Sunday, May 17, 2009

Animal Liberation

A follower of one of the previously mentioned 'fundamentalist Theravadins' had this to say to a forum of Buddhists about animal liberation.

"Dear Friends,
previously every Wesak Day, Buddhist Maha Vihara, KL has conduct release of animal ceremony, then they stop doing it because after they see that it encourage more people to catch the animal to sell for Buddhist ceremony.
Metta to all"

The statement above points to sheer ignorance of the practice. But I cannot blame him because there are also Mahayanists who failed to grasp the purpose of doing it and how to go about doing it. I know because I heard this doubt in a VCD on animal liberation produced by Mahayanists available for free distribution. It says that even though it is a great practice, but there are some Buddhist masters who questioned it because of the catching of animals for such practice. It didnot give any solution to this but sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of the viewers. Clearly someone need to clarify it. And I have clarified it before in my previous posts somewhere, but maybe I need to go through it again. We'll see.

Maybe I'll just write this: refer to the Golden Light Sutra for guidance on animal liberation. On second thoughts, if I donot reply, then others with lesser knwoeldge may think that the practice by Buddhist Maha Vihara was correct (i.e. in stopping the naimal liberation practice).

Actually what the vihara did does not reflect a proper understanding of this great practice. People just do not know how to do it anymore. People think it is just a matter of releasing animals from captivity and that’s it. There’s nothing more to it? If you think like that, then it makes sense for you to want to stop such practices.

But even if the animal is not caught, or after it is being released, but remain free in the wild, is it necessarily good? Is animal liberation just a matter of releasing an animal to be free from its cage? How long will it remain as an animal?

What are the chances of an animal dropping by a temple by its own free will to listen to the teachings or prayers and thereby planting good karma and enabling it to be released from its animal status? WHAT ARE YOU LIBERATING IT FROM?

There is more to animal liberation that what some Buddhists understand. If you do it properly, you do not even need to buy any animals. Everyday, everywhere you can do animal liberation.

The below explanation by Mahabodhiyana is appropriate.

In Response to Sahabat Alam Malaysia's letter on Animal Liberation
I am writting in response to the letter written by SM Mohd. Idris. But I have to warn that in the process of responding to him I have no choice but include some of the teachings of the Buddha, even if he is a muslim. It is necessary because animal liberation is a practice within the Buddhist tradition and it cannot be seen in a way divorced from the perspective of the Buddhist teachings. I am not trying to preach Buddhism to any non-Buddhist, and not interested to do so, but is only in respect of responding to the issue first raised by Ven. Dhammaratana.

When it comes to animal liberation, I seek guidance from the story told in one of the Buddha's previous life. It tells about Jalavahana, the merchant's son and a school of fish. The ten thousand fish that lived in the forest pool were dying because someone upstream had blocked the water from flowing into the pool. Jalavahana tried to save the fishes from death. He got elephants to bring many gallons of water into the pool and prevented the fishes from death. For me, that was the first type of animal liberation, i.e. the conventional type. It consists of saving animals from cruelty, death, abuse, etc, etc etc. This is having compassion for animals and helping them stay as animals.

So, what else did Jalavahana did? He was not satisfied with that level of animal liberation. He stepped into the pool and called upon the Buddha's Name several times and let the name pass into the ears of the fishes. It's just like how mantras function. Whoever recites the Buddha's name, or mantra, and whatever he touches (i.e. the water in the pool), also will have some impact, no matter how little. Hence, the fishes and whatever that lives in the pool and surrounding also benefited from that "connection" with the Buddha's name. And then what happend? All the fishes died the next day.

So, you can see how contrasting these two actions resulted in. The first, saved the animals from death and keep the animals as animals. The second, causes the animals to die but ended their birth as animals and instead were reborn as gods in the heaven realms. Coming to the question: what are we liberating them from? Consider the answer from these 2 types of actions of Jalavahana and the results of each.

Do you want to keep your pets as animals forever? Or, help them achieve a better rebirth? The practice of animal liberation is not about reciting Buddha's name and then killing them. No, defintiely not.
You still need to take care not to release animals into the improper environment, make sure the ecology is not affected, and other such concerns by the animal rights groups, the environmentalist groups, etc. However, having taken care of these concerns, if you do the prayers properly, and if the animals manage to accumulate enough positive karma, you will find that the animals may die, not due to any cruelty at all from your side. But it could die in many ways from its own previous karma. It could die immediately, the next day, next week, whatever...basically its life span as an animal had been shortened due to the good karma from the blessings by the holy objects. Those people from the animal rights group will probably blame Jalavahana for the fishes death, but we, Buddhists believe in rebirth and being reborn as an animal is nothing pleasant. And the story goes on to tell us, that Jalavahana had a dream in which the angels (previously fishes) showered flowers upon him and thanked him for ending their animal status.

Karma is a very complex thing and it is said that karma is even more difficult to understand compared to emptiness. Hence, you can conventionally take care of animals as best you can as suggested by these animal rights groups, as well as you can also help animals end their status as animals by enabling them to gain a future better rebirth by letting them listen to the Buddha's Name/sutras/mantras or by being near a holy object, blessed by holy objects, etc etc. If you just release these animals out, without reciting any prayers or without circumambulating it around Buddha images or stupas, then the longer term benefit associated with these holy objects will not be there. It will be just a conventional animal release act.

There is a video in youtube of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and his group blessing the animals in the ocean in Santa Cruz is an example of doing the ultimate animal liberation. The group used a plate with mantras written on it as well as small stupas with holy relics inside and hang these from a boat while dragging them along as they cruised. So, instead of calling it "conventional animal liberation" and "Ultimate animal liberation", we can also call it " short-term or immediate animal liberation" and "long-term animal liberation" (because the practice of animal liberation helps them in the longer term).

While it was good for Ven. Dhammaratana and Sahabat Alam Malaysia to point out the concerns for doing "short-term animal liberation", we must not forget to benefit them in the longer term too. Hence, it should not be totally abolished. As a local Malay proverb goes, you donot want to burn the entire bedroom because of one mosquitoe, do you? Instead, the Buddhist groups intent on doing animal release should address those concerns raised by Venerable Dhammaratana and Sahabat Alam Malaysia and other NGOs.

Other religions may not bother so much of animals for the next rebirth, and they may not even believe in rebirth, but we Buddhists certainly should view the compassion for animals from a longer time perspective. Put yourself in the animal's position. Yes, if I were an animal, I would not want to be put into cages, I donot want to be cruelly treated. I donot want to be caught and traded. I will not understand what I am doing or what others are doing for me. And I just go by my animal instincts. But yet, deep in my heart, I want to be reborn as a human or god again. I donot want this life as an animal. In the hearts and minds of animals, the number one wish they have is that they they donot want to remain a second longer as animals. And helping them make connections with the Buddhadhamma is the responsibility of all Buddhists. Letting them make connections with the Buddhadhamma is important. Ultimately I would say it is even more important than their miserable lives as animals.

The main objective of this practice is not just to care for them in the conventional way, but enabling them to plant good karma so that they can end their animal karma soonest possible and preventing them from future rebirth as animals by establishing them in the Buddhist path of cultivation in future lives. So how could any right thinking Buddhist suggest doing away completely with the practice of benefitting these animals? Buddhists just need to address the issues and do it properly. Animals being animals, you try your best to care for them and not being careless, but yet there is only so much humans can do to protect them as animals. Ultimately if you are seriously compassionate about them, END THEIR KARMA AS ANIMALS AND ENABLE THEM TO PLANT A SEED OF CONNECTION WITH THE THREE JEWELS. That's the Buddhist stand. That is having bodhicitta.

(note: "end their karma" and "end their lives" are two different things altogether. When an animal has exhausted its animal karma, its life will end. But when an animal has died, but has not yet exhausted its animal karma, it will be reborn again as an animal until its animal karma is exhausted. Hence, this is what is meant by "end their karma as animal". I had to clarify this point, otherwise, some people will twist and turn what I meant)

- letter by Mahabodhiyana (dated 23 May 2009)

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