The Second Precept of Buddhism: Not Stealing

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The second Buddhist precept often is translated "do not steal." Some Buddhist teachers prefer "practice generosity." A more literal translation of the early Pali texts is "I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given."

Westerners might equate this with "thou shalt not steal" from the Ten Commandments, but the Second Precept is not a commandment and is not understood in the same way as a commandment.

The Precepts of Buddhism are associated with the "Right Action" part of the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is the path of discipline taught by the Buddha to guide us to enlightenment and liberation from suffering. The precepts describe the activity of wisdom and compassion in the world.

Don't Follow Rules

Most of the time, we think of ethics as something like transactions. The rules of ethics tell us what is permissible in our interactions with others. And "permission" assumes there is someone or something else in authority -- society, or perhaps God -- who will reward or punish us for breaking the rules.

When we work with precepts, we do with the understanding that "self" and "other" are delusions. Ethics are not transactions, and there is nothing external to us acting as an authority. Even karma is not exactly the cosmic system of reward and punishment that some think it is.

This requires working with yourself on a very deep and intimate level, honestly evaluating your own motivations and thinking deeply about how your actions will affect others. This, in turn, helps to open us to wisdom and compassion, and enlightenment.

What Is "Not Stealing"?

Let's look at stealing specifically. Laws usually define "theft" as taking something of value without the consent of the owner. But there are types of theft that are not necessarily covered by criminal codes.

Years ago I worked for a small company whose owner was, shall we say, ethically challenged. I soon noticed that every few days she fired our technical support vendor and hired a new one. It turned out she was taking advantage of introductory trial offers of so many days of free service. As soon as the free days were used up, she'd find another "free" vendor.

I'm sure that in her mind -- and according to the law -- she wasn't stealing; she was just taking advantage of an offer. But it's fair to say the computer technicians would not have provided free labor had they known the company's owner had no intention of giving them a contract, no matter how good they were.

This is the weakness of ethics-as-transaction. We rationalize why it's okay to break the rules. Everyone else does it. We won't get caught. It's not illegal.

Enlightened Ethics

All Buddhist practices come back to the Four Noble Truths. Life is dukkha (stressful, impermanent, conditioned) because we live in a fog of illusion about ourselves and the world around us. Our mistaken views cause us to make trouble for ourselves and others. The way to clarity, and to stop making trouble, is the Eightfold Path. And the practice of the precepts is part of the path.

To practice the second precept is to mindfully attend to our lives. Paying attention, we realize that not taking what is not given is about more than just respecting other people's property. This Second Precept could also be thought of as an expression of the Perfection of Giving. Practicing this perfection requires a habit of generosity that does not forget the needs of others.

We might try harder to not waste natural resources. Are you wasting food or water? Causing more emission of greenhouse gases than is necessary? Do you use recycled paper products?

Some teachers say that to practice the second precept is to practice generosity. Instead of thinking, what may I not take, we think, what may I give? Someone else might be warmed that old coat you no longer wear, for example.

Think about the ways taking more than you need might deprive somebody else. For example, where I live, whenever a winter storm is coming people dash to the grocery store and buy enough food for a week, even though they'll probably be housebound for only a few hours. Someone coming later who really needs some groceries finds the store shelves stripped clean. Such hoarding is exactly the kind of trouble that comes from our mistaken perspectives.

To practice the precepts is to get beyond thinking about what the rules permit us to do. This practice is more challenging than just following rules. When we pay close attention, we realize that we fail. A lot. But this is how we learn, and how we cultivate the awarenesses of enlightenment.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "The Second Precept of Buddhism: Not Stealing." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). The Second Precept of Buddhism: Not Stealing. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Second Precept of Buddhism: Not Stealing." Learn Religions. (accessed March 26, 2023).