If you don’t get the owner’s permission, then stealing is what you have done.
We should be uncompromising with ourselves and generous with others; this is an ancient teaching of wisdom. A generous and kind person is one who “does favors for people without expecting any reward, and gives things to others without ever regretting it.”
However, generosity has be to based upon honesty. If something does not belong to us, we can’t take it for our personal use or borrow it to make an offering to the Buddha. Honesty needs to be applied with generosity; otherwise we will be mean and stingy like those detestably self-righteous and cruel officials criticized in the Historical Records and the Chronicles of Chinese Scholars.
In general, whether we are borrowing or loaning things, we should “not casually give away even a mustard seed, and not casually take even a mustard seed.” If something does not belong to us, even if it’s just a tiny mustard seed, we cannot carelessly take it or give it away. How can we avoid being careless? By making everything very clear. When we borrow something, we should state clearly what we are borrowing and how long we need to keep it. It’s not acceptable to casually take something and think that petty theft is of no consequence. In returning the item, we should ask ourselves whether we are returning it intact and on time. We should be very clear about this. We can’t be vague and neglect the details. There’s a saying, “The weather is unpredictable; human fortune is changeable.” No one can guarantee that he or she will never ask for help or borrow from others. Therefore, when you have something, don’t be stingy; when you have nothing, don’t be embarrassed. One should borrow things in a straightforward manner and return them by their due date. Isn’t it said: “Return what you have borrowed, and you can borrow again with ease”? Even if you don’t borrow again, your own trustworthiness can reinforce the confidence of the creditor, who will be more willing to lend to others in the future. Isn’t that just indirectly helping others?
As lenders, we can lend only our own belongings to others. If we don’t have what someone wants, we should say so clearly and maybe suggest where the person might get help. Don’t act like that person from the state of Lu, described in the Confucian Analects, who pretended to be what he was not. When someone asked to borrow vinegar, he went to borrow some from a neighbor to lend to him instead of frankly saying that he didn’t have any. When things are returned to us, it’s even more important to be very clear and fair. We can’t demand extra interest or try to get the borrower to do something for us in return for our favor.
As for the attitudes that the borrower and lender should have, the borrower should always remember the favor he has received and not forget it for a single day. The lender, on the contrary, should forget about it; he should have no thought of the giver, the receiver, or the thing given. When we lend money or things out, we should think of them as if we had lost them and not expect to get them back. Then when the borrower returns them, we’ll feel as if we have gained a bonus. If we can be without attachment like this, we will always be at ease and will have a clear conscience.
Even if we ourselves are not borrowing anything and cannot afford to be lenders, we still should feel empathy for those in need and try our best to recommend them to a lender. This is a way to help lenders earn merit and help borrowers get what they need. If we aren’t able to do this, at least we shouldn’t twist or exaggerate the facts because of jealousy or personal grudges. Yet people are doing this everywhere. If it’s true that “Life and death are determined by fate; wealth and honor are decreed by destiny,” then if the person in need finally gets through the difficulties, all you’ve done is go against fate and cause the person to hate you. If the person doesn’t survive the crisis, won’t you feel as regretful as the person who said, “I didn’t kill Boren, but Boren’s death was because of me.” Won’t you be guilty of adding insult to injury and making the situation worse? You can’t help someone yourself, and you want to keep others from helping him. That doubles the harm and the offense! And so it’s said, “When you offend against heaven, there’s no way to pray for mercy.” How can people fail to do merit and create blessings?
There’s an interesting analogy for borrowing and lending in Zhuang Zi’s Chapter on External Matters. Because Zhuang Zi didn’t want to compromise his principles and work as an official, he was often in poverty. One day, he went to borrow food from the Lord of Jianhe, who agreed right away, “Sure! I’m going to collect the farming tax on my land, and then I’ll lend you three hundred taels of gold. How’s that?” Upon hearing that, Zhuang Zi was furious and told a story making fun of the Lord of Jianhe: “On my way here, I heard someone calling. I looked around and saw a dying fish struggling in a pit made by carts running over the muddy road. The fish begged me to bring some water so it could survive. I told the fish, ‘Sure! Let me go to the South to persuade King Wu and King Yue to release water from the mighty West River to give you a nice treat, alright?’ The fish very angrily retorted, ‘I’ve lost my normal habitat and have no place to live. Now all I want is a dipperful of water to stay alive, yet you say something like that. You might as well go look for my body in the dried fish store soon.’” This story really gives us something to ponder about.
Inspired by this story, I wrote a couplet:
In helping people, we should be like timely rain.
In returning things, we should be like seasonal flowers and winds.
Timely rain prevents trees and grasses from withering; that means we should help those in dire need right away. Even though the favors we do may be small, the merit is great. “Like seasonal flowers and winds” means that we should keep our word and return things on time, just as during each of the twenty-four solar terms in a year, certain winds blow and certain flowers bloom. It all happens according to schedule and nothing is delayed. That’s how we should be in dealing with people and things!