Question: On the precept of not stealing… Let’s say I see money on the street and decide not to pick it up, in case the owner returns to look for it – so as to not take what is not mine…. However, If I pick it up, I can donate the money to charity. If someone else, who is not the owner picks it up, he or she might keep it for themselves instead. In this case, would leaving the money untouched be ‘helping’ this person create negative karma, and thus create negative karma for myself?
Answer: If the money is taken by you, even if for charity, and the owner returns, unable to find it, it would be not so kind, though it is not for oneself. It is best to hold on to the money while waiting for the owner to return. If it is a substantial amount, it might make sense to take and report it to the police. If it is not a big amount and you cannot afford to wait, after looking around, if it seems that passers-by are likely to have integrity, it is okay to leave it where it is. If not, donating it seems wiser.
Karma is created by intentional action. As such, if there is no intention for others to take the money for themselves, there is no negative karma created – even if it is taken. The truth is, even some of the police might be corrupted. However, if you pass found money to the police with the intention for it be be returned to the owner, even if it is pocketed secretly, there is no negative karma on your part. Of course, if there is certainty that it will be stolen while passing it over, this creates negative karma.