I undertake to abstain from taking that which is not freely given

The Second Precept

In spending some time reading and thinking about this precept, I realized that I probably hadn’t really framed this project correctly in some earlier posts. Studying the second precept really reinforced that this work with the precepts is a practice. These aren’t a set of rules to be followed, which I did allude to in previous posts, but framing them as a practice is an important part of all of this. The practice is to really examine our intentions and actions and the impact that they have on us and on other beings.

One of my first experiences with really thinking about the precepts was watching a series of videos about ethics on the 10% Happier app (I promise, I am not getting paid to mention 10% Happier, it just so happens that the book, app, and podcast have had a big impact on my early practice.) The videos, which were intentionally set in a bar, featured an open conversation about the precepts between Dan Harris and JoAnna Hardy. JoAnna’s explanation of the precepts was so eye-opening to me that I reached out to her to begin working with her as my first meditation and Dharma teacher. All of the videos in the series were helpful to me, but the couple of sessions about the second precept were the ones that shifted my thinking the most.

Coming from a conservative evangelical Christian home, I was used to thinking of ethics in terms of right and wrong, sin and virtue. The ten commandments were the alpha list of rules in Judeo-Christian traditions, including the injunction, “Thou shalt not steal.” In my first reading of the precepts, I read the second precept as a Buddhist corollary to the eighth commandment. What I found in JoAnna’s teaching on the second precept was the idea that this is more of a guideline of how to live in order to do the least possible harm to others, and to be at ease in our life and meditation practice. She also helped me to see that this is a practice of exploring the different ways that we might take what isn’t given to us, beyond the obvious examples of overt stealing.

Over the next month I will be doing a lot of exploration on what it means to take what isn’t freely given, but just to give a framework of some things that I hadn’t initially considered that I’ve come to think about, here are a few examples –

  • Do I waste time that I am being paid for?
  • Do I waste people’s time with talking to them about things that I know they probably don’t care about, but that I feel are important for me to share?
  • Do I purchase products that are made by people who are being forced by economic circumstances to work in poor conditions? What about products that cause the citizens of an area to have their land or homes destroyed or taken away from them?
  • Do I only use photos, etc. in my blogging that were freely given by the producers?
  • Do I take photos of people without their consent to post on social media?
  • Do I take flowers, rocks, or other “mementoes” from private property or public lands?
  • Do I “borrow” things without getting permission?

These are just some examples to illustrate the complexity of this precept. Ultimately, it can be difficult in the modern world to be perfect in not taking something that was not freely given, but the important part of the practice, for me anyway, is to be mindful, and to make every effort to consider the impact of my choices and actions, and to do what I can to avoid causing suffering to other beings. This practice has already been beneficial to me, and I know that I will continue to find peace and joy in exploring further.

Featured image freely given by Sean Kowal on Unsplash