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The Second Precept: A Source of Happiness

By Gil Fronsdal

The second Buddhist ethical precept—to refrain from taking what is not given—can be a source of happiness in a number of ways. For example, knowing we have not hurt others by stealing from them is one small form of the happiness that comes from this precept. Knowing that we’re a person others regard as trustworthy and safe, someone they don’t have to fear will steal from them, is another cause of happiness. And still another form of happiness is the joy of blamelessness and the contentment from having no remorse.

Motivated by a sense of our shared humanity, living by this precept can be seen as a gift. We live in the world with all people as family, and just as we would not steal from our own parents or children, we don’t take anything from others unless it is offered. In doing so we offer them the gift of harmlessness, safety and ease.

Not taking what is not given is connected to the freedom of heart Buddhism points to. Our greatest wealth is in our hearts, and being free of the greed and selfishness that motivates most acts of theft is a prerequisite for uncovering that inner wealth. A heart at ease simply won’t steal.

By wording the second precept “not taking what is not given,” the Buddhist tradition presents a higher standard and greater clarity for ethical behavior than simply “not stealing.” From this standpoint, things have to be clearly and freely offered before we take something. This precludes relying on ambiguity, deceit, force, exploitation or intimidation to acquire what belongs to others. No matter how small or how low in monetary value, if it isn’t given, we don’t take it. When practiced thoroughly, this precept extends to not borrowing something without permission.

The second precept can also be applied to how and what we consume by refraining from buying anything that originates from people who haven’t given their labor or resources freely. So, for example, we wouldn’t buy clothes made in sweatshops where people are forced to work involuntarily. We would also avoid using natural resources acquired against the wishes and rights of the local people from where the resources came.

Not taking what is not given can also relate to services others perform for us. In the complexity of our interpersonal relationships, fear can easily motivate people to do things they would prefer not to do. Employees may feel they can’t say no to a boss’s request. Spouses may agree to do things they don’t want to because they fear straining the relationship. Silence should not automatically be taken as consent. Instead, we should ask ourselves if the other person is doing something for us out of a sense of coercion, or of their own freewill.

In the Buddhist ritual where people express their intention to live by the second of the ethical precepts they say, “I undertake the training to abstain from taking what is not given.” Calling this a “training” implies one is working toward fully living by this precept. It is not a vow of ethical purity one is obligated to live up to. Rather it is an intention to sincerely train to become a person who lives up to it.

When taken on as a training, the second precept can be separated into three kinds of training: in restraint, character, and understanding. These three elements are aspects of the traditional Buddhist trainings of sila, samadhi, and panna (virtue, meditation, and wisdom).

Restraint. Training ourselves to refrain from causing harm is central to Buddhist practice. When we refrain from taking what is not offered, we avoid confusing, harming or upsetting others. We ourselves benefit from having a clear conscience and knowing we haven’t given cause for people to be angry at us. We also have the satisfaction of not giving in to greed.

Training in restraint is a support for practicing mindfulness. When we hold back from the impulse to take, we then have the opportunity to look carefully at the nature of the impulse. What beliefs, emotions, and desires are behind it? What justifications do we use to take things that aren’t offered? Or if they are offered, are we taking for the purpose for which they are given? Perhaps pens or stationery are offered freely at work. However, this doesn’t mean we can take them home to pass out to all our relatives. For the practice of mindfulness, the stricter we are with the second precept the more opportunities we have for probing deeply into what motivates us.

In particular, it is useful to explore the role greed and selfishness play in our impulses to take what hasn’t been given. As the Buddhist path of freedom is a way to end greed and self-preoccupation, living with this precept helps us stay on this path.

Character. The second area of training is developing our character or basic disposition. Here the second precept becomes a precept of action by engaging in those mental and physical activities that transform us from the inside out. Living by the second precept is a prompt to practice generosity, goodwill, contentment, and freedom from attachments. As we behave in these ways more and more, we not only act ethically, we become ethical. Being ethical becomes part of our character as we develop greater mindfulness, empathy, happiness, and equanimity. All these combine to promote greater ethical sensitivity and care, and function as antidotes to the power of greed.

Every inclination to take or want something can be an occasion to practice greater mindfulness. For people who don’t actually steal, this can be done by bringing greater attention to subtle forms of taking what is not given, such as dominating a conversation, pushing to the front of a line, or failing to tell the cashier that we’ve been undercharged for a purchase. The precept can function as a “mindfulness cue.” Every time we have a desire to have something that wasn’t given, our commitment to the precept can prompt us to pay more attention to what is happening in our inner life and to recommit to living an ethical life.

The second precept also offers the opportunity to train in contentment. We can search for ways to replace greed and desire with a sense of satisfaction with what we already have. We can also practice being content with what is given or offered to us without trying to get something more or something else. Contentment may be one of the most underappreciated supports for training in the path of freedom. It is well worth cultivating.

Because taking what is not given involves our relationships with others, the second precept can also be used as a means to bring greater attention to other people. When we want something belonging to others, we can take the time to allow our empathy to bring us a fuller appreciation of them and their circumstances. Exercising empathy strengthens and increases it.

A training closely associated with the second precept is generosity, or “giving what is not asked for.” Generosity can never be an obligation: giving based on obligation may sometimes be necessary, but it is not generosity. It can be very meaningful to explore ways to be generous. Whenever we are tempted to take what is not given, we can instead consider how to replace the temptation with generosity. Then take the time to feel nourished by this generosity. Our inner character changes for the better when we are so nourished.

Understanding. In addition to training in restraint and character, the third form of training is cultivating understanding. Internally, this means understanding our own motivations, values, and needs. Interpersonally it means understanding the consequences of our actions on others. This includes taking the time to learn about the consequences of our acquisitions and consumption even as they extend beyond what we see. In this wider context how might we be taking what is not given? How careful can we become in not doing so? The fact that sales people happily offer to sell us cell phones and computers does not mean that all the components of these devices come to us from freely offered sources. When children, in slave-like work camps in the Congo, mine the tantalum and tungsten used in our electronics, are our electronic devices really offered freely?

The three areas of ethical training—restraint, character, and understanding –overlap considerably. Developing one often develops the others. Developing all three brings forth the best qualities of the heart, all essential to a life of greater happiness and inner freedom.

—Gil Fronsdal