Theft as it concerns corporations (is it immoral to steal from Walmart?)

So, it’s a basic precept not to steal, yet this was a precept before massive industrial capitalism. Theft at the time of the Buddha was fairly personal between individuals.

A lot of theft today is shoplifting (or wage theft), which can be personal (as in a street vendor) but a lot of it is impersonal and directed at an entity that isn’t a person so much as a title for a bunch of stuff and structures filled with people.

Theft and its harms are a spectrum, taking the last meal from a hungry person is obvious worse than taking Jeff Bezo’s sixth car.

Do the suttas speak to theft done in desperation? Or theft from the wealthy in specific? Everything I’ve read is pretty general.

I wrote about this before a few years ago but didn’t feel like I came to any real conclusion. Any thoughts on that writing? It’s here: Theft or Appropriation? – Dhamma Flow

Thank you for any guidance


It’s immoral to steal, there are other ways of overcoming financial disparities other than taking what’s not rightfully given. It also leads to conflict. However you have to also define the meaning of the word theft, as meanings of concepts and words change over time… For example a starving displaced homeless person in an apartheid state taking in hunger from a store that treats people unequally is maybe categorized as an act of desperation, and not really stealing. However, I don’t think people should ideologise anti-corporate agendas to the point of taking what’s not given. It’s dangerous, and yes, it can be considered immoral: as bad as these corporations can be, they work very hard to keep products going and available, it’s not empty theft by these corporations from the public either, even by selling these products for high or unfair prices, because there is a temporary purpose for them. So it’s better to go to a homeless shelter than to steal, or to beg for a few dollars then buy a meal. Or, by wise, take the Monastic approach!! And so don’t the Monks not steal? I think that is the highest level of the bar being set…


SN 55.7 In “The Dhamma that applies to oneself”

“Furthermore, a noble disciple reflects: ‘If someone were to steal from me, I wouldn’t like that. But if I were to steal from someone else, they wouldn’t like that either. The thing that is disliked by me is also disliked by others. Since I dislike this thing, how can I inflict it on someone else?’ Reflecting in this way, they give up stealing themselves.”

The law and the corporation do not want you to steal. If, knowing this, you do, the karmic weight is on you. However they are obtaining what they are obtaining or whatever it is they are upholding that you find immoral, that’s their own karmic weight.


I know that in Vinaya, lying is divided into tiers, some lies are worse than others, but stealing is pretty problematic, taking even a very mundane item without being offered can be grounds for expulsion.

Let’s analyse in abstract. Ideally, a noble disciple should and never does steal (or break any other precepts for that matter). Why do we want to justify breaking a precept? It’s one thing to stagger on the path, knowing it’s bad (most notably the fifth precept, as it generally only harms us), it’s another to make excuses for our misgivings.

Precepts are not dictated by a god who will then judge us, they’re not abstract concepts of good vs evil, they’re training rules we voluntarily take because we realise their harm for us. Understanding this difference, we realise that stealing, no matter how petty, harms us. In what ways?

Precepts (or breaking them) are habits, like muscles. Once we justify the smallest amount, then it’s a slippery slope and any arguments can be applied at scale. Why shouldn’t a multi-trillionnaire steal from corporations and governments that are evil, if said businessman intends to use the funds and goods to provide for the poor and destitute?

However, is that a peaceful way to earn a living? Is it a good message to those we provide with theft, conditioning them that stealing is sometimes okay if done with good intentions?

I think stealing goes against the heart of teaching, that is we don’t need much in life to see and experience the bliss of nirvana. Just about some food, enough shelter to keep us warm and cool, enough clothes to cover our private parts and protect us from weather and animals. We objectively don’t need more for the ultimate happiness, so why steal at all?

Furthermore, all of those things can be obtained in this day and age, simply by visiting a monastery and asking for going forth. What a chance! The world’s greatest bliss, most important knowledge, greatest gifts are available to anyone, provided they’re willing to abide by the most simple ethical guides. Anyone who can be justified for their theft, can instead go forth in our age and get all that they might think they need to steal, freely offered to them in good faith, blamelessly. Why should I bother to steal from (and thus fight with) Jeff Bezos, when good people are willing to provide for me our of the kindness in their hearts? It makes no sense.

Now, it is one thing for us to compartementalise thievery, and showing greater compassion for the man who’s stealing to provide for their family than we show to Jeff Bezos for stealing from his emploees. Even so, suttas are abundant with mass murderers, kings who’ve repented and taken the vows, so we shouldn’t view anyone beyond redemption or compassion; but compassion shouldn’t mean endorsement of harmful behaviour at all.

The bottom line is, we don’t need to steal to live the holy life, full of greatest gifts and bliss. Any objection to this point is simply delusion and caprice. Ignorance. Whatever else we think we might need to steal, things that people do not provide in good fauth to monks (anything outside of lodging, food, medicine and knowledge, given freely to anyone seeking earnestly) - anything else not covered with these are simply not required for freedon, for bliss, for nibbana.

Is it immoral to steal from Walmart? I don’t know what morality means. It hurts me, my goodwill, my practice and my peace to steal from Walmart. Anything I need from Walmart, people offer to me in good faith. Better to take them up on it, allowing people to make amazing karma, and fighting hatred with love.

Capitalism isn’t so bad that there’s absolutely no way out of this system. Countless monks across the globe are a good example. There’s absolutely no reason to steal.

“For hatred is never resolved with hatred; it’s resolved with non-hatred, love; this law is eternal.” DHP

“Others will steal, but here we will not steal” MN8

A corporation is not inherently impersonal because it is comprised of shareholders and also creditors who have invested their money into the corporation and are likely to incur personal financial loss if the corporation fails or underperforms due to theft.

The precept is to not take what is not freely given. I have not read any Buddhist teachings about stealing when in need. Buddhism offers the example of monks & nuns living off alms therefore people in need can follow this example and humbly ask for charity. :blush:

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It’s a bit hard for me to understand how anyone could seriously believe that “theft in the Buddha’s time” was mostly an interpersonal matter. In the Buddha’s time, all of the basic structures of mercantilism, the predecessor to capitalism, were already in place (excepting more complex finance & administrative elements). Theft was a criminal matter then like it is now and if anything, theft entailed harsher penalties than today. Theft from the king was also “a thing”.

See Bailey and Mabbetts, “The Sociology of Early Buddhism,” for basic introductory reading on this time period.

Some terms for “corporation” in the Buddha’s time include: saṅgha, gaṇa, pūga, seṇi. Yes they could own property, the “pūga santaka dhana” (guild or corporate wealth). And no you couldn’t steal from them “back then” either.

In many cases, they were more powerful than today’s corporations, with their influence even extending into criminal matters. These would have been seen as important social structures, with memberships of up to 1000, and the capacity to hear disputes. They were even able to decide family law disputes. The hierarchy of non-religious courts would have gone, king’s court, pūga, seṇi, kula [family].

So no, the question of theft from the wealthy or corporations isn’t seriously considered in the suttas, given that even the sangha had to accommodate the power of the corporations e.g. in relation to not ordaining convicted criminals (as per bhikkhuni sanghadisesa).

In addition to general belief in legitimate social order, as well as the next life, the prospect of capital punishment would likely have been deterrent enough to prevent questions about theft from corporations (also just known as “theft”) arising. At least among sensible people. My friend recently sent me pics from Polonnaruwa medieval inscriptions depicting thieves of sangha property being reborn as vile animals, if that clarifies things.

There is some endorsement for redistributive policy in the suttas to prevent theft, see for example, the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta. But this only concerns legitimate wealth. In former times, pardons for criminals were sometimes also given to celebrate holy days but the basic purpose of the law remained intact.

There is this place called Uttarakuru in the suttas (mythical or semi-mythical) where they don’t have theft (incident related to a grass roof). It’s in relation to Ghatikara the potter (again). HOWEVER it is to be stated emphatically that there is no major strand of Buddhist thought based on the laws of Uttarakuru as Uttarakuru no longer exists.

Some guidance? Maybe don’t try to mix Buddhism up with whatever ideology you are pushing. Buddhism condemns theft categorically.


Breaking the precepts is a slippery slope. For example, one might consider telling a lie to be far less harmful than theft. Yet the Buddha says to his son,

when someone is not ashamed to tell a deliberate lie, there is no bad deed they would not do, I say.
So you should train like this: ‘I will not tell a lie, even for a joke.’

Why is that?

What one has not considered is how such acts affect one’s own Mind negatively by way of perception and habitual thinking patterns. Unconsciously, one has picked up momentum in the downwards direction, away from the Skillful.


Very well said :heart: Sadhu!


Looking at your website, linked in your bio, you have some very strange far left ideas. It looks like you are trying to mould the Dhamma to fit that, rather than have the Dhamma mould you. For example would the Buddha have approved of a sexual hedonistic lifestyle, or having sex in the street? No, yet you argue the opposite on your page.

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That’s basically been my thinking over the entire thing, that independent of whatever material moral evaluation we put on it, shoplifting opens you up to theft in a very general way mentally (not to mention the basic stress of the act and any consequences that arise). It’s really that habit energy of stealing that carries around to all contexts because it’s a thing you’re carrying inside your mind.