One group I am in is studying the Buddhist Precepts – they are kind of like the 10 Commandments for Buddhists. The precept we are studying this month is to not steal. Not stealing at its most basic is taking nothing that is not freely offered to you. The flip side of stealing is giving or generosity. So we are also studying that. We are looking at stealing and giving in our own lives and we are looking at them, not just in the conventional, obvious sense but also more subtly.
“I don’t steal.” is what I said to myself as I began the readings this month. But yesterday, I was hungry at the hospice and I took an apple. No one offered me the apple, it was in the kitchen and I have seen other staff members eat fruit from the bowl in there. I thought it was ok to take it, but I have to admit I wasn’t really sure who the fruit was bought for – the patients, the family members, the hospice staff, all of the above? I didn’t know. I could have asked about the fruit, but I didn’t. So in one sense, I stole the apple because no one offered it to me. One piece of fruit doesn’t make me a bad person, but it does make me realize I need to be very, very aware of my behavior. Are there other apples out there that I take all the time? I need to reflect; I need to watch.
“I don’t steal.” But then I read the lines: “Stealing is a pervasive element of our lives, and is the nature of our economic system” and the “exploitation of irreplaceable resources is stealing.” Those lines made me sit up and think about my life. I don’t cut down old growth forests, pollute streams or underpay foreign workers – but I use the products of people and companies who do. I want inexpensive electronic goods, clothing, coffee, etc., but I don’t think about the conditions of the people who make these things. I know I should walk more and drive my car less. I know that I use our precious desert water to keep my flowers alive all summer. I also know I am forgetful and sometimes leave the hose running too long. I know that I should compost, but I don’t. So in these and many other ways, I use and misuse resources and ignore injustices in the world, and this is a form of stealing from the earth and from other people. Just to balance things out a little, I do try to generously give to others of my material goods and my time and attention.
The point of studying and thinking about stealing is not to make us feel bad about ourselves. I think it is to make us look more closely at our lives and our behavior. The aim is to become aware or mindful of our stealing and our giving, when we can stop one and increase the other. The ultimate point, I think, is to make us aware of how connected we are to all beings and to the earth. In the readings, the writers stress this point of connection, that if you can understand how we are all interdependent, we could never steal and we could only give. This leads me to my title: How could we live without the care of others? We do not exist alone – we are not separate and we have never been separate. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it took a village to raise us and it takes a big one to continue to support us.
We need to be aware of the connections we share with the earth and all its inhabitants. We breathe in air and use it in our bodies. We need water to live; in fact our bodies are primarily water. We eat plants and animals, they sustain us. Our bodies are filled with bacteria and without them, we would die. In a way, we become the air, water, plants and animals we intake – there can be no greater connection.
We are also connected and cared for by a huge number of people. I am connected to my parents, who gave me my life and to their parents and their parents and back and back. I am also connected to the doctor who delivered me and to the one who saved my life by removing my infected appendix — and to all the people who educated and trained those doctors. I’m also connected to the people who introduced my parents to each other as well as to the crew who flew with my father in the war and helped bring him home safely, so he could become my father. I am connected to all the teachers who teach me, to the family and friends who help shape me, to the farmers who grow my food, to the airplane mechanics who maintain the planes I fly in, to the people who supply the electricity that I depend on, and to all of you in this room (the writing group). It nourishes me each time I laugh or am touched by something one of you writes.
If I become aware of the vast web of people, animals, plants and natural resources that sustain, support and care for me, how could I ever want to steal from them? Wouldn’t it be like stealing from myself? And how could I not want to give to them, to care for them, as they have all cared for me? How could I live without the care of others? I think this is the point of studying the precept of not stealing.