By Konchog Norbu
Here’s a confession: I’m an unreconstructed birder (the term our tribe prefers to “birdwatcher”). Even as I type this I’ve got one eye on the feeder outside to see if any new species pops in. I bought fancy software to keep track of the lists of what birds I’ve seen where (you don’t even want to know how much my binoculars cost). I’ve gotten up earlier to see the springtime courtship display of the Greater Prairie-chicken in Oklahoma than I do most mornings to meditate.
I can’t explain why, but birding has been my main pastime (okay, obsession) for the past 17 years. As such, I’ve developed a wary view at best of the Buddhist practice of “life release”—reciting a blessing liturgy and setting animals free into the wild that would otherwise have remained in human captivity or killed. I’ve seen goldfish giddily dumped where they’ll become pond-dominating carp, and farm-raised game birds unboxed into areas where they’ll be coyote chow before sunrise, only to have my objections dismissed because it was “only the blessing that mattered”. I got a little more encouraged, however, by an article published in the latest Audubon magazine (“A Buddhist Ritual Gets an Ecologically Correct Update”) about how some Buddhists are beginning to engage in this practice in a much more sensitive and humane way.
To be an accomplished birder, you need to spend a lot of time outdoors, feeling the daily and seasonal rhythm of a wide variety of habitats. You become hyper-aware of not just the birds, but the whole interconnected web of life around you. When you scan a Maryland wetland, say, or a Rocky Mountain juniper forest, you know what fits and what doesn’t. And it begins to matter to you.
Thus my distress a couple years back when pieces began to appear in major media outlets–Scientific American, Agence France-Presse—detailing the sharp criticisms environmentalists were levying at some Buddhists for their practice of “life release.” (See our post, “Re-releasing live animals: is it safe?“, from July, 2012, when a similarly critical article about the practice was published in Conservation magazine.)
Throughout the Chinese-speaking world and Southeast Asia in particular, ransoming the lives of animals is an ancient way that Buddhists seek to gain positive karma, and especially to counteract health obstacles and untimely death. It’s become a hugely popular practice in recent years, with two serious negative consequences that subvert its original, compassionate intent: alien species are being released into habitats where they wreak havoc on native ecosystems, and eager entrepreneurs are capturing the same distressed animals (especially birds, including near-endangered species) to be crammed together in tiny cages and “freed” again and again.
The situation in Taiwan became so bad—tens of millions of animals reportedly dying annually in unsuitable habitats—that the government is considering imposing heavy fines, or banning unauthorized rituals altogether.
Some Asian Buddhist immigrants have brought this type of life release practice to the West. Non-native fish and snails are nudging out indigenous species and carrying the risk of disease around Vancouver, for example, while a Central Park pond and the East River in New York City have been infested with alien red-eared slider turtles set free by local Chinese Buddhist communities. With this sometimes-illegal practice is drawing the attention of environmental authorities, Audubon reports that one Chinese Buddhist monk has hit on a clever solution.
Ven. Benkong Shi and the community of Manhattan’s Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple have been forming partnerships with local wildlife rehabilitation organizations, who rescue injured wild animals, nurse them back to health, a release them into the habitats where they actually belong. Ven. Benkong and his flock tag along, perform the traditional blessing for the animals, and make an offering to the rehab groups. He calls it “compassionate release” and his ambitions for this approach to the merit-making practice aren’t small: “My ultimate goal is for every Buddhist temple in the United States to have a rehabber or conservation group that they support and use to educate their community.”
It should be said that many Buddhist communities in the West are engaging in the practice of life release in a thoughtful way, taking care that healthy animals are being released back into their original environments in such a way as to ensure their survival there to the greatest degree possible. One instance is the annual Canada Day tradition at Nova Scotia’s Gampo Abbey in which they buy a boatload of live lobsters and then charter the boat back into the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence so they can ensure the lobsters are returned to their proper place (buying a lobster at the supermarket and then tossing it into the sea will almost certainly kill it due to the abrupt difference in temperature and salinity).
Then, here’s a video of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s Guna Norling community in (appropriately named) Salvador, Brazil getting down and dirty to release clams and crabs that would have been boiled alive for dinner, back into their mangrove swamp home:
(To hear Konchog Norbu discuss the connection between Buddhism and birding, click here to stream his conversation with fellow Buddhist birder Radd Icenoggle on the More Than Birds podcast.)
Photograph by Matt Carr, via Audubon magazine.