Freedom : Animal Liberation
Among all negative karma, that of killing is the heaviest.
Among all positive karma, that for releasing life is the highest.
- Acharya Nagarjuna (The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom)
In the recent years, there is much talk among Buddhists about stopping the practice of animal liberation – since many animals which have been set free were not accustomed to the wild, especially pets which were brought up domestically from young, and animals from foreign environments. This motivation to prevent loss of lives is surely good, an act of compassion. But then again, Buddhist animal liberation pertains more to the setting of free animals bound for certain death to satisfy human greed for animal products.
Hence, I disagree that all animal liberation should be stopped – only unskilful animal liberation should be stopped. Please see <Releasing Life with Wisdom> for local legal guidelines on animal liberation. (They might apply to your country too.) When animal liberation is done indiscriminately, it can become killing instead. Only when animal liberation is done with compassion and wisdom, is it meritorious. Some forms of legitimate animal liberation would be the freeing of regional sea fishes otherwise destined to become seafood, which were not bred in farms. It is important to note too, that the local authorities do give permits for animal liberation in the open sea.
The great Buddhist saint Nagarjuna clearly taught that that life liberation has the most merits, in opposition to killing which gathjers the most negative karma. If so, to insist on all to stop animal liberation entirely can actually accrue a huge amount of negative bad karma, as we would be stopping the freeing of animals and stopping others from creating much merits.
Thus, I think fellow Buddhists should not be too forthright to speak against animal liberation entirely. Animal liberation is an ancient practice encouraged by the masters. Surely, it makes great sense when practised properly. The ones who suffer from the ending of animal liberation will be the animals who do not get freed, and the Buddhists who do not dare to practise animal liberation at all. Because animal liberation creates tremendous merits of kindness, it can counter mass-hatred in our world. It is thus an invaluable practice.
There is the argument that the freed fishes might get caught again. But then again, freed ex-murderers can murder again! With the best of intentions, we put ourselves in the “shoes” of the captive animals and decide what’s best for them. I know I would want to be free, even if it’s a jungle out there, even if it’s a big-fish-eat-small-fish world – instead of being an animal bound for certain doom on the chopping board!
A Buddhist master exclaimed that it is exactly because animal liberation is so meritorious, that “demons” are abound spreading delusions against it, especially in the Dharma-ending age, which is in dire need of compassion. This might sound fantastical, but well, orthodox Buddhists believe that “skilled” demons can manifest in many ways indeed. In a way, when we have delusions and adhere to them stubbornly, we become demons’ “minions” too.
There is also the belief that an animal being blessed with contact with the Dharma, be it by sincere chants of taking the Threefold Refuge, repentance, or dedication of merits, is likely to fare off much better in its future lives. Even if these animals get captured again subsequently after being freed, they will be better off than not having established any karmic links with the Triple Gem at all.
Some feel that to purchase any animals meant for eating or releasing directly feeds the trade of capturing animals, and should thus not be encouraged. While logically true, we also need to place ourselves in the positions of the trapped animals. If we know there are fellow humans trapped for sale, do we not rescue them at all, and justify our inaction by thinking that to rescue them will only mean there will be more enslaved humans? Of course, we should still take care not to support the trade of animals cruelly trapped for sale. In fact, if we are to come across such instances, we should proactively report them to government and animal welfare organisations.
It’s ironically if you think of it. While those of other faiths might religiously slaughter many animals for their main religious celebrations, some Buddhists lacking complete understanding of animal liberation religiously slam fellow Buddhists for practising animal liberation on the holiest Buddhist day (Vesak). Let’s set the picture right for fellow Buddhists and helpless animals by spreading the right understanding on animal liberation.
Note that we can help liberate animals by keeping stray animals’ populations in check by offering them sterilisation. This is because when stray animals over-populate, they tend to be culled by the authorities. And one of the best ways ever to liberate animals is to free them from our meals – totally, if not partially. When we cut down our collective demand for meat, we cut down the collective breeding and slaughter of animals.
Even though we might be animal lovers, the ideal world has no animals, as there are no beings with animal karma in an ideal world, and there will be none who ill-treats or eats animals. This world is Pure Land – as described in the sutras (void of beings of lower realms) – where all are natural vegans and there is no need for animal welfare! Our world can become a Pure Land too!
Still doubtful that animal liberation can be properly practised? If so, please see a set of 20 “Frequently Asked Questions” on “Why Buddhists Practise Animal Liberation”. Disciples of the Buddha liberate life out of loving-kindness, thinking:
All males are my fathers.
All females are my mothers.
From life to life, there is no one I was not born from.
Because beings from the six realms are my parents,
those who kill and eat them kill and eat my parents, and kill my own body…
Because of life liberation,
one will abide with the Dharma from life after life,
and teach others to liberate life.
If one sees someone killing animals,
one should skillfully save and protect them,
and relieve them of suffering and danger.
- Mahayana Brahma Net Sutra