Ethics7b: Not-Stealing


Notes on a talk at Centre of Gravity by Mike Hoolboom and Pat Rockman, May 13, 2014

Sometimes, when I get really quiet and I can live inside the breath, it can be hard to tell where the inhale stops and the exhale begins. It feels like part of the inhale is the exhale, it feels like part of the exhale is already the inhale. Can you feel that? The Centre of Gravity as we used to know it is ending, is coming to the end of its exhale, and at the same time there are a few of us meeting here, when we can, on Tuesday nights. Perhaps it’s a beginning of something else, perhaps it’s part of the exhale, and part of the inhale.

On June 10, Gravity’s final Tuesday night, there will be a series of vows taken about the precepts, there are a number of folks, perhaps some in this room, who have been taking the online precepts course. The project of Gravity will close with the precepts and council practice, and this new project has begun witih council practice and the precepts. Sometimes it feels that the inhale is already part of the exhale, that the exhale is already part of the inhale.

Norman Fischer: “The sixteen bodhisattva precepts are a set of vows of ethical conduct taken many times in a Zen practitioner’s life. They derive originally from the vinaya, monastic vows taken on ordination during the Buddha’s time (250 precepts for monks, 348 for nuns). Lay people took only the first five vows. The bodhisattva precepts used in the Mahayana tradition emphasize conduct to benefit others, and are taken by both monastic and lay practitioners. The short set of sixteen precepts used in the Soto tradition were formulated by Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan.”

Traditionally in Soto Zen Buddhism there are 16 Great Bodhisattva Precepts, but when Michael has taught them, he has taken his lead from the chimerical Yogi sage Patanjali, who collected a series of jewel-like aphorisms in The Yoga Sutra, published in the second century. In this book he lays out the eight fold path of Yoga, and names the first part of the path as the yamas, or the restraints. They are ethical principles that are very compatible with Buddhist precepts. The five yamas or restraints of Patanjali are: non-harming, not lying, not stealing, the wise use of sexual energy and non-greed. Tonight we’re going to look at the precept of not-stealing. What does it mean: non-stealing? And what might it mean to practice the precept of not-stealing?


Norman Fischer defines non-stealing as: receiving what’s offered as a gift. Can you see what’s being offered in this moment, even if you don’t want it, even if it’s something that doesn’t suit your view of what is appropriate, or what is necessary, or what is kind even… could you receive that as a gift? Can you see the gifts that are being offered to you, again and again? I’ve been hanging out with a couple of new friends this spring, and they know the names and callings of all the birds. And they mark spring in this way, they can hear how each kind of bird arrives in the city after a long journey, week after week there are different groups of birds landing here. Oh now the red tailed blackbird, oh now the mockingbird. To me it just sounds like “birds,” in some generic sense, so I can’t receive the song, the joy of expression, the particular variation of each voice as it sings across the parks and streets. But my new friends are teaching me how to receive the gifts that are filling the air, and the most important way they do this is to get me to stop and listen. How do I stop stealing these bird songs? I stop and listen to them.

Working with the precepts is a very intimate practice because it puts us in touch with how the mind/body really works, in chains of sensations and thoughts related to those sensations. In other words, the precepts puts us in touch with karma, how our thoughts cause us to act in certain ways.

We develop views and thoughts and opinions, and then we act on those thoughts, the thought is the seed, and the action is the fruit, that’s why it’s important to examine our thoughts. Not-stealing doesn’t arrive from a blank page, it arises out of causes and conditions, out of views like I don’t have enough. So the practice of not-stealing might have something to do with setting up conditions that make non-stealing more possible. If you want to eat oranges, you plant orange seeds. How do we plant the seeds of not-stealing?

For example? Here at 215 Spadina, we bring out bags and coats into the room. Why do we do that? Because I don’t want my stuff stolen? Or perhaps because I want to help create conditions where stealing isn’t so possible. Putting our bags in this room helps other people not steal.

Is putting our bags in the room part of a practice of not-stealing? Or is it part of a practice, is it planting the seeds, of separation and distance? I have to protect myself from all the strangers outside that door, so I’m going to bring my things in here, where I’m safe. The experience of Samadhi, as Patanjali puts it, the experience of integration means there is no more separation between you and me, between this cushion, this floor, these windows, and this body. How can there be stealing when we’re experiencing this integration? Does keeping the bags in this room plant seeds that makes Samadhi or integration less possible, less likely? Or is it part of a practice of not-stealing, of planting the seeds that work against integration?


One of the reasons I come here on Tuesday night is because it lays down seeds. It lays down seeds for future actions. I can feel the effort you are making in this room to bring attention to each moment, to each breath, to each word. When I feel that effort during sitting practice for instance, making the practice light and buoyant, it’s so much easier than practicing alone. I can feel that this room is also your life. That the way we are in this room is also a seed for how we are in our lives. And that this room is also our lives. The work you do in this room plants seeds in me, and the culture outside this room plants seeds in me, and my friends and family, and myself. My actions arise out of these seeds, these causes and conditions. Part of the work of the precepts is to try and tease out, try to bring into relief, what these seeds are. So that we know when we are planting seeds, and what kinds of seeds they are. The precepts is like gardening. It’s about tending the mind/body like a garden, and about planting the kinds of seeds that are wholesome, that relate to the whole, the whole mind/body, or even the whole world.

Ram Das
Here is former Harvard mathematician and American spiritual leader Ram Das on not-stealing. “… So in order to steal, you have to see your victim as ‘other.’ That means stealing takes us deeper into the illusion of me/you, which is the illusion of identity, which is the illusion of separation. That, from a spiritual point of view, is why non-stealing is part of the practice of ashtanga yoga; it’s not because of our usual ideas about morality, it’s because in order to steal we have to turn the other person into ‘them,’ which rules out our seeing them as ‘us’.

.. to avoid separating ourselves from other people, we stop ripping them off… It’s not just the physical stuff, like not stealing somebody’s wallet. Practicing asteya includes things like not accepting praise and not taking credit for somebody else’s ideas. It means in the very broadest sense possible that you don’t appropriate anything, material or otherwise, that isn’t rightfully yours. That’s asteya.”

Pat on Retreat
When you think of stealing what comes to mind? How about not-stealing? Taking what is offered freely, as a gift; being content with what we have, without adding anything.

Because I am coming here I am paying more attention to this precept. I am on retreat and I am stealing right now by writing this. Stealing from this time of a quiet mind and the instruction to not read or write. I saw daffodils and thought I would like some for the room in which I am sleeping during these seven silent days. I see many growing in the garden, on a trail, cut in vases. I think about taking one but feel uneasy. Then I realize I would be violating the non-stealing precept and don’t.

The rooms here are simple, a pale butter yellow with wood trim and simple lighting, a red overstuffed chair in each, and a gently patterned quilt on the beds. I want to make the room mine and so put up a picture of a nest, a small doll on a key ring, a lovely Chinese bag hanging from the window. Things to please the eye. Sitting this morning at 6:30 the thought arises: this is another form of stealing – creating external pulls to the attention, entertainment when what has been offered is simplicity and the rare opportunity to turn away from stimulation, a chance to be with whatever shows up – bliss, boredom, silence, a multitude of thoughts of the future and things to do, sleepiness, judgmental thoughts of others, and of course the ever present “me.”

And then because the theme of the retreat is ageing, sickness and death, we are asked to remove our embellishments — jewelry, make-up, those tools that help us pretend we are not ageing, watches that keep the pace and mark the passing of our lives. I can see how these things can be another form of stealing from what is being offered, taking what is no longer ours. Wanting what we no longer have, not wanting what we are getting, we suffer. Stealing is a result of craving. Resisting what is, locked into the five aggregates fuelled by clinging, we steal from the past to hide from the future. I take off the earrings, put away the mascara and debate about the under-eye concealer. I keep wondering what it would be to just let my hair go gray.

Back Draft
Christopher Germer talked about “back draft” at a workshop I attended recently. Often we come to know our experience by meeting its opposite. For example, if we invoke peace, safety or ease, sometimes the opposite comes up. So, it may be with theft and its sister non-stealing, or the contentment that may come from simply being with who we are or what we have. Can we know the latter if we have never wanted what isn’t ours or taken that cookie from the cookie jar or compared ourselves to others? Can we know how to live in a way that is wholesome if we don’t understand the unwholesome?

Comparative thinking may be another form of theft. When we are full of self-loathing, self-importance or I-don’t-measure-up thinking, these views arise and maintained in relationship with others, according to a “standard” that others carry. One could argue that this is another form of stealing. While these comparisons are harmful, can they also bring us eventually to self-compassion, ease and a good enough view?

Can we soften into our sense of lack, incline the heart and mind to meet this not-enoughness with tenderness and ease, allowing the wanting to be there in the background? Can we feel it in the body? Can we honestly ask, “What do we really need now?” versus “What do we want?” Sitting with this and seeing what arises, coming out of the story of me and all my imperfections and being with what is here right now.


Each precept has three levels that we can work on. Level, it’s a funny word. Are you leveling with me? Here is Norman Fischer on the three levels of not-stealing.

“Precepts have many levels – we think about the literal level – do not steal. And in the literal we consider what’s being prohibited – stealing, stinginess – and what’s being encouraged – respect for boundaries. generosity.

The second level is the relative level, here we may need to take action that seems to break the literal level in service of some higher reason. So you might for health reasons need to eat meat for instance. I heard a powerful story on a podcast of a French Jewish woman who was rescued from the Nazis by Catholic nuns who had to lie to her and to the authorities to keep her safe.

And the third level is the absolute level, or the ultimate level. Here we recognize the limitations of all of these distinctions and separations. Is there really anything to steal? Do we really own anything anyway? This is the level where the three marks of existence are truly seen as the nature of all that is: impermanence, not-self, and suffering. Everything is impermanent and changing, nothing is separate or really existing in the way we think it is, nothing in the conditioned world will truly satisfy us anyway. There is no point to stealing as the thing we want to steal won’t lead to the happiness we think it will. There is no point to stealing as that thing isn’t even the thing it appears to be, and it will soon break and decay.”


And finally
Pema Chodron: “Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain. The only problem with this metaphor is that we leave all the others behind. In the process of discovering our true nature, the journey goes down, not up. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move towards turbulence and doubt. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain and we try not to push it away. At our own pace without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of compassion. Right down there in the thick of things we discover the love that will not die.”