Why and how should we practice freeing captive animals?The practice of freeing captive animals, or “fangsheng” in Chinese, originated in the Mahayana sutras. It has been widely practiced in China as well as Tibet, and has spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The practice is based on compassion for all sentient beings as equals, and the belief in karmic retribution from rebirths through many lifetimes, known as samsara. There is a common saying, “take half pound, return eight ounces.” If one can stop killing animals, and furthermore, set captive animals free, then naturally, one’s charitable deeds, as well as their good retributions, will be manifold. Stories of such causes and their efficacious results have been recorded countless times throughout history.
One example was in 1974, when South Vietnam was taken over by the North Vietnamese Communist regime. When waves of refugees fled the country, they suffered different destinies. The less fortunate ones failed to cross the borders in time, and were captured and returned. Some drifted on the open seas and drowned. Some thought they had the good fortune to reach another country, but were sent back because no regime would accept them. However, according to the refugees who did escape, if one could not manage to flee Vietnam, they would buy and release captive birds or fishes, or ask overseas relatives to do it for them. It would take only one or two instances of this before successfully leaving the country became a reality.
There is a story recorded in Volume 2 of the Sutra of Miscellaneous Treasures (Skt. Samyuktaratnapitaka Sutra; Chn. Za Baozang Jing): when a master observed that a novice’s life would end in seven days, without giving any explanation, he instructed the novice to go home and return in seven days. On his way home, the novice noticed a crack in the dike of a pond, causing water to rush towards an anthill nearby. The ants were scurrying to find safety, but they were not as quick as the water. Seeing that a great number of ants would drown, the novice took off his outer robe and filled it with sand to plug the crack in the dike, thus saving many ants. After seven days, the novice returned to see the master. Upon seeing the novice, the master was amazed, and asked the novice what happened during the seven days. The novice felt nervous, and assumed the master suspected him of having violated his vows or committed some wrongdoing. So, he said that nothing had happened. The master was an arhat, and using his divine eye, he saw that the novice had done a small but good deed in saving those ants. Because of his good deed, this novice transformed a premature death to longevity, and was able to live a good, long life.
The most familiar Buddhist stories about the origins of freeing captive animals are from two sutras. One is the Brahma Net Sutra, in which it says: “When compassionately freeing captive animals, Buddhists should see all the males as our fathers and all the females as our mothers, since they give us life in every rebirth. Therefore, all six types of sentient beings in the desire realm (hell, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, angry spirits, and devas) are our parents, and killing and eating them is like killing and eating our own parents, as well as our former selves. All water and earth are our former bodies, and all fire and wind are our present selves; so freeing captive animals frequently will enhance life in every rebirth. Whenever we see animals about to be killed, we should do our best to rescue, protect, and relieve their pain and suffering; we should often teach, advocate, and explain the bodhisattva precepts to others and bring salvation to all sentient beings.”
The second sutra, the Golden Light Sutra, contains an account in Volume 4 of Shakyamuni Buddha in a past life when he practiced the bodhisattva precepts as a man named Elder Flowing Water. One day, he walked by a large pond during a drought. Someone, in order to catch fish, had blocked the water upstream from flowing over a cliff into the pond, causing the water level in the pond to drop rapidly. Elder Flowing Water saw that tens of thousands of fish, big and small, were on the verge of dying, yet was unable to break the dike to let the water flow over the cliff. In order to save the fishes, he pleaded with the king to dispatch twenty elephants to carry water in leather sacks to the pond, until the water level was up. He then fed and ultimately saved the fishes in the pond.
While the Brahma Net Sutra provides the theoretical basis for fangsheng, the Golden Light Sutra offers the base for creating fangsheng ponds. Other Mahayana sutras, such as the Six Paramitas Sutra, Volume 3, contain stories of redeeming and releasing water animals. Tripitaka Master Xuanzang’s (602–664) Record of the Western Countries in the Tang Dynasty, Vol. 9, also mentions a story of the Goose Pagoda. According to the legend, there was a small temple in Magadha where several bhikshus lived. They originally did not observe the precept against eating the three classes of “pure meat,” meaning meats that were not seen, heard of, or suspected to have been slaughtered specifically for one’s own consumption. One day, a bhikshu did not receive his share of meat from alms; just then, a flock of wild geese flew over him. The bhikshu pleaded loudly, “Today a bhikshu has not been provided for; shouldn’t you bodhisattvas know it’s about time to act?” Upon on his plea, the flock of geese dropped to the ground and died.
These bhikshus initially did not have faith in Mahayana Buddhism, or believed that those geese were bodhisattvas; he was mocking the Mahayana faith with a joke. Unexpectedly, the flock was actually bodhisattvas manifested as geese, to effect a change in the bhikshu’s beliefs. The bhikshu felt ashamed and spread the words, “These geese are bodhisattvas! Who would dare to eat them? From now on, we will follow the Mahayana way and not consume the three classes of pure meat.” They then built a stupa to entomb the geese.
It is evident that freeing captive animals originated from the precept against killing, and a natural progression from not killing animals to freeing them. Not killing animals only prevents evil; it is a passive way of doing good deeds. Freeing captive animals, on the other hand, is an active way to practice good deeds by saving lives. If we only refrain from doing bad deeds, and not practicing doing good deeds, then it is not the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. Therefore in China, since the Northern Qi (550–577) and the Liang (502–557) dynasties, the governments advocated no-killing and encouraged meatless diets. The practice of freeing captive animals began to spread from the imperial courts to commoners, and from monastics to lay people, and vegetarianism became fashionable. To demonstrate benevolence, later dynasties designated days when animal slaughter was prohibited. From the central to the local governments, animal slaughter was prohibited and freeing captive animals was conducted for reasons such as praying for rain or avoiding calamities.
During the Liang Dynasty, Emperor Wu issued an edict to prohibit animal sacrifice for ancestral worship. Master Huiji (456–515) went from house to house, burning his arms to beg for money to buy back captive animals and set them free. In the Sui Dynasty (581–618), Master Zhiyi (539–598) of the Tiantai School initiated the building of a fangsheng pond; he recited the Golden Light Sutra and the Lotus Sutra for the fishes that were set free, and purchased a variety of feeds for the fishes and turtles. During the time of the Emperor Xuan in the Chen Dynasty (557–589), Xu Xiaoke, the chancellor of State Education, composed the “Inscription on Releasing Captive Animals by Master Zhiyi of the Xiuchan Monastery at Tiantai Mountain.” These were the earliest records in which the terms “fangsheng pond” and “fangsheng fair” were mentioned. Thereafter, the practice of freeing captive animals was very popular from the Tang (618–907) to the Song (960–1279) and the Ming (1368–1644) dynasties. During the time of Emperor Su of the Tang Dynasty, provincial inspector Yan Zhenqing (709–784) composed “The Preface to and Inscription on Fangsheng Pond under the Heaven.” In the Song Dynasty, Masters Zunshi (964–1032) and Zhili (960–1028) also actively promoted freeing captive animals.
Among eminent monks who advocated freeing captive animals, Master Lianchi (1535–1615) of the late Ming Dynasty was most active. In his Bamboo Window Journal, there are several essays regarding fangsheng, such as “Tathagata Does Not Condone Killing,” “On Meat-Eating,” and “On Vegetarianism.” And in Bamboo Window Journal II, he wrote “On Wearing Silk and Eating Meat,” “Stop Killing to Prolong Life,” “Fangsheng Pond,” “Physicians Should Refrain from Taking Life,” and “Eating Meat for Health.” In his Bamboo Window Journal III, he included essays, such as “Killing Is the Worst Evil,” “Killing Is Not for Humans,” and “Humans Should Not Eat Flesh of Sentient Beings,” to encourage freeing captive animals and refraining from killing. In addition to essays on vegetarianism, he also wrote “Rites of Fangsheng” and “Guidance on No-Killing and Fangsheng” to serve as the basis for fangsheng rituals.
In modern times, there is the six-volume Illustrations of Protecting Lives, written by Master Hongyi (1880–1942) and illustrated by Feng Zikai. There was Cai Niansheng, also known as Lay Buddhist Yunchen, who devoted his life to promote non-killing and freeing animals; he compiled Animals Are Also this Way (Chn. Wuyou Rushi), a collection of stories of animals that exhibited spirituality and feelings.
Today, with advanced technology, dense populations, and shrinking habitats, it is difficult to have absolutely safe and reliable places to set up fangsheng ponds or sanctuaries. Besides the prevalence of fishing and hunting through netting, trapping, shooting, and trawling, there are natural constraints in the environment itself. In Taiwan and the United States, there are only preserves or sanctuaries for wild animals. In addition, there are people who, out of compassion or to protect the environment, call on the public not to hunt or kill animals randomly and excessively, to preserve the interdependent ecological balance, as well as to rescue endangered species from extinction. Although differing in approach, these actions resonate with fangsheng.
If we simply release captive animals to sanctuaries without limitation, they will soon reach saturation, and then there will be actions by some to regulate growth through methods such as controlled breeding and quota killing. So, where should we go to release animals? Released fish could be caught or netted again, and released birds could be shot or trapped. Moreover, fishes and birds sold at pet stores are seldom feral, and tend to be commercially bred in hatcheries, aviaries, and kennels. Many of these animals lack the skills to survive in the wild, and being released actually can be harmful to them. Released small fish would be taken by big ones; big fish would be caught and taken to a restaurant’s kitchen. Furthermore, birds and especially fishes have their own habitats; certain fishes exist where water quality, depth, and current of the water are critical. It would be problematic to release fresh water fish to the sea, and ocean fish to fresh water.
Birds bred in aviaries have never lived in the wild and have not acquired the skills of finding food on their own; for example, they may not be aware of which fruits and berries in the woods could be edible. Therefore, if we release them into nature, they could starve or be preyed on by other animals. Under these circumstances, do we still need to practice freeing animals? This is certainly an unfortunate reality. The constraints of the natural environment make freeing captive animals more difficult today. Yet, the essence of the practice lies in the spirit of wishing to prolong the lives of the released animals. As to the question of how long their lives could be extended, we should do our best through research, deliberation and stewardship when releasing them.
For instance, when releasing birds, we should first consider their species as well as where and when to release them for the safest and most effective results. To release fish, turtle and other water creatures, we should first study and observe their origin, traits and way of life, then select the best time, and release them to the safest place we can find. If we cannot do this with 100% certainty, 50% is still not bad. Even if they get caught the next day, we tried our best to do it right. The goal is to inspire and increase our compassion and to relieve the suffering of all beings. As for the released beings, they have their own karmic causes and effects, but we certainly should free animals without intending that they be recaptured and slaughtered. Furthermore, we can offer Dharma talks to the released animals, and explain taking refuge in the Three Jewels, and pledging their wills to their own salvation. We can wish that they will leave their animal forms and be reborn as human beings, eventually reach the heavenly realm, live in the Pure Land, cultivate bodhimind, deliver innumerable sentient beings, and achieve buddhahood. All we can ask of ourselves is to always do our best, with all our hearts and minds.