The Five-Minute Buddhist Books

Recommended Host

You and Your Property


In the most recent episode of DailyBuddhism, #55, you stated in response to a question regarding self-defense:

“…it’s generally considered acceptable to defend yourself and others when necessary, at least when lives are at stake; killing over property would not be justifiable, at least not in my opinion.”

I would point out that one’s body is their property. When you work for an employer, you are leasing the output of your body, i.e. your labor, to them for a set amount of time under agreed upon conditions i.e. breaks, insurance, dress code etc. You can do this because you are the owner of your body and ownership of something denotes the sole ability to determine what can and cannot be done with it. What you do with your body is yours to control as you see fit so long as what you do does not harm another person or damage their property.

While it is difficult to see this in a world where politicians take a portion of your earnings through taxation (i.e. steal the fruits of your labor against your will), force you to pay for all sorts of boondoggles without your consent, make all sorts of decrees regarding what you can and cannot do with your body and punish disobedience by robbing you (fines), caging you (jail) or killing you (if you resist too much or they’ve had a bad day), it does not change this truth: You own You.


Under the law, at least here in America, you are correct.

From a Buddhist point-of-view, however, that may not be the case. Remember the idea of anatman, or no-self, that exists within Buddhism. Even your conception of you isn’t really you; there is no you. You cannot own yourself, since there actually is no-self. There is a physical body, but is it yours?

Why should we cling to this perishable body? In the eye of the wise, the only thing it is good for is to benefit one’s fellow-creatures.‚ÄîKatha Sarit Sagara.

Is not all I possess, even to my very body, kept for the benefit of others?—Nagananda.

If there is no “you,” then there is no “yours” either, so property in itself is only an illusion.

7 comments to You and Your Property

  • Michael in Maine

    Yes, this is difficult stuff for those of us of a “western” upbringing. On the other hand, in the New Testament, we read where Jesus speaks of “turning the other cheek,” “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”, “don’t worry about tomorrow,” “leave family for the sake of God,” etc. This is all part of Christianity, which is (supposed) to play a major role in “western” culture. Most westerners, however, just ignore these difficult teachings and claim to be Christians regardless… and don’t confuse them with the facts!

    I think we may have found another example, where secular American cultural assumptions run up against (and usually take overtake) spiritual teachings, be they Christian, Judaism or even Buddhism!

  • Zeus

    Anatman, if taken to have literal meaning, is one major barrier for me in progressing toward enlightenment. It is so opposite of what I believe to be true that I am convinced that it is either misinterpreted or just plain wrong. But if the meaning IS literal and Buddha came up with it, does this mean it must be true? Is there any dharma stating he is infallible?

    If there is no self, then there can be no desire let alone suffering.

    If there is no self, then anyone may take whatever they wish and no one may truly own anything.

    If indeed one were to take the second Noble Truth as it is often presented i.e. “The origin of suffering is desire.” then sure, the literal idea of “no-self” and existing only for the benefit of others would be complementary with that interpretation.

    But I find that to be completely abhorrent because such a view completely negates any purpose in life other than being a thing to be used for the betterment of others. While voluntarily helping others is to be commended, having no other reason to exist, no personal goals or desires, is tragic and banal.

    But, as Brian has explained in the past, the translation of the second Noble Truth is not “desire”. It is “grasping” as in “reaching for that which is improbable, fruitless or harmful to one’s self.”

    Grasping for the next hit of heroin is a bad thing. Desiring a compatible mate, a job promotion, food in the fridge or a nice house are not.

    As this is often misinterpreted, perhaps also is anatman.

    According to one source:

    “Anatman means that all things are interconnected and interdependent, so that no thing — including ourselves — has a separate existence.”

    This definition I find much more palatable as all Buddha is saying with anatman is that we are all part of a larger whole, that there is more to what we think is “us” than just the Five Aggregates of form, sensation, perception, volition and consciousness. In that view, he isn’t literally saying there’s no “us” but that there’s more to us than we realize.

    If this definition of anatman and the “grasping” concept of the second noble truth are more proper interpretations, then I propose that the us we know on this earthly plane (vs the larger more cosmic “us” we seek to know) has every right to have positive, non-harmful desires and to peaceably act on those desires (like claiming property we earned with the labor of our minds and bodies).

  • I have noticed that from time to time the question of when it is justified to kill comes up. Buddha, Jesus, and all the other great spiritual teachers have said it is wrong to kill or murder, not one of them listed exceptions. We can never justify killing weather it is as a solider or someone protecting our loved ones or others. I have heard all the arguments and justifications, for me they don‚Äôt hold water; we can not kill other humans. I also believe we should not kill other living creatures except where it is necessary for survival. This is my opinion; I could write pages showing the reasoning behind it, I believe we must find this truth for ourselves. The greatest atrocities have bin committed by those who thought they were doing the right thing.

  • Abe Simpson

    I have been thinking about Zeus’ post the past few days.

    There is no self because the self is defined by a conditioned mind. A conditioned mind is always wrong because it can not see the truth for its conditioning. If the conditioned mind can not see the truth, how can it see the self. Only the buddha mind can see the self. When the Buddha mind sees the self, it sees that it is only part of a larger universe. The buddha mind gives up dualistic thought. The buddha mind is the unchanging sky as the conditioned mind storms across it.

    My guru further explains the conditioned mind like this. Here is Abe, everybody agree this is Abe? Yes. I am going to remove Abe’s leg, is it still Abe? Yes. I am go to remove Abe’s arm, is it still Abe? Yes. I am going to remove Abe’s head, is it still Abe? No, Abe is dead. So Abe was only the head? No. So what is Abe?

    I am reminded of this when somebody points to a picture and says; “that is me.” I always respond with; “then who are you?”

    Ok, so realizing how I define my self is incorrect and that giving up attempting to define my self is the way to give up self, then this is liberating. Wehn people ask who I am, I respond; “I am me.” But this does not free me from suffering.

    One must also give up hope and fear. In Zeus’ example, he states it is okay to hope for a good mate, it is ok to hope for a good job, it is ok to hope for good food and it is ok fearing none of these things will happen. This hope and fear is attachment to a given outcome and it causes suffering. We suffer for bad things as much as we suffer for goods things because we hope for good things and we fear they will be taken away, just as we hope bad things won’t happen and fear them when they do.

    I am not saying Zues is wrong, he isn’t. What I am trying to say is that there is a another way to approach the cause of suffering. It’s not easy, that is why buddhism is a practice.

    Now that I have muddied the water with my two copper pieces, I’m going to go sit on this some more.

  • Zeus

    Five months later and I am still struggling with the concept of anatman. As a bit of background as to why, I pursued Buddhism after having studied and accepted The Philosophy of Liberty. Based primarily on the concepts of self-responsibility, natural law, and the non-aggression principle, this philosophy comes from the teachings of people like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Locke and (perhaps most of all) Lysander Spooner.

    You can view the animated video by clicking the link above but the gist is this: The Philosophy of Liberty relies entirely on the principle of self-ownership, that you own/control your life and thus no other person or group has a higher moral claim on your life (and thus your liberty, labor and property) than you do. Immediately, Buddhism and TPOL come into conflict due to anatman despite being compatible in nearly every other aspect.

    “To deny that you own your life is to imply that another person or group has a higher claim on your life than you do.” This idea of anatman, if taken literally, implies that we have no moral claim to to life, liberty or property and opens the way for slavery, theft and murder. If Nagananda and Katha Sarit Sagara are to be believed, that our lives and bodies (and thus our labor and honestly acquired property) exists only to benefit others, then on what basis can we claim a moral right to not be killed, assaulted or raped? How can we claim a moral right not to have the things we have worked to earn taken without consent? It is a concept ripe for abuse.

    I understand that one should not become attached to these things because they are impermanent and to do so would cause some amount of suffering but to accept anatman literally is to open the floodgates of suffering. To follow anatman literally is to relinquish all moral claims over your life, body, labor, liberty and property. In essence, you are relegating your no-self to an existence of abuse and victimization because you cannot claim to own those things.

    While Buddha himself has said (and I paraphrase) “When in doubt, throw it out.”, I thought perhaps I could find a way to interpret anatman in a way that is compatible with TPOL and does not open up this can of worms. If anatman simply means that we are all connected and is not to be taken literally, this would be compatible but perhaps the desire for compatibility is simply grasping in and of itself.

  • Zeus

    Ok, I did some more research on anatman. It is far more complex than Brian describes in his response above and has little to do with the empirical self and the possibility of ownership over one’s life, liberty, labor and property.

    “The Buddhist term AnƒÅtman… is an adjective that specifies the absence of a supposedly permanent and unchanging self or soul in any one of the psycho-physical constituents of empirical existence. What is normally thought of as the “Self” is in fact an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents (“skandhas”) which give rise to unhappiness if clung to as though this temporary assemblage formed some kind of immutable and enduring Soul (“atman”)”. – Global Oneness Encyclopedia

    Clearly this more complex definition is far more palatable and is most certainly compatible with the TPOL since it has absolutely nothing to do with the empirical self that we deal with every day. Anatman is a mental exercise showing that what we think of as “us” is both far more and far less than we imagine, ever-changing and impermanent, subject to the conditions surrounding and influencing “us” at any given moment.

  • Zeus,

    I spent about 20 years as an undergraduate and graduate student of philosophy (contemporary, Westertn, Analytic philosophy), and I cut my undergraduate teeth on Rand/Objectivism, Libertarianism, Spooner, Stirner, etc.; so I think I definitely know where you are coming from. I would love to discuss all that stuff, and how it relates to Buddhist thought and practice, with you. But this is not the most convenient medium, for me, for such an extended discussion. If you click on my name, above, you will be taken to my personal web site, and, if you click on my name on any of my pages, you can send me personal email. Then, we can get down to it!

    But, let me just say in brief, that I think you are looking for a way to *absolutely* ground morals, rights, etc., in a theory of ontology, a theory of the way things ultimately REALLY ARE. But buddhism, I think, simplhy refuses to trade in absolutes or ontology. It is much better understood, I think, as relativist an pragmatist in ALL areas of discourse, whether “factual” or “ethical.

    Also, in connection with, anatman, specifically, I think it is helpful to compare David Hume’s skeptical critique of the concept of the self.

    Hope to hear from you, by private email.