In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the third post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.
“I will respect the property of others, I will not steal.”
Upholding this precept means that I do not take the things of others without their permission. I take only what is given freely. Sounds simple, right? In your driveway is a really nice car, one that I wouldn’t mind having, but I don’t drive off in it because it doesn’t belong to me.
The above is a straightforward example. But some are not so straightforward. There are many ways in which we are able to steal from one another and stealing isn’t limited to physical things. Through unskillful actions, we can take people’s time, their emotional energy, their sense of well-being, their independence. There are a few ways in which I work with this aspect of the second precept. The first is that I try to be very conscious of people’s time. I work towards being prompt for meetings and events, otherwise I call when possible and let the person know when I expect to arrive. While conversing, I practice being concise and listening whole-heartedly rather than simply wait my turn to speak. In my relationships, platonic and romantic, I work towards being inter-dependent rather than co-dependent. My goal is to, on average, put more into the relationship that I take out.
For be this precept is also very much about living simply and frugally. This means I have a practice of taking, purchasing or receiving only what I need. For example, I no longer acquire items simply because they are free or available at a significant discount. When I want to acquire something, I examine my motivations. I ask myself, “What need is this thing going to fulfill? Can something I already possess meet this need? Is this the most appropriate time to make this purchase, or would later be better? Am I spending money that I don’t have on this item?” I think it’s important to avoid debt whenever possible (though there are certain cases where debt makes sense, like buying a house). Acquiring debt is, in a way, stealing from your future self.
In some ways, I am very skillful at this practice of taking only what I need. In some ways, I still have a long way to go. I like gadgets and computers so it’s difficult for me to resist buying these things as I often do when not totally necessary.
Like the other precepts, we violate this precept all the time and partially out of necessity. I can’t exist without stealing resources from the Earth. I need air to breath, water to drink and food to eat. But I can minimize what we do take from the Earth by recycling, ride a bicycle whenever possible, being mindful of energy usage, etc. I also work to reduce what I steal from other non-human sentient beings (e.g. not taking an animal’s flesh or milk for food).