Fourteen Precepts in Seventeen Days: Day Fifteen
Thirteenth: Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.
Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh
LivingSmall took the weekend off from writing about the precepts (one can never really take time off from the precepts, since the precepts are always with us). But now I’m back on task, with this deceptively simple precept. I say deceptively simple because how many of us can truly say that what we possess should be ours?
One of the things I think this precept asks us to do is to examine the real costs of the things we buy. What are the real costs of buying, say, strawberries? This time of year, the markets are full of glorious, big, red, shiny strawberries, most of which are grown in a small part of California around Watsonville. In order to grow the kind of big, red, shiny strawberries most consumers have come to demand, farmers have had to use enormous amounts of pesticides and fungicides. What is the environmental cost of these berries? What suffering do they cause the earth? And then there’s the human component. Strawberries can only be picked by hand, and although they grow in rows on hillocks, it is still backbreaking work to pick them. When he first moved to California, and was broke much of the time, my brother used to have to drive out that way quite often for work. “No matter how bad it was,” he says. “Those poor guys out there picking strawberries had it worse than me.”
I would imagine too, that invading a foreign country because certain members of the government feel that we should possess their oil, that we have a right to that oil, that their oil rightfully belongs to us would also count as a pretty major violation of this precept.
It’s a good question to ask oneself before buying more stuff: should I possess this thing? What suffering did the production, harvest, transportation of this object cause to others? Asking these questions doesn’t mean one can never, for example, buy strawberries. But it does mean that if one buys strawberries, one will at least be aware of the real costs of those strawberries, and awareness is the space from which we begin to effect change in ourselves and in the world.