Life release is a traditional Buddhist practise of saving the lives of beings that were destined for slaughter. This practise is performed by all schools of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. It is known as "Tsethar" in Tibetan Buddhism.
While this practice of life release may naturally need to be spontaneous to successfully save an endangered life, life release can also be planned. Planning often involves purchasing an animal directly from a slaughterhouse or a fishermen; this can often take place on auspicious days in the Buddhist calendar in order for the merit of the act to be multiplied thousands of times. Animals are blessed before being safely returned to their natural environment as prayers are made and often dedicated to someone who is ill or has died, with the belief that person will benefit too from this dedication.
In Tibet an animal is often marked by a ribbon to indicate that the life of the animal has been liberated, with the general understanding that it will be allowed to die of natural causes. The practise in Tibetan Buddhism has been championed in recent times by Chatral Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche and Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Although this is seen to be the traditional way of carrying out this practise, Ogyen Trinley Dorje has commented that the meaning is broad and that people can use their intelligence to expand the practise in other ways; indicating that planting one tree may be more beneficial that carrying out Tsethar for many beings.
LIFE RELEASE: From the Karmapa's North American Webpage
ANIMAL RELEASE PROGRAM: Padmasambhava Buddhist Center
LIBERATING LIVING BEINGS: Entry from Buddhism A to Z
Life release is a Buddhist practice of rescuing animals, birds, fish and so forth that are destined for slaughter or that are permanently caged. They are released to a new physical and spiritual life. The practice exemplifies the fundamental Buddhist teaching of compassion for all living beings.
Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, who founded the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, stated:
A disciple of the Buddha must maintain a mind of kindness and cultivate the practice of liberating beings. He should reflect thus: "All male beings have been my father and all females have been my mother. There is not a single being who has not given birth to me during my previous lives, hence all beings of the Six Destinies are my parents. Therefore, when a person kills and eats any of these beings, he thereby slaughters my parents.
Furthermore, he kills a body that was once my own, for all elemental earth and water previously served as part of my body and all elemental fire and wind have served as my basic substance. Therefore, I shall always cultivate the practice of liberating beings and in every life be reborn in the eternally-abiding Dharma and teach others to liberate beings as well."
Whenever a Bodhisattva sees a person preparing to kill an animal, he should devise a skillful method to rescue and protect it, freeing it from its suffering and difficulties ... (BNS I 162)
In China this practice was made popular by the Venerable Jr-Yi and has continued to the present day.
Developing our Compassion by Liberating Living Beings: Once a month at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, we liberate animals destined for slaughter. We purchase them from the wholesalers, bring them to some appropriate place, and let them go free. We recite mantras, sutras, and praises on their behalf, so that they can hear them, and so that the merit of our recitation can be transferred to them. This traditional Buddhist practice, called 'liberating living beings', has always been praised and honored by the sages and high masters.
By liberating living beings, we also nurture compassion in our hearts. By not killing, we cultivate compassion. In letting living creatures go, we also cultivate compassion. The compassion in our hearts grows greater every day until it becomes as great as that of the greatly compassionate "Bodhisattva Observer of the World's Sounds" (Avalokiteshvara).
Bodhisattva Observer of the World's Sounds did not kill living beings; she always liberated them, and so she has a greatly compassionate heart. We should imitate the great kindness and compassion of Bodhisattva Observer of the World's Sounds and liberate living beings.
The principle is very logical: if you liberate life, you increase your compassion. Liberating
living beings is just liberating ourselves ... Why? Because we and all living beings are basically of one substance. We should think this way: "If someone put me in a cage, wouldn't I be uncomfortable? Wouldn't I wish that someone would let me go? If I were put in jail, I would not want to stay there. Likewise, I don't like to see birds put in cages. This is because living beings and I are of one substance. Since I feel this way, I want to liberate living beings."
What is more, you don't know which living being was related to you in a past life. One might have been your father, or your brother, or your sister. You can't know for sure. Perhaps they were your children, or your friends. Right now you haven't gained the use of the Heavenly Eye or the Penetration of Past Lives, and so you don't know what kinds of causes and effects belong to each animal; and yet, when you see these creatures, you feel uncomfortable and want to set them free.
Setting them free isn't a "stupid" thing to do by any means, as some people might think. It is an aspect of cultivation. There isn't just one way to cultivate. There are eighty-four thousand Dharma-doors in cultivation, and every single door leads to the realization of supreme enlightenment. Liberating living beings is one of them. We must be careful not to think of it as "stupid." If we have that kind of attitude, we will obstruct our own cultivation.
I just said that we wouldn't want to be locked in jail. I will tell you the truth. This is not an analogy. Your own body is, in fact, a cage! You are stuck in your own body and you are not yet able to get out of it. Until we have gained a very high level of spiritual practice and wisdom, we will remain stuck in the cages that are our bodies. Only then will we have liberated our own lives. That's the real liberation of the living. If we want to liberate our own lives, we must first liberate the lives of those little creatures. The one kind of liberating the living helps the other kind.
Liberating living beings is a very important aspect of Buddhist practice. But if one hasn't understood this yet, one might think it a very ordinary affair. If we don't cultivate the one kind of liberating the living, we won't be able to obtain the other kind. There are many changes and transformations, and so don't look upon this lightly. Liberating the living brings returns on one's own efforts.
Why do we liberate . . . living creatures? It is because if we ransom creatures that were destined to be slaughtered for food and then set them free, then they can live out their natural lifespans. This in turn enables the people who liberate the living to enjoy a long life.
Why are there wars in the world? It is because our collective killing karma is so heavy. If in this life I kill you, in the next life, you'll kill me, and in the life after that I'll come back to kill you. This cycle of killing continues forever. People kill animals and in their next life they become animals. The animals which they once killed now return as people to claim revenge. This goes on and on. There is endless killing and bloodshed.
When incidents of slaughter multiply until the resentment can no longer be contained, they explode into massive world wars, with the resultant huge massacres and horrendous destruction. On the battlefield, people are propelled by resentment and enmity that has accumulated during many lifetimes, and they go absolutely berserk, lashing out at one another like savages. You kill one person? I'll kill ten! They take revenge on one another like that. Wars are the painful results of killing karma created in our past lives.
Therefore, we liberate the living to diminish our killing karma. The more people engage in liberating the living, the less killing they will do. Wars will proportionately decrease. We who cultivate these compassionate practices do not oppose war: we just don't go to war. We don't kill but instead we set living creatures free. This is the true and ultimate way to eliminate war. It is also a gateway to long life and health and to the eradication of disasters and illnesses.
The merit and virtue that one accumulates from liberating animals is boundless. It enables you to cause living beings to live out the full extent of their natural lifespans. In addition, you benefit personally because illnesses are averted. As a result you enjoy good health and are able to peacefully cultivate the Way.
The purpose of liberating the living is to protect the lives of creatures. It is a Dharma - door that exemplifies the Buddha's compassion. Everyone should protect living creatures and not abuse or slaughter them.
- from Venerable Master Hsuan Hua (1985), who founded the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
"In liberating the living
You yourself will live long.
Health, riches and blessings
Will descend upon you, never-ending."
Venerable Hsuan Hua founded the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, located in Ukiah, California. A devout vegetarian, in 1979 Master Hua gave a discourse on the horrors of taking lives and eating meat. Visit: http://www.cttbusa.org/vegetarianism/cttbveg.asp
ANIMAL RELEASE PROGRAM: Padmasambhava Buddhist Center
From Padmasambhava Buddhist Center: What is Life Release? In the Theravadin system, we are particularly encouraged to avoid harming ourselves and others in any way. In addition to this, Sutra Mahayana practitioners actively try to help everyone as much as they can. In the Tantra Mahayana, not only do we avoid harming others and actively try to help them, but we learn to train our minds so that we directly connect with the goodness in ourselves and others. This allows us to respond to negative emotions and actions in a much more balanced way. By taking the suffering of others upon ourselves, giving our happiness to others, and disciplining our minds in order to recognize the valuable aspects of all beings and all situations, we can perfectly unite the three vehicles of Buddhism*. This is one of the special characteristics of the Vajrayana path.
There is no greater harmful act than taking the life of another being. Killing a sentient being completely prevents the possibility of doing good things that help us connect with the beautiful nature of mind and all phenomena. Without this opportunity to sow good causes, experiencing good results becomes impossible: happiness becomes a dream that cannot be actualized. For this reason, the best thing we can do for others is to protect and save their lives.
There are three divisions of the paramita of generosity (Skt. dana): the generosity of wealth, knowledge, and protection. The generosity of wealth is developed when we give material aid to others in need, offering assistance without hesitation or regret and with the pure intention that they be happy. Giving knowledge involves teaching the Dharma, which will immediately and ultimately lead them out of suffering. The Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches explain that the generosity of protection "applies to situations such as knowing that someone is going to be killed or executed and helping him or her escape, compassionately offering ransom, or, in less extreme cases, doing whatever you can do to protect the lives of others. This applies to all sentient beings: it is not limited to certain groups, but extends to any sentient being you see who is going to die or be killed. Offering this kind of protection is very, very special. It is a great gift, because life is precious to everyone.
"When you make offerings, there are three things that are particularly important: the purity of your intention, the purity of the object of veneration, and the purity of the offering. Loving-kindness, a compassionate attitude, joyful interest, and devotion characterize perfect intention. The perfect object of veneration includes all enlightened beings, who are free of obscurations and ego-clinging; they are the sublime embodiments of love and wisdom. Another example of a perfect object of veneration is someone who really needs something. They may be sick, poor, or in some kind of trouble, but if you can give them something they really need, they qualify as a perfect object of veneration. Finally, a perfect offering is an object that was acquired without any negativity or argument. For example, it should not have been stolen. By making offerings and removing obscurations, you develop bodhichitta, and are empowered to continue in this way until all sentient beings are liberated."
By generating and cultivating compassion for all beings without exception, eventually we are able to completely abandon any and all attachment to ourselves. When we no longer hold on to the belief that there is substantial reality to the giver, the recipient of a gift, and the act of giving itself, our generosity completely transcends dualistic thinking. Such kindness is a direct expression of the natural balance of our mind before it narrows into a conceptual framework due to grasping on to self, other, and the interaction between the two, which misperceives both subject and object as being truly existent. Generosity becomes a paramita when it transcends all grasping, thus transforming ordinary generosity into wisdom and compassion that actively serves as a cause for the enlightenment of all beings.
However, just by being alive, we inevitably take the lives of others. Whenever we eat, walk, and breathe, we inadvertently harm beings. Although we cannot completely prevent killing others, we can cultivate mindfulness and try to reduce taking life as much as we can. In addition to this, we can promote the health, safety, and well-being of others through the practice of "life release." Life release or "ransoming" (Tib. tse tar) is a Buddhist tradition of saving the lives of animals that are destined to be killed.
In the same way we don't like to suffer, other beings don't like to suffer, either; everyone tries to find enjoyment and avoid discomfort. Although animals cannot talk like humans, we can easily observe that they are afraid of being hurt and are affectionate toward those who care for them. Similarly, all sentient beings share the same essential nature of mind. Humans, animals, and all other beings all have the same buddha-nature, although this nature can be expressed in many healthy and unhealthy ways. Due to the dullness of their minds, animals are constantly tormented by fear, and always run the risk of being eaten, enslaved, or exploited. These troubles are the defining characteristics of the animal realm; as animals, there are not many ways to avoid these difficulties. On the other hand, we humans can actively aspire to help reduce the suffering that animals experience. We can also take actual steps to provide them with safer, healthier lives, and inspire others to do the same.
By saving the lives of animals destined to be killed, we immediately benefit their health and longevity. Reducing one's consumption of meat and animal products can also alleviate some of the negative circumstances that animals face. In the Parinirvana Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, and elsewhere, Buddha Shakyamuni taught that eating meat is the same as taking life, which is discouraged in the Mahayana and Hinayana vehicles.
Bodhisattvas, in particular, are not permitted to take life. Even so, the aim is not to repress one's desire for meat and animal products through force of will or grasping on to principles: instead, by recognizing that animals don't want to suffer, that they share the same essential nature as humans, and that in the past they have helped each of us in a variety of ways, we naturally develop heartfelt compassion and sensitivity for beings who have been reborn as animals. As Khunu Lama Rinpoche wrote, "A person who meditates on the thought 'wandering living beings equal to space are my mother,' looks to be on the very verge of having Mahayana bodhichitta arise." Such compassion automatically dissolves one's desire for personal satisfaction at the expense of others' suffering.
We cannot experience heartfelt compassion one hundred percent of the time without training to be more compassionate. Our present habits tend to be more self-centered than other-oriented, simply because this is what we have practiced for a long time. By sympathizing with the suffering of others and performing actions that reduce their suffering, we gradually become more reliably and consistently compassionate and loving. This is the practice of aspiring and actualized bodhichitta. The practice of life release immediately reduces the suffering of animals, thereby giving them more opportunity to die naturally in a peaceful setting, which supports a smoother transition into their next lives. By reciting auspicious prayers and mantras for their present and future lives, we also increase the likelihood they will experience a higher rebirth, where it will be easier to attain enlightenment by studying, reflecting and meditating on the Dharma.
Anyone can perform the practice of life release, regardless of his or her particular lifestyle or religious beliefs, since all religions believe in the path of nonviolence. The beneficial results of saving and protecting others' lives are strengthened if one concludes with the sincere aspiration that all beings enjoy happiness and freedom from all difficulties and hardships. By combining good actions with powerful aspirations that include all sentient beings, we gradually expand our ability to help one another in more inclusive and effective ways.
Some of the prayers recited during these life release practices include those of Amitaba, Chenrezig, Vajrasattva, Akshobya, Guru Padmasambhava and Tara. We recite Amitayus mantras to prolong the lives of the animals, and we chant additional prayers of Medicine Buddha to cure sickness and disease. On each full moon day, we encourage everyone to recite these prayers either in a group at your local PBC center, or individually at home. Please contact your local PBC center for more information.
The benefits of saving the lives of other beings while praying for their happiness is beyond imagination: This practice is said to be the best way to prolong one's own life, and is the most helpful act for living and deceased beings. The great master Atisha said that offering care to those in danger results in merit equal to meditating on emptiness endowed with compassion -- the union of relative and absolute bodhichitta. Wherever ransoming the lives of others is performed, sickness among people and animals lessens, harvests are more abundant, and lives are longer; the moment of death leads more easily to higher rebirth for both the animal and the person who engages in ransoming, and this practice will eventually lead to supreme enlightenment.
May all sentient beings, endowed with consciousness
And the breath that supports their life,
Be freed of all that endangers their life and be relieved of their fears.
May all sentient beings, both myself and others,
Be freed from all obstacles that bring untimely death,
May we live for an extremely long time
And may every form of goodness and happiness be ours!
* Three vehicles refers to the (1) Hinayana, (2) Mahayana, and (3) Vajrayana schools of Buddhism
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