The Second Precept

The Second Buddhist Precept states simply:

I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.

Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

This means abstaining from taking what belongs to others — in other words, stealing. Unlike the Judeo-Christian Eighth Commandment, it’s not a divine edict.  It’s training in the practice of non-greed for the good of one’s character and for the happiness of oneself and others.

Most of us don’t go around breaking and entering, mugging, or shoplifting, so it would seem that abstaining from stealing should be a relatively easy matter — but it’s not. There are more subtle forms of theft — downloading and uploading copyrighted material without permission, underreporting cash income on one’s taxes, using ideas without attribution, bringing paper clips home from the office, inflating damage estimates for insurance reimbursement.  The temptation to petty larceny runs deep within the crooked human heart, and aspiring to impeccability requires some heavy lifting.

Corporations can also violate the Second Precept.  Ethical businesses obtain raw materials and labor at a fair price and create something of value which they sell at a fair price.  Ethical businesses also abstain from passing hidden costs along to stakeholders.  Companies that purchase raw materials from developing nations at unfair prices, exploit workers through unfair wages and working conditions, expose consumers to risk through unsafe products, and pollute the environment are engaging in a form of theft.  So are industries that systematically mislead others about the real costs of their products, for example, the health costs of tobacco and soft-drink consumption, or the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal, deep sea drilling for oil, hydrofracking for gas, or storing “spent” nuclear fuel in cooling ponds.

Governments can violate the Second Precept through unjust confiscatory taxation.  Zen Master Hakuin (1686-1769) railed against the typical Japanese Daimyo (feudal lord) of his day who lived:

“a life of the greatest luxury… with never a thought of the difficulties of the common people under him. From the blood and sweat he wrings from them he is able to fill his tables with fine sake….  As there is never enough money to satisfy such appetites, he ends up dispatching merciless ministers….  Not only do officials reckon the tax rate yearly, they also raise the rate two or three times during the same year.” [1]

Closer to our own time, the American revolution was fought over taxation without representation, and some present day third-world countries are governed by oligarchies so corrupt they can only be called “kleptocracies.”

Political conservatives sometimes claim taxation levels in the United States are confiscatory.  In fact, personal U.S. taxation levels are considerably lower than most Western European democracies.  Additionally, federal tax revenues currently constitute a smaller percentage of our gross domestic product than they did during the decade of the nineteen-fifties.

The Bush era tax cuts have, however, contributed to a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthiest Americans. This transfer is also a function of exponential increases in executive compensation while the hourly wages of American workers have declined.  Fortune 500 CEOs enjoyed a 23% increase in compensation in 2010 alone.  The wealthiest one percent of the country now owns 38% of all privately held stock, 60% of all financial assets, and 62% of all business equity, returning concentration of wealth to levels not seen since the Roaring Twenties and the Gilded Age. [2]  Current tax policy benefits the richest at the expense of improvements in infrastructure, education, and health care for all.

No doubt, the reasons for the increasing disparity in wealth are multiple and complex, including the globalization of the world economy, the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas, the decline of labor unions, the deregulation of the banking industry, the rising cost of energy, the failures of our educational system, and the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy.  The simple, unbridled exercise of human greed fits somewhere into the mix as well.  Not unexpectedly, the wealthy continue to vigorously advocate for a variety of policies (subsidies, incentives, tax write-offs, deregulation, union busting, shredding the social safety net, shifting medical risk from insurers to patients, ending the estate tax, hobbling Medicare’s bargaining power, etc.) that further accelerate the ongoing transfer of wealth.  We might also note that the Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision gives the wealthy even more of an advantage in shifting the political playing field to their advantage.

The Second Precept applies to more than just the theft of property and wealth, however.  It can also apply to the giving and receiving of affection, attention, and caring in personal relationships and the sharing of tasks and responsibilities within them.  Most imbalances within relationships are not regulated by law and some are reinforced by prevailing customs, making it easier to fail to recognize them when they occur, and allowing their justification since “everyone does it.”  Focusing on the needs of our partners and dependents more than our own is an important part of Buddhist practice.  We might consider replacing the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us” with the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would wish to be treated.”  This isn’t to suggest one should neglect one’s own needs — self-compassion is important too.  As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be?  If I am not for others, what am I?”  It’s just that most of us are so self-focused that a little overcompensation in the other direction couldn’t hurt!   Is it possible to give more of ourselves emotionally — to be more generous than we are at present — without resentment — without fearing we might give more than we get in return?  Can we make that our ongoing practice?

The beauty of the Precepts is that they turn all our interactions into fields of practice in a way solitary sitting never can.  They allow us to explore the degree to which we express integrity, generosity, and compassion in our daily lives.  In following the Second Precept we aspire to more than mere equity, the fair giving of tit-for-tat, but to being open-hearted, caring, and mindful of the needs of others.

Thich Nhat Hanh has rewritten and expanded the Second Precept to make its intention clearer:

 

 

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

 

 

The beauty of Thay’s reformulation is that it turns a negative — abstaining from stealing and avoiding greed  — into a positive — the practice of generosity along with genuine activity to reduce individual and systemic suffering.

In discussing his reformulation in depth, Thay adds:

“When you practice one precept deeply, you will discover that you are practicing all five. The First Precept is about taking life, which is a form of stealing — stealing the most precious thing someone has, his or her life. When we meditate on the Second Precept, we see that stealing, in the forms of exploitation, social injustice, and oppression, are acts of killing — killing slowly by exploitation, by maintaining social injustice, and by political and economic oppression. Therefore, the Second Precept has much to do with the precept of not killing. We see the “interbeing” nature of the first two precepts. This is true of all Five Precepts.”

Buddhist practice is truly holographic — every part of the practice contains and reflects every other part of the practice.  If all we do is practice the Second Precept, we are decreasing self-aggrandizement, increasing generosity, increasing mindful awareness of our greed, grasping, and self-justification, and increasing awareness of how we depend on and influence the interconnected web of existence.

Not a bad payoff for one simple precept.

 

 

 

  1. [1] Katushiro Yoshizawa (2009). The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
  2. [2] http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html

9 Replies to “The Second Precept”

  1. The article was not a statement of fact, or a questioning of authority. It was spewing out the establishment line and trying to tie it to Buddhism. Why is “illegally downloading” a song stealing? You seem to be making the law an authority. It is not stealing any more than speaking the English language is stealing from those who invented it before me. When I make a copy of a song, it still leaves them with their copies. There was a time before intellectual property was adopted, which is why we see variations of classical music. Different artists would take a song make by another artist and tweak it. “Cheating on taxes” is not stealing either. Taxes is the government forcing me to accept services at the barrel of a gun. Taxes take money from people involuntarily. Granted, there are still small forms of stealing. Even stealing a pen or a paperclip counts, even though these items are not costly at all. If the wheel was patented and we had to pay royalties to the ancestors of the wheel maker, that would be ridiculous. I can’t count how many royalties I would have to pay to people who invented each word I am using. Individuation happens by being shaped from things all around us. Out of this arises the true self that the Buddha spoke of. I am into Aristotelian logic, and there are just contradictions here. If not paying my taxes is stealing from the public, how is taking my taxes not stealing? Dhamma practice is a VOLUNTARY deal. I cannot force people to give what they have to others.

    Namaste

    1. Michael,

      It was Immanuel Kant who suggested that we should strive to behave in the way we would wish everyone else to behave. What would happen if everyone in the world behaved in the way you are suggesting?

      Professional musicians, songwriters, singers, instrument makers, recording studio engineers, publicists, and everyone else in the music industry does what they do in the hopes of getting paid for their efforts. When you don’t pay for your music, you are affecting their income and their quality of life. If no one paid for their music, a lot of music would disappear — except at the amateur level. If you didn’t pay taxes, DARPA would never have developed the internet, and there would be no MP3s to download.

      If you really don’t believe in paying taxes, to be morally consistent, you shouldn’t avail yourself of everything your taxes help create: public roads, sanitation, and water, fire departments, the internet, clean air, parks, schools, air traffic control, epidemic prevention, etc. You might consider moving to a place where government doesn’t ask for much money from its citizens, and doesn’t provide much in the way of common services. I hear Somalia is nice this time of year.

      Oh, and you also shouldn’t call the cops when your house gets broken into. The police are tax-supported, and whatever was stolen was only private property. After all, the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon suggested private property itself was theft!

      Think it through!

  2. I will pay income taxes if commanded to, but I believe it is wrong to force others to pay or the government to take directly from paychecks. Sales tax is different, although basics like food and healthcare should not be taxed.

    1. Akeem, the advantage to taxing income rather than purchases is that ideally it can be more progressive with those who earn more paying at a higher rate, whereas sales taxes hit the rich and poor equally for basic purchases. But one can also make the case that it is better to tax consumption rather than income the way that Europe does with the VAT.

      I’m not sure why you think it is wrong for society to demand that everyone pay his or her fair share for the common good (roads, fireman, air quality, etc.) via the income tax. Societies have always pooled resources for common social goods — it’s a requirement of social advancement. Morality, it seems to me, only becomes an issue when social demands are either onerous or inequitable.

  3. “I’m not sure why you think it is wrong for society to demand that everyone pay his or her fair share for the common good”

    Stealing is taking what is not given. It doesn’t say to go ahead and take without consent because you think it is justified. Just as much of the stolen money has been used for evil – used to prop up dictators and much more etc.

    1. The State is traditionally invested with the authority to levy taxes and impose fines, penalties, and user fees, and to conscript is citizenry for necessary projects in every society I am aware of. There is a whole body of political philosophy in the West that creates a framework for deciding when such activity is fair and justified and when it is not. The state in this tradition reserves rights that are not accorded individuals. Buddhism has never developed a political philosophy — for the same reasons it never developed an ethical philosophy. In the West political and ethical theory arose simultaneously in ancient Athens. Nevertheless, the Buddha — in the suttas that describe his conversations with Kings — never argued against their ability to tax, raise armies, or punish criminals. The Buddha understood that Kings had their duties to their Kingdoms and had the authority to do what was necessary to fulfill those responsibilities. King Ashoka, the first Buddhist King, raised taxes, as had every Buddhist King since.

      1. Just because ancient kings levied taxes directly on their subjects, that does not make it moral. When Buddha taught us the six relations he did not include the government. Governments tend to be corrupt and violent. If governments only used taxes for good (instead of wars, etc.) they would not have to resort to direct taxation.

        The problem with direct taxation is that it takes away your freedom. The US never had income tax until the War Between The States. And the government has grown increasingly more corrupt ever since. Now, I believe in paying your “fair share”, but not if it is stolen. That is like saying I must have my fair share of robberies.
        And, no, governments cannot reserve rights to themselves, it must be given by the people.

        Perhaps the solution is something like the fair tax. But until that time we can deduct charity instead of giving to the government to wage its wars of aggression.

        1. Just a reminder, Cris, that our taxes pay for more than wars of aggression. They pay for water, sewers, sanitation, disease control, roads, flood management, bridges, schools, hospitals, firemen, policemen, national defense, the courts, food inspection, occupational safety, environmental clean-up, basic scientific research, healthcare and basic income for the elderly and disabled, etc. I, for one, would not want to live in a modern society that did not provide those basic services, and I am happy to pay my share of them.

          I am no happier about wars of aggression then you are, but wars do not stem from taxation — chimpanzees conduct warfare, the Swiss with high levels of taxation than we have do not. Corruption will continue to be endemic until we are all Buddhas. There is no reason to think that corruption is any worse now than it was back in the days of Boss Tweed before the income tax.

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