The Free Life Pond

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on November 23, 2015.)

Frogs and turtles find refuge at a pond in Daxingshan Temple, Xi'an

I used to give tours at a temple in Los Angeles, and visitors were often confused when I asked them, "Did you bring your turtles today?"

You see, there was a small pond there, with a statue of Guanyin and her attendants at the top, and the Four Heavenly Kings as well as the Four Dragon Kings ranged around the sides.

And at the front was a sign that read something like: "Please do not place turtles in the water. It contains bleach."

What was going on here?

Many temples feature a "Free Life Pond." This is a place where, for the sake of "Merit," or good karma-- the positive results of good actions--visitors may release turtles, frogs, and fish. The temple where I worked wanted to make sure no one mistook this pond for a Free Life Pond, as the water was chlorinated for health reasons.

In many places, Buddhists have been practicing fangsheng, or "life release," ceremonies for centuries. Typically, devotees go to a market and buy a number of animals, then take them to a lake or river and set them free.

What they may not realize is that in some cases, the animals they release are from far away, and may die in the local environment, or be harmful to the ecosystem. There is no benefit for anyone in these cases. After all, the concept of Free Release should be more about compassion for the animals than Merit for oneself.

The Free Life Pond in a temple is a better bet. At least the creatures there are isolated from the local waterways.

Next time you visit a temple, stop and say "hi" to the creatures who have gained refuge there.

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