Buddhism, monks and mixed messages on animal compassion.

Buddhism is viewed by most people as an animal friendly and compassionate religion and therefore it came as shock to many when in the last few years Buddhist monks have been heavily criticised for their alleged involvement in wildlife smuggling and operating petting zoos in their temples. They have been accused of surrendering to contemporary desires and renouncing or ignoring their teachings. This was all in response to the worldwide condemnation of the so-called infamous “tiger temple” near Bangkok in Thailand where monks kept 134 tigers chained and drugged for tourists to feed, stroke and photograph as well as allegedly selling body parts and making millions of dollars. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated case.

Whether they are knowingly involved or not, the presence of monks give credence to these “attractions” and are an added photo opportunity for those misguided tourists who, like the monks, tragically see no harm in them. The monks at the tiger temple believed that they “lived in Buddhist harmony with the tigers” which seems to prove how disengaged they are from their basic teachings of loving kindness.

Caring for street dogs gives Buddhism their compassionate reputation.

But like all religions, Buddhism gives mixed messages in regard to animal well-being which is not necessarily understood.  If you visit any Buddhist temple in Asia you will find dogs and cats wandering the temple grounds or monks feeding visiting troupes of monkeys. It is common practice to see monks keeping, feeding and looking after street dogs and cats and collecting food to feed animals at a local zoo. This is what gives them their compassionate reputation.

But at the same time if you search you will also come across miserable monkeys, birds and reptiles being kept in filthy conditions in tiny cages, often hidden in a compound corner, or a miserable chained elephant. It is a confusing situation.

Buddhism and animal welfare,
How we like to view Buddhist compassion to animals.

Buddhist precepts or oaths do not support the domestication of animals and discourage the practice of keeping pets because they believe it is enslavement and stops them from being able to fend for themselves, but once tamed humans must care for them. This explains their compassion towards dogs and cats. Many Buddhists believe that keeping wild animals as pets breaks the third Precept of deriving pleasure at the expense of other sentient beings and also adds to the endangerment of the natural environment by removing animals from it.

Others interpretit it differently and believe that a human soul can be reborn as an animal for past misdeeds and their souls must continue to be reborn as animals until their bad karma is exhausted, which has led some to view animals as being inferior and justifies their exploitation and mistreatment.

Monkey in buddhist temple
Animals are commonly kept in poor conditions at Buddhist temples in non-observance of their teachings.

Some of their rituals cause animal suffering and detriment to the natural environment such as Fang Sheng which involves catching wild animals and birds and releasing them back into the wild to gain merit. Despite this, Fang Sheng is widely practised throughout the world.

Being a Buddhist monk is not a career for most.

For most Asian monks it is not a life long devotion or career as in western cultures. Most males in Buddhist culture are expected to become a monk at some point in their life either as a novice when a boy or by joining at twenty as a monk. They can prove their commitment to the religion just for a day, a month, a year or in a few cases for life and therefore the ‘short-termers’ may not necessarily be ardent devotees. Many only become a monk as a precursor to marriage because the bride’s parents have insisted on it.

It is therefore not surprising that some of the transient monks might be led astray into nefarious activities when opportunities for financial reward and personal aspirations present themselves. Although some followers may have lost their way and fail to understand the wider moral issues involved in exploiting animals for their own indulgence, there are many who no doubt care for animals. But it would seem that Asian Buddhism urgently needs a little house cleaning in order to maintain its reputation as a true animal friendly religion.

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The unnecessary cruelty of Buddhist Fang Sheng.

On a recent trip to Cambodia I was saddened to see that the practice of releasing wild caught birds and other animals for merit is still flourishing. The tradition is variously called Fang Sheng, life release or merit releasing. Vendors on the waterfront in Phnom Penh near the Royal Palace and at the iconic temple of Wat Phnom were being kept busy with a stream of worshippers eager to buy. Cages containing thousands of stressed birds were lined up alongside the flower sellers and buyers were oblivious to their plight which seems at odds with Buddhist beliefs and doctrines.

Unfortunately the need to give life to another being in order to obtain good karma and cleanse ones past sins appears to override any consideration of the welfare of the animals that they buy and immediately release. The age old tradition dating back to at least the sixth century allegedly began with devotees buying animals destined for slaughter and literally saving their lives.

Now it is purely a trade in which turtles, snails, crabs, eels, snakes and live birds are made captive and sold for financial gain. The practice is prevalent across Asia and seems to be on the increase and causes more animal suffering than it prevents, undermining the original point of the ritual to save a life in danger.

Fang Sheng, cruelty to birds cambodia, birds in cage
Devotee carrying cage of birds into temple, Phnom Penh, Cambodia Photo: John Brookland

Trapping wild birds for the trade is indiscriminate. A recent study of the trade in Cambodia estimates 770,000 birds of 57 species are involved, many of which are endangered species ranging from owls and parakeets to finches and swifts. 10% tested positive for H5N1 bird flu which can cause illness in humans. In China alone it is estimated that 200 million animals are “freed” each year.

Sellers see no harm in it

The vendors use large “storage” cages containing over 400 small birds and then dispense a dozen or so into takeaway cages to take into the temple for blessing. This involves manhandling them which causes panic,injuries and stress. The vendors see no harm in it and believe the birds do not suffer.

Although the birds have food and water and the cages appear relatively clean it is the stress of capture, transport, overcrowding and constant manhandling that causes death and injury.

I watched in horror as one man dipped his cage of newly acquired birds in the nearby river to freshen them up and I saw another putting a dozen distressed finches into a sealed clear plastic bag as though they we produce from a supermarket.

fang Sheng, cruelty to birds
This man put live finches into a sealed plastic bag. Photo: John Brookland

In Thailand the SPCA have managed to negotiate some cooperation from Buddhist temples who are trying to ban or remove sellers from outside their complexes but this is not widespread. Buddhists in the UK and USA also practice Fang Sheng often with dire consequences. In 2017, two London Buddhists received £28,000 in fines for a mass release of hundreds of non native lobsters and crabs into the sea from a boat off Brighton causing “untold damage” to marine life.

Consign the ritual to history

The Buddhist religion supposedly venerates the life of all beings and is against suffering and many temples help street dogs by feeding them and allowing them to rest in their compounds. They collect food and feed zoo animals and carry out other compassionate acts to animals. But at the same time monks get involved in the wildlife smuggling trade and keep monkeys and other animals confined in awful cages in their temple complexes. It is perhaps time for the Buddhist hierarchy to look at their mixed approach to their beliefs and consign practices like Fang Sheng to history.

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