In a recent article entitled “Bird Flu Puts an Element Of Peril into Buddhist Rite” Alan Sipress points out the possibly of a link between certain Buddhist rites and the spread of bird flu in Asia. In countries like Cambodia Taiwan and Thailand the practice of “releasing” birds as a way to gain “karma points” is widespread. And it is because of the nature of caging a large number of birds together for a length of time that concerns environmental groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Environmental issues aside I am more concerned of the Buddhist practice itself. One Cambodian monk interviewed in the article recounted the story of Shakyamuni (the Buddha) helping an arrow-wounded swan. He nursed it back to health before releasing it. And it is on the basis of this story that the practice became widespread.
Yet the birds used for release in these countries are neither sick nor injured. They are captured for the sole purpose of the “act of release”. Children apparently attempt to recapture the birds as soon as they are released in order to resell them (I guess this could be called recycling). One bird vender even boasted that she sells one thousand birds on most days.
Mr Sipress pointed out that the practitioners and bird-sellers seldom remark on the contradiction of trapping of the birds for release. But this comes as no surprise to me as I often talk about the difference between the Buddha’s teaching and Buddhism. And this is just one good example of what I dislike about Buddhism as a social organization.
If the Buddha were to see this practice today he would no doubt be saddened by the empty gesture. Practice is not about acts like this. It is about sincerity and rigour. From the article Mr Sipress did not come across as being Buddhist, so he was rather cool about it all. But I feel, as a buddhist, the bird-act cheapens the “religion” of Buddhism.