Eco-Life Release: The Karmapa’s Conservationist Take on a Popular Tradition

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Eco-Life Release: The Karmapa’s Conservationist Take on a Popular Tradition

Photo by Tim Liu

A classic critique of environmental activism is that it is the preserve of middle-class people from industrialized economies preaching to others to radically change their lifestyles. While this perception is not entirely true (and is promoted often by those who conveniently argue against the need for industry reform in the face of ecological disaster and climate catastrophe), there is a kernel of pragmatic truth in this caricature: to simply say, “Don’t do it,” is never enough.

The Buddhist tradition of life release (fangsheng) is coming under increasing scrutiny by convervationists and environmental scientists, and there have been media reports over the years of life release events that have had an adverse effect on the ecosystem the animals are released into, or on the animals themselves. Yet good luck with trying to end the practice altogether. That simply will not happen, given the important socio-religious functions that life release serves. Instead, education and adaptation of this beloved ritual will not only help raise awareness of life release done the wrong way, but move it towards an ecologically more sustainable or even beneficial direction.

Photo by Tim Liu

It was very encouraging to see that Hong Kong, a maritime port city, host one of its first eco-life release programs on 23 June. Indeed, Hong Kong’s renowned Asian spin on the Mediterranean seafood diet means that fish, shrimps, lobsters, crabs, and other marine life are under severe stress due to heavy consumption, and there is a market for Buddhist organizations to buy back these animals from restaurants to release back into the ocean. But for life release to do minimal harm to the local system and the animals themselves, each species must be catalogued, transported humanely to minimize stress and fright, and released into waters that suit their biology.

It was in this spirit that the Karmapa Khyenno Foundation (KKF), on the auspicious date of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa’s (Ogyen Trinley Dorje) 34th birthday, took one step to advancing His Holiness’ contemporary, ecologically-aware vision of Buddhist practice by holding one of Hong Kong’s first eco-life release events. Led by Khenpo Karma Dawa and Lama Kelzang, two of Hong Kong’s most renowned Kagyu masters, 300 participants set off from a ship docked at North Point Ferry Pier in the morning. A puja was held to dedicate the merits of this activity to HH the Karmapa as well as all beings. The boat was headed to idyllic Shek O, where local waters and ecology suited the marine animals to be released.

Photo by Tim Liu

Life release began in earnest after lunch when the ship had arrived in Shek O’s tranquil waters. Dr. Cheung Ma-shan of the Eco-Education & Resources Centre, a local conservation organization, gave a speech on the suitability of locations in Hong Kong for the activity and the specific needs of each species: among them, the Hong Kong grouper, the orange-spotted grouper, the snapper, and many more. It was a doubly special day for the contingent of participants, and a fitting birthday dedication for His Holiness.

Photo by Tim Liu

There are still myriad problems with how fangsheng is currently practiced. It is already commercialized and the way these animals are acquired (and their quality of life after release) remains a big ethical discussion. It will require at least several more years of trial and error to iron out the moral issues around this religious activity. Nevertheless, events like KKF’s are most likely the next step in the logistical ethics of fangsheng, and the organizers have commendably set a model for other organizations to follow and build on.

Photo by Tim Liu

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Karmapa Khyenno Foundation
Khenpo Karma Dawa
Eco-Education & Resources Centre

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