`Animal release' (fang sheng) is a term used by Chinese Buddhists to refer to the practice of purchasing animals that are due to be slaughtered and letting them go. While the rationale for this practice is the Buddha's teaching of kindness and compassion to all creatures, even the most humble, the earliest evidence of the practice actually comes from the Pàëi Tipiñaka. The Buddha once praised a monk who released an animal caught in a trap because he had acted out of `out of compassion' (karunnena, Vin.III,62).
The Chinese Buddhist tradition of animal release has its origins in the Suvarõabhàsottama Såtra (Chinese Jin guang ming), composed in the early centuries of the Common Era. According to this work, a merchant's son named Jalavàhana, while traveling through a forest wilderness during summer, came across a pond in which the fish were struggling to survive in the rapidly evaporating water. All around the pond crows, cranes and jackals had gathered waiting to snap up the unfortunate fish. Moved by compassion and determined to save the fish Jalavàhana cut some foliage and placed it in the pool hoping to shield the water from the sun and prevent its evaporation. When this proved ineffective, he traced the empty stream bed that had provided water to the pool and found that the water had been diverted from it by a great hole that appeared in the bed of the stream. Unable to block this hole himself he approached the king, told him of the situation and asked for some elephants, which the king gave him. Jalavàhana's ingenuity and efforts eventually paid off and he was able to fill the pond with water and save the fish.
When the Suvarnabhàsottama Såtra was translated into Chinese the story of Jalavàhana in particular had a powerful influence on people's attitude towards animals. Soon, rather than releasing animals on an individual basis the custom developed of releasing large numbers animals in elaborate public ceremonies. The first person to organize such events was the monk Chih-I (538-97). In time, many temples came to provided ponds where people could release fish and tortoises, lofts for pigeons and pastures for goats, cows and horses.
Today `animal release' frequently takes the form of a mere ritual often more destructive to life than life-saving. In countries with significant Chinese communities a whole industry of capturing wild birds simply so they can be released has developed. The birds are taken from their natural environment, shipped to the cities and set free in the `concrete jungle' where they often soon die. Temple ponds are commonly so crowded that the fish and tortoises lead diseased and miserable lives.
According to environmentalists, the two leading threats to the Asian Temple Turtle (Heosemys annandalii), so-called because it is favored by Chinese Buddhists for `release', are the restaurant market and the temple trade. Several of the more progressive Chinese temples and monks now try to educate the Buddhist public about the proper way to practice animal release or even prohibit the practice within their premises.