To liberate lives is a common practice frequently performed by many Buddhists. When conducted properly, the resulting merit is boundless. Otherwise, the merit will be greatly diminished. It is therefore very important for us to know the proper way of liberating living beings.
All the activities of a bodhisattva can be put into six different categories, that is, the six paramitas or the six perfections. In other words, the bodhisattva’s view, conduct, practice and activities of benefiting and delivering sentient beings are vast like the ocean, but all can be summed up in the six paramitas.
If it is performed properly every time, liberating lives can have all the remarkable qualities of the six paramitas as well, even to liberate just a single life. Now let us see how this can be done.
I. The Perfection of Generosity
There are three kinds of generous offering practiced by the bodhisattvas: fearless offering, offering of Dharma and of material items.
Fearless offering: To liberate living beings is already a form of fearless offering. Still, certain conditions need to be present to make it true to the spirit of such offering.
First, check if the environment is suitable for the liberated beings to live. For example, the weather loaches1 from China can be bought in Tibet as well. Local Tibetan nomads mistake them for regular fish, buy and set them free in the river. But the riverbed is armored with rocks only, no mud. And the water is very cold, as it originates from the snowy mountains. The weather loaches, unable to cope with this environment, all die shortly after being released in the river.
Back in 1991 and 1992, due to our inexperience, we bought some swamp eels in Kangding2 and released them in a river there. You can imagine what happened to them. Yes, they all died. We had the good intention to set them free, yet we failed to really protect them from adversity. What a shame! Thus, to check the suitability of the environment is a really critical step for the survival of the creatures being liberated.
Second, check whether the beings may get caught again and killed after being released. If they do, grave karma will be unavoidable for both the liberators and the possible killers. Therefore, it is imperative that best efforts be made to find a safe place to liberate beings.
While there is no risk of being caught again, but the beings cannot live long anyway, should we still liberate them? Yes, we should, as we can never find a place for them to live forever. Our top priority should be to release them from the immediate danger of death before all other considerations.
To be able to satisfy these two conditions when liberating any beings would be in keeping with the genuine spirit of fearless offering.
Although freeing small fry or other beings that will not be killed in the near future is also liberating living beings, they are not lives saved at the point of being killed. To engender great merit and to be deemed a genuine form of fearless offering, lives saved should be those that are about to be killed such as the assorted fish sold in the marketplace.
Offering of Dharma: This is very, very important. How should it be done?
Firstly, recite the various Buddha’s names or other mantras to the beings about to be released. According to the scriptures, these beings will be greatly benefited upon hearing the Buddha’s names and mantras. Also make sure that every one of them can hear the recitations. If we recite from afar and dedicate the merit to them afterward, they can be benefited somewhat but cannot obtain specifically the merit of hearing the Buddha’s names because they did not hear the recitations. If we recite within their hearing range, the merit they will receive are twofold: first, they will be the beneficiaries of our dedication; second, by the merit of hearing the Buddha’s names and mantras, they can attain liberation from samsara. It does not mean that liberation can be attained in their next life, which ultimately depends on how serious their respective karmic hindrances are, but it should not take too long.
Secondly, feed them nectar pills. The use of nectar pills is not emphasized in exoteric Buddhism, but very much so in Vajrayana. Most of the nectar pills were originally handed down by Guru Rinpoche and later discovered by real tertons, finders of terma (hidden treasures). It should be noted that not all nectar pills have beneficial effect. Some of the so-called nectar pills are not only devoid of any merit but can also bring harm if taken, such as preventing one from attaining liberation in future life and creating hindrances to liberation.
Where do these harmful pills come from? Some are from tertons who are actually impostors and some are concocted by demons to hurt sentient beings. At times, genuine nectar pills, after being handled or made by persons who have broken samaya vows, can also be tainted. As Guru Rinpoche did not leave behind many nectar pills, accomplished masters, after retrieving them, will mix them with other nectar and medicinal herbs, then bless the pills through meditation and mantra recitations. If during this process there is one samaya violator among the attending practitioners, the pills will get tainted.
Therefore, close attention is needed when administering nectar pills. As ordinary beings, we cannot tell the real from the fake ones with the naked eye. The only way is by examining whether the pills came from a pure source. This is a very important step. If we are unsure of their source, we should just chant the Buddha’s names and omit giving the nectar pills to the soon-to-be liberated beings.
It is also very important to place the texts of ‘liberation upon wearing’,3 such as the Tantra, Single Heir of the Doctrine, on the head of the beings to bless them. Beings touched by this will soon be able to attain liberation. One may question, “These beings have neither practiced nor received transmissions of the Dharma. Why should they be able to attain liberation simply by attaching such texts to their body or being touched by it?” The only plausible explanation would be the inconceivable power of the Buddha’s skillful means to deliver sentient beings from suffering.
Still others may wonder why the Buddha could not liberate all sentient beings with the same skillful means. The sutras said that for beings to encounter ‘liberation upon wearing’ or Bardo Thotrol (Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo), they must have had certain causes and conditions occurred in their prior lives. What does it mean by past causes and conditions? For example, one can learn Vajrayana, the Great Perfection, or listen to profound teachings such as the Tantra, Single Heir of the Doctrine in this life, but may still take rebirth in the lower realms due to improper practice or broken vows. In that case, after being in the lower realms for a very long time, one may ultimately be saved not by the exoteric practices but that of the supreme Vajrayana rather effortlessly. This is because one has previously planted the good seeds of being exposed to the Vajrayana teachings and thus accumulated the merit that eventually allows one to be liberated by the inexplicable power of liberation through hearing or upon wearing. So, it is not a given that all sentient beings would have the same merit or same encounter.
Offering of Dharma is particularly important. If we are given two choices: 1) we can release all the fish in the market free of charge on condition that we do not recite the Buddha’s names for them or feed them nectar pills; 2) we can recite mantras, feed them nectar pills and bless them with the text of ‘liberation upon wearing,’ but we cannot buy them to set them free. Which one should we choose? Make sure it is the latter.
From a short-term perspective, the significance of releasing tens of thousands of lives from the suffering of death is already self-evident. There is absolutely no comparison between giving a new life and giving money or other objects to a being facing death. Put in another way, if we are about to be killed, would we like someone to rescue us or give us a lot of money? The answer should be obvious. Realistically, what is the use of money for a dead person? In most cases, the relatives and the friends of the deceased do not really know how to use the money left behind to assist the deceased, e.g., to perform phowa. At the juncture of life and death, money loses its purpose. Saving lives is naturally the most important.
But from a long-term perspective, offering of Dharma is even more important. The reason is that although we can buy the fish free and liberate them, the best we will achieve is to save them from the pain of death just this time. If we do not recite the Buddha’s names or perform other rituals for them, we cannot truly benefit them other than setting them free. What they will do afterwards is anybody’s guess. If the beings are carnivores, perhaps the better alternative is to let them die after having heard the chanting of the Buddha’s names. This on the one hand will plant the virtuous root for them, and on the other hand stop them from committing more negative karma.
In general, people all long for wealth, longevity or certain magical power. But, in the long run, it is very difficult to say whether these are really good for a practitioner or an ordinary individual. You are all familiar with the story of Devadatta. If he had not had supernatural power, he would not have committed two of the Five Great Offenses leading to the avici hell. He subjugated the king with his supernatural power, convincing the king of his might and to obey his words. Together, they committed a great deal of the offenses that led to the avici hell.
About longevity, the following story makes a point. A disciple of the Venerable Atisha violated the precept and died after getting involved in a village dispute. Upon hearing the news, the Venerable Atisha noted with sorrow, “If he died three years earlier, he would have died a bhikkhu adept in the Tripitaka.” This means that if he died three years earlier, he would have died a bhikkhu with pure vows and of great knowledge in the Tripitaka. But he died a different person with a tainted reputation three years later. Therefore, having longevity is not necessarily a good fortune. Some beings may end up committing more negative karma with extended life span.
Someone had asked on the web about how to benefit beings that were about to be killed in a market or some other places if there was not enough money to buy their freedom. The easy way is simply to recite the Buddha’s names to them. If you happen to have some pure nectar pills, feed them those. Otherwise, just recite the Buddha’s names and mantras. The merit of reciting and hearing the Buddha’s names and mantras is beyond imagination, which undoubtedly will benefit the poor beings. For example, as recorded in many sutras, simply by reciting the heart mantra of Shakyamuni Buddha (om muni muni maha muniye svaha) had in the past led many to the attainment of Buddhahood.
Moreover, having an unselfish motivation is also very important when reciting the Buddha’s names and mantras. Selfishness has been part of the human nature since beginningless time. If one were to recite the Buddha’s names and mantras to other beings for one’s own sake, the action would not be deemed an exemplification of Mahayana practice. Nonetheless, it is still far better than not reciting at all. In the Tibetan Canon, there are texts specially intended for offering of Dharma, which are not available in the Chinese texts. If needed, one can substitute with recitation of pratitya-essence mantra (essence of dependent origination) instead. The key is that recitation must be performed when liberating living beings, even for just a single being, because it can help many of them to eventually attain liberation from samsara.
In addition, palms should be held together at the chest level (as in prayer) during the recitation. It is explained in the Aspiration Prayers to be born in Sukhavati4 that pressing hands together in this fashion signifies veneration of and praying to Amitabha Buddha. Remember that even to press palms together just once can dispel eons of karmic obstacles. So be sure to do likewise. At the same time, we should visualize in earnest that we are holding palms and reciting the Buddha’s names and mantras on behalf of these beings. Through our endeavor, they will be able to receive the merit, remove tremendous karmic hindrances and swiftly attain enlightenment. This is very crucial.
What is the ideal number of beings to be liberated each time? Given the right conditions, it should be as many as possible. With limited amount of money, the smaller the size of the beings, the bigger the quantity that can be bought. That means more lives can be saved and helped to attain liberation. On the other hand, liberating larger animals such as yaks and sheep or larger fish like silver carp are also meaningful. We can plainly see that these beings generally endure more pain when being killed due to their larger body. As we help them avoid this immense fear and pain, we also gather greater merit at the same time. The Abhidharma-kosha-shastra said so too. For example, which is a greater evil, killing an ant or an ox? Although they are both living beings, the dying pain of an ant is not as enormous as that of an ox, relatively speaking. Due to the large size of the body, animals like yaks and sheep suffer more physical pain when they die. It is therefore a relatively greater evil to kill large animals.
Of all the beings we can liberate in this region, I think weather loaches are the most suitable because of their moderate size which allows us to buy decent quantity with relatively little money, and the extremely brutal death they suffer at the hands of their captors. But the prerequisite is that the location must be right for the survival of the loaches.
For the beginners of Mahayana Buddhism, the ways to propagate the Dharma and benefit sentient beings are no other than liberating living beings. Unlike the Buddha who by turning the wheel of the Dharma each time could lead hundreds or thousands of the audience to the attainment of arhatship and inspire a mass audience to generate supreme bodhicitta, we are incapable of such feat. What we can do for the time being is to participate as best we can in the activity of liberating living beings either personally or by donating money to it when unable to attend. This is our way of benefiting sentient beings, of practicing offering of Dharma.
Offering of material items: There are certain texts in the Vajrayana practice that particularly deal with this. Like the ones that explicate the proper ways to feed fish and birds, practitioners are instructed to have rice blessed with mantras, nectar pills, etc. before feeding and not mixed with any meat or blood. Frankly, this is not a common practice for most of us, nor is it the most important. The one that warrants emphasis is offering of Dharma.
II. The Perfection of Discipline
There are two types of discipline to be maintained: first, the Theravada precepts of never harming other beings; second, the Mahayana precepts of always benefiting sentient beings.
How to apply these two when liberating living beings? To make every effort not to let the beings hurt during the process is one way. Take fish as an example. Fish might get hurt when they jump out from the containers and land either on top of the containers or on the ground. To roughly grab and quickly throw it into the water, as normally done by some, may cause harm too. Other than birds perhaps, throwing usually gives animals a great sense of fear, which in turn can be detrimental to their mental condition. Those who act this way may inadvertently cause themselves to be reborn as a mentally disordered person in the next life. In this situation, the right thing to do is first to pick up and put the fish back gently into the containers. And do not release them to the water before completing the recitation, feeding the nectar pills and blessing them by passing the text of ‘liberation upon wearing’ over them. It would be a great loss to the liberated beings if all these are missing from the process..
Liberating living beings can also prevent some evil karma. Take the example of freeing one fish. First, if the fish vendor sells the fish to a restaurant, he will have committed karma of killing that fish. By buying the fish from the vendor, we stop that from happening. Second, if we do not buy the fish, the cook at the restaurant will kill it. We prevent the cook from committing that karma with our purchase of the fish. Third, the customers eating the fish are also guilty of killing. By buying the fish, we prevent karma of killing for the third time. As the fisherman would not know at the time of catching the fish if it was to be liberated or killed, his evil karma, if any, may not be prevented by our purchase. But the other three can all be avoided. When liberating beings, to make every endeavor not to hurt them as well as the feelings of other people is in fact benefiting sentient beings already. This manner of liberating living beings constitutes the perfection of discipline.
III. The Perfection of Patience
We may also encounter difficulties when liberating beings, e.g., extreme weather conditions, fatigue, insect bites, interferences from others, etc. When these happen, we should contemplate that they are there to purify our negative karma. Or, we can practice the teachings of The Way of the Bodhisattvas to exchange our own well-being for other’s suffering. That is, we willingly endure all the hardship and inconveniences on behalf of other beings. It may seem just a small sacrifice on our part, but great merit can be accumulated this way as well. Therefore, we should practice patience with all physical discomfort and hardship. By the same token, when others make unreasonable demands on us or cause outright trouble, we should neither argue nor be angry with them, just accept their behavior with equanimity. This is the perfection of patience.
IV. The Perfection of Diligence
Diligence means having joy in practicing the Dharma. Liberating living beings should be a joyful event for every participant. To perform virtuous deeds with joy is deemed the perfection of diligence.
V. The Perfection of Contemplation
How can we practice contemplation when liberating living beings? Usually one equates that practice with meditation in a lotus position. As we certainly won’t be sitting down to liberate any being, can we do this practice? Yes, we can, according to the scriptures. In fact, one can always practice contemplation whenever propagating the Dharma or engaging in any other virtuous activity. Contemplation, in the context of teaching the Dharma, means to conduct the teaching assiduously and without distraction. That in the context of liberating living beings means to recite the sutras or mantras with total concentration and release the beings with great care. If the mind wanders while doing the recitation, it is no longer practicing contemplation. Contemplation denotes a still mind. To offer dedicated prayers to the Buddha or steadfastly generate true compassion toward the beings when liberating them signifies the perfection of contemplation.
VI. The Perfection of Wisdom
How can we be endowed with wisdom when liberating living beings? Being mindful that it is a practice of Mahayana, that it can sow the virtuous seeds for the liberators and benefit the liberated, and that the recitations of sutras, mantras and the Buddha’s names are complete, all exemplify the meaning of having wisdom. The more profound understanding of that is to know the liberator, the liberated and the act of liberation are all illusory phenomena, devoid of self nature. If one were to gain thorough knowledge of such view and subsequently attain realization thereof, it would naturally signify attaining the state of supreme wisdom. But absent this view, wisdom can still be had in the manner otherwise described above.
To be able to liberate living beings as demonstrated here would have captured the essence of the six paramitas. If in addition the three supreme methods—pure motivation, practice with a mind free of clinging and dedication of merit—can be incorporated alongside, liberating living beings will truly be an act of supreme virtue.
We have all committed incalculable karma of killing lives since beginningless time. Even so far in this lifetime alone, we have generated enough such karma to send us to the hell realm. And the best way to counteract this karmic effect is to liberate living beings. At the same time, we must also resolve by making a pledge not to intentionally kill or hurt ANY sentient beings ever again. With such determination, all negative karma associated with killing lives will indubitably be purified. In case one’s resolution is not yet as firm, the pledge can be made on account of the selected beings of one’s choice. For example, one can vow never to kill snakes or weather loaches again from now on. When this vow is made and the beings are subsequently freed, one’s specific karma of killing snakes or weather loaches from beginningless time will then be purified, but that of killing other kinds of beings stays.
On the other hand, does it make sense to swear never to kill dinosaurs from now on? You may think that it is meaningless, since there is no dinosaur to be killed even if you want to. But it does make sense still. Dinosaurs once existed, which means we surely had the opportunity to kill some in those lifetimes. As explained above, when such vow is made, one’s karma of ever having killed dinosaurs will be purified, but not those that involved killing of other beings. If we vow not to kill any sentient beings, our karma of killing all kinds of beings can be purified. If the vow is made for the sake of particular beings, our karma of killing those particular beings can be purified.
Liberating living beings is the best antidote to karma of killing lives. However, if we liberate beings simply for the purification of our karma, though karma can be purified, it is not the way to practice Mahayana. Whether to liberate beings to purify our own negative karma or, out of bodhicitta, to do it for the sake of all sentient beings is ultimately a personal choice.
All the Buddhas in the past including Shakyamuni Buddha, after having aroused bodhicitta, had vowed to deliver all sentient beings to liberation before attaining Buddhahood themselves. Yet they have already attained Buddhahood while we still remain in samsara. Did all the Buddhas break their vows? No. The Buddhas’ vows were made out of their deep compassion for the sentient beings. By the supreme power of the grand vows, they were able to swiftly attain Buddhahood. Whereas the thought that is constantly being turned over in our minds is usually just our own welfare, which explains why we are still struggling in samsara as yet. This clearly demonstrates that the key to attaining Buddhahood rests squarely on nothing but one’s altruistic aspiration.
Some people think that there are countless fish being sold at the markets and what they can buy is only a fraction of the total. Not even to buy out just one type of fish is possible, much less all the fish. They wonder how meaningful it is to continue liberating lives under the circumstances, and thereby become disenchanted.
The fact is that aspiring to save all the lives in the world is an impossible mission even for the Buddha who can only help those whose karma has ripened and are thus receptive to his teachings. To those with yet ripened karma, the Buddha is equally helpless. The same reasoning also applies to liberating living beings. For someone as wealthy as Indra, the ruler of gods, not even he could have bought and liberated all the beings there were. As there are an infinite number of sentient beings, it could be even beyond the Buddha’s reach sometimes to deliver beings from samsara, let alone what our limited ability can achieve. All we can do is to help other beings the best we know how.
It is stated in the sutras that every participant in the liberation of living beings will gather the full amount of merit thereof. For example, if one hundred people were to kill one person, this bad karma would not be divided among the hundred but borne completely by each one. The same goes for virtuous deeds. If one hundred people were to set one life free, everyone would collect the whole merit of freeing one life, not just one percent of it. Over the years, we have freed billions of lives in this part of China and all the merit accumulated thus far belongs to every participant. Just liberating living beings is already an incredibly virtuous practice. When it is conducted together with unselfish motivation and proper dedication, it will garner even more inconceivable merit which undoubtedly can purify all our negative karma.
1 A cold-water fish commonly eaten in Asia.
2 The capital of Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province, China.
3 Liberation upon wearing primarily consists of mantras or texts designed to be carried in one form (a booklet) or another on the body, which signifies the Tibetan faith in the book as an embodiment of sacred power that can protect against death and evil.
4 Sanskrit term refers to the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitabha.