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There was a crumbled up dollar bill on the stairs when I was coming out of work today. I looked around and didn't see anyone who might have dropped it. I picked it up and walked away. Pretty soon I went back and laid it back on the steps again.

I realized I really didn't know how the 2nd precept, "I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given" should be applied to found items which don't have an apparent owner.

There are lots of examples:

*wild berries in the woods

*wild flowers in a vacant lot

*something interesting that washes up on the shore

*something that's been left on the side of the road

*money lying on the ground with no one anywhere around

*an apparently abandoned item in a desolate area

I hadn't really thought about this before, but as I was walking away with that dollar I actually felt kind of guilty. So I'd like to know found items should be considered for the future. Thanks!

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The Vinaya actually goes into all of this under the rule against stealing. The question involves the factors involved in stealing:

  1. the object has an owner,
  2. you perceive that the object has an owner,
  3. you intend to steal it,
  4. you make effort to steal it,
  5. you succeed in stealing it.

All have to be fulfilled in order for it to be stealing. So if you think something has been discarded, it is not stealing, even if it turns out that it has an owner. If you find out later that the item you took actually has an owner, any act you perform in relation to the item from that point on could potentially be an act of theft.

The point of the rule is to respect ownership; it has nothing to do with unowned items, or acts performed that do not breach that respect (e.g. taking something under the assumption that it has no owner).

The case where there is doubt about whether an object has an owner is more difficult, and it comes down to the third factor - intention. If you take an object that you think might have an owner with the intention to return it if you ever find out it has an owner, then it would not be considered stealing. Obviously, this becomes more unreasonable the more likely it is that the object has an owner. Really, the only way you could rationalize taking such an object is in the case where there is no compelling reason to think that the object has an owner still concerned with the object.

If it seems likely that the object has an owner who hasn't abandoned it, then it should be left alone - or the owner should be sought out. If it seems likely that the owner has long abandoned the object, then it may be taken as a possession if there is need.

The BMC I has some discussion about this sort of question as it relates to monks:

Because items that have been given away or discarded do not fulfil the factor of object here, there is no offense for a bhikkhu who takes a discarded object—such as rags from a pile of refuse—or unclaimed items from a wilderness. The Commentary, in some of its examples, includes items given up for lost under “abandoned,” but this interpretation has to be heavily qualified. If the owner retains a sense of ownership for the lost item, it would fall under the term claimed, and thus would still count as not given. Only if the owner abandons all sense of ownership would it genuinely count as abandoned.

...

None of the texts discuss the possible case in which one might be in doubt as to whether the object in question is not given, perhaps because the compilers felt that the factor of intention, discussed next, would not apply in such cases. Thus it would not be an offense under this rule. However, the wise policy when one is in doubt about an item’s ownership would be not to take the item for one’s own, or at most to take it on loan, as explained below.

  • This really clears things up. Thank you Bhante. – Robin111 Jul 28 '15 at 10:42
  • @Robin111 I made some changes... I think it was a bit off the first time - if you take an item the ownership of which you're not sure about, I would think it comes down to whether you disregard that potential ownership when you take it, thinking "if it does have an owner, I'll keep it from them." – yuttadhammo Jul 29 '15 at 16:04
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I believe this is what you are looking for: Burnt by the fruit

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I think it should be ok. I asked myself similar question, a situation such as taking or using things in your house from your family members knowing in advance they dont care? Example: using my gf's shaving cream she left in the bathroom? I came across this sutta which i dont remember the reference number. It's called "vissasa" literal translation means, "intimate, confidential, trust worthy", but in a context, "take liberty" is probably more direct. if you take liberty of something, knowing in advance it would not cause the owner griefs, anger, etc, and the the owner would be happy sharing it with you then the precept is unbroken, untorn, unblemished, (my further reading, unbroken = you dont break the precept your self, untorn = you dont ask someone to break the precepts on your behalf, unblemished = you dont feel joy when see, hear, or know if someone breaks a precept). I usually ask first before i take Vissasa, just to be sure. vissasa has two features.. the owner dont mind you taking it, and the owner is happy you taking it. very normal in every household, i think. however, i wouldnt dare to use my gf $80 skin lotion, that's for sure :-)

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According to Atthasālinī, five conditions should be satisfied to break the 2nd precept.

  1. An article belonging to another legally and blamelessly.
  2. Knowledge that the article belongs to another.
  3. There must be the intention to steal.
  4. Action must be taken to steal.
  5. By the action, the article must be taken.

A dollar bill dropped on the stairs may not qualify as an abandoned object or an object without an owner like "wild berries in the woods". Money is almost always owned by someone. People don't usually abandon it on purpose.

The owner might not care too much, if it's just a dollar. But if it's a large amount, he or she could be so worried and looking for it already. So you could practice compassion and look for the owner. Alternatively, you could simply think of it as something you didn't earn or something that does not belong to you and walk away.

If it starts troubling you or if you start worrying whether the next person will pick it up, you are already clinging to it. Think of it as a problem you didn't have until you saw it and let go.

  • 1
    That was my thought when I returned it. $1 is not worth having this guilty feeling. Thanks Sankha. – Robin111 Jul 28 '15 at 10:45

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