Ethics 7: Not-Stealing


This is a transcript of a talk given by Michael Stone as part of an online Precepts Course at Centre of Gravity in 2011. This course looked at the five yamas (from the first limb of Yoga) and took them up as precepts: ahimsa (not harming), satya (honesty), asteya (not stealing), brahmacharya (wise use of sexual energy), aparigraha (generosity).

Not Stealing
The first of the five precepts is ahimsa or non-violence. Call it the foundation, the cornerstone of Yoga. It narrates the intention in our lives not to cause harm or injury to ourselves or others. The second precept is satya or honesty, to really look at our lives honestly, in body, speech and mind. To be able to experience our moment to moment lives from a place of stillness and a place of honesty. Today the precept I’d like to explore is asteya. This is usually translated as not stealing. Dogen, a wonderful Zen master, translates it this way: “The self and things of the world are just as they are. The gate of freedom is open.” This precept is about being satisfied with what I have. Another way you could translate this is: not taking what’s not given freely.

I remember once having a monk visit my home and there was a small coffee table in front of the couch, and there were many books on it. I noticed that he never picked up the books to look at them. I asked his attendant about this once and he said that he wouldn’t pick up the books unless I offered first. Some traditions take this very far, in the Jain tradition the precept of not taking what is not given freely is used in farming and gardening. If there’s fruit on the tree it won’t be picked until that fruit drops. Only then cam it be eaten.

There’s an old Buddhist teaching this reminds me of about a farmer who was so eager to make his crops grow that he went out at night and pulled at the shoots. He imagined he was giving them encouragement, but obviously he lost his harvest. I think this is a helpful image to keep in mind, that we can only be in our lives at the pace of our lives. Sometimes stealing comes from being out of the rhythm of our lives. We can act out of a place of scarcity, rather than a place of interdependence or a place of abundance. The practice of not-stealing means seeing our lives as full rather than wanting.


I’ve gardened a little bit in my life, each summer I grow a few vegetables. Gardening can be about showing up at the right time. Knowing when to water and when to plant. It’s also about remembering what you did last year, what crops worked where. Lately I’ve been thinking about practice in terms of time. One of the ways we break the precept of not-stealing has to do with time, not giving time to our lives, not being in time. I think impatience is a form of stealing time. When we’re bored or feeling feelings that we can’t tolerate, we became impatient and then we’re stealing time.

One of the practices I’ve been enjoying is looking at experience in terms of moments of time. You can try this at home, to look at these words as moments in time. Or feeling a mood in your body as moments in time. Or noticing your apartment as moments in time. Or noticing your parents, your child, your friend, as a moment in time. This is a nice trick for the mind, because the tendency for the ego is to operate much like a tourist, watching experience and always trying to take a photograph of it, to catch it outside the stream of time. One of the deepest levels of understanding not-stealing is the practice of coming into our lives and being one with time. There are so many ways that we steal time. Not listening, not taking care of ourselves, not being aware of the needs of others. These are all forms of stealing.

The most famous story when we talk about the precept of not-stealing comes from Ryokan who was an eighth century Japanese hermit who lived in a small hut. One night when he was out walking, a thief broke into the hut and stole some clothing and some of the few items he had. When he returned home to find everything in his small home missing or overturned, he wrote this poem.

The thief left it behind
The moon at the window.

I love this short poem. If I came home and someone stole my things I don’t think I would notice the moon at the window. His attitude is at once compassionate and sorrowful. “The thief left it behind. The moon at the window.” The one thing the thief can’t steal is the moon at the window. This is a poem about ownership. The precepts are a practice of loosening our sense of ownership and this starts to work on us over time.


This past year I was in New York City at LaGuardia Airport and fell into a distracted moment, and then someone stole my computer right out from under me. It was recently purchased and I was in the midst of a chapter for a new book. I approached the police and told them about the theft. They immediately checked to see whether the area was being video surveyed, but it was just outside the available views. So the cop took out his notepad and began writing up a report. As he talked I couldn’t help noticing his gait, and the heaviness of his posture, and how his spine was so out of alignment from the weight of the handcuffs and the gun. I kept looking at his gun and started to imagine the thief who stole my computer. If he was caught maybe he would run from his house at night and the police would shoot him. Or he might have to go to jail. Maybe he has a child that he needed money for. Or maybe his partner is a drug addict, or maybe he’s a drug addict and he can’t kick it. I kept staring at the cop’s gun and the cop kept asking me questions and then I said, “Stop, stop. I don’t want to file a report.” The cop looked at me like I was crazy. I felt real compassion for the posture of the policeman and the life of this person who stole my computer. I felt that the guy who stole my computer must be so anxious by now that it’s worse for him than for me. There will be some way for me to get another computer. But he incurred the karma of stealing a computer, he’s already feeling the effect of that action. So I decided not to press charges. It’s not an ideological position, it was more a sense that in the moment I didn’t want to go after this guy.

I really think that stealing is deeply psychological in the sense that it’s the inability to love. It’s being stuck in a core belief of scarcity. The opposite of stealing is giving. The amazing thing about giving is that it can transform the heaviest of hearts. And the question that we always need to ask ourselves as practitioners of the dharma is: can we really give without a guaranteed return? Can we give generously of our attention? Can we give generously of material things? Can we give generously of time? When we’re deluded, stealing can’t be stopped. If you’re asleep and stuck in old habit formations, then you will steal. We perform this together as a culture. Our society is asleep. Our collective imagination is failing us, or we’re failing at the possibility of living a better life because we’re not imaginative enough. We’re caught in the groove of deep collective habit. Our economy has to grow by three percent every year, meaning that in twenty-four years the size of our economy will have to double, and fish can’t handle that. Our waterways and watershed can’t handle that. Being on automatic pilot, not just personally, but as a society, creates a situation where we’re all stealing. Not only are we stealing right now from the environment, but we’re stealing from our grandchildren, from the future of birds, fish, and forests. Stealing is not just about objects, it’s also about relationships. That’s why in Mind of Clover, Robert Aitken’s excellent series of talks and essays on the precepts, he translates stealing as carelessness. In our tradition, one of the reasons why we value simple living so much is because we don’t want to get caught up in carelessness. And this means not just being careless about material things but careless in our relationships.

Thich Nhat Hanh in his Order of Interbeing defines not-stealing like this. “Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others. But prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.” In other words, use what you have simply.


Hungry Ghost
Near Halloween there’s a ceremony in the Zen tradition named Segaki. The word gaki means hungry ghost. This is someone whose belly is very swollen, and whose throat is very tiny, like the thinnest straw. And because their throat is tiny and their belly is swollen they’re always hungry. Sometimes they’re depicted as being able to swallow only tiny portions of food, so they’re never satisfied. And at other times when they have food around and bring it to their lips it turns into blood. Sometimes you see images of blood smeared down the chest of these ghosts. Or if they have food around, it turns into hot coals. Sometimes you see them at a banquet table loaded with abundant food, but when they sit down to eat they discover that the handle of their utensils are three or four feet long, so when they pick up huge portions of food they can’t get it to their mouths. They would be able to reach across the table and feed each other, only they’re so consumed with their own desire that they can’t see the needs of others. They’re so consumed with their own hunger and self-satisfaction that it never occurs to them to use the utensils on the table to feed others.

The hungry ghosts refer to the human condition that is never satisfied with what we have. There is a hungry ghost in all of us, no matter what we try and give to that ghost it’s never satisfied. Being able to see that there’s a part of us that can never be satiated is the heart of the vow of not stealing. To be satisfied with what we have involves appreciating that there is a part of us that will never be satisfied. No matter what kind of food you give her, no matter what car you buy him, no matter what dress you have, no matter what house you have, or partner you have, there is some part of us that is never satisfied.


Opening to the way desire feeds on more and more desire, takes you deeper into the place where you can be satisfied with what you have. To practice “not taking what is not freely given” means looking at the mind of attachment. To see the mind of craving and really know its weight. Whether the attachment you have is to material possessions, or to different states or experiences, or perhaps what you’re holding onto is your identity, it’s a burden. It’s the opposite of giving. What’s the most fundamental thing you can give? The most fundamental thing you can give is a self that’s satisfied. What more profound thing could we offer our culture than the practice of being satisfied?

When we settle our bodies and their cravings we start to touch 10,000 things, which is a Zen metaphor for being touched by the infinite possibilities of the world. When I breathe, bacteria perishes by the millions. I can never not kill. When I live, I try my best to be honest, but I will always have some delusion. And now there is a third precept called asteya, not-stealing, being satisfied with what I have. The only way to be satisfied with what we have is to make contact with the place in us that can’t ever get satisfied. And then we start to see ourselves as interbeing. We see the way in which we all are drenched in one another at a deep psychological level. And then the precepts transcend themselves. We become absorbed in the path. When you’re giving yourself over to meditation, it’s not really a question of doing meditation or not doing meditation, it’s fully giving your attention to breathing, you just plunge into your life freely. When we really give attention to a moment in time we forget about our preoccupations and compulsions. Not stealing is a commitment that doesn’t come out of your head, it’s a commitment that comes out of your body, it’s a bouquet of conditions that comes out of your sitting practice every day. From your commitment to seeing the different levels of the precepts operating in your life. Objects are not enlightenment. Food is not enlightenment. Your mind is not enlightenment. Other people are not enlightenment. Enlightenment is the nexus of all these conditions, it’s the way we inter-are. It’s the way we inter-exist. When you start to feel interbeing and how we inter-exist, you won’t be motivated to steal. Because if we’re all interconnected, then I’m not going to steal from you.


Three Gifts
On the surface, non-stealing seems like an ethical precept you try to maintain, but at a deeper level we realize that to really practice not-stealing means contacting that place in ourselves where there is fear and craving. In Buddhism it’s said that there are three kind of gifts you can give. The first is material gifts. The second is the gift of helping someone rely on themselves. This can be through education or technology or training the heart and mind, where someone can really learn to trust themselves. And the third gift is the gift of no fear, the gift of being able to model fearlessness. Another way that’s translated sometimes is not having ideas of gain based on fear. And again this has to do with the way we often rob ourselves from really being ourselves by stealing even from ourselves. Last year I had a practice that whenever I had a run-in with one of the precepts I would write a poem. Stealing from myself regret blooms. It was written in a week where I was so busy that I wasn’t giving myself time to rest, there was always something else to do. There was a coffee shop I liked visiting and there were some people I liked hanging out with there. I really missed just relaxing and talking with them. I was in a cycle of overwork and regret when this poem came to me, and I realized I was stealing time from myself. That was the little lesson.

I also wanted to read something from Bodhidharma, here’s how he defines non-stealing. “Self nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of unattainable practice, not having thoughts of gaining is the precept of not-stealing.” In other words, our ideals are unattainable. By definition, stealing is about gaining something, so not entertaining thoughts about gaining something is the practice of not stealing. That’s really beautiful.

When you die you are faced with the question of whether the precepts have come alive in your own heart. Can be open to the dying place? We’re all going to die. We die suddenly and we may die young. Some of us die in war, in cars, and nobody really knows when. At the moment of death the only thing that really matters is the condition of your heart. The only thing that really matters is whether there’s honesty present. Our wealth, our accomplishments, the stuff we’ve accumulated, our degrees, the institutions we’ve built, in our heart of hearts that stuff isn’t there. How will you be when you die? Are you living in a way now that you’re so busy accumulating you don’t have time to look into your own heart, to look at your values? I really encourage you to ask this question because when you die really nothing else matters but what’s going on in your heart.

I think the practice of sitting meditation combined with taking care of ourselves and being aware of the needs of others and committing to the precepts is really about coming to the bottom line in our lives. Our lives are so short and that’s the amazing thing about the world. It doesn’t last. Our bodies are wondrous because they’re vulnerable. Our relationships are profound and difficult and joyous and tragic because we’re vulnerable and our relationships don’t last. And I think that when you sit still you come to the bottom line of your life, you come to the bottom of your heart, where you can see clearly and honestly whether you’re living in a way that values interdependence and community, that values relationship.


Four Stages
What does non-stealing look like as a practice? How can you work with the part of yourself that is never going to be satisfied? I’ve been calling these four suggestions the four stages of radical interdependence. The first step is voluntary poverty. That’s how we talk about it in the world of religion. Voluntary poverty. Another way of saying that is: simplicity. Living in a space that is simple to maintain, having a schedule that is simple to manage, eating simple food. When you have a lot of stuff you have to maintain it all and that requires a huge amount of energy. And if you have a vast amount of stuff, not only do you have to maintain it, you start getting scared because you’re aware of impermanence and that you’re going to lose everything, sooner or later. So the first step is radical simplicity.

The second step is being tuned into the needs of others. Like the hungry ghost sitting at the banquet table who is so consumed by his or her own desire that they don’t notice anyone else. To live in a way that you’re tuned into your own needs and also the needs of others. If it’s just your own needs, the practice gets solipsistic. If it’s just the needs of others, you become a doormat and get burned out and forget that your body is also part of the ecological fabric.

The third step is to develop an ecological self. To develop a sense of self that is ecologically rooted. I think we can replace the old teachings of enlightenment with this idea of developing a radical view of oneself as ecological. This means seeing how you depend on others, and on the circulation of waters and airs and our food system. This is the third step.

The fourth step is maybe the most difficult. To model your commitment to these previous stages. To show radical simplicity. To show in how you live your life that you’re taking care of your needs and the needs of others. To demonstrate an ecological self. I have many ideas how we can spread this. One thought I had would be to ask all the most well known Buddhist and Yoga teachers to publish their income and their expenses every year so we can be transparent about where our revenue comes from and what we spend our money on. I don’t know how this would go over but I would volunteer to do this. I think it would be an interesting thing for people who talk about simplicity and interdependence to reveal how they demonstrate this in their lives. I don’t know if we’re ready for it, but I think this would be interesting.


To sum up, I started this talk today with some words about time. One of the ways we steal is stealing time, this is a form of impatience. One of the ways we can work with this, is that whatever’s coming up for us, just to see it as a moment in time. See: hungry for the time being. See: anger for the time being. See: joy for the time being. See: that there’s happiness for the time being. Really start to see that everything you experience in your life is only experienced for the time being. This helps shake off the tendency towards gaining something, towards projecting ourselves into the future. Towards craving. Just to experience what we experience for the time being.

Secondly, I talked about the hungry ghosts and how there is some part of us that is never satisfied. Getting to know that part of you is the deepest part of the precept of not taking what’s not given freely. Because when you are satisfied, the world seems whole.

And finally there is an idea of four steps that recognize and embody interdependence. Simple living. Being aware of your own needs and the needs of others. Cultivating an ecological self, replacing the sense of enlightenment of trying to get up and out, with the sense of horizontal awakening where we wake up to the fact that what we think of as the self is not just constructed or co-constructed by genetics and family, it’s also constructed by society and by our ecology.  The fourth step would be demonstrating or modeling interdependence in how we speak and how we move through the world, in what we buy and don’t buy, and how we eat. That way we activate the precepts, they’re not ideological or philosophical. The core of Patanajali’s impulse, the core of the Buddha’s impulse, is not to become philosophical. It’s to take these precepts into our lives in each and every moment without getting stuck in the idea that the precepts are a philosophy. Not stealing is a commitment that doesn’t come from your head.