous people, specifically the people of North America must be part of the conversation. Those of us living in the United States, for example, are part of an ongoing narrative of the systematic robbing of the Native people already living here of their land, resources, and livelihood that depended on the land and its creatures. The question is now how can we bear witness to all of the tragedy that occurred and what healing actions can we take to address the ongoing effects?

Camp on Pike Island (Wita tanka in Dakota) where 1600 Dakota men, women and children were interred 1862-1864 (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

To uphold this or any precept, we must acknowledge and bear witness to what we have done by listening and observing how all have been affected. We must let our actions come from profound clarity and openness, not what we think or presume. Because in the end, our experience is a shared one. What any of us do is done not as an individual, but as a member of the world community. As one Dakota elder observed:

“The Earth knows our footprint; the Earth remembers us, and that is how they know each one of us, our hearts and our souls is through our footprint.”

So the simple precept of Non-stealing, refraining from taking things not given can be practiced and understood in all aspects of our lives – business, social interaction, shopping, caring for our environment, how we guide or inform others. For this month, please consider how your thoughts, words and actions can better uphold this precept. Take some loving action, in small and big ways to help resources flow more freely to those who need it. Educate yourself and increase your awareness of the many forms of stealing present in the world and make choices accordingly. Thank you for undertaking this practice.

Please note the group volunteer opportunity on January 31 at the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Information can be found on this page.

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