Buddhist Animal Releasing Ritual Embraces the Environment

“Release life,” (fang sheng) the practice of freeing caged animals into the wild to generate good karma, is now an environmentally friendly act of kindness.

“It works better with turtles — turtles just stand there and stare at you,” Shi Benkong said as he stood near the Great Lawn in Central Park on Tuesday near several cardboard boxes containing not turtles but restless, rustling birds.

Mr. Shi and other Buddhists chanted as Chinese-speaking monks sprinkled purifying water on the boxes holding the impatient birds, which were about to be freed as part of a religious ritual known as a life-release ceremony.

In such rituals, a caged animal is freed into a public place as a way of generating positive karma for the animal as well as for the person releasing it.

The act enhances one’s karma and brings hope for the next life, said Mr. Shi, a resident monk at Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple on East Broadway in Chinatown in Manhattan.

“It’s a win-win,” he said. “The animal is freed from being murdered, and we get good karma. The animal’s gratitude comes back to us.”

While obscure to many New Yorkers, the practice has attracted the attention of environmental and animal-rights advocates, who are concerned that many of the released animals — often nonnative species purchased in Asian neighbourhoods throughout New York City — pose risks to local ecosystems and to the animals themselves.

“Mercy releases are a growing problem,” says Chris Harley, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia. Alien species, including snakehead fish and sea snails (which carry a potentially dangerous parasite), have turned up in waters around Vancouver, though the good Samaritans—Buddhist or otherwise—behind those invasions remain unidentified. “It is entirely possible that Buddhist releases were responsible,” he says, but these practices “are not well documented and are completely unregulated.”

Bent on finding a solution that is regulated, Benkong realised that certified wildlife rehabilitators often let animals go—unblessed. If Buddhists could join in, they could receive fang sheng credit without throwing a wrench into local ecosystems. He placed an ad in the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society’s newsletter and found two local turtle rehabbers, Patricia Johnson and Lorri Cramer, who were willing to work with him on the idea, which he called “compassionate release.”

“When you’re dealing with cultural traditions, sometimes you can’t say, ‘You can’t do that,’ or ‘This is wrong,’ ” Johnson says. “That’s what I love about the compassionate release: It’s taking something that serves a real spiritual service for a lot of people, and redirecting it just a little.”

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