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I Used To Do That Too…


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It made me sad to read about the senior monk freeing some sparrows on the local tabloid.  (Refer here Freeing The Encaged Sparrows, Part 1 – FES).

Being a senior monk and the Chief Abbot of a renowned monastery, he should have more insight and understanding on the precepts of Buddhism.  By his gesture, many of his followers may deem that this was indeed a good way of showing kindness and compassion to these caged little sparrows by releasing them and giving them back their lives.  Did he think deeper that he was also one of those responsible for spawning a trade that would have killed many more sparrows when they were first being trapped, than the mere outward display of releasing some lives?  Perhaps this was a misplaced and somewhat self-gratification notion, as perpetuated by many religious men and women, that when a good deed was done such as to release a life from suffering, one would be able to accumulate good Metta credit and would be rewarded later.  Some good men might do ‘bad things’ unintentionally or because of a lack of understanding but for a monk of high standing, this was not an act of benevolence but an act of moral malfeasance and hypocrisy.

I used to do that too.  It happened many years ago.

Vesak Day was three days away.  Veask was a day celebrated by most Buddhists to commemorate the enlightenment of Buddha.  It always fell on the 15th day in the month of May according to the Chinese lunar calendar.  This was also a day when Buddhists would go to temples to pray, give alms to beggars and the homeless, ‘release lives’ of living beings (mostly fish or birds) to give them a new lease in life and other charitable acts.  This was also a time when one would plead in supplication for the compassionate mercy of Buddha to regain one’s health or to pray for the well being of our loved ones.

At one time, my daughter was quite sickly.  She had lost weight and my wife and I had consulted a number of pediatric doctors.  There were varying opinions but we knew that something was wrong.  A soothsayer told us before that if we do a kindly deed in her name on the auspicious Vesak Day this might help her recover faster. And one of the kindly deeds would be to ‘release’ some living beings.

Three days before Vesak I went to buy 15 small sparrows that came together in a rattan cage.  There were two small bowls wired up, one with water and the other with some small seeds. The price was much cheaper and I just had to keep them for three days.  The price would escalate on Vesak Day itself, however, the price would drop drastically after Vesak.  The vendor was doing a rather brisk trade.

On Vesak Day, the weather was fine and sunny.  My daughter loaded the cage onto our small car and we drove to a nearby bridge.  We did not go to any Buddhist temples as there would be thronged with too many people.

We were standing by the railing of the small bridge.  The brownish muddy water beneath the bridge flowed sluggishly as the river meandered lazily through a somewhat flat terrain littered with polluted debris of plastic bags, drift wood, dead small animals and all kinds of rubbish.

I told my daughter to say a prayer for her good health.  As I held onto the cage, the sparrows were quite agitated as they fluttered against the rattan cage and tweeted restlessly as if some animal instinct told them that they were about to be set free.

My daughter was quite excited as she lifted the trap door to release the small sparrows.

A few sparrows flew upwards towards the clear blue sky in free flight.  Three of them tried in vain to flap at their small wings and fell in a parabolic curve to the river below to be swept away by the slow current.  Three sparrows were struggling to fly upwards but their wings were so weak from incarceration that they spiralled downwards but still managed to exert their last of their sapped strength to steer clear of the river stream, flew sideways and rested onto some tree branches beside the river bank.  Two of the sparrows were still inside the cage, standing stationary with their heads bowed low and their wings drooped down.  One of the sparrows was standing like a small crane on one feet.

By now my daughter were in tears.  She just said, “Pa, we are not releasing them.  We are killing them.”

I stood there, crushing emotions welling up in my heart with a profound grief and guilt and I closed my eyes momentarily. I understood something she said.

I took the two birds out of the cage and placed them slowly and gently beside a bush on the bridge. I doubted these two sparrows would ever see another sun rise again.

I stomped hard on the rattan cage, crushed it and took it to a rubbish dump nearby.

“We are not going to do this, ever again.  Let us go home, girl,” I said sotto voce to my daughter.

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I am a Graduate Gemologist trained at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in New York City, USA. I hold an MBA degree from Cranfield University, United Kingdom, and a Bachelor degree in Mathematics. My earlier profession was a banker until I found jade in Myanmar (Burma) in the early 90s. I have traveled to the fabled Hpakan Jade mines, and Mogok, the world’s famous rubies and sapphires mines in upper Burma, with my second son. Three of my children are also Graduate Gemologist, GIA, NYC and they deal in diamonds, gemstones and jade. 我是在美国纽约市的美国宝石学院(GIA)接受过培训的宝石研究学家。 我拥有英国克兰菲尔德大学的工商管理硕士学位和数学学士学位。我以前的职业是银行家,直到90年代初我在缅甸接触到玉石。我曾经和我的次子一起去过缅甸上流传说中的哈帕翡翠矿山和莫谷矿山, 莫谷矿山是世界上著名的红宝石和蓝宝石矿山。我的三个孩子都是纽约市GIA毕业的宝石研究学家, 他们专门处理钻石,宝石和玉石.


  1. Hi John

    Thank you again for your comment. Whenever I have the occasion to see or hear friends wanting to release birds as a gesture of goodwill and compassion I tell them not to do it.

    Have a good day

  2. Hi MontyHall

    Thank you very much for taking your time to write and share your honest and frank experience with us.

    Sometimes we have to go through some hard lessons in life to learn. But most important of all is that we realise the follies of our way and desist in doing something which we thought is righteous but after giving it further thought and with more understanding it may be more harmful.

    I really appreciate your frankness in your comment and I am sure this will motivate readers to really think about it.

    Have a good day

  3. Hi Anna,

    Thank you very much for your lovely comment. If there is an occasion when I see my friends releasing birds I will tell them not to do it. They kill more birds than releasing them.

    Thank you and have a good day

  4. Hi Suleyman

    Thank you very much for your excellent comment. Yes, I agree with you that many times in our quest to being righteous we may do something that is contrary to the what we believe is right. I have gone through some of these experiences too. Later, I will put up some post, just to let readers think about it.

    Have a good day

  5. Arthur, You make a really powerful point. It does not only apply to birds. Too often in our righteous spirit, we do not see the foundation of the issue. For example, often we give money to beggars when we are actually helping perpetuate their situation, maybe even making it more entrenched – as the movie Slumdog Millionaire illustrates. To be truly helpful, we also have to be thoughtful.

  6. Wow, this is really good. My hometown also has this type of Buddhist practice and it is about time that some people tell them not to do it in then name of mercy and compassion.

    Great post, arthur

  7. Thanks, Arthur, for this powerful post.

    I had a similar experience, decades ago while living in Pittsburgh. At that time, I had a parakeet. I thought it would be a good idea to “set the parakeet free” in the Pittsburgh aviary, where it would be sure to be fed every day, but would not be subjected to winter. More importantly, I was irresponsible and wouldn’t have to take care of it any more.

    My pot-smoking, Earth-loving hippie friends and I went to the aviary, and I released the bird from its cage in a large flight room where many types of birds were gliding freely through the air. It flew to a tree.

    To my horror, the parakeet was almost immediately attacked by two or three other birds, one of which was extremely aggressive. My bird managed to escape time after time, but unaccustomed to so much flying, was soon sitting on the ground, out of breath, chest heaving. Clearly, it was going to be killed.

    I stepped over the guardrail and went to pick up my bird. Fortunately, it was so exhausted that it didn’t fly away, and let me collect it.

    It had depended on me, and I let it down. Fortunately, it let me pick it up and take it home again.

    Amazing how we never forget our experiences with animals. They teach us so much, often at their expense.

  8. Excellent post, Arthur. I agree wholeheartedly with you that releasing birds as a gesture of signifying peace or bringing blessings are nonsense. Thanks

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