Do not steal is the second Great Precept. I doubt that anyone reading this post would walk into a shop and deliberately steal something, but what would you do if you realised you’d been undercharged at the checkout? What would you do if the train guard did not come round to collect your fare? If you found a tenner on the pavement?
It is not only money and objects that can be stolen. This is perhaps clearer when this precept is expressed as do not take that which is not given. Insisting on a colleague’s time when you can see they are trying to get to a meeting, driving above the speed limit, breaking a promise, are all examples of stealing.
You might argue that some of these things don’t matter. The supermarket would never know you’d been undercharged, and what’s a pound or two to them? But every action we take has an effect on us. By being scrupulous in our dealings with others and by respecting what is given and what is not, we not only gain peace of mind, but we will see that there is no need to grasp for things.
Ultimately we do not own anything. All will be taken from us sooner or later. Objects, money, come into our lives and serve us, and we can choose to take care of what we have and pass it on when it is no longer of use and can benefit another. And if we need to let go of something we did not expect to lose we can try to do so with acceptance (which does not preclude sadness or even grief, sometimes).
The practice of generosity is the positive expression of this precept and is a virtue much cultivated in Buddhism – the subject for another blog post, perhaps.