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Avoid Stealing. But How?

April 30, 2010

Traditionally, the dharma outlines 5 precepts for laypeople to follow.  They’re not commandments so much as helpful signposts to happiness and mental purity.  The idea being that performing any of these actions requires generating mental negativities in one’s own mind, in addition to harming others.  It’s an interesting non-dualistic take on morality, and in general I find the precepts useful to keep in mind.  They are:

1.  Avoid killing.

2. Avoid stealing.

3. Avoid speaking lies.

4. Avoid using sexuality in ways that harm others.

5. Avoid abusing intoxicants (mainly because it diminishes our ability to observe the other four.)

Ok, so far so good, the Buddhists have whittled it down from 10 to 5, or something.  But I’ve got a few questions about number 2: the whole thieving thing.

See, it’s pretty obvious how to avoid the vulgar kinds of stealing: bank robbery, purse-snatching, embezzlement, etc.

But what do we do when we live on stolen land?  In a country where, as Thea Lim of Racialicious points out, “if you live on native land, you benefit from native genocide”?  And where “many First Nations people in Canada, [where Thea’s from], live under third world conditions in a first world country“?

“Surely,” she observes, “there is a political option to remedy this beyond shameful situation, between ignoring it and moving back to England.”

Are we discussing and exploring those options in dharma communities?

And furthermore, how do we relate to stealing when we live in an economic system that operates on the basis of unpaid labor?  (Which is the origin of profit under capitalism.)  Does that count as stealing?  Are we then morally obligated to oppose it?  Justified in occupying university buildings and factories? How do we see our dharma practice reflected in these systems and struggles?

These are my questions.  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Now off to Wisdom 2.0!

Later, y’all.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. kimberly permalink
    April 30, 2010 2:45 pm

    thank you thank you for asking these questions. they are good ones to meditate on and to look into. i’m looking into settler colonialism as an scholar-researcher — particularly Asian settler colonialism in the Pacific under U.S. colonialism. i’d not thought about looking into as a dhamma practitioner. thank you for pointing that out. it’s like a DUH! moment.

    been enjoying the blog! metta, kim

  2. April 30, 2010 3:19 pm

    thank you. when we practice in north america, it is difficult not to practice on violently ceased lands. it is a question we must ponder.

  3. bohemiankitsch permalink
    April 30, 2010 4:59 pm

    this is a topic that warrants a dialog rather than a mere comment.

    i think you highlight the limits, the messiness of adhering to tradition/convention as a being who is committed to abiding in the wakefulness of the Unborn.

    i hope no one finds this too offensive or pompous. i’m just trying to share is all…

    i believe that the buddha living in this time and place would only utter these precepts for their historical value. they are an anachronism in the modern world and were never meant to be frozen or fixed for all time. Sakyamuni never contemplated the slaughterhouse, the stock exchange, spiral dynamics, or 3rd wave feminism. and he wasn’t supposed to. that unfolding of humanity was not present in his time.

    to me, the ability to access the organic wisdom that arises from the blending of emptiness, which is eternal and unchanging, with the world of form, which is constantly changing/evolving, renders any set of precepts obsolete once this is understood. in this moment, in this breath– THAT’S the magic! lists of rules may be important in the beginning, but ultimately they keep us bound to filters and out of touch with the world as it truly is. and without recognition of the world (and self) as it truly is, how can one ever hope to discern right action.

    i’m having a dream that the world is full of starving people; my only plans to save them are to feed everyone that i can, and to wake up from the dream.

  4. May 2, 2010 8:16 pm

    your questions are certainly worth considering. also worth thinking about – where does our food, transportation, housing come from? one of the most insidious aspects of modern society is how actions/consequences are divorced. we don’t want power plants, clear cuts, factories in our back yard. but we are all happy & eager to use the items produced. more and more i see radical simplicity & living within our ecological footprint as the only moral way to live. but very difficult…

  5. May 3, 2010 11:17 am

    Thanks to everyone for your thoughts! kimberly and kt and ej, welcome. :)

    kimberly, I’d love to hear more about whether you decide to incorporate a dhamma perspective into your academic work — that sounds rad.

    ej, I think you’re very right: we often consume products and commodities without knowing or thinking about the people who produced them, and under what conditions. As far as I understand it (which is far from perfectly), this is the crux of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism: that our relationship to commodities (buying and selling them, consuming them) obscures and mystifies the social relations and human domination that went into the production of those commodities. As buyers, we look at a refrigerator and see its quality, its color, its utility, its brand, its price in comparison to other refrigerators — but not the relations between the owners of refrigerator factories and the people who work at those factories, or the truckers who distribute the refrigerators to stores, etc. And in addition, I think what you’re getting at is that we don’t see the relations between humans and the environment. The marketing strategy of ‘green-washing’ products by providing some information on the environmental impact of their production is very weak and doesn’t begin to solve the real problem.

    I hear you about radical simplicity as an approach, and I’ve been totally inspired by the passion of some people I’ve met who learn all about how to live off the grid, in houses made out of discarded tires, etc. On the other hand, in the urban U.S., where I am, it’s not really a viable strategy for working people, who basically operate on a take-what-we-can-get basis and don’t have the time or resources (without hardcore community organization) to construct greywater systems for their SRO tenement buildings. So for me, the most salient issue around environmentalism isn’t individual moral choices about alternative consumption or renunciation. It’s about fundamentally changing the political economy to put the means of production in the hands of working communities. If communities had true ownership over their own production, for a variety of reasons I think they’d be able to make better, wiser choices about how to balance production with ecological health and wholeness. Does that make sense? As you say, this stuff is certainly difficult! :)

    bk, I owe you a real email one of these days, but for now, thank you for that beautiful and important point about the difference between spiritual engagement and social imperatives. I totally agree that viewing precepts as primary only creates more concepts to cling to, which doesn’t help. At the same time, I don’t think they are training wheels to be discarded once we become advanced bicyclists! For me, they are living, evolving signals pointing us to important types of understanding and effort. The kind of mental negativity I notice in myself while speaking falsehoods today might feel totally different while speaking falsehoods five years from now. And my insight into what is falsehood might have changed, too. But it’s still important to me to keep referring to these living signals. Their contexts keep changing, but the direct links to suffering remain, and for me that’s why it’s important to connect the efforts for social and spiritual liberation.

    My di of the logue, anyway. Thank you for your wisdom, as always! I miss you — time for an in-person hug soon. :)

  6. May 4, 2010 2:36 pm

    In the words of a friend, what a “dope synthesis”!

    I would be very interested in what Buddhist scholarship I bet exists on the reasons for a prohibition on stealing. As Katie says, I think there are ways to relate to guidelines other than dogmatically, mechanically applying them to ones life. I’ve come to believe that the only way to avoid that kind of mechanical thinking, however, is to understand the reason and context for the rule, and see whether that basis still functions in the current situation.

    For instance, both Gandhi and MLK followed and developed traditions of nonviolence/pacifism and are famous for popularizing them as politico-spiritual tactics. A difference between them was that Gandhi advocated for total pacifism (there’s some famous statement where he proposes to the Jews in Nazi-occupied Germany to use noncooperation rather than violence) vs. King’s conciliatory approach to violence in self-defence (see his debate with Robert Williams.)

    It’s always been a challenge for me to avoid mechanical, hard-line thinking about basically any rule or statement: all-in or all-out. This in contrast to a friend of mine who would always (rightly) tell me I was being a robot, but then himself be so mired in postmodernism that he would never formulate any general/universal principles, which left him often unmoored and difficult to understand. My friendship with him has been a process of us reaching a synthesis of these two tendencies, which after the fact I’ve come to understand is called dialectics.

    Thanks for the interesting comments all, wussup Leroy!

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