A Buddhist Ritual Gets an Ecologically Correct Update
"Release life," the practice of freeing caged animals into the wild to generate good karma, is now an environmentally friendly act of kindness.
In North America the practice is more hush-hush. Few scientists have looked into it, but those in the know express concern. "Mercy releases are a growing problem," says Chris Harley, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia. Alien species, including snakehead fish and sea snails (which carry a potentially dangerous parasite), have turned up in waters around Vancouver, though the good Samaritans--Buddhist or otherwise--behind those invasions remain unidentified. "It is entirely possible that Buddhist releases were responsible," he says, but these practices "are not well documented and are completely unregulated."
Bent on finding a solution that is regulated, Benkong realized that certified wildlife rehabilitators often let animals go--unblessed. If Buddhists could join in, they could receive fangsheng credit without throwing a wrench into local ecosystems. He placed an ad in the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society's newsletter and found two local turtle rehabbers, Patricia Johnson and Lorri Cramer, who were willing to work with him on the idea, which he called "compassionate release."
"When you're dealing with cultural traditions, sometimes you can't say, 'You can't do that,' or 'This is wrong,' " Johnson says. "That's what I love about the compassionate release: It's taking something that serves a real spiritual service for a lot of people, and redirecting it just a little."
Benkong also took part in forum discussions in Taiwan, where Fengqing Yu and her group undertake educational campaigns in the Buddhist community and push for legislation to regulate releases. Mostly, though, he focuses on efforts closer to home. Since 2008 he has organized about a dozen turtle ceremonies. Now he's moved on to birds.
Back in Central Park, the wood thrush and yellow-bellied sapsucker had flown away and the autumn sun was setting. Before heading back to Chinatown, Abbess Jingyi Shi bid xie-xie to Rita McMahon, the Wild Bird Fund's director, and presented her with an offering: a check for $2,000. "This is a big, big help," McMahon said. "It keeps the doors open."
As Benkong likes to point out, temples have ample funds to give--something that rehabilitators tend to lack. "There are 145 Buddhist temples in New York City," says Benkong, adding that he is in the process of contacting all of them. But his ambitions reach beyond the five boroughs. He and Johnson are coauthoring short books about compas- sionate release--one written in English and Chinese and the other in the language of science--which they plan to send to temples, conserva- tionists, and rehabilitators around the country.
"My ultimate goal is for every Buddhist temple in the United States to have a rehabber or conservation group that they support and use to educate their community," says Benkong. "They just need to come knock on our door."
This story originally ran in the January-February 2014 issue as "Setting Free the Birds."