Sunday, December 6, 2009

Vowing Not to Steal

On Saturday in our precepts class, we discussed the second precept (no theft) as explained by Ngakpa Chogyam Rinpoche.

At first glance, vowing not to steal sounds pretty straightforward, something fairly attainable. As long as you avoid grand theft auto and shoplifting, you're good to go, right?

Not according to Chogyam Rinpoche. As Tony Patchell puts it, the man must be a lawyer - his dense paragraph about the myriad ways in which one can commit larceny leaves no legal loophole. Everybody can be caught up by this precept.

The first line: "I commit myself to refrain from stealing my own opportunities for realization and squandering the proceeds in attempting to create more comfortable methods of remaining in samsara." Samsara is defined as the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth. What a concept! That we seek to make ourselves more comfortable in our suffering - more money, better security, more things, excellent health - instead of coming face to face with the reality of the human condition, as it is. Choosing not to pursue the path of Buddha, choosing not to hear the truth of dharma, choosing not to work towards alleviating the suffering of all sentient beings - this is a theft, stealing from ourselves our opportunities for enlightenment.

And the next line is just as hefty: "I commit myself to the awareness that I cannot extricate myself from involvement in exploitation, social injustice, oppression and theft." We are all players in this drama - not one of us is free from implication in the dark forces of the world. This was a good line for me to read. The things I am most passionate about are issues of social injustice and oppression. In that fight, I fall easy prey to the tyranny of self-righteous anger. And then I help no one, especially not myself. There is never a clear role of victim/perpetrator. We all have a part in this. No good guys in white hats, bad guys in black hats. Instead, a whole lot of grey.

Chogyam Rinpoche continues: "I recognize that it is impossible to be 'pure' and disconnected from the causes of loss, impoverishment and deprivation of other beings. Because of this I commit myself to making the attempt to deprive others as little as possible through my presence in the world. I recognize that simply to live is to have gained personal advantage from the disadvantage of countless others."

This part is important - he points out that although it is impossible to avoid causing loss, impossible to take nothing from anyone in the world, still we can make a vow. We can commit ourselves to depriving others "as little as possible." Every day we make purchases that can be traced back to exploitative labor practices and disastrous environmental policy. Every day we our wages, our food, our general affluence, is gained at the expense of others less fortunate on the planet. But what is crucial here is that we cannot despair in that knowledge. We still need to make the commitment, to vow each day as much as possible to minimize our negative impact, our plunder the treasures of the Earth. Every small step counts: the conscious choices at the grocery store, the reusable canvas bag, the boycotting of companies that employ child laborers in sweat shops, the adoption of a vegetarian diet, the sharing of our personal wealth and time with service organizations. Living as gently as possible is something that each of us can reach for each day.

Chogyam Rinpoche says, "I commit myself to generating kindness and generosity, by sharing my time, energy and resources with those who experience need." In other words, the second precept is not just about vowing not to steal. It is about committing to the reverse of stealing - promising to be open and magnanimous, giving from our hearts, our wallets, and our minds.

Quite a vow. And yet, all it takes is this action, in this moment, to begin.


  1. Hi Michelle
    That was such a good class Saturday. I too had no clue how "deep" this precept was. Barbara and I talked about this at breakfast, Sunday morning. We wondered about stealing moments or hours from ourselves. I wondered if these moments are actually "stolen" if they are moments that we need before starting a new task. It's such a simple thought, but opens up to a lot of other thoughts... I loved Tony's parable of the 1000 arrows. If only one arrow hit the target, what of the other 999? Did we waste our time? Was it all just practice? Are we lousy shots? The solution lies somewhere in "no-words", just tempting me to come up with a clever answer. Phil M.

  2. Phil,
    Thanks for dropping in! Great hearing your reflections on the second precept. As to stealing time - it's funny, I multitask to a ridiculous degree to "save time," and end up feeling frantic. Ironically, I find that doing things the slow way, one at a time, leaves me not only much more centered, but in the end more productive. Perhaps simply being fully present is a way to avoid "stealing."