The Chinese-language magazine China Times Weekly recently published an article by media personality Sisy Chen (陳文茜). In the article, Chen talks about a lawyer who spent NT$5 million (US$164,000) buying 14,000kg of fish from a market and then took the fish to a reservoir where, with a nod to Amitabha, she set the fish free. It was a cathartic act. She had been feeling low and could not sleep without the help of pills, but she experienced a degree of emotional release from her feelings of solitude and heartache even as she released the fish.
The piece is well observed. Chen writes with eloquence and an understanding of how to manipulate emotions. However, her article casts the Buddhist religious practice of releasing animals in an overly positive light that leaves the reader with a false impression.
First, the reservoir already has too many fish and excessive numbers tends to reduce water quality. Would the reservoir, given the intended use of the water, be able to sustain so many fish? I have my doubts.
Second, in September 2004, the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST) published a report about the phenomenon of religious groups in Taiwan releasing animals from captivity. The study was started in March 2003 and finished in August 2004, about 18 months in all, followed by a related documentary in November, two months after the report was published.
According to this study, of the 2,007 temples and religious groups questioned, 483 were found to have released animals into the wild, which was estimated to have cost at least NT$200 million a year, with more than 200 million animals released. Also surveyed were bird retailers within the three main catchment areas of northern, central and southern Taiwan. It was found that of 155 businesses surveyed, almost 60 percent sold birds of various types specifically for the purpose of releasing them into the wild and they had received orders in advance for specific types of birds, so they could catch or rear the birds in advance.
The animals were released in a variety of locations, including in the mountains, along rivers or waterways, around lakes, along the coast, in ports or harbors, reservoirs and even golf courses or parks. Furthermore, a whole range of animals were chosen for release, from birds to fish, crustaceans to shellfish, insects to reptiles (including poisonous snakes), soft-bodied organisms and even primates such as macaques, as well as living creatures smuggled in from abroad.
From January to September 2009, the EAST conducted a follow-up study to see whether the situation had changed after five years of education on the matter. It hadn’t. For example, many of the birds reared or captured for the purpose of release died before they could be let go and many farmed fish were released together into reservoirs or the sea, regardless of whether they were freshwater species or not.
These “animal release” groups are encouraging people to free animals into the wild to accumulate karmic merit and rid themselves of bad karma, even attributing miracles to the practice. The EAST’s records contain a reference to one such group that claims releasing animals in itself brings considerable karmic merit and that one should also consider the amount of money spent, because paying more “will be more efficacious.” It even gave an example of someone who had been bedridden before the release and afterwards was able to get up again, predominantly because, it said, they had spent a good deal of money, “bringing immediate results.”
In addition, temples in Taiwan hold frequent events at which worshipers pool resources to organize releases, or get people to pledge money which is used to pay for the capture of many animals, at regular intervals, for subsequent release.
If this type of organized, commercialized, high-volume animal release is aimed at protecting animals from being eaten, it has a very limited effect and, in fact, actually results in higher numbers of animals dying. According to a study on the effect of organized releases on birds and bird ecologies conducted by ecologists Hsu Fu-hsiung (許富雄) and Shao Kuang-chao (邵廣昭), birds released after a period of captivity were often too weak to fly and the mortality rate was quite high.
Because of high demand for organized releases, other creatures that were born in the wild, such as snakes or tortoises, are often trapped, transported, bought, sold and finally released back into the wild. In other words, so long as there is demand, worshipers do not mind whether the creatures they release are protected or imported species, whether they live or die subsequent to their release, or whether their release will cause an ecological disaster, such as when imported creatures are introduced into an ecology in which they have no natural enemies. If the worshipers do not care, the traders taking their money certainly will not bat an eyelid.
In fact, the late and much venerated Buddhist master Yin Shun (印順導師) wrote about the need for Buddhists to think less about the accumulation of merit for themselves and more about the innocent creatures that they are releasing. Addressing Buddhist monks and scholars involved in releases, he implored them to have compassion and to desist from such activities.
Texts such as the Brahmajala Sutra and the Golden Light Sutra, he explained, do talk of releases, but they are referring to compassion for other living things. The actual meaning of “release” in these texts is that if, during the natural course of events one comes across an injured creature or one close to dying, one should exercise compassion and do what one can to save the animal. It is only by releasing an animal in the natural course of things, and not through some contrived event, that one stands to gain karmic merit.
We have to see things for what they are. The commercialized nature of animal releases nowadays is not providing living creatures with a new lease of life, it is most likely consigning them to death. Far from being a way to accumulate good karma, it is actually committing a sin.
Chan Shun-kuei is a lawyer and chairman of the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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