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Animal release (fang sheng) is a term used by Chinese Buddhists to refer to the practice of purchasing animals that are due to be slaughtered and letting them go. While the rationale for this practice is the Buddha's teaching of kindness and compassion to all creatures, even the most humble, the earliest evidence of the practice actually comes from the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka. According to the Vinaya, a monk once came across a pig caught in a hunter's trap and feeling compassion for its plight he released it. By the convention of the time he was guilty of theft. When the matter was brought to the Buddha's intention he said that from the perspective of the Dhamma the monk had committed no offense because he had acted `out of compassion.' (karuññena, Vin.III,62).
The Chinese Buddhist tradition of animal release has its origins in the Suvarnabhāsottama Sūtra (Chinese Jin guang ming), composed in the early centuries of the Common Era. According to this work, a merchant's son named Jalavàhana, while traveling through a forest wilderness during summer, came across a pond in which the fish were struggling to survive in the rapidly evaporating water. All around the pond crows, cranes and jackals had gathered waiting to snap up the unfortunate fish. Moved by compassion and determined to save the fish Jalavàhana cut some foliage and placed it in the pool hoping to shield the water from the sun and prevent its evaporation. When this proved ineffective, he traced the empty stream bed that had provided water to the pool and found that the water had been diverted from it by a great hole that appeared in the bed of the stream. Unable to block this hole himself he approached the king, told him of the situation and asked for some elephants, which the king gave him. Jalavāhana's ingenuity and efforts eventually paid off and he was able to fill the pond with water and save the fish.
When the Suvarnabhāsottama Sūtra was translated into Chinese the story of Jalavāhana in particular had a powerful influence on people's attitude towards animals. Soon, rather than releasing animals on an individual basis the custom developed of releasing large numbers animals in elaborate public ceremonies. The first person to organize such events was the monk Chih-I (538-97). In time, many temples came to provided ponds where people could release fish and tortoises, lofts for pigeons and pastures for goats, cows and horses.
Sadly, today animal release practice frequently takes the form of a mere ritual more destructive to life than life-saving. In countries with significant Chinese communities a whole industry of capturing wild animals simply so they can be released has developed. Birds, tortoises and fish are trapped, shipped to cities and sold outside temple premises where they can be released. Many temples have ponds where tortoises can be released but these are often crowded to capacity and filled with stagnant water. Birds are set free and fly off into the city where, exhausted and disorientated, they usually soon die, and fish are tipped into polluted urbane rivers where they often die too. According to environmentalists, the two leading threats to the Asian Temple Turtle (Heosemys annandalii, so-called because it is favored by Chinese Buddhists for release) are the restaurant market and the temple trade. Some more thoughtful and aware monks and lay people now try to educate the Buddhist public about the proper way to practice animal release or even prohibit the practice within temple premises.
Buddhist Animal Release Practices, H. Shiu and L. Stokes in Contemporary Buddhism, Vol.9 No2, 2008.