Can one steal out of poverty?

There is a segment of the society which feels victimised by the modern economic system. They feel that multi-national companies such as Internet providers, phone companies, banks, chain stores, etc, have been ripping consumers off by charging high processing fees and interest rates, among other unjustified actions, and compelling consumers to contribute to their coffers. Some have argued that we have the right to steal for survival and have even outlined “ethics” for stealing – to take only what one needs, from multi-national companies who can afford the losses.

To reply to this, let us first take a look at the impact of modern advertising.

Most of us are exposed to a myriad of commercial advertisement – in trains/buses, along the highways, and on various media platforms such as the Internet, TV and radio. However, we often do not reflect on the impact that these have on us. Quite un-mindfully, we tend to believe what the advertisers say and we literally buy into this consumerist system. In reality, these commercial messages compel us to believe that we must possess certain things and if we do not, we are deemed inadequate or marginalised. Our unlimited wants are misinterpreted as basic needs, and often with undesirable outcomes. We start to believe that we need certain things when in fact we only want more.

The precept of not stealing sets the boundaries; it stops one from taking possessions which belong to others. Once we hit the boundaries, we bounce back to check our mind and action. The practice of mindfulness enables us to examine our mind. In fact it is our mind – the state of wanting something we do not have – that makes us feel poor, unhappy and dissatisfied. If we are not mindful, the discontented mind will compel us to steal. By looking deeply into ourselves, we will be able to find the underlying reasons which make us unhappy. Seeing the state of wanting and grasping, how it makes us and others suffer, we naturally begin to drop the thought of “wanting.” The only way out of poverty is through cultivation, to overcome the undesirable state of mind which traps us in inadequacy. Only when our evil roots – wanting, ill-will, and ignorance – are up-rooted, will we feel rich within and be truly happy. Only then will we become free and not be a slave to consumerism. The precept of not stealing also addresses what I will call the “sickness” of contemporary culture. It emphasises social responsibility.

Not only should we respect the property of others, but we should also not exploit them by enriching ourselves at the expense of others. In a capitalist culture, trying to maximise our profits fans our greed. This precept reminds us to be mindful and not become a slave to greed.

Stealing is never an answer to poverty or want. If we believe that it is alright to steal, we are creating insecurity and chaos. How would you feel living in a society full of thieves? Applying the “take from the rich” concept, the losers in the end are the consumers. Consider this – by stealing from a giant chain store – although they could probably write off the losses – the cost would subsequently be passed on to other consumers.

This is unfair to innocent consumers and also creates social disharmony and insecurity. According to Buddhism, if one is poor, he or she cannot become rich by taking others’ possessions. The Law of Karma and its results show that we are responsible for our actions and the results we experience due to them. In fact, if we steal, we are planting the seeds of poverty. If we constantly feel poor, such a mental state will certainly lead us to poverty! Conversely, generosity and sharing our belongings are the causes of wealth.

In the Parinirvana Sutta (佛遗教经), the Buddha said, “Contentment is the greatest happiness.” If we are contented, even if we sleep on the floor, we are happy; if we are not contented, even if we are in heavenly realms enjoying luxury, we feel dissatisfied. Ajahn Brahm, an Australian monk, goes to prisons to teach meditation. One day after a meditation session, the inmates asked him to share his story as a monastic. He told the inmates that there are walls surrounding the monastery just like walls surround a jail. Monastics wake up early, have only one meal a day and stop eating after mid-day. They do not have coffee breaks, and eat only what is donated to them. They sleep on simple beds, without TV, radio or newspapers. After hearing his story, the inmates told Ajahn that it is better for him to live with them in jail! Monastics live simple and frugal lives, yet they feel happy within. Regardless of being rich or poor, the mind is crucial.

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