Animal release, a Buddhist tradition of convenience and unthinking

Bhante Dhammika recently posted a comment on the practise of animal release and I have to agree with him that in our modern society this has become a fast food convenient way to gain merit and promotes an “unthinking” attitude towards understand Buddhist teachings

Many people are aware of my view point on Buddhist animal release rituals, basically, I am against the practise unless in a true insightful manner. Take the example giving in his article about a monk asking the woman to release birds to gain merit for the husband who recovered after that. I have a lot of problems with such simplistic and even harmful understanding.

First of all, could her husband not have recovered due to medicine he was given, even without releasing the birds? Ok, so her husband recovered after releasing the birds, but out of, say 1,000, cases, how many actually worked? Just because we know of one, can we ignore all 999 failed attempts. Would your take arsenic if I say 1 out of 1,000 will not die from eating it?

Next, I think we should be aware that merits, technically, cannot be “transferred”. This practise of merit transference in Buddhism has more to do with developing our generosity. Just as it was proven that prayers are not effective, honestly speaking merits cannot be transferred. If it could, than an unscrupulous person could always convince his children or friend who may be very pious and religious to dedicate all their merits to him/her. This is as good as saying that burning a paper ipad will send a real usable one to your departure in the after world. Does it mean we should all stop dedicating merits? Of course not, like I said, this is a practise of generosity and its a good practise to adhere to, just that we should know its limits.

Then there is the issue of actual merits from animal release. How can we gain merit from the commercial suffering and exploitation of animals solely for the purpose of such rituals? How many captured birds were killed, injured, starved or suffered unbearable conditions in a cramped cage just so that you can release one of them? How many more are recaptured after they are released? This is akin to saying the rabbit foot brings luck, but if so, why is the rabbit so unlucky to have its foot cut off just so that you can be lucky?

Even buying animals like fishes from markets doesn’t make it better. Its a commercial market of demand and supply, if you demand so much (i.e. buy the animals) and I earn from the demands, I will surely replenish the supply to keep up with the demands? How can such acts bring good merits when its like having a hole in the pocket; no matter how much coins you put it, it will all drop out on the other end. Surely, the way to end animal suffering (if we really aspire to), is to stop the demand. If nobody buys fish from me, I will not want to waste time supplying fish, right?

The environment question of releasing the wrong animals into to wild or releasing them into an area where they could not survive is another issue, which is already mentioned in many other articles in the internet about such practises.

One of the greatest argument people provide is that as long as our intentions are compassionate, it should not matter. This is like saying if my intention to slap you or steal your money is compassionate, the consequences should not matter. To me this is a closed-minded and selfish way of saying: “I do what I like to get my merits, I don’t really care for the animals and the cycle of suffering I am creating. As long as I benefit, I don’t really care.” In many ways, this is nothing more than a fast food chain means of getting merits, with so much suffering to the animals just so that you can release a few birds, do we still think that there are merits to be gained?

I actually don’t discourage animal release. However, if we want to do it, we must think of why we want to perform animal release. Is it to gain merits for ourselves? If so, then such merits are of no value, you are better of sleeping at home, at least its a neutral karma, instead of a negative one. If it is to prevent suffering of the animals, the we need to put more effort into and wisdom into looking at how out actions can save the animals. Perhaps as you release the animals, you should persuade the seller to switch trades and educate them in understanding the sufferings that they bring to the animals. If you cannot do that, then just stop the practise. One demand is stopped, supply will too.

As oxymoronic as it sounds, true animal release in the modern society entails not releasing any animals, but stopping the practise and, thus, stopping the demand and hence the supply. At the same time, I think it is only right that Buddhist groups and monastics should discourage such practises and to continuously educate the public about the issue of animal release, which I think is already happening in some countries. Unfortunately, in countries like Thailand where Buddhism is really a token of ritualistic practise for many people and where a lot of the monastic care more about their power, their beautiful temples, keeping women out of ordination and “protecting Buddhism”, then propagating the buddhadharma, it could take a longer time with many more cycles of sufferings before any significant changes can be done.

32 thoughts on “Animal release, a Buddhist tradition of convenience and unthinking

  1. Merits cannot be transferred ?
    Where did you learn this from ?
    In the “SUTRA OF THE PAST VOWS OF EARTH STORE BODHISATTVA”, it is stated that merit can be passed to the deceased.

    Please learn more buddhism before you continue writing.

      • You don’t believe the sutra and you want to believe me ?
        You as a buddhist, is denying what is written in the sutra.

        You really Buddhist ?

        • There are social explanation for the developments of the Mahayana sutras, especially when there are bickerings amongst the various sects of school of thoughts. The name “mahayana” already implies deceit as its comparing itself to be a greater vehicle. Of course, the “founders” of the sutra must insist that they are authentic and somehow make itself more superiors than other school of thoughts. Early Buddhist just need to rely on the buddhadharma, everything else needs to be taken with a pinch salt and lots of cultural context.

          But you are also right, I am not Buddhist. Early followers are not called Buddhists, its a modern invention.

            • I didn’t say that I am right, I am just saying there I don’t see any evidence to back up those claims and neither is this supported by Buddhist scholars. Buddhadharma is not about blind faith, if not it just another religion. Scriptures and sutras not not words of gods, even the pali canon has a lot of additions that are evidently not spoken by Buddha but still attributed to the Buddha.

              • Question mind is good. But as the result (or no results) of your questions, you (rightly or wrongly) deviated from Buddhism, you should not call yourself a Buddhist.

                • What do you mean by “deviating” from Buddhism? In what aspects? Not having blind faith and have a questioning mind in some of the Buddhist text is deviating? Like I said I am ok not to be called Buddhist if it means I must blindly believe all Mahayana sutras are spoken by Buddha and it was hidden by the Nargas and recovered later by Nagarjuna without any evidence to back those claims. Even Buddhist scholars agree that a lot of text attributed to Nagarjuna was post-dated and not spoken by him.

                  I would rather be called a dharmafarer anyway.

  2. My thinking is very simple. If you do not accept the scripture, then don’t call yourself a buddhist. Don’t be a Mahayana Buddhist if you do not accept the Mahayana scriptures. If you doubt the authencity of the scripture, then call yourself a Mahayana Buddhist and then go on to cast doubt on the religion which you profess to believe in … totally does not make sense !

    So coming back to my question:
    Are you now claiming you are a Theravada Buddhist ?
    Are you saying that the words of scholars who are not proven to have been enlightened weigh more that enlightened masters ?
    Are you saying that animal liberation is a Mahayana practice even though it existed before the Mahayana scriptures ?

    • 1. Why are we so attached to being Mayahana or Theravada Budhist? Buddha nature is not defined by those nor by our believes in the scriptures. I don’t care if I am not called Mahayana or Theravada or whatever Buddhist you want to stick a label on.

      2. My question why you refused to answer, if Theravada Buddhist don’t believe in Mahayana scriptures, are they still Buddhist in your opinion?

      3. Which enlightened masters are you talking about? Have you met them personally those who wrote the scriptures? Buddhists and social scholars have no agenda, they have a scientific means that are peered reviewed for rigourness in their research, much like what Kalama Sutra guides us, of comparing text and looking into the cultural context which those text arises.

      4. Animal liberation is a practise by a lot Buddhists. It used to be a good thing but now that is so commericalised and mindless, it is actually better to thing about the practise instead of bring more more to the animals in the first place

      • Please ref 4 September, 2013 at 5:14 pm, I did say Theravada Buddhist are buddhist.
        Please elaborate on the scientific means to prove or disprove buddhism. Have they proven Nirvana ? Can they elaborate what is or show me Nirvana ? If they cannot, does it mean there is no Nirvana ? I know science is ever changing. Something true today will be outdated tomorrow, just as people believe Newtonian Laws but later found it incomplete and found Einstein to enhance on it but still could not give a complete picture. How it’s String Theory (Theory, not law). So I don’t know when you final version of scientific proof is going to be completed. Even in Buddhist research, they initially thought only Mahayana practises animal liberation, then they found that it existed before then.

        I’m not sticking a label on you. You are the one sticking a label on yourself cause you said you are Chan. But Chan is based on Mahayana scriptures. And you reject these scripture. You are rejecting the books which your practice is based on. So it’s very natural for your blog reader to ask, hey are you Mahayana Buddhist then ?

        This does not need to be a religious argument. It is logic. It’s like saying you are a grammar teacher but the grammar book which you base your teaching on is wrong and you still use the grammar rules inside them. Weird.

  3. First off, I never said animal liberation is only a Mahayana practise. Thais who are mainly Theravada also practise that, All I am saying is that it may make sense in older times, but we need to relook at the impact of such practises as it became commercialized and end up with more animals suffering and damage to the eco system instead.

    As to Buddhist studies, just as the Kalama sutra, just because its spoken by the wise or its a tradition or its passed down, we must accept, we need to test it ourselves and also compare it with what critics and teachers says before we should accept. The earliest printed text is at leat 400 years or more after Buddha’s time and these are only small fragments. The texts that we have are translations of translations and they are from oral traditions passed over different countries and different cultures with commentaries thrown in. To say that something is authentic is to say that we heard it said by the Buddha directly. In fact, none of the text claims Buddha said anything, which is why they all begin with “thus I have heard”

    You call yourself HL aren’t you sticking a label on yourself too? Anyway, I believe misunderstand Chan and its working. To paraphrase a Zen saying:

    What is a sutra but dead men’s words!
    Parrots and monkeys all of you!
    Where is dharma?
    Can you grasp it?
    Can you see it?
    Quick quick answer me before the depths of hell swallows you!

    • Also would like to ask you. Since you do not accept the Mahayana sutra, may I know which sutra you based you Buddhist practice on ? Thankyou.

      • Perhaps a quote from Ajahn Sujato’s book could help at this point:

        “It is a striking feature, common to all the schools, that they feel the need to justify their particular doctrines mythologically​—​this is what all religions do. For 2500 years, Buddhism has been constantly changing, adapting, evolving; yet the myths of the schools insist that the Dhamma remains the same. Thus the Theravāda insists that the Theravāda Abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha in Tāvatiṁsa heaven during his seventh rains retreat. The Mahāyāna claims that the Mahāyāna sūtras were written down in the time of the Buddha, preserved in the dragon world under the sea, then retrieved by Nāgārjuna 500 years later. Zen claims authority from an esoteric oral transmission outside the scriptures descended from Mahā Kassapa, symbolized by the smile of Mahā Kassapa when the Buddha held up a lotus. All of these are myths, and do not deserve serious consideration as explanations of historical truth. Their purpose, as myths, is not to elucidate facts, but to authorize religious convictions. They tell us, not how the teachings came to be, but how the devotees felt about them. In this way, myth offers an irreplaceable complement to history, and should never be disregarded. What I am criticizing here is not myth as myth, but myth as history: the naïve fallacy of insisting that the stories of the traditions are factual. The myths stand as a flagrant denial of impermanence, and so a sub-theme of this work is to notice the poignant irony of how the very effort to preserve the teachings, so that ‘the true Dhamma may last a long time’, tends towards a reification of time.”

        Taken from

        • Myth ? Hmm… I won’t comment on this quote.

          Kelvin, so you based your practice on what ? How do you know what is the buddha teachings if you don’t follow any sutra ? And if you do follow, which one ?

          • In your first paragraph, you said “promotes an ”unthinking” attitude towards understand Buddhist teachings”, so it would be natural to ask you what is your understanding of the Buddhist teachings. What is it based on ? Which sutra ?

            Isn’t it a simple question ? But there seems to be no answer.

              • Kelvin, do you really understand that phrase moon pointing finger ? If you do, you won’t use it here. The finger is the Sutra and by saying Sutra, it’s not the book itself but the teaching. Why would the Buddha give us the finger, ask us to practise ? Why not give us the moon instead ? Cause we are far from understanding what the moon really is. We need the finger to help us find the way. If we think the finger is the destination, then we would have stopped at the finger and not reach the moon ! But you NEED the finger to point you the way !!! As a buddhist, we always need the finger to help us so that we are on the right path and reach our destination safely. Learning the sutra does not necessarily mean attachment to the sutra, like you keep saying. But not following the sutra, then you are not practising what the Buddha has taught.

                You seem to know something about Buddhism, some terminology, some buddhist phrases and so on. You try to position yourself as the learned one (as compared to your comment about those “unthinking” attitude). But do you really understand ? What do you really understand when you don’t even follow the teachings in the sutra. Nevermind if you follow the pali canon and not the Sanskrit one, but you must based your practise on something… and this is NOT ATTACHMENT as the Buddha is advising us against. The Buddha is here to teach us to let go and his words are written in the sutra. The Buddha is not here to increase our attachment using the sutra. You must follow he correct teaching, and learn to let go, and with each practice, move closer to the moon.

                Please do not kid yourself and worse, and kid the people reading your blog.

                • Thank you for reminding me
                  that I don’t know
                  What a wonderful experience
                  this don’t know
                  What a beautiful trip
                  this don’t know
                  Don’t know just don’t know
                  know just know
                  Tennis was tiriing today
                  I shall sleep early

                  • I didn’t say you don’t know. I said you seem to know but I don’t think you understand what you know.

                    In the article, you also said “I am against the practise unless in a true insightful manner”.

                    Could you please enlightened me. What is an insightful manner wrt animal liberation that you propose ?


                    • “Don’t know” means the “don’t know mind”, the mind cut off from attachment and dualism, this is left that is right, the mind that experience the present without attaching to name and form. This is one of the zen saying.

                      I have already listed out what is insightful with regards to animal liberation in the article, so I don’t think I need to repeat it. I also talk about what I feel in non-insight practise.

                      Honestly, I hope you can discuss the conversation that we had with one or more Buddhist friends of yours, because you seem to have a very rigid view of what Buddhism should be. I had hope that your own insight to Buddhism could help you understand the reply that I have been giving and I tried not to be direct in the reply because I don’t want them to lead you even further away for your understanding.

  4. If you know the meaning of compassion, then you will not be writing this article Kevin. True meaning of compassion comes from consciousness and happiness within. Regarding your comment about the Sutras, Evidently, you have never meditated to a point that what was written in the Sutra is beyond a shadow of a doubt that everything in the Sutra comes from an awakened min.d I find your article pure nonsense. I suggest you should meditate until you see how true the Sutras are before you dare to even attempt to write and challenge your believe. At the rate of what your knowledge is, I am afraid, Christians and Muslims or even Falun gong can easily sway you to believe them.

    • Thank you for the reply. Firstly, it sounded to me that you are also admonishing Bhante Dhammika with the same “if you know the meaning of compassion..” because I was referring to an article he wrote. I guess you are quite pissed off with the Bhante too by the way you sounded in your writing.. good for you!

      Anyway, I don’t understand your comment about sutras, What are sutras? I don’t seem to be able to find them beyond name and form…and since I am not a Buddhist, I have no idea what you are talking about, care to elaborate?

      Evidently, you have meditated to the point that you are beyond a shadow of doubts regarding everything the sutras have said.. well done! Hope you gain enlightenment soon!


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