Fish Liberation

Fig 1: Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö blesses the fish prior to release.

Over the past several months, a group of Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö’s chinese disciples have been releasing fish into a lake just south of Chengdu. And not just a few fish either. Each day for one hundred days, they released something on the order of half a million small fish. That’s a lot of fish that will no longer become part of someone’s dinner. In line with traditional Tibetan tsetar practices, prior to releasing them, Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö and his disciples offered extensive prayers for the fish’s present and future well-being (see fig 1). They were then loaded on a boat and transported out into the lake and released (slowly, so as not to harm them in the process. see fig 2). Two points are also worth noting at the outset: first, I was assured that the fish were of a species native to the region, and second, each day they were released into a different part of the lake, so as to minimize the impact on specific areas. Still, releasing half a million fish a day into a lake, even a large one like this, is bound to have an impact on the local ecosystem.

Fig 2: A basket of fish ready for release.

And therein lies one of the more interesting things this practice reveals: a difference between Tibetan and Western attitudes towards the natural environment and the animals living in it. When I discuss these fish liberation episodes with Tibetans, they are overwhelmingly pleased with the number of fish being rescued. My foreign friends, on the other hand, tend to be horrified at the presumed damage being done to the lake’s ecosystem. Admittedly, these have not been formal, statistically rigorous surveys, and I’m sure I’m opening myself up to charges of simplification, essentializing Tibetan culture, and other grave academic faults. But I do think I’ve spoken with enough people to observe a basic pattern: Tibetans are primarily concerned with the individual animals while foreigners are more concerned with the well being of the ecosystem. It could be suggested that this difference is due to scientific ignorance on the part of the Tibetans, who might be unaware of the impact of releasing fish, but from the conversations I’ve had, I don’t think this is the case. Several of the Tibetans I’ve spoken to (including Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö) have understood that releasing fish into the lake impacts the lake overall, but have argued that the benefit to the fish being released outweighs this concern. So I think I’ll stick with my guns and my oversimplified, stereotyped distinction.

Fig 3: Slowly pouring fish into the lake.

What makes this even more interesting, to me at least, is that it largely (if imperfectly) mirrors a debate in western environmental ethics. Some ethicists, such as Peter Singer, have argued that it is an animal’s ability to suffer (or experience happiness) that gives it moral value, and that justifies it’s protection.[1] Thus, an ecosystem (lacking an ability to suffer in its own right) is not inherently valuable in itself, but only in it’s ability to impact the lives of the animals that live in it. We save ecosystems for the sake of the animals, not vice versa. Deep Ecologists (and others), on the other hand, see primary moral value lying in the healthy functioning of an ecosystem as a whole.[2]Individual animals are only a part of that system, and their individual suffering is secondary to the health of the ecosystem. Often, these two approaches line up well. After all, usually what is good for the ecosystem is also what’s good for the animals concerned. But every now and then conflict arises. A classic example is the culling of overpopulated animal populations, where a great deal of suffering is inflicted on a few individual animals so that the ecosystem as a whole can prosper. I might suggest that the release of fifty million fish into a lake is another example. You have a very significant reduction in suffering for fifty million individual animals (they don’t get cooked), but also the risk of destabilizing an entire lake’s ecosystem. Given that the overwhelming majority of my western friends expressed more concern about the ecosystem than the fish, I think I am safe in suggesting that something akin to the Deep Ecology perspective (if not necessarily as radical as a true Deep Ecology position) has become fairly standard among educated westerners.

So what is the point of this long ramble? Not much really. Merely to observe an interesting similarity between what I have been hearing from Tibetans and Singer’s perspectives on animals. Obviously, these are just observations, so I don’t want this to be construed as a definitive statement of ‘Tibetan thought’. I do, however, want to suggest that there might be an interesting kinship between at least some aspects of Tibetan Buddhist attitudes towards animals and Singer’s approach. The Deep Ecologists have long invoked Buddhist notions of dependent origination (give skt / Tibetan) to support their theoris of a deeply interdependent biosphere, and to underscore the importance of using ecosystem health as the baline for making environmental decisions. Perhaps Singer and his followers could also look to Buddhist thought in support of their theories.


[1]This comes out in Singer’s most famous work, 1975’s Animal Liberation, but is more explicit in his 1979 book Practical Ethics.

[2]This idea has its roots in Aldo Leopold‘s thought, but is now widely represented by many different strands of environmental ethics. It is perhaps the Deep Ecologists who take this idea to its extreme, arguing not only that a functioning ecosystem is the baseline unit of moral value, but that the nature of that functioning is beyond the range of scientific thought.

16 Replies to “Fish Liberation”

  1. Interesting post. I think Peter Singer would be appalled at this. To tell the truth, I haven’t read Peter Singer but I have read some papers written by a Prof in my department, Kai Chan (, who had worked with Peter Singer. In one of those papers, Prof. Kai Chan talked about the dilemma of having to choose between species for conservation purposes, for which he argued that an animal’s sentience could be the criteria. In others, he talks about the different kinds of valuable services provided by ecosystems to advocate against people’s tendency to think of ecosystems as having a very limited significance, such as tourism or provision of life.

    I think Prof. Kai Chan’s work is a good example that show your labels of ethicists on one hand and deep ecologists on the other skews reality, where conservation scientists and ethicists make decisions not only based on life preservation functions of ecosystems but also on a whole range of inter-related issues. Besides, I think Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro’s reasoning that the benefits of saving millions of lives outweighs concerns about the lake’s natural ecosystem integrity is flawed in its own logic because the several million fish can kill billions of other sentient beings in the lake, or a pristine lake could sustain lives for millions more for centuries … (you know where I am going with this)

    Anyways, I really enjoyed your post, as I always do. When I saw this post like night, I immediately posted it on my facebook page, reminiscing how my Amala used to take a boat into the river Yamuna to release buckets of small fish into the river …

    1. Yea, it’s quite possible Singer would be appalled by this practice, as well as my analysis. I’m venturing out into less familiar territory here…. I do want to highlight, however, that I’m not certain that the release of the fish does have a hugely negative impact on the environment. By releasing native fish, and distributing them across what is in fact a very large lake (more than a half-our by motor boat from one side to another), those doing this tsetar are trying to minimize their impact. So I don’t think we can assume that this is a question of saving a few fish versus destroying an ecosystem, but rather something in between. My own interest here is more about where the basic ethical unit lies, with the animals or with the lake. Singer, as I understand him, locates it with the animals, with the lake playing a support role, a position which seems to me to be at least somewhat similar to the stand these Tibetans and Chinese are taking. Certainly, if we could definitively say that releasing these fish was leading directly to the deaths of other creatures, then I doubt that either Singer or Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö would approve.

  2. Thanks for the clarification. I had the impression, my apologies if I had read it wrongly, that the lake isn’t big and so I felt that the effect of introducing half a million fish in one tsethar to the lake would simply be wrong.

  3. At least they are doing this in a proper, natural lake, where the fish have some hope of long-term survival. Here in Beijing we are witness every year to a strange twist on the ritual. In the spring, Buddhists in our compound release goldfish into the various artificial ponds that dot the grounds. Then in the fall, people (my kids included) try to save as many as they can as the ponds are being drained for the winter. Last year we got four, this year we got eight — now down to six as one died in the bowl and another mysteriously ended up on the floor with his head missing (can’t tell if he jumped out or if the cat managed to scoop him out). I haven’t talked with the people releasing them in the spring yet — would be interesting to know if they have even thought of the eventual fate of those fish that don’t get salvaged.

  4. Where do the fish come from? Were they fished by fishermen?

    I would have thought actually that concern with the individual or a vision of life as only understandable through the individual is a very Western phenomenon. It sounds like Buddhist culture also values the individual, perhaps in a different way?

    1. The fish are bought at the wholesale fish market each morning. Some definitely come from the lake, but many others come from nearby aquaculture facilities, which raises its own issues in terms of releasing them into a wild population.

  5. Dear Geoff,

    You got me thinking about the ‘ethical line’. Allow me to share some of my thoughts.

    I think there is an important distinction between Singer and Buddhists: that Singer believes it is an animal’s ability to feel pain that justifies its protection, but Buddhists, as you know, will consider many more factors if they were to judge the benefits or worthiness of saving some life over another. That is to say, Buddhists decide by looking at context rather than using a simple scale of sentience. This is all interesting to me because I am thinking along these lines for the first time myself, so allow me to indulge some more. I’m happy to be corrected if I am wrong …

    So what are the key contextual factors determining the ethical line for Buddhists? Of course, motivation of the person is always a key factor, morally speaking. It is often the most important factor. The other very important factor is the result of the act. If the act brings happiness or alleviates suffering in the other, it is more beneficial. We are debating or discussing whether the result of saving certain number of fish is more important or the broader, eventual result of introducing excessive number of fish into a lake.

    This brings us to another factor, considerations of temporal aspect of an act. Buddhists believe actions (good or bad) have more (1000… times more) impact on special days and times like the 15th day of months, or on certain auspicious days, etc. Considerations of situational timing includes notions like feeding or helping someone when s/he is more hungry or needy is more beneficial. An important timing consideration is the difference between short term and long term benefits or harms. For example, beating of students is permissible, if the teacher has the right motivation, because the students will get long-term benefits. Corollary to this is a common Buddhist reasoning that short-term benefits are not worth long-term harm (བདེ་བ་ ཆུང་ལ་ཆགས་པ་དེས། །ཆེན་པོའི་བདེ་བ་ཐོབ་མི་སྲིད།).

    These musings help me come to at least three conclusions:
    a) general concerns over impacts of introducing excessive number of animals into a limited ecosystem is very Buddhist (and a good one at that).
    b) the ethical line for Buddhist is more complex than I thought
    c) the temporal aspect of the ethical line is more interesting than motivation and result factors.

    Thanks for your interesting post again!

    1. Dear Tashi,

      I think you are correct that Buddhist concerns that preference long term benefit and the good of the many over the few would indicate that concern over introducing too many fish into the lake is, in fact, very Buddhist. I do not doubt that if these groups believed that their actions were causing more harm than good, they would stop. The thing that I think aligns them with Singer, and not with many other ethicists, however, is that they don’t make the ecosystem itself the baseline for ethical decisions. We often get a sense in environmental literature a sense that an ecosystem has a life of its own. People talk about the health of an ecosystem as the end in itself, rather than as an instrument towards the health of the beings in that ecosystem. Both Singer and these groups practicing tsetar, I believe, would find that reasoning faulty, and argue that ecosystems don’t need to be preserved for their own sake, but rather for the sake of the animals living in them. I may be wrong, but that’s the correspondence I’m trying to point to here.

      You also raise an interesting question about why Buddhists might prefer to preserve one animal or another. As you mention, Singer argues that it is an animals ability to feel pain or pleasure that gives it moral value. A more ‘advanced’ animals can feel more pain (including emotional pain), and is therefore more worthy of protection. This is just my thinking here, but I actually think there is an argument that Buddhists would take a similar approach. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and it may turn into a blog post later, so I’ll keep the argument short here. Basically, as I see it the Buddha established a hierarchical relationship between people and animals, to the point of putting us in two different realms in samsara. People are higher because our higher intellectual abilities allow us to pursue liberation. An argument could be made, I believe, that would then extend this reasoning through the animal kingdom. Thus, a large complicated animal with a strong emotional life (don’t ask me how we figure out which ones those are) might be valued more than a more simplistic one. This seems to me to be not too far off from Singer’s ideas about a hierarchy of sentience. Anyway, still just in the musing stage, perhaps it will become more later……

  6. Dear Geoff,

    It just occurred to me that if we look at Buddhists practising tshe-thar, then it would seem that their thinking is more like Singer. But if we look at Buddhists planting trees or collecting garbage from a lakeshore or a mountain, their thinking would likely be more inclined with those of deep ecologists.

    It’s a fact that most Tibetan Buddhists think like Singer. I think it’s mainly because Buddhism is about mind, the feeling or knowing mind, which they believe rocks, water, and even trees, don’t have. You might find it interesting to know that when we ( do environmental education work in Tibetan communities, we are mindful of this schism (most Buddhists won’t be comfortable with deep ecology type notions) when we address monastic communities. I have had planning/stratgy discussions with my colleagues in India on how to reach out to the monastic community without stepping on their long held views. You know, it is completely inappropriate to challenge the (widely held) views of the monastic community to Tibetans. What we decided to do is simply avoid getting into these discussions and instead use examples of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Gyalwa Karmapa’s initiatives/ideas on the environment, which always works, of course.

    [An important point to bear in mind whenever we discuss environmentalism and traditional/religious viewpoints is that the former is a recent origin and the latter has a very long tradition. This obvious point is often overlooked and remains a cause of debate, e.g., see Huber’s exchanges between Mills, Huber and Pederson, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1998, 4(4): 783-786. This may be one reason why Singer school is more prevalent, but that does not necessarily mean that the deep ecology school cannot be Buddhistic.]

    So we have the widely prevalent view point, the Singer school of thought, on one hand and the more progressive views of some high lamas, who seem to be taking the deep ecology school of thought, on the other.

    How about the teachings of premodern revered lama’s? How about Buddhism’s fundamental philosophical ideas about animals and non-sentient things alike?

    Here is Jamgon Kongtrul’s words from the 19th century (I quote from

    “Kye ma Ho!
    To those of aberrant minds, this place is just earth, stone, water and trees,
    To mistaken intellects, it appears as solid, inanimate objects.
    To practitioners, appearances have no intrinsic nature;
    To those of pure vision, it is a celestial palace full of deities.
    To those with realization, it is the radiant luminosity of innate awareness.”

  7. Hi Tashi,

    First I just want to say how much I’ve enjoyed this discussion. Exchanges like this are exactly what I hoped would happen when I started the blog!

    You’re definitely right about the deep ecologists being aligned with some form of Buddhism. As you probably know, deep ecologists themselves have often invoked Buddhist ideas, particularly the idea of dependent origination (There’s an article in Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds that discusses this, but I’m afraid I can’t remember the author or title, and I don’t have access to my copy right now, so can’t look it up). It is precisely because I have heard this association before that I was so struck by the tsetar groups. So it seems like you’re right, there are aspects of Tibetan Buddhist culture that echo Singer’s preference utilitarianism, while other aspects can and are used to support a deep ecologist position.

    Perhaps the most important part of your last comment, however, is the acknowledgement that when actually in the field doing environmental work, it is the examples of figures like the Dalai Lama or the Karmapa that really get people motivated, rather than philosophical opinions. That should put all of us armchair ethicists in our places!


  8. Hi Geoff,

    What about eel release? Here’s am old story from WTN that you may have overlooked. `I have to say that to commemorate the giving of life seems like an odd way to state the motive for doing it. But they did indeed consult with the fisheries department.


    7. Eel release aids refugees
    PROGRESS LEADER (Melbourne)

    April 26, 2004

    MORE than 100 eels will be released into the Yarra River on Sunday as part of a traditional Buddhist practice to commemorate the giving of life.

    Shenpen Australia will release the eels at Studley Park Boat house to raise money to build a Kindergarten for Tibetan refugee children living in the Dhondenling settlement in Kollegal, India.

    The Fisheries Department has approved the release of the eels, which are a native fish species of the river.

    Shenpen Australia member Toey Ng from Balwyn, said that in traditional Buddhist teaching, the practice of giving life to a creature who would otherwise die was believed to be of great benefit to the creature and sponsor.

    Ms Ng said Dzogchen Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, would bless the fish before they were released into the water.

    Rinpoche’s education was supervised by the Dalai Lama, who has supported Rinpoche in reestablishing the Dzogchen Monastery in Kollegal.

    The monastery has educated Buddhist monks and supported the large Tibetan refugee community for many years.

    The release will take place at 8.30am.

    1. Yup, lots of eels too. In fact, I’m not a hundred percent sure that the fish Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö releases aren’t eels. They kind of look like eels, but this is not something I claim to have any knowledge of……

  9. hi geoff. ecologies are abstractions, representing the systematic interaction of actors and environments is a fashion that allows sustainable existence for participant species. there is no deep ecologist who wishes to protect ecologies in their own right – any value that defending an ecology has is necessarily accrued from the benefit presumed to exist for the participants in that ecology, and indirectly for participants in other (related ecologies and systems). to propose some conflict between individual organisms and “ecologies” is to miss the point about what an ecology is, and to reify it as some kind of object.

    1. Point taken. It thinking about this more, I wonder if the distinction I’m seeing isn’t so much about individual versus ecologies as about the individual being in hand versus the more abstract and invisible beings in the ecologies. I’ll write this up more once I think it through more.

  10. So if all the birds die from eating insects poisoned by human-administered pesticides, that’s just part of the greater “deep” ecological plan? It benefits the humans by allowing them to get more bushels per acre, so it is good? I’m not clear on this. Perhaps I’m not deep enough.

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