This is part six of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts. The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.
The object of stealing is anything that someone else regards as their own. This includes other living beings. If we take something that no one claims to possess, the action of stealing is not complete. Like with killing, the intention must include a correct identification of the object of stealing, a determination to steal, and our mind must be influenced by delusion, usually desirous attachment, but sometimes out of hatred of wishing to harm our enemy. It can also sometimes be out of ignorance thinking such stealing is justified such as not paying taxes or fines, or stealing from our employer, downloading pirated music or videos, etc. Stealing also requires preparation. It may be done secretly or openly, using methods such as bribery, blackmail, or emotional manipulation. Finally, it must also include completion. The action is complete when we think to ourself ‘this object is now mine.’
In modern life we have countless opportunities to steal and we often take advantage of most of them. Common examples include not giving money back when we have been given too much change at the store, accidentally walking out with some good we didn’t purchase and not making an effort to go back and pay for it, stealing work supplies from work for our personal use, stealing our employers time by doing personal things on company time beyond what is conventionally acceptable in your work place (most work environments allow you a limited amount of personal administrative time. The point is do not go beyond what is intended by your employer). Another very common form of stealing is lying on our taxes so that we pay less arguing our government is wasteful. We come up with all sorts of justifications for why this is OK, but it is still stealing.
Stealing can also include saying certain clever things to cause something to come to us when it would otherwise normally go to somebody else. One of the most common forms of stealing these days is downloading pirated music or videos, or copying and using software we didn’t pay for. Again, our rationalizations for such behavior know no limits, but it is still stealing. The test for whether we are stealing or not is very simple: if we asked the other person would they say its legitimately ours? If not, it was stealing.
Stealing is incredibly short-sighted. Anybody who feels tempted to steal should take a few hours driving through a really poor neighborhood or they should go visit a very poor country or watch a documentary on global poverty. You can find plenty of material just on YouTube. When we see these things, we should remind ourselves that this is our future if we steal. When we steal, we create the causes to have nothing in the future. Giving is the cause of wealth, taking is the cause of poverty. It is as simple as that. Why are Bill Gates and Warren Buffet so rich? Because they have the mental habits on their mind to give away everything. Because they did this in the past, they became incredibly rich in this life. Because they are again giving away all of their wealth, in future lives they will again be incredibly rich. Just as they are external philanthropists, a Bodhisattva is an inner philanthropist. We seek vast inner wealth so that we can have even more to give away.
There are also many subtle forms of stealing that occur due to the way we have structured our economy. As many of you know I am in economist by training. I very much believe in free markets as the least bad way of organizing an economy. However, the optimal effects of the market only occur when there is what is called perfect competition. When there is perfect competition, excess profits are competed away and both consumers and producers are as good off as they could possibly be on the aggregate. But when markets are not perfectly competitive, markets do not produce optimal results. For example, if a company has a monopoly on the sale of a certain good that everybody needs, it can charge extraordinarily high prices and people will be forced to pay. The company intentionally restricts production to drive the prices higher than would otherwise exist in a perfectly competitive market. As a result, they extract a surplus in profit not due to the quality of their product, but rather by virtue of their market power. Extracting this surplus profit is a form of stealing from the consumers and also from society as a whole because not as much of the good is produced as would otherwise be the case. It is beyond the scope of this blog to outline them, but there are many examples of market power being used for selfish purposes.
At a personal level, the point is we need to be aware of the situations in which we have some form of market power over others and to not take advantage of our more powerful position to extract greater profits then we are justifiably due. If we fail to do this, it is a form of stealing. Likewise, if we live in a society in which corporations have disproportionate power and enjoy political protection for their monopolistic behavior, if we vote for or lend political support for such policy knowing that it is a form of stealing, then we are also engaged in a subtle form of stealing. The point is this, we live in a society and we have a say in how that society is run. If we use our political power for selfish purposes or to support those who do so, then are these not karmic actions that have karmic effects? This is not mixing Dharma with politics; this is understanding that the actions we engage in have effects on those around us and we must take that into account when choosing our actions. I would not say that all of this is a violation of our Mahayana precept to abandon stealing, but it is once again a directional question. Are our actions moving in the direction of stealing or are they moving in the direction of not stealing. That is the question.