When my friend, Erik and I went to the movies, he asked if he could borrow money to get in. Once we were in, I loaned him more to get popcorn and a soda. Erik said he would pay me back the next Friday when he got his allowance. I was mowing lawns in the neighborhood and had cash. When I saw Erik on Saturday, he didn’t say anything about paying me back. I didn’t say anything either because it was embarrassing. And I didn’t feel I had to. It wasn’t up to me. Erik never said another thing about the money I loaned him. He just seemed to have forgotten. Or maybe he thought that it was my treat, or that I gave him the money. But I didn’t and I never forgot. It made me feel bad that he took the money from me. I couldn’t trust him. Erik and I were never best friends anyway, and soon we lost touch.
When asked what it means to be virtuous, Buddha said that one is virtuous when he or she abstains from taking what is not given.
Simple, and yet.
Whatever virtue might mean to you and me, from what I understand, virtuous to Buddha meant that whatever thought, word, or action we put forth, it lessens suffering, ours and everyone else’s.
It seems fairly simple (maybe to one who is simple) to understand what Buddha taught when looking at the sutras. The sutras are the written words of what Buddha said, usually to a gathering of people. Of course, his words have traveled over time and through translation.
The word abstain runs through the translation of the sutras. The word seems antiquated. I don’t think I have ever heard it used in conversation. The etymology I found shows that to abstain meant to hold oneself back. So, we are holding ourselves back from taking what is not given.
If we don’t hold ourselves back and take what is not given, what exactly are we doing? Immediately, I am thinking of stealing something material, like money, or someone else’s belongings. It is certainly that. But it is also more subtle, such as my situation with Erik.
When we become mindful, it goes deeper and become more complex. Or maybe it is simple. It does seem to start with our thoughts. Our coveting begins the taking. We get attached to something or the idea of something and we want it. We have to have it. Coveting and grasping is what Buddha said causes our problems and misery, our suffering, in the first place.
We look at our coveting. We want something because we think we need it, whatever our reasoning. We are not completely satisfied with the way things are, or the way we are. This feeling of lacking begins the separation. When we separate, we objectify. We rationalize every reason we need it and every reason that someone else can stand (or deserves) to lose it.
When we come to understand why we take what is not given, and the consequences, we can abstain. And we can turn the situation around. We look at our coveting and attaching, and find out how to turn them positive. What can we do to relieve the suffering of holding on? We can let go. We become generous.
Erik could well have been more responsible. He could have made it a point to pay me back. He could have been more conscious of our friendship. Maybe he could have explored why I stopped calling him and pulled back. I can’t speak for Erik. I don’t know (and didn’t ask) what he had in mind. I do know, with mindful hindsight, what I could have done to alleviate my own suffering (besides saying something to Erik). I could have let go. I could have gifted him the money and left it at that, whether or not he and I remained friends. Maybe I am not the one who stole, but I was responsible for my part in the dynamic. I was attached to a certain frame of mind and to a certain outcome, in the greater scheme of things. If I couldn’t let go of my money, then maybe I could have offered the circumstance more generosity of spirit.