I understand that some Buddhists (who, forgive me, I regard as rather extreme fundamentalists) have decided that their religious leaders should not handle money. I've read accounts that relate that when a person who is regarded in such a way travels to somewhere like the United States this person requires someone always be with them who is saddled with responsibility to pay for things like plane tickets, hotel rooms, and even meals. Money is tainted by this notion that it is un-Holy or something.
From what I understand, even if money is given to the teacher it is presumed to have been taken from someone else at some point along it's karmic path. I further presume from what I've read that the very notion of commerce is believed to be irretrievably intertwined with human greed and therefore the religiously pure cannot risk being associated with it by touching coins or bills.
This piety thusly grips (or these communities grip) very tightly to something that is believed to have been attained, presumably some high level of enlightenment, that would be stained and lost if money, I mean the actual coins and bills, got involved with their leader's life in any way. To my understanding, this is somewhat ironically just the state of mind to which this precept points and warns against.
Of course, in a more practical sense, this precept is the moral admonition against stealing.
This precept serves to remind us that when we believe that there is something in the world that we need so badly that we are considering taking it away from someone else we have lost contact with reality. When we believe that we fundamentally lack something, and so desperately need to possess it that we would consider depriving another of it, we have lost sight of the simple truth that all we really need is available to us at all times. The only thing we ever need is right in front of us all the time--reality itself.
The Buddha was fond of lists, or those who finally committed his teaching to the written word were fond of lists (it's easy to see why lists would be popular in an oral tradition), and he is said to have asserted there are four basic human needs: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Everything else is a desire. When you think you need something other than the simple beauty of a full moon, your mind has led you astray in it's grasping, you're being fooled by the notion that peace, happiness and satisfaction is contained within and by means of the possession of that iPod, or that million bucks. This is delusion.
I use this maxim in my own life, it is interwoven into my personal decisions all the time. It is why I began a process of divesting myself of my possessions four years ago, a process that continues to this very day, and I expect will continue for some time to come. It guides my decisions about what to buy every day.
I suppose one can steal food, medicine or clothing. One could skip out on the rent or a hotel bill. It is possible to craft a scenario in your mind to back one into a corner where one MUST steal in order to satisfy what the Buddha is said to have called a need. Yep, watch your mind do that, it inevitably will.
Once you've convinced yourself that this precept is flawed, you have just unwittingly demonstrated it's fundamental truth to yourself, just as surely as the religiosity discussed above can arise from delusion. You have reached for and grasped at something you decided you needed--the scenario to prove that it is sometimes okay to steal. Congratulations.
These monks, or their communities who insist on these "no handling money" standards are also grasping. There's something out there they have to have. They have to have it so badly that they are willing to insist that another person handle money for them when they could, and should, be doing it themselves. This sense of attainment, this notion that "I am now the kind of being that can be exempted" from something as basic to human existence as paying your own way is exactly the grasping of which this precept warns.
They take from this assistant their time and energy for this silliness. The assistant may be willing, or even eager to do this service, bit that's because they are grasping at another notion of attainment, some special status for being Buddha's butt-wiper or something. They are likely not interested in running around with you and I and paying for our sandwiches just because we can't be sullied by money, are they?
I just use this laughable extreme as an illustration. I'm sure there are teachers in those traditions that are very weary of this game, who just go along because to not do so would upset a cherished apple-cart. This isn't really the point.
The point is that when you take something that wasn't freely given to you (that is, freely given in exchange for something, such as money, or freely given to you out-right) you are grasping, your mind is lost in the delusion that this thing is important enough to cause harm, or loss, to another.
The truth is that before you attach to such notions you are already aware that there is nothing you really need that is not always available to you, right in front of you, at all times. Christians may call this God's love, or the love of Jesus. It's the same assertion. Pratically everything else, save those things you really fundamentally need, is desire.
So, this precept serves to remind us that when we want something so badly that we are willing to cause someone else to experience a loss, we are deluded. The precept can help us remember that whatever that desired object is, we don't really need it.
So, when you see things as they really are, you do not take anything not given to you.
Next - A follower of the Way does not engage in sensual misconduct.