The Communist Party of China gets a bad rap for cracking down on religion. In many cases, it’s true. Christian proselytization is limited, and the practice of Christian faith requires government sanction. Uighur Muslims encounter racial discrimination throughout China, and face many other limitations even when they are at home in Xinjiang, including the banning of fasting during Ramadan and the prohibition of “Islamic dress.” But visit any major city where a Buddhist temple stands—specifically, a Han-Chinese Buddhist temple, not the Tibetan variation—and you will find a renovated monastery that is cared for meticulously. Its outer walls will likely be the same shade of saffron that nearly all other temples in China wear, but you’ll only get to see what’s inside after you pay for a ticket.
Regular worship is a luxury that the poor can’t afford, and visits to Buddhist temples in China are usually touristic affairs. Except for special occasions, the temples' monks see more hands clutching smartphones than incense sticks, more camera straps than prayer beads.
Religious profiteering has spread beyond the tourism industry. Various organizations and private entrepreneurs have hijacked the idea of ji gong de, or “accumulating beneficence,” to develop businesses around fang sheng ceremonies, where caged animals are released into the wild as good deeds.
Two and a half millennia ago, Siddhartha Gautama sought enlightenment. He told his followers to do good, so they did. His teachings eventually spread eastward, where Buddhism—with local customs and deities tossed in to suit the Chinese spiritual palate—was the dominant religion for many years. The religion shaped all facets of life: art, medicine, literature, and even dynastic politics. Nowadays, it even molds business.
The business model is simple. Poachers capture animals from the wild—usually fish, snakes, birds, or turtles—which are then sold to Buddhist organizations that charge private individuals who want to be part of a “life release” ceremony. The participants get to feel better about themselves despite the artificiality of the process, and the animals are likely captured again to restart the process. It almost mirrors the Buddhist cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Think of it as a frequent buyer program for personal karma, or a spiritual band-aid.
Grotesque profiteering aside, life release ceremonies can devastate the eco-system. The red-eared slider is indigenous to North America. Owing to its popularity as a pet, it has spread across the Pacific to China. They’re an invasive species, and have been taking over as the alpha turtle in Chinese river waters, displacing local varieties. It’s impossible to estimate how many red-eared sliders now call China home, but they’re easy to spot along slow-flowing rivers in East and Southeast China.
In 2008, over a thousand snakes were released in one ceremony in a village on the outskirts of Qingdao, a city on the eastern Chinese seaboard that faces South Korea. Those snakes attacked unwitting passers-by, or invaded homes and hotels. Some were actually venomous, and killed farm animals. The villagers managed to exterminate about 400 snakes within days, but were still plagued by the remaining reptiles weeks after the incident. The do-gooders who released the snakes were never located, but the villagers know where they performed the ceremony because large sacks that originally carried the snakes were left behind in the hills.
In other cases, it’s common to see injured or underfed fish or birds in captivity, basically held for ransom by the poachers, waiting to be released. Some are wounded in transport, or even killed. “They’re just little creatures from nearby,” one seller in the southeastern Guangdong province told me, “and if a few get hurt or die as we catch them or move them around, there are plenty more.” When I confronted him about the artificiality of the ceremonies, he retorted, “Letting animals return to nature is a good deed. The monks say so.”
Fang sheng tour group packages are easy to come by. They typically cost about ¥400, or $65, and include transportation, a few sacks of animals to release into the wild, and a Buddhist monk’s oversight to lend legitimacy to the procession. All that a participant has to do is pay in cash, climb onto a tour bus, and chant na mo a mi tuo fo—“homage to Amitabha Buddha”—during the ceremony.
It’s a big business. China Economic Review reported that a single association based in Beijing has released 15 million animals at a cost of over ¥6.9 million, or $1.1 million, in 2014. There are no figures to describe nationwide earnings for the industry (if it can be called that), but there were at least 281 life release organizations in China in 2010. A 2010 Pew Research project states that half of the world’s Buddhist population reside in China, which makes up about 18.2 percent of the country’s population. But even those who don’t identify as formal Buddhists often still practice Buddhist rituals, like life releases, as part of cultural custom.
The Chinese Buddhist Life Release Network, an organization based in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province and a city near Beijing, holds an annual fang sheng gathering that brings together veteran monks and devotees for a large scale life release ceremony. Last year’s gathering saw over a thousand animals released. Most of them were large birds—hawks, egrets, and even peacocks—for spectacular visual effect as they took flight. When approached by phone to comment on this year’s gathering and the extremely heavy commercial aspect of life release ceremonies, the organization offered no response.
The pervasion of life release ceremonies is part of a wider trend of commercializing Buddhism in China. Stroll through the snack aisle in grocery stores, and finger foods produced under license with the renowned Shaolin Temple are easy to find. Incense sold at temples can cost several hundred yuan. Temples and shrines have been registered as businesses and traded on the stock market, prompting a government crackdown two years ago.
It’s an invasion. Buddha is losing ground. Mammon is winning.