There is a common belief in Thailand, that you are making merit for yourself by releasing birds and turtles into the wild. The idea is that you are setting free these captured animals to be wild again. But there are two very wrong aspects of this practise.
First, the commercial aspect is so very wrong. These animals were only captured in the first place in order for people to pay money for them to be released. And how long will they be free until they wander into traps set for them? Some people argue that the turtles and birds were bred on farms and have never known freedom. So, surely they are doing them a favour? Well, not really. The animals that have never lived in the wild are not so likely to survive for long.
During the recent Buddhist holiday, park rangers seized more than 6,000 endangered birds and turtles that vendors were illegally trying to sell to people wanting to make merit. These included 5,878 small birds, mostly finches, and 433 freshwater turtles. If they had been released they would have more than likely died because they cannot live in unfamiliar environments.
My question is, where did this method of merit-making start? I eventually found this story:
In the time of the Lord Buddha, there was a temple named Chetawan Wihan which was under the charge of Saributr. One summer day, a young novice went to pay respect to Saributr as usual. The abbot noticed an abnormal sign on the novice’s face and knew immediately that the novice would die seven days later. Out of pity, he told the poor novice about this and tried to console him. The novice then asked for leave to go home to bid farewell to his parents and relatives. He promised that he would come back to Chetawan temple within seven days in order to die there.
Two events happened on his way home. First, when he passed a water-hole and tried to get some water to drink, he saw fish struggling in the mud. He felt pity on them, so he took off his robe, caught all the fish and put them in his robe. He walked to a nearby pond and freed the fish there.
Later, when the novice reached an old farm he saw three birds stuck in snares. He wanted to free them, but he couldn’t because that would mean violating the second precept of the Buddhist moral code (i.e. to abstain from stealing). So the novice just stood still looking at the birds and prayed for their safety. He concentrated in praying for a long time until there was a gust blowing in the direction where the birds were stuck. The snares shook until the wires broke and the birds flew away.
When the novice arrived home and told his relatives about his expected imminent death, they were so sad that they decided to make merit for him. They weighed the novice and prepared a quantity of rice equaling the weight of the novice. They boiled the rice and presented it to the monks. They took good care of him day and night. Surprisingly, seven days passed and the novice was still alive and healthy, so he went back to Chetawan Temple.
When Saributr saw the novice, he was very surprised as his predictions had never failed before. So he asked the novice to explain to him thoroughly what he had done in the past seven days. After hearing the account, Saributr understood that the novice’s escape from death was due to his meritorious acts done from his compassionate heart – freeing fishes, helping birds to flee and presenting boiled rice to the monks. All these merits added together were strong enough to prolong his life. That is believed to be the origin of the Buddhist tradition of freeing fish and birds that has been observed by Thais as well as other Buddhists since the ancient times.
Source: “Thaiways” Vol. 18, No. 15, 2001
Fortunately, some temples are now recognising that this method of merit-making is being abused. Many temples now ban these vendors from their grounds. However, for this practise to be stamped out completley, the Thai worshippers and foreign tourists must stop paying for birds and turtles to be released. When you next visit a Thai temple, please do not give money to these vendors. If we can all make an effort to do that, then maybe in the future no wild animas will be captured in the name of Buddhism.