The people of Han-tan presented doves to Chao Chien-tzu on New Year’s
morning. He was delighted and richly rewarded them. When a visitor asked the
reason, Chien-tzu explained: ‘We release living things on New Year’s Day as a
gesture of kindness.’ [The visitor replied]: ‘The people know you wish to release
them, so they vie with each other to catch them, and many of the doves die.
If you wish to keep them alive, it would be better to forbid the people to catch
them. When you release doves after catching them, the kindness does not make
up for the mistake.’ ‘You are right,’ said Chien-tzu.
~From the Taoist text, Liezi, dated to the third century CE.
The release of fish into a river or birds into the air is a practice common to all schools of Buddhism. Actually it predates Buddhism and seems to be a Chinese practice well established in Taoist practice by its first recorded written mention. Though modern ecologists argue against the practice – introduction of invasive species, trauma and harm to wild animals during their capture for release, pollution spread of disease, etc. – it is easy to understand why the practice caught on and became so widespread. I first encountered it in Thailand where vendors sell birds for small amounts of money so people ca release them. I have a sneaking suspicion the pigeons simply return to their dovecots and are sold repeatedly. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful feeling to release a caged creature and watch it fly away. My own heart fluttered in response and I entered the temple in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving. I can’t help but think it enhanced the sincerity, if not the efficacy on my prayers.
In Thailand, many households keep large ceramic jars beside the front door to hold the living fish that will become their supper at some point. In a land without refrigeration this makes perfect sense, especially since the best time to fish is at dawn, before work starts, when fish rise to feed on insects. On special days, particularly on Buddha’s birthday, saffron is added to the water to sanctify it and the fish are released back into the rivers from whence they came.
One of the things that rivers represent is “universal potentiality” and the “fluidity of form” and the fish is seen in many cultures as a symbol of death and rebirth; the continuous cycle of life. It makes sense symbolically that to release a fish would be to enhance the effects of one compassionate act giving the consequences of that act a chance to morph and change form and spread in effect.
Sacred and magical as rivers may be, they are probably more associated with human endeavor, history, and culture than any other natural phenomenon. They flow through every kind of environment and have been since the beginning humanity’s road to distant places. We settle by rivers, our cities depend on them. They are nature’s highways and we have used them through all the days of being human and before.
Rivers live in our hearts, our poetry, our art and music –Handel’s Water Music , the Hudson River painters, the River Alph. They drain the land so plants may grow and move the waters back to the sea where they become refreshed, cleansed and reusable. They are the veins and arteries of Gaia and carry her lifeblood within their banks. To return life to the rivers is a sacred and profound act when done symbolically and even more so when actually accomplished as the completion of a physical task.
Hercules is portrayed in myth as cleansing the Aegean stables by rerouting the beds of the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to wash out the filth. Pete Seeger brought us full circle when he attempted the Herculean task of cleaning the Hudson River which had been receiving the waste of human lives and their factories for hundreds of years. Thanks to his leadership the Hudson once again has sturgeon fish swimming up its rivers and tributaries to breed. I can think of no greater act of compassion.