The Chinese Buddhist tradition of animal release has its origins in the Suvarnabhasottama Sutra (Chinese Jin guang ming), composed in the early centuries of the Common Era. According to this work, a merchant’s son named Jalavahana, while traveling through a forest wilderness during summer, came across a pond in which the fish were struggling to survive in the rapidly evaporating water. All around the pond crows, cranes and jackals had gathered waiting to snap up the unfortunate fish. Moved by compassion and determined to save the fish Jalavahana cut some foliage and placed it in the pool hoping to shield the water from the sun and prevent its evaporation. When this proved ineffective, he traced the empty stream bed that had provided water to the pool and found that the water had been diverted from it by a great hole that appeared in the bed of the stream. Unable to block this hole himself he approached the king, told him of the situation and asked for some elephants, which the king gave him. Jalavhana’s ingenuity and efforts eventually paid off and he was able to fill the pond with water and save the fish.
When the Suvarnabhasottama Sutra was translated into Chinese the story of Jalavahana in particular had a powerful influence on people’s attitude towards animals. Soon, rather than releasing animals on an individual basis the custom developed of releasing large numbers animals in elaborate public ceremonies. The first person to organize such events was the monk Chih-I (538-97). In time, many temples came to provided ponds where people could release fish and tortoises, lofts for pigeons and pastures for goats, cows and horses.
Sadly, today ‘animal release’ practice frequently takes the form of a mere ritual more destructive to life than life-saving. In countries with significant Chinese communities a whole industry of capturing wild birds simply so they can be released has developed. The birds are taken from their natural environment, shipped to the cities and set free in the ‘concrete jungle’ where they often soon die. Temple ponds are commonly so crowded that the fish and tortoises lead diseased and miserable lives. According to environmentalists the two leading threats to the Asian Temple Turtle (Heosemys annandalii, so-called because it is favored by Chinese Buddhists for ‘release’) are the restaurant market and the temple trade. Several of the more progressive temples here in Singapore now try to educate the Buddhist public about the proper way to practice animal release or even prohibit the practice within their premises.