Saturday, April 24, 2010

When compassion toward others is empty

I recently weighed in on a post at Nathan’s blog Dangerous Harvests that highlighted a group that periodically releases confined animals into “the wild.” Such activity is often portrayed as a compassionate act in which the “confined” animal is set free, a bodhisattva act on the path of liberating all creatures from suffering.

The bodhisattva path is certainly a laudable goal, but I tend to view these acts of animal liberation as anything but laudable. Unskillful is how I view most of these and similar activities, because more often than not, the intent of relieving the targeted animal’s suffering is wildly missed, and sometimes, the suffering of other animals is exacerbated.

Let me first describe the activity that prompts this. And let me express this caveat as well: While this particular activity described at Tsem Tulku Rinpoche’s blog is what I am using as a catalyst to express my concerns, I must admit that the activity’s description on the blog does not provide enough information for me to know whether my criticisms are valid. I admit that I am presuming some conditions, a dangerous thing to do and something that could ultimately portray me as a fool. Having said that, these types of animal liberation activities are not uncommon in Asia, so the questions I raise can be applied in any of these instances. Also, I left a comment at Rinpoche’s blog expressing my skepticism about the activity. So I’m not making this criticism behind someone’s back, so to speak.

The gist of the situation is live fish are kept at a market to be sold as food. A group purchases the fish, then takes the fish to a freshwater lake (the fish are freshwater fish) where the fish are released into that lake. The group’s presumption is that it has liberated the fish, alleviating suffering for those fish, and that the fish appreciate this action. Everyone feels good, take pictures, then goes home.

In his lesson to Rahula at Mango Stone, the Buddha told his son that a skillful person is fully aware of the potential consequences of his or her actions. This awareness is achieved through constant reflection on one’s actions prior to their commission, during their commission, and after they have been committed. The Buddha instructs that, while it may appear that an intended act is skillful prior to its occurrence, circumstances may arise during that action in which it becomes clear that the act is in reality unskillful, that it brings harm to self, to others, or to both self and others. Nonetheless, while completing the act, red flags may not be observed, and the act continues to appear skillful. But we must not stop there, as the Buddha guides us to evaluate our actions post commission and observe the consequences. Because it may be later revealed that there were unforeseen harmful consequences and what was initially believed to be skillful action was, in fact, unskillful and should not be committed again.

In the relevant situation, freshwater fish are being released into a freshwater lake. However, the presumption that this is suitable is a huge leap of logic that may ultimately be found to be incorrect. Does the lake have a suitable food source for the fish? Does the lake already play home to the same species of fish? Can the lake’s ecosystem sustain the sudden introduction of more individuals into that environment? Because the lake has a limited food supply, and yet a greater number of individuals dependent on that food supply are suddenly introduced into that environment, what’s the impact? And are their other species in that lake that prior to this release activity had no predator to worry about? Is the new fish introduced into the lake a predator the other life form previously did not need to worry about? Maybe the fish that were released are “happy” and liberated, but what about the other life forms in that lake? Has this action created suffering that previously did not exist?

Another similar and common activity I have read about involves groups that go to pet stores to purchase birds. They take the birds and release them, believing again that they are liberating the animal and bringing it happiness while relieving the perceived suffering it experienced because it lived in a cage. No thought is given that these “liberated” birds, which previously had their food source taken care of for them and were protected from predators and parasites, suddenly find themselves having to fend for themselves lacking the skills necessary to survive. Has their suffering really been alleviated? Is that what a true bodhisattva would do?

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes in the essay “The Road to Nirvana is Paved With Skillful Intentions,” merely believing that our intentions are good will not make them skillful. He cites three primary reasons for why we are at times disappointed with our outcomes despite having “good intentions.”

“One is that not all good intentions are especially skillful. Even though they mean well, they can be misguided and inappropriate for the occasion, thus resulting in pain and regret. A second reason is that we often misunderstand the quality of our own intentions. We may mistake a mixed intention for a good one, for instance, and thus get disappointed when it gives mixed results. A third reason is that we easily misread the way intentions yield their results — as when the painful results of a bad intention in the past obscure the results of a good intention in the present, and yet we blame our present intention for the pain. All these reasons, acting together, lead us to become disillusioned with the potential of good intentions. As a result, we either grow cynical about them or else simply abandon the care and patience needed to perfect them.”

This is one of the reasons why I frequently cite the Rahula Sutta, because it offers very clear guidance on how we can perfect our intentions as well as our actions. But so much of what we do is accomplished without serious consideration of the real consequences of our actions. We frequently presume that because our intention is well-meant, the outcome of our action will be beneficial.

There is another consideration to make when thinking about these “liberation” activities. Where is the example within the canon that guides us that this is what the Buddha wanted us to do? I am unaware of any sutta in the Pali canon that describes the Buddha or the Sangha releasing animals into the wild as a routine affair. And in the Mahayana texts, I have also found no example so far that clarifies the bodhisattva vow as involving this type of activity. Admittedly, there may be one; I’m simply unaware of it. If there is, please guide me to it, as I would like to read it.

The image with this post is courtesy of my friend, Jimmy Huang.


  1. Excellent post! I just did a double take on my blog concerning the original post I made. Thanks for bringing this up again.

  2. Thanks, and nice re-bound with your latest post!