Sunday, August 25, 2013

Unthinking Tradition Distorts Dhamma. Again!

A young Vietnamese woman’s husband fell ill. Desperate for a cure, she later recounted, she visited the local Buddhist temple. A monk there instructed her to “release 40 birds, one for every year of your husband’s life.” So she did, purchasing and releasing 40 birds at the temple grounds. The woman soon rejoiced; her husband made a full recovery. This is a common story in Asia, where “merit release ” of captive wild animals are performed in Buddhist rituals. But the practice raises concern amongst the conservation community for its potential to impact threatened species. Before a bird can be freed, it has to be captured—often just after having been released by someone else. The result is the denuding of wild populations and a vast recycling of mistreated animals, most of which are likely die on one of their ersatz flights to freedom. As if that were not bad enough, the dead, disease-ridden animals are then sold in food markets. “We were staggered by the number of birds moving through this trade,” says Martin Gilbert, a veterinarian at the Wildlife Conservation Society who recently co-authored a study in Biological Conservation on merit releases. “It’s a very good rational and understandable thing to do, to let captive animals go free,” he says. “But in certain situations, it creates a trade purely for demand for animals in cages.” Gilbert and his colleagues monitored daily sales of merit release birds in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, over a period of 13 months. From their findings, they estimated nearly 700,000 animals pass through the local trade annually. They recorded a total of 57 bird species in the cages, including globally near-threatened Asian golden weavers and vulnerable yellow-breasted buntings.  “This paper highlights the potentially huge impact merit releases have on a few birds that are easily caught and are already of conservation concern,” says John Pilgrim, a conservation consultant who specializes in Southeast Asia and Melanesia and who was not involved in the study. Gilbert says he knows of only one other study, conducted in Hong Kong, which attempted to estimate merit release figures. The numbers were comparable, reporting that Hong Kong Buddhist temples released up to 580,000 birds per year. “It’s pretty scary that this [new] paper estimates just a dozen families in two small markets sold more than 630,000 birds per year,” Pilgrim says. Conservationists do not know how the merit release market figures into Asia’s overall wildlife trade, which also exploits wild birds for pets, food, passerine fights and song contests. Globally, trade in wild birds impacts about 400 species that are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, or one third of all threatened bird species. No one know how many birds succumb each year to the wildlife trade since much of the trafficking is illegal, but within Southeast Asia alone, it is likely “in the order of tens of millions,” says Kelly Edmunds, a researcher at the University of East Anglia in England who investigates the emerging infectious diseases amongst bird sellers in Asia and was not involved in the study. Buddhists free captive animals in order to accumulate health and longevity merits for themselves and loved ones. The exact origins of the practice are unclear, though it was mentioned in fifth-century Chinese Buddhist texts  that instructed followers to “practice the act of releasing animals due to the mind of compassion.”
From Scientific America August 12 2012
For more on this subject from the Buddhist perspective see


Unknown said...

Welcome back! Thank you for this posting. It confirms a doubt I have had about this practice.

konchog said...

I read about this as an issue in Asia, and really hope people and their spiritual leaders become more thoughtful about this. At a previous temple where I was in America, we often had to stop Chinese families from dumping pet store goldfish into the temple streams or ponds as they would become large carp that would serious disrupt the native environments. We did this practice, but were very careful to buy "sold for bait" earthworms that we would bury where they could live and be useful, or native crickets, minnows, etc. One center in Nova Scotia every year buys a boatful of live lobster and pays the boatmen to return them to the ocean where they won't be re-fished. Doing that with supermarket lobsters is no good as thee temperature and saline difference will almost certainly kill them. Thank you for your encouragement of your readers to be more thoughtful about this.

Blogger said...

Dear Ven.Dhammika,

Welcome Back!:)

Gary Chew said...

Ven Bhante,
I am a marine biologist myself. I've voice out in the vihara I used to visit about this practice. But the "committee" insist the practice and said I am too young/junior to comment about this practice.

Lastly I approach the monks there. Then only they agree to dug a pond. Instead of releasing it into the wild, just keep in the pond and keep them, feed them, nurture them until they die of old age, then give them a proper burial.

A lot of fish especially cat fish are strong predator. If a number of them release into the stream, ALL other fishes will end up being their food. After no food, they will feed on themselves. So to me, release a lot of catfish into the river is a cruel act.

David ( said...

The monk should have told her to get some mustard seed from a home that never experienced an illness ;)

skylet said...

Dear Ven Dhammika,

So for those people whom are ignorant on what the consequence for the animal but with pure sincere kind intention of setting the animals free. How will that justify? Thanks.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Skylet, there is a saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This is going a bit far but its general sense is clear. It is not enough to have good intentions, those intentions have to be informed by thoughtfulness and wisdom.