Strange assignment: Buddhists and lobsters

August 11, 2011

By Brian Snyder

Every story and photograph that goes out on the Reuters wire has a ‘slug,’ which is a short, one or two word way of coordinating  and categorizing pictures and stories.  For example, photographs from a Red Sox baseball game are slugged BASEBALL.   But the slug for a recent story I photographed, BUDDHISTS/LOBSTERS, combined two words I never thought I would see together.

Reporter Lauren Keiper and I recently joined a group of practicing Buddhists in Gloucester, Massachusetts for a ceremony to release over 500 lobsters back into the ocean.   The ceremony coincided with the Buddhist holiday “Chokhor Duchen” or “Wheel Turning Day.”  Buddhists believe animal liberation helps them live longer, especially when performed on holidays when they believe the consequences of their actions are multiplied.  The lobsters, which would have otherwise been headed to restaurants, were bought at a local wholesaler.

Full disclosure: I’m an omnivore, and living in Boston, my diet includes lobster.

After the group of 30 Buddhists prayed around an altar set up in a parking lot, we set out on a whale watch boat to a point about a mile offshore.  The boxes of lobsters were opened, the rubber bands holding their claws closed were cut off and one by one the lobsters were dropped off the boat back into the ocean.

Returning to shore, Buddhist monk Geshe Tenley stood at the rail near the bow of the boat and gleefully let his robes unfurl in the wind.  His broad smile reflected the mood of the Buddhists on the boat.

Several days later, in an apparent joke, a blogger reported that local lobstermen had dropped traps at the spot where the lobsters were released, and re-caught all of them.  The blogger has since apologized.  But even if the joke were true, I think that it still would have missed the point of the actions the Buddhists took that evening.


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Holy cats Brian you could have a put a FedEx label on at least one box for me!

Posted by RTWMountain | Report as abusive

life to life …

Posted by RayGibbs | Report as abusive

I definitely have mixed emotions after reading this story.

Posted by m2u | Report as abusive

It is a common practice among some Buddhist communities in Asia. Too often, the observers who are not accustomed to the rituals view them with a sense of ridicule and misunderstanding. A Buddhist may see the symbolic ritual eating of Christ’s body on Sundays by many Christians equally puzzling lol

Posted by phanthanhgian | Report as abusive

Once there’s a story picturing a little boy asking a man who ‘s practicing this life release ritual.
“Why did you catch them in the first place?”

I think it’s more of a symbolic event.

Posted by LWCT | Report as abusive

There are different sects of Buddhism. Just as all Christians don’t believe the same theology about Christ nor all Jews believe the same things regarding the Torah or the Talmud.

The Dalai Llama, I believe, has used the term “respect for sentient life”. “Sentience” as defined in the Webster’s Dictionary means “feeling or sensation as opposed to conscious thought”. The definition of “sentient’ means, “to perceive or feel” and also “responsive to or conscious of sense impressions” and lastly “finely sensitive in perception or feeling”.

It is very difficult to know if a lobster has any of these qualities. They will tend to tear each other apart
if their claws are not taped in captivity. There is no clear indication that they are aware at all.

It is very easy for human beings to project their own human qualities on inanimate objects and other creatures.

I have little doubt that cats, dogs, Chimpanzees, the great apes, dolphins, probably whales are sentient and many species of birds – especially parrots and macaws. This is hardly a definitive list. But fish, slugs, worms spiders ants, and myriads of insects are probably not greatly aware of their environment or are using senses that work on other principals than the human or mammalian five senses.

One can be so concerned for the feelings, real or imagined, of other living things that the belief itself becomes an impediment to one’s own life. But I almost instinctively move worms while gardening (because they are good for the soil) but swat spiders because they move to fast to catch and release outdoors. I keep lady or pumpkin bugs during the winter – actually they keep themselves and eat dust mites during the cold weather. They are pretty, harmless and very short lived. I vacuum their dead shells. I try to trap mice but will kill them with traps (the glue traps are hideous) and a quick death is better than a lingering misery, because they don’t really care what they do to their own environment and will make piles of droppings and ammonia rich stains whenever they get established. It happened once and never again. They also pollute food. I really don’t care for creatures that will leave excrement in their own food source. It doesn’t argue for a great deal of awareness on their part. And don’t try to defend cockroaches, rats, termites, carpenter ants, mosquitoes, wasps or hornets. The wasps in my neighborhood are not very aggressive and I tend to leave them alone. But hornets and yellow jackets are very territorial and will make you move out if they get established.

Please realize all of the above is tongue in cheek (more or less) except about the cockroaches and mice. They have a wood pile outside and make the snuggest nests you can imagine and they will chew up anything to make them. Cockroaches could outlive man and I have no sympathy what so ever and they are filthy. They will live in a sewer main or in you oven with indifference but I haven’t seen them in 30 years. They tend to love the city life. Life is too good to them. New York City will never defeat them.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Seems to me that it worked for the lobsters.

Posted by Eric.Klein | Report as abusive

In the fourth post, ‘paintcan’ looks to Webster’s for a definition of sentience, but I’m afraid he comes up a bit short. When Tibetan (including the Dalai Lama) talk about sentient beings, they’re using an English translation for a Tibetan term. The Tibetan, sems can, simply means ‘endowed with mind’. And how do we tell what animals have a mind? Anything that suffers (or at least appears to suffer). While higher order animals may have more a more developed capacity for suffering, anyone who’s ever watched a lobster try to avoid being put in the pot knows that lobsters have a desire to avoid pain. This isn’t projecting human qualities onto animals, as paintcan suggests, just recognizing that, just like us, other forms of life want to live and don’t want to die.

Whatever the Glousceter lobstermen thought of it, I’m sure the lobsters appreciated this event, and I’m only sorry it doesn’t happen more often. I rejoice in their merit!

Also, as ‘phanthanhgian’ notes, this is a relatively common practice among Tibetan Buddhists. There is one lama in India who releases truckloads of freshly caught fish annually, and plenty of others who do it on a smaller scale.

Posted by Geoff.B | Report as abusive