family praying at a temple in Myanmar

Buddhists can worship both at home or at a temple. It is not considered essential to go to a temple and worship with others. At home, Buddhists often set aside a room or a part of a room as a shrine that includes a statue of Buddha, candles, and an incense burner. The path to Enlightenment is said to be through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom.

Originally the idea of Buddhism was to achieve enlightenment without the use of gods, priests or other intermediaries. As Buddhism spread and absorbed other religions it became more ritualized. The Buddha rejected the Hindu sacrificial system. Followers were advised to “work out your own salvation with diligence.” Rather than sacrificing animals followers were encouraged to do good deed and services.

According to the BBC: “The Buddhist tradition has developed many different customs and practices in different parts of the world. This may take the form of meditating on the qualities of Buddha, and honouring the Buddha or Buddha-figure. A person could honour the Buddha by making offerings to relics or images of the Buddha. In the Theravada tradition, Buddhist laypersons often give gifts to Buddhist monks but giving is also encouraged more generally, to one another and to good causes. In Theravada Buddhism, monks are considered to embody the fruits of Buddhist practice. Monks' responsibility is to share these with lay Buddhists through their example and teaching. Giving to monks is also thought to benefit lay people and to win them merit. [Source: BBC |::|]

“There are as many forms of Buddhist worship as there are schools of Buddhism - and there are many of those. Worship in Mahayana tradition takes the form of devotion to Buddha and to Bodhisattvas. Worshippers may sit on the floor barefoot facing an image of Buddha and chanting. They will listen to monks chanting from religious texts, perhaps accompanied by instruments, and take part in prayers.” |::|

In Buddhism, there is no equivalent of a Sabbath (a special day of the week for acting particularly religious). Nor is there anything like a mass or liturgy over which a priest presides. Followers visit temples whenever the feel like it, particularly when they want to pray for something in particular, during festivals and holidays or on auspicious days defined by the lunar calendar — notably on full, new and quarter moons, which occur roughly every seven days.

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Lighting incense sticks
Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Buddhist Art: Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Buddhist Symbols viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Guimet Museum in Paris guimet.fr ; Buddhist Artwork buddhanet.net/budart/index ; Asian Art at the British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Buddhism and Buddhist Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Buddhist Art Huntington Archives Buddhist Art dsal.uchicago.edu/huntington ; Buddhist Art Resources academicinfo.net/buddhismart ; Buddhist Art, Smithsonian freersackler.si.edu

Earning Merit in Buddhism

One of the main goals of Buddhist followers is to earn merit — Buddhist brownie points which help a Buddhist ascend to higher reincarnation levels and eventually reach the state of enlightenment and Nirvana. Earning merit is essentially the same thing as earning good karma and has been described as a “spiritual bank account” in which “doing bad things are withdrawals; making merit is a deposit.”

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Begging monks in Myanmar
Merit is earned by showing devotion to the Three Jewels — Buddha, “Dharma” (Buddha's teachings), “Sangha” (the brother hood of monks) — and doing things like helping out monks, praying at temples, freeing caged birds, tying prayer flags, repeating chants, turning prayer wheels, making offerings and lighting candles, butter lamps and incense burners filled with sandalwood and cypress leaves. Some Buddhists go to markets and buy fish or poultry just so they can set them free.

All goods deed earn an individual some merit. But some acts earn much more merit than others. Acts that are considered particularly meritorious include writing and chanting sutras; visiting special pilgrimage sites; raising temples; offering food and shelter to monks; producing sons that becomes a monks.

The more prayers one says the more merit they earn. Buddhist prayer beads are used to count of prayers in dominations of special numbers. Each time the beads are touched, a prayer is said and merit is earned. Praying 108 times is regarded as particularly meritorious because it “disturbs passions” of “mankind’s delusions” cited in Buddhist scripture.

Acts and Rewards of Devotion to the Buddha

'Shikshasamuccaya,' 299-301 on Acts and Rewards of Devotion to the Buddha in the 'Avalokana-sutra' goes:
Verily, for countless aeons he is not reborn blind or lame,
If, after he has decided to win enlightenment, he venerates a stupa of the Teacher.
-Firm in strength and vigour, a hero, firm in courage,
Speedily he wins fortune after he has circumambulated a Stupa.
One who in this last age, this dreadful age, reveres a stupa, greater is his merit,
Than if for hundreds of thousands of Nayutas of Kotis of aeons he has honoured a similar number of Buddhas.
For the Buddha is pre-eminent, unequalled, -most worthy of offerings,
he who has travelled along the noblest pre-eminent way. [Source: Translation by Edward Conze, in Conze, et al.,Buddhist Texts through the Ages (Oxford: Bruno Cassirer (Publishers) Ltd.,1954), Eliade Page website]

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Shanghai's Jade Buddha Temple
One who does worship to this Chief of Men, he has the best and unequalled reward.
Deceased here among men, he goes to the Heavens of the Thirty-Three,
And there he obtains a brilliant palace made of jewels.
If he here gives a pointed tower, he will there be waited upon by Apsaras.
If he places a garland on a Stupa, he will be reborn among the Thirty-three.
And there he gets a celestial lotus-pond, full of excellent water,
With a floor of golden sand, bestrewn with vaidurya and crystal.
And when he has enjoyed that celestial delight, and completed his lifespan there,
The wise man, deceased front the Deva-world, becomes a man of wealth.
In hundreds of thousands of Nayutas of Kotis of births he will everywhere
Be honored after he has placed a garland on a shrine.
When he has given but a strip of cloth to the Saviour of the world, to the Protector,
All his aims will prosper, both among Gods and among men.
He keeps out of the inferior and unlucky modes of life, and is -not reborn in them.
When he has made a bower of garlands over the relics of the Saviour of the world,
He becomes a powerful king with a loyal retinue.
He is dear and cherished, honourcd and praised,
By Gods and Nagas, and the wise -men in this world.
Wherever that hero is born, glorious with his merit's glory,
There his family is honoured, his country and his town.

basic shrine offerings: flowers, candles and incense

Listen to me telling you of his advantages if he takes a speck of incense finer than a mustard seed '
And burns it at the shrines of the Lord: Serene in heart he forsakes all obstructions and all taints;
In whichever region he is, there he is full of merit, altogether full of health, firm in his intelligence, and alert,
He averts sorrow, and he goes his way dear and pleasant to many people.
if he should gain a kingdom, he honours the supreme Jina, a wise universal monarch of great might,
Golden his colour, adorned with marks, his body emits a pleasant odour in all worlds.
At birth already he receives the best of clothes, silken garments,
heavenly, superb, well made.
He is blessed with a beautiful body when he has clothed the Saviour's shrines with robes.
it is because he has done worship with robes at the shrines of the unequalled Saviours,
That here in this world his body becomes unequalled, and armoured with the thirty-two marks.

How to Practice Buddhism

On how to put Buddhism into practice, Yat-Biu Ching, a businessman and author of books on Buddhism, wrote: “Every Buddhist who practises Buddhism must go through four stages: 1) believing; 2) understanding; 3) doing; and 4) proving. [Source: Yat-Biu Ching +/]

“1) Believing: Once a person decides to become a Buddhist, she/he must have already acquired some knowledge of Buddhism and has developed a certain amount of belief and faith in the religion. He will now be able to thoroughly study, investigate, analyze and understand the principles of Buddhism to gain the benefits because the principles are so complex and voluminous. That is why believing is the first step in the study of Buddhism. With belief, he will study Buddhism with a sincere attitude. +/

Tibetan woman with prayer beads

“Without any belief and if he had great doubts, he would not have bothered to study Buddhism at all. And if he does, the learning process will be hindered by scepticism and negative attitude and he will never succeed in acquiring the correct understanding of Buddhism. Buddhism does encourage its disciples to question and doubt. Buddhists don't prosytelize, it is up to the person's free choice to choose or not choose buddhism. But, this should be done in a positive manner. A Buddhist doubts and questions specific principles or theories of Buddhism with an open mind, with the objective of gaining a better understanding of his beliefs. +/

“2) Understanding: After one believes, he must understand the principles of Buddhism - How can Buddhism remove sufferings? What are the answers to the universe and life? How can man achieve enlightenment? It is only after one has accurately and thoroughly understood the teachings of the Buddha that one can solidify his belief and confidence in Buddhism. +/

“3) Doing: This is actually doing what one has learned and experienced. Some people recognize the superior knowledge contained in the Buddhist principles, however they only recognize but do not accept or believe in the religion. Others study Buddhism as an academic subject, they understand the principles but do not follow these principles. +/

“To properly practise Buddhism, after understanding the principles, one must follow up with actual experience, to practise Buddhism according to what he has learned. One must maintain good conduct and behaviour, and purify the mind. This is the only way to change delusion to wisdom, and reap the full benefits of practising Buddhism. +/

“4. Proving: The last stage in practising Buddhism is proving. Whenever one deals with a matter, one must have confidence, good understanding, and carry out the task with endurance and dedication. At the end, one will be successful in realizing the benefits. The same goes for the study of Buddhism. If one has great confidence, understand the Dharma well, and practise according to the Dharma with endurance and endeavour, one will remove sufferings, find true happiness and peace of mind, and eventually attain enlightenment. This will be the proof of what one has learned from the Dharma to be true.” +/

Advantages of Practising Buddhism

flower offering in Thailand

On the advantages of practicing Buddhism, Yat-Biu Ching wrote: “The reason religion is important to life is obvious. It is a most important component of mankind's spiritual life. It has incomparable power to stimulate and excite life. At the same time, religion can bring peace to a society, purify people's minds, giving people hope and confidence for the future. It helps people to live more reasonable and high quality lives. [Source: Yat-Biu Ching +/]

“In general terms, religion has a comforting effect for the pessimists, it has a cautioning effect for the criminals, and an encouraging effect for the kind people. The advantages of practising Buddhism are very real and practical. Although it is a religion, Buddhism is also a way of life in that it teaches the employment of basic ethics in one's daily life, such as controlling oneself, serving others without discrimination, and endeavouring towards one's perfection. If practised with devotion and firmness, it can lead one to liberating wisdom - the so called enlightenment. +/

“For those of us who live in the modern world and are subject to stress and strain, confusion and material distractions, the teachings of Buddhism can help us improve our livelihood, make better use of our personal resources. Some people who do not know the teachings of the Buddha criticize Buddhism to be impractical and 'escape from reality' because it deals with supramundane (beyond this world) matters. They have actually quite mistaken the teachings of Buddhism.” +/

Buddhist Temple Customs and Activities

Temples are places where people pray, meditate participate in religious ceremonies, make offerings, light incense and candles, offer food to monks, meditate alone or in groups, chant mantras, listen to monks chant mantras, attend lectures or discussions led by respected teachers . Individual may also seek counseling from monks on nuns on personal matters. Buddhists are not required to visit temples.

Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments, keeping the religious landmarks to your right. The Buddhist practice of circling stupas and religion sites is believed to have been derived from cults that circled solar temples.

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Chanting monks in Japan
People are supposed to take off their shoes before entering a temple. Some cultures require visitors to take their shoes when entering the temple grounds. Others only require that they be removed when entering a shrine or pagoda. Some people wash their feet before entering a temple. Shoes get the temple dirty and desecrate it. This custom may be rooted in the belief, particularly common in Southeast Asia, that the head is the highest and most virtuous part of the body and the feet are the lowest, dirtiest and most despicable part.

People should have their arms and legs covered when they enter a temple. It is generally okay to wear pants. Wearing improper attire — such as men with no shirts or women in short skirts — in a religious shrine is also considered disrespectful. Hats should also be removed. In places with lots of tourists, short pants are tolerated. Don’t take photos during prayers and meditation. When taking a picture of a Buddhist monk, ask their permission first. As a rule don’t take photos without permission and don’t use a flash.

There are rules that people who have ingested alcohol or garlic are not allowed in temples because such things are said to disturb the human mind. Some temples however allow smoking because Buddhism does not directly ban smoking. In Japan there are temples with no smoking areas, Although smoking is not banned the temples hope that smokers will voluntarily refrain from lighting up.

Buddhist Offerings

Offerings are objects set on altar tables before images of The Buddha and Buddhist deities at temples or at home. Among the items presented as offerings are special flowers, lotus blossoms, rice balls, fruit, sweets, amulets, coins, business cards, lotus buds, holy water, tea, candles, and incense.

In Theravada Buddhism worship and devotion to persons is frowned upon. The offerings of fruit, incense and flowers are symbols of impermanence not an object of worship. Flowers wilt, food decays and candles, lamps and incense go out. Buddhists believe the soul of the offering is taken, not the offering itself. Food offerings are sometimes eaten after they are presented and flowers are sometimes ground up and used as fertilizer. The leaving of offerings as tributes to deities and Bodhisattvas is more acceptable among Mahayana Buddhists.

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Temple offerings in Tibet
Worshipers at temples often visit different altars, make offering of lotus buds or flowers and leaving burning incense and candles at each one. Some people pray by bringing their clasped hands to their foreheads and then place three incense sticks at the altar. Others bow at the altar and sprinkle water, a symbol of life. Others still, kowtow before shrines, by bending down and stretching three times, or by prostrating themselves.

Votive offerings are usually made in the shape of the things that people want. A model of a breast is presented for a large supply of mother's milk. A laydels are offered by women who want to bear a child; if the lodale has a hole in it that means the mother wants an abortion. Figures offered are usually eyeless until the prayer is answered. Prayers are also said before bone reliquaries.

Many Buddhist homes and business run by Buddhists (in Thailand, even brothels) contain an altar of some sort. The altar usually features images of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, devas, photographs of family members and famous monks as well as offerings of flowers, candles, incense lotus blossoms, rice balls, incense, fruit, sweets and amulets.

Chinese Buddhist Temples Activities and Acts of Worship

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Common forms of Buddhist practice for lay persons include visiting temples to pray, burn incense, place offerings of fruit or flowers at altars, and observe rituals performed by monks, such as the consecration of new images or the celebration of a Buddhist festival. Buddhist women's association meet for worship. Ceremonies at tenmples are held for things like the enshrinement of an image of a wealthy patron. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Joss sticks (incense sticks) have traditionally been an important component of Taoist religious practice. Worshippers believe the smoke helps waft prayers towards their deities. Today the sticks are also fixtures of Confucian and Buddhist worship. Sometimes they are even part of Christian rituals. Worshippers normally light three joss sticks in the courtyard of the house of worship, and place them in sand-filled containers or in specially prepared racks. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division,1967 ++]

incense sticks for sale in Vietnam

Joss sticks and incense burners are found in family altars, spirit houses, and temple courtyards and before the figures of Buddha. Not all joss sticks are fragrant as some are primarily for smoke and have only the faintest odor. However, the more favored joss sticks are the ones with incense which serves both as a means of veneration and as a practical deodorizer. Few homes are without a joss stick to be utilized for some reason. Traditionally, joss sticks have been handmade. Basically the joss stick is made with a thin bamboo stick, which is painted red, Part of the stick is rolled in a putty-like substance-the exact formulae are guarded by their owners. ++

Joss sticks are very reasonably priced, and it is good for the common people that this is so, for few acts of devotion could be complete without the lighting of joss sticks. These may be placed in sand-filled containers either in the temple courtyard or in racks located in front or on top of an altar. Sometimes after burning joss sticks are placed in front of a Buddha statue, the ascending smoke from the burning joss stick is thought by some to have beneficial aid in pleasing that power to whom worship is made, or prayers offered. ++

Buddhism and Vegetarianism

According to the BBC: “Not all Buddhists are vegetarian and the Buddha does not seem to have issued an overall prohibition on meat-eating. The Mahayana tradition was (and is) more strictly vegetarian than other Buddhist traditions. The early Buddhist monastic code banned monks from eating meat if the animal had been killed specifically to feed them, but otherwise instructed them to eat anything they were given.” [Source: BBC |::|]

Temple Rituals and Etiquette in Japan

Temples are places where people pray, meditate participate in religious ceremonies, make offerings, light incense and candles, offer food to monks, meditate alone or in groups, chant mantras, listen to monks chant mantras, attend lectures or discussions led by respected teachers . Individual may also seek counseling from monks on nuns on personal matters. Buddhists are not required to visit temples.

One needs to take one's shoes off only if entering a temple. Hats should also be removed. Do not clap at Buddhist temples as you would at a Shinto shrine.

12th century Japanese Buddhist flower basket

Praying is done by prostrating oneself or bowing with hands clasped from a standing or seated position in front of an image of Buddha. Prayers are usually made after tossing a coin into the saisen-bako (offering box). Offerings left at shrines include coins, apples, business cards,

Many Japanese visiting temples and shrines attach omiyuki folded paper fortunes to trees in the belief it will bring them good fortune. At some Buddhist temples visitors pay ¥300 for the privilege of writing the prayers on wooden rice spatulas.

Tibetan Buddhist Religious Objects

The thunderbolt (dorje or vajra) and bell (drilbu) are ritual objects used in Tantric rites that symbolize male and female aspects. The male thunderbolt is a double-headed object held in the right hand. Associated with skill and compassion, it is regarded as indestructible and has the power to cut through ignorance. The bell is held in the left hand. It represents wisdom, emptiness and nirvana.

The ritual dagger (phurbu) is used in Tantric rituals to “drive the invocation on it way.” Based on a design used by Guru Rinpoche to nail down evil spirits, it has three sides which cut through the core of passion, ignorance and aggression.

Tibetans use cups and bowls made of human skulls and flutes carved out of human thigh bones. Some ceremonies at Portala Palace in Lhasa incorporate hourglass-shaped drums fashioned from two skulls, and a container made from a silver-encrusted upside-down skull (the jaw bone serves as the container's lid). Skull drums are usually covered by leather. Sometimes they are covered with human skin. The bones belong to revered lamas and monks.

Tibetan Buddhists also use rosaries made of beads from 108 different skulls. Objects made with human bones are not regarded as gruesome but rather as symbols of the shortness of life and need for religion to facilitate rebirth. Each time the beads are touched, a prayer is said and merit is earned.

Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Wheels

Prayer wheels are devices inscribed with mani prayers and containing sutra scrolls attached to their axels. Each turn of a prayer wheel represents a recitation of the prayer inside and transports it to heaven. Varying in size from thimbles to oil drums, with some the size of buildings, prayer wheels can be made of wood, copper, bronze, silver or gold. They can be turned by wind or water or rotated by hand and are often stuffed with prayers handwritten in pieces of cloth.

Some prayer wheels have handles and look like devices that take up string on a kite. Others are large and hang from temples with thousands of prayers inside that when unraveled are more than a mile long. Pilgrimage paths (koras) are often lined with prayer wheel. Pilgrims spin the wheels to earn merit and help them focus on the prayers they are reciting.

Theoretically, Buddhist prayer wheels are allowed to slow down but never to stop. They are generally spun very quickly in a clockwise fashion. The merit earned from the written prayer (usually om mani padme hum written in Tibetan or Sanskrit) is regarded as weaker than that of a spoken prayer. The more prayers one offers, the more merit he or she earns, which improves his or her chances or receiving a higher reincarnation and eventually achieving nirvana. Yak grease is used on the handle to make them spin more quietly.

Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Flags and Mani Stones

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Mani stones
Prayer flags are colored pieces of cloth that have Buddhist sutras printed on them. They are strung up at mountain passes and along trails and streams and are attached to chortens, temples and other sacred structures so their prayers can be released in the wind to purify the air and appease the gods. When the flags flutter in the wind, Tibet Buddhists believe the sutras on them are released to heaven and this bring merit to the people who tied them.

The wind horse (longa) is the main symbol found on prayer flags. On his back the horse carries the Three Jewels of Buddhism”the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. The colors on prayer flags is highly symbolic. Red represents fire; green, wood; yellow, earth; blue, water; and white, iron.

The tradition of tying prayer flags evolved out of worship for the God of Soil, and important Bon deity in Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism.

Mani stones are flat-surfaced stones carved by Buddhist devotees to earn merit. Most are inscribed with prayer "om mani padme hum" ("Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus"). They are often placed alongside trails near Tibetan-style monasteries and temples. In some places you can find prayer walls, hundreds of meters long. composed of mani stones. Travelers should always pass these walls on the left and consequently most prayer walls have trails on both sides.

Release of Caged Birds

Sometimes, outside Theravada Buddhist temples, young children and other people with caged songbirds offer visitors the chance to set them free. For a small amount of money, children will open the cages and release the birds which is said to bring luck and blessings in this life and earn the liberator merit which can be used towards one’s next reincarnation. The birds are usually sparrows or finches. Many of the birds are caught again after they are released.

Reporting from Phnom Penh, Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post, “Over the centuries, Buddhists in Cambodia and elsewhere in Asia have released the sorrows born of sickness, hunger and war through the simple, cathartic act of buying caged birds and setting them free, sometimes with a kiss. In front of the shimmering gold pagoda of Wat Phnom, built on the grassy hill that lent the capital its name, Cambodians reach inside the metal and wire mesh cages, draw out sparrows, swallows, munias and weavers, often in pairs, then raise them in cupped palms to their lips. The devotees mumble a prayer and then set them free into the warm, still air. [Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, March 16, 2006 ||||]

woman in Myanmar offering birds to release

“On a recent morning, Kong Phalla, a young, slight woman wearing a red knit cap, stood under a tree at the base of Wat Phnom, clasping lotus stems in one hand and a metal cage crammed with scores of birds in the other. She said that the birds had been shipped into the city overnight by boat and that she had sold nearly three dozen to worshipers by the morning. "They want to free their depression, free their sadness and illness with the birds," Kong Phalla, 23, explained, resting the cage beside a table of incense sticks.

“She flashed a thin smile, saying she had brought five cages to the temple and was confident that nearly all 1,000 birds would be gone by nightfall. Bird flu was of no concern, she continued, patting the cage. It is only the foreign tourists who fret, often paying her to release the birds herself so they do not have to touch them. Spotting a Cambodian man approaching the temple, she abandoned her thought and gave chase, following him up the long brick staircase, past the statues of lions and balustrades of mythical serpents, beseeching him at each step to purchase a few of her birds. ||||

“At another pagoda in the Cambodian capital, Khy Sovanratana sat cross-legged on a thin cushion, his orange monk's robe draped over his left shoulder. He recounted the legend of how the Buddha, before attaining enlightenment, had found a swan wounded by an arrow, nursed the creature back to health then set it free. "Giving life is very much extolled in Buddhism," the monk explained softly. "People here hope that by releasing a bird, they will give life to another being, and they will also be free from illness, trauma and depression." ||||

Moreover, the monk continued, the act of liberating a living creature can also earn devotees religious merit toward reincarnation into a better life. But, setting aside the sublime, he added: "There's no point if you don't get benefits but instead catch a virus. Monks should be given this kind of awareness and pass it on to devotees when preaching." ||||

“Though the ritual of releasing birds is practiced in several Asian countries with Buddhist populations, the tradition in Cambodia is intertwined not only with religion but national identity. The king frees doves, pigeons and other wild fowl about four times a month — in especially generous numbers to mark royal birthdays — and this has complicated efforts to curb the practice. Its adherents rarely remark on the apparent contradiction of trapping birds only to set them free — an irony compounded by the attempts of some boys to catch fowl moments after their release so they can be sold yet again. |||| “Not long after Kong Phalla vanished up the steps of Wat Phnom, a Cambodian family approached another, smaller shrine along the city's Tonle Sap River across from the ornate royal palace. The family briefly haggled with a peddler, then purchased an entire cage of birds, about a hundred of them with frenetic, flapping wings. Two by two, the family pulled the birds from behind the mesh and, with the occasional whisper of a prayer, set them loose until all of them had disappeared along the banks.” ||||

Bird Flu and Animal Rights Puts a Damper on the Release of Caged Birds

In the mid-2000s, bird flu added an element of danger to the practice of releasing caged bird. Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post, “Animal health experts warn that the practice of capturing wild birds, holding them in confined quarters and then turning them over to human hands could spread avian flu among birds, across species and on to people. So far, avian influenza has not been diagnosed in any of the birds released at the temples of Buddhist Asia, from Thailand to Taiwan. But that is only because so few have been tested, according to Martin Gilbert, a field veterinarian with the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society. The virus, which has killed people in at least seven countries, including Cambodia, and infected birds on three continents, has been discovered in some of the same species that are sold in front of Buddhist shrines. [Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, March 16, 2006 ||||]

“Gilbert said that the threat is comparable to the danger posed by live poultry markets blamed for several Asian outbreaks of the highly lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu, including one in Phnom Penh this month. "H5N1 is out there and we have to be cognizant of the risks in acting this way," Gilbert cautioned. Gilbert's team has run into resistance from peddlers when trying to take fecal swabs from the birds to test for the disease. So in recent weeks, he enlisted a former Cambodian monk, a young man who swapped the monastery for work as a wildlife researcher, to delicately negotiate with the sellers. ||||

“Another U.S.-based group, WildAid, previously tried to curtail the practice of selling birds for the tradition on the grounds that the exchange represented improper trade in wildlife. The group established a rapid-response unit that included Cambodian military police and forestry officials and carried out several raids on bird peddlers. The campaign culminated last June in the confiscation of birds sold at Wat Phnom and elsewhere, according to Nick Marx, who coordinated the effort. But because of religious and political sensitivities, the government postponed further raids. "We were requested at least temporarily to stop doing this until the government decides what to do about the matter," Marx said. "It's a difficult issue."

"I have no concern about getting sick with bird flu, and the buyers have no concern," said Srey Leap, a 21-year-old bird merchant, who watched from the shade of a nearby umbrella. "They never worry about this. It is our Cambodian tradition."..."Bird flu has never happened to me," Kong Phalla boasted reassuringly.

Buddhist Monks Set 600 Pounds of Lobsters Free in the Ocean

Birds are not the only animals released by Buddhists to win merit. Sometimes they release fish or other sea creatures. In 2016, the Daily Meal reported: “Summertime is prime lobster roll season, but this week more than 600 pounds of lobsters were rescued from the pot by some generous monks in Canada, who bought them with the specific intent of releasing them back into the ocean. [Source: The Daily Meal, Fox News, July 12, 2016 ^]

“According to CBC News, the Buddhist monks were from Canada’s Prince Edward Island, and they bought dozens of live lobsters from various sellers around the island. On Saturday, the monks boarded a fishing boat and released the live seafood back into the ocean off the coast of Wood Islands. "Hopefully, we can find a spot where there are no cages waiting for them," said one monk from the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society. ^

:Before releasing the lobsters, the monks held a 20-minute ceremony with a prayer and chant to Buddha. One of the monks told reporters that they were not freeing the lobsters to promote vegetarianism or veganism, but just to cultivate compassion towards living things. The monks said they had the support of local fishermen, who even advised them on where they could release the lobsters so they wouldn't wind up back in traps again. One monk says he hopes their act will inspire others to pay-it-forward to others living creatures. "This whole purpose for us is to cultivate this compassion toward others. It doesn't have to be lobsters, it can be worms, flies, any animals, drive slower so we don't run over little critters on the street."” ^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Mongabey, Ray Kinnane, Brooklyn University, Buddhist door (birds) and Buddhist channel (birds)

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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