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.