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Releasing life

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Releasing life is a direct translation of the Chinese term fang-sheng, and specifically refers to the practice of saving beings facing imminent death. Although the Buddha did not directly teach the practice, it is a natural expression of the Buddhist tenets of benevolence and protection for all forms of life. Indeed, the first of the ten negative actions to be avoided by a Buddhist is not to intentionally take the life of any being, human or otherwise. Furthermore, the Samannaphala Sutra exalts a monk as "one who has cast aside cudgel and sword and is repelled by violence. He is moved by mercy and, living compassionately, is kind to all creatures that have life."


The Buddha not only taught his followers to protect life, but also acted as an example. One famous anecdote describes an incident when, as the young prince Siddhartha, he saved the life of a swan.

In addition to strongly opposing the idea that animals exist merely to serve and feed man, Buddhism also recognizes that every sentient being has the capacity to feel pain. Furthermore, as sentient beings are reborn according to their karmic propensities, all beings have transmigrated through the various animal realms. As the Buddha stated, (Over the repetition of rebirths since beginningless time,) "it is not easy to find a being who has not at one time been our mother, father, brother, or sister." So, when saving the life of another being, Buddhism believes that we are not just saving a fish or a rabbit, but the life of one of our mothers in the past.

The Jataka Tales confirm the flow of karmic traces through the various realms. They tell of animals exhibiting a great variety of personalities and traits, and in many instances continue their stories into a future human rebirth. They inform us of the courage and loyalty as well as the fears and suffering of the animal world and, in this way, break down the narrow interpretation that society is composed only of humans, offering instead a fabric composed of all life forms. According to Buddhism, whether it be an ant or a human, all possess potential to attain Buddhahood.

Although Buddhism recognizes that animals can display qualities that are even superior to many humans, it refutes that they possess the mental capacity to attain enlightenment directly. Only humans are considered capable of this. As a result, Buddhism does consider animals to be lower in status than humans, but at the same time, it totally rejects the idea that inferior ability or wisdom are reasons to enslave, kill or to treat beings cruelly. If this were the case, it contends, then children or people with learning disabilities would also be candidates for ill treatment. In contrast, the Buddha Dharma teaches that beings of less ability or with afflictions deserve kindness, not cruelty.

The following quote from H.H. Dalai Lama emphasises the spirit that all Buddhists should possess when considering the lives of others: "In our approach to life, be it pragmatic or otherwise, a basic fact that confronts us squarely and unmistakably is the desire for peace, security, and happiness. Different forms of life at different levels of existence make up the teeming denizens of this earth of ours. And, no matter whether they belong to the higher groups such as humans, all beings primarily seek peace, comfort, and security. Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to man. Even the lowliest insect strives for protection against dangers that threaten its life. Just as each one of us wants happiness and fear pain, just as each one of us wants to live and not die, so do all other creatures."

Historical references

The Cakkavattisihanada Sutra states that the duty of a king is to provide protection not only for his subjects, but also for the beasts of the forest and birds of the air. In the true spirit of this sutra, the great Indian monarch Asoka prohibited animal sacrifice, and in addition, planted trees, dug wells, and provided medical care "for the benefit of both man and beast." Furthermore, he repeatedly implored his subjects to treat animals with respect and kindness. The Indian King Harshavardhana and several of the Sri Lankan kings followed his example and abolished the slaughter of animals. These examples provide historical testimony to the high esteem in which Buddhism holds all living creatures.

During the early Chinese dynasties, gestures of respect for animals were often personal acts. Emperor Liang Wudi is said to have offered his ancestors noodles instead of the traditional meat dish in deference to the Buddhist ideal of respecting life. Also, in order to create the conditions for peace and harmony after the An Lushan rebellion, the Emperor Suzong of Tang established ponds for releasing life at eighty-one locations throughout his empire.

It was during the more social-minded Ming dynasty, however, that releasing life became an established custom, especially among the literati. The monk Zhu hong was credited with popularizing the practice, and societies were established with the aim of regularly releasing life. Tracts of land were bought where animals could be freed and ponds constructed as sanctuaries for fish. The custom became an integral part of the life of the pious, and colorful tales of the near-miraculous effects of releasing life began to emerge. These tales have helped provide a historical reference for the practice of releasing life, and through them we have gained evidence that looking after and protecting other beings was an integral part of Buddhism in China. In fact, according to the Mahayana sutras, there is no better way to create merit and generate compassion than to save the lives of others.

In Tibet, Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (1813-1899) was a strong proponent of respecting the lives of animals, and his dying words were, "I pray that I will be reborn in a place where I don't have to eat meat." In addition, the Dzogchen master Jigme Lingpa (1729-1798) once bought a whole mountain so that he could save the lives of the bees who inhabited the area from people searching for honey, and among all his innumerable achievements he claimed that saving the lives of animals destined for slaughter was his greatest. In his work The 'Words of my Perfect Teacher' (Tib: Kunzang Lama'i Shelung), the famous Nyigma yogi Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887) expressed his utmost contempt for members of the Buddhist clergy who ate meat merely to please their palate without considering the suffering of the animals killed. Even though lack of edible vegetation in Tibet has created a society where animal husbandry is acceptable, throughout Tibetan history we can still find numerous examples of people who did their utmost to save the lives of animals destined for slaughter.

Opposition to animal sacrifice

The Buddha vehemently denounced animal sacrifice. Not only did he understand that such action causes great and unnecessary suffering for animals, but he was also aware that it plants seeds in the mind stream of the perpetrator that leads to future hardships: The Nipata Sutra records a meeting between the Buddha and several Brahmins. The Brahmins inquired whether sacrificial practice accorded with the ancient teachings. The Buddha replied that it did not. He stated that like our parents and relatives, cattle were our great friends. They provide us with nutrition, beauty, joy, and strength. The Brahmins were moved by the Buddha's words and refrained from future sacrifice. The Samyutta Nikaya tells a similar tale. King Prasenajit of Kosala intended to sacrifice 500 oxen, 500 male calves, and 400 sheep in a ceremony. Following the Buddha's advice, the animals were released. Similar remonstrations against animal sacrifice appear throughout Buddhist literature.


Some people deride the saving of life in order to generate good karma and counter the ego, maintaining that helping others should be a pure act untainted by selfish concerns. This is of course true; however Buddhism would counter that the sole reason that practitioners plant positive seeds and overcome the ego is not for their personal advantage, but rather in order to gain enlightenment for the benefit of others. Like an altruistic man who trains to become a doctor in order to alleviate the pain of others, a Buddhist who undertakes meritorious acts does so to gain 'credits' in order to place himself in a position to better help others. With a right motivation and dedication, Buddhists therefore believe that such acts actually help to transform their mundane life into a spiritual path that is devoted to both the relative and ultimate welfare of others.

Another vital aspect of releasing life in a Buddhist context is to establish a link between the saved being and the Buddha Dharma. While lengthening the life of another being is considered a worthy and compassionate act, it is believed to be much more beneficial when it enables the saved being to make a connection with a path that ultimately will lead it to gaining release from rebirths in the realms of suffering. On this subject, the late Jigme Phuntsog Rinpoche has taught the following: "In terms of merit, no worldly act can compare with releasing life. Even if only one being is released this remains true. Furthermore, because at the time of releasing lives, the Buddha's name and heart mantras are chanted, the beings are blessed. Eventually, they will reach a level of attainment from which they cannot regress."

Vegetarianism vs releasing life

A question that is often raised is whether avoiding eating meat or offering money to charity are preferable to purchasing animals or fish to release. From a Buddhist prospective all these acts are considered very commendable gestures that totally accord with the altruistic spirit of the Dharma, and they are encouraged. However, in terms of creating good karma, Buddhism teaches that nothing surpasses saving the life of a being facing imminent death. The following example may make this clearer: A person is living in a dangerous neighbourhood where murders and gunfights are common. Being a vegetarian is akin to not contributing to the killing. Releasing life, on the other hand, is similar to actually saving people from being shot. It is an active form of benevolence, and as such leaves a greater imprint in the mind stream. This view is echoed in the words of Acharya Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Great Wisdom of Perfection: "Among all negative karma, that for killing is the heaviest. Among all positive karma, that for releasing life is the highest."


During the past few years, there has been growing opposition to the practice of releasing life by various environmental and animal welfare groups. They claim that releasing life activities have been responsible for the introduction of non-native species into many areas, as well as causing the suffering and death of animals by releasing them in unsuitable locations. Studies of bird releases in Asian cities indicate that millions of wild birds are now trapped, transported, and sold for the sole purpose of release in such rituals. Mortality rates during trapping, disease outbreaks, and low survivorship after release indicate that such practices create widespread suffering for millions of birds each year. To date, the only Buddhist leader to speak out about this widespread suffering is the Venerable Reverend K Sri Dhammaratana of Malaysia.

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