Karma on the Half-Shell


The traditional practice of releasing turtles into the East River, squashed for environmental and animal welfare reasons, is brought back with the help of Long Island wildlife rehabilitators.

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A turtle ready for release after monks chanted scriptures. Credit: WENXIONG ZHANG

The rising sun was still buried in clouds as a bus carrying about 50 Buddhists wearing yellow vests, chanting scripture, set out from Manhattan’s Chinatown one Saturday morning last month for the sandy shore of Long Island’s Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

Three Tibetan monks and their followers were greeted by wildlife rehabilitators ready to help release 12 newly hatched turtles into the sea. It was a new twist on a traditional ritual meant to bring good karma, which in recent years has also brought controversy to one of the largest Buddhist communities in the United States.

As waves beat against the shore, the Buddhists stood in a circle and, with eyes closed, prayed for the health and safety of the turtles in their clear plastic box. When the chanting was done, the chosen young and old parishoners placed the turtles one by one into the grass. A mother whispered softly to her 6-year-old son as the turtles crept away: “Say goodbye to them. Look, they shine in the sun.”

Known as the “Release of Life,” the ritual practiced September 22 on the shores of Long Island has a long history in Buddhist tradition, dating back to 6th century India. It symbolizes mercy in Buddhist doctrines, said Master Ven Jingyi from Chinatown’s Buddhist Grace Temple. “People usually buy turtles from the market and release them to ponds in temples to drive away disease, bad luck and exchange for good fortune, karma and longevity,” he said.

The ritual is widely performed in Asian countries. Nearly every Buddhist in China has participated in it — and they get plenty of chances. On every birthday of the main 52 Buddhas, and on the first and 15th days of every month on the Chinese Lunar calendar, temples are crowded with Buddhists ready to release turtles, birds and fish in exchange for good karma.

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A Buddhist praying during the Compassionate Release of Life ritual. Credit: WENXIONG ZHANG

Chinese immigrants brought the tradition to New York City, where it clashed with Western sensibilities and drew opposition from animal rights organizations. “The ritual cultivates a rampant sale of animals,” said Iris Ho, a campaign manager for Humane Society International. “More animals were captured to meet the demand. More animals die because of injury and transportation.”

Lorri Cramer, an educational consultant for the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, wrote letters for years to temples in Chinatown asking them to stop releasing store-bought turtles, mainly red-eared sliders, into the East River, where they aren’t native and had difficulty surviving.

“Those animals are exotic animals,” Cramer said. “It becomes cruel when the animals die from being released into the wrong habitat.” As an invasive species, the turtles also carried germs that were harmful to other animals in the East River, and consumed their food supply. The concern came to a head in 2007 after the New York Sun published a story about the ritual and its harmful impact on the turtles and New York’s ecology. State regulations were changed to make releasing wild animals illegal without a permit, said Rodney Rivera in the Manhattan office of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Ven Benkong, a master at Buddhist Grace Temple who is widely recognized as a crucial contributor to the development of Buddhism in New York, feared a ban on the practice of animal release would mean a significant loss of Buddhist culture in the United States. Four years ago, clueless about how to keep this tradition alive, he reached out to Cramer and the turtle society in search of a solution. Cramer suggested working with Russell Burke, a biologist who has run a turtle rehabilitation project at Long Island’s Hofstra University since 1998.

The hatchlings in Burke’s project come from eggs in wildlife refuges, where they are protected from predators by cages. After incubation, the small turtles are returned to their original habitat. Burke suggested that Benkong and his followers could incorporate the release of the hatchlings into their ceremony, giving them a legal way to continue it.

A Buddhist praying during the Compassionate Release of Life ritual.

A turtle crawling into the grassland after the Compassionate Release of Life ritual. Credit: WENXIONG ZHANG

“Master Benkong came up with a way to modernize it for this new country, where things are different,” Cramer said on September 22 while carefully picking her way across rocks and sand in the wildlife refuge with her cane.

Afei Wong, a member of Youth Buddhism Communications Inc., a leading Buddhist society in Chinatown, said she appreciates this new version of the ritual and regrets releasing fish and turtles into the East River in the past. “My son criticized me,” Wong said. “He said you don’t know if they can find food there or not. That’s when I realized I was wrong.”

One man, though, still tried to secretly release a turtle he had bought from a market in Chinatown. The turtle surprised another woman on the bus to Jamaica Bay when it escaped from a paper bag and slowly crawled between the seats. Joan Wai from Youth Buddhist Communications, which organized the bus trip, took the turtle away and gave it to the rehabilitators. “He didn’t know the rules,” she said. “I am here to inform people of what is the right thing to do.”

The September trip was the third time this year that Chinatown’s Buddhist community has worked with wildlife rehabilitators to perform the ritual. The next one is scheduled for November in Westchester County.

The new approach is catching on at temples outside of New York, too, organizers said, and giving new meaning to the release of life ritual. “It’s a release for life,” Benkong said, “not for death.”


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