Making Merit by Releasing Fish

Thai Buddhists have believed for a long time that they will make good merit if they release fish and birds at a temple. The idea is that you are doing good by giving a creature its freedom. However, its often a short-found freedom as these creatures are often re-captured to only be sold again to the next person who arrives at the temple. The original idea behind releasing fish was to help those creatures left stranded in rice fields after the waters had receded from a flood. Villagers would save the lives of the fish by releasing them into a nearby canal or river.

These days, people don’t have time to search flooded rice fields or woods for trapped creatures. So, they pay other people to do this for them. When they arrive at the temple there are already fish and turtles in tubs and birds in small cages. However, these creatures haven’t been rescued. Far from it. They were trapped and caged by these sellers and then brought to the temples. The Thai Buddhists think that they are making merit by releasing the birds and fish. But, in reality, they are supporting this practice and the people that take away the freedom from these creatures.

I don’t know about you, but in my book it would be a sin to pay these people money. An increasing number of abbots also agree and they now ban these vendors from their compounds. It is actually big money for these people and presumably they give a cut to the temple. Several temples that I visited last weekend had many tubs of different kinds of fish. Each were labelled clearly telling the name of the creature as well as what kind of merit that you would make in releasing it. In addition, there were also charts telling you how many creatures  you should release depending on what day of the week that you were born. Apparently, as I was born on Wednesday evening, I should release 12 creatures.

What do you think about this practice? Is it quaint and harmless or should it be banned completley?

5 responses to “Making Merit by Releasing Fish

  1. Richard, this is an interesting one.

    Funnily enough I have visited this temple and took a similar shot. Personally I don’t like the practice, apart from being inhumane in my opinion, it is easy to introduce creatures to environments that are not their natural home.

    A point in case is Chinese Buddhists releasing fish in the USA that are not native.

    At a temple in Kuiburi I found Yellow headed temple turtles in a plastic bucket devoid of water and shade on a hot day.

    I see it as a money making scheme and I would question where the money actually goes.

  2. It is even more worrying when they are capturing endangered species. I have also read reports of tortoises being “freed” into local rivers and drowning as they cannot swim. I cannot see how people think that they are making merit. Much better to do a random act of kindness. Like put some food/water out for birds or feed fish at a sanctuary at the temple.

  3. It’s really great to see you broach this subject.
    I never knew about the origins of this practice.

    Personally I always avoid participating in this.
    I feel it’s wrong to treat the animals this way
    and, in reality, goes against Buddhist values
    (not that I’m an expert).

  4. Hi Richard, thanks for this. Yes, it is immmediately apparent that this only makes money for the sellers. The animals would not need to be “freed” if the sellers didn’t catch or cage them. That’s pretty obvious and the sellers will have some karma to deal with at some point in the future.

    The way we handled this issue elsewhere was to go to fish markets that sell to restaurants and buy fish destined to be killed and eaten. It takes a little more work because you’ve got to transport the fish, but it is the correct form of the practice, I believe. The same is true for larger animals to be slaughtered.

  5. John, that is exactly the best way to save animals. Though make sure that you release them into their own environment! I have seen some temples that have a similar idea. You can help look after cows that were intended to be slaughtered but have now been saved. A kind of “adopt a cow” project.