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.
Bhante, nice example how defilements of the mind can distort even the noblest of our intentions. Good warning, indeed!
Years ago when we were doing BRM work in refugee camps along Thailand's borders,we visited Ban Na Pho, a Lao camp. We managed to spirit a van full of monks out for a quick run to Wat That Phanom. As soon as we stopped to park the monks got down and disappeared. They were all wanting to release birds, having been cooped up in that crowded camp themselves for so long! The expressions of joy on their faces were unmistakable as the birds flew away.
At least in the community of Chinese "Buddhists" where I grew up in, fangsheng has actually become a ritual of greed. It's like many other rituals, performed as a way to trade offerings with wealth, health, love, success, etc. My dad and I often bought 100 birds around my school exam times. Turtles were tied up like luggages in front of a famous sea temple - who knows for how long and whether they were fed. Maybe when they are swimming weakly to the sea, they can then be caught again easily (to be sold again and again and again).
I questioned the fate of the birds we released, but was told that it's no business of ours, if they die then it's the birds kamma. So the birds have to endure the abuse so we human can fool ourselves thinking that we are generous and compassionate, and will soon be blessed by the gods.
In a park in the capital of Denmark there is a small waterpond where live some turtles, they may have been released there by unknown persons. The interesting thing is that in Wintertime the pond freezes, and the turtles presumably hibernate in the mud in the bottom of the pond. When the Springtime comes you can see the turtles again basking in the sunshine on a log that is has its upper half surfacing the water of the pond.
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