People indignantly condemn thieves to steal material goods. I worry about the kind of thief who steals souls. People act to protect their property. They build walls. They hang every thief they catch. What measures do they take to protect their minds from corruption and loss?
Han Shan is being a little clever here. He’s making a comparison. The things that distract us from the path are like thieves. There are always things that are ready to steal your attention.
When I’m trying to be in the moment and focus, the past and future are both trying to steal my attention. When I’m sitting on the cushion all sorts of elaborate fantasies are trying to steal my attention. When I’m working, my phone is consistently stealing my attention. Even when I’m playing a game with my kids, some thoughts or memories or projections are trying to steal my attention.
We don’t think of these things as stealing because there’s not really a thief. We can’t point to a guy in a black mask with a bag with dollar signs on it and say, “He stole from me!”
Han Shan is telling us the effect is the same, so we may as well try to handle it in the same way. We don’t think of our attention as important, but it is. We have a limited amount of it, so it’s important to learn how to focus our attention on the things we want to pay attention to. A lot of times the things that steal our attention end up being meaningless nonsense anyway.