The Politics of Animal Release in Contemporary Tibet

Over the past few days my Weibo and WeChat feeds have been wildly abuzz with what is quickly becoming one of the biggest stories of 2016 in Tibetan cyberspace. On September 1st, images of  Drolma, a Tibetan woman from Kham, began circulating on social media after she and her fellow members of the “Land of Snows’ Animal Release Group” (Tib.གངས་ལྗོངས་སྲོག་བསླུ་ཚོགས་པ ; Ch. 雪域放生群体) reportedly spent over five million RMB buying 6,387 sheep who were destined for the slaughterhouse. Drolma and her fellow group members then released the animals “into the wilderness” of the Tibetan grasslands. The incident has generated  widespread and  lively discussion about the changing politics of animal release (Tib. ཚེ་ཐར ; Ch. 放生) across contemporary Tibet, with particular attention to questions of vegetarianism, environmental degradation, and the marketisation of animal release.

In this blog, I translate a WeChat essay that has garnered more than 100,000 reads and dozens of fascinating comments since yesterday (September 3rd). Penned by a Tibetan named Tashi Dorjee (Ch. Taxi Duojie), the piece raises several provocative points about this particular incident of animal release as well as the state of the practice more generally.

For more on this topic be sure to check out Chelsea Hall’s excellent blog where she explores the gendered language at work throughout social media responses to “Girl Drolma’s” story.

(This translation is my own. While I have made every effort to remain faithful to the original text, I am not a professional translator. Please get in touch if you feel that any particular section needs attention or have any suggestions for improvement! All images are from the original news piece.)


Rational Animal Release | Let’s Talk About Miss Drolma’s Animal Release

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Yesterday for the whole day my social media circles were bombarded by two issues. The first was about a girl named Drolma (Ch. Zhuoma) who, because of household hardships, could not pay her tuition fees and so at beginning of the new term she found herself in the difficult situation of having to drop out of school. In the second story, another woman, also named Drolma, spent vast sums of money buying more than 6,000 sheep out of the hands of Hui people…

By comparison, the second story sounds so incredible, and compelled me to look into the details surrounding the entire incident. It was only at this point that I realised that in Tibetan areas there are some self-media* that are really too lacking in moral integrity. They know only how to chase more page clicks. Without looking into anything properly, they publish pieces so carelessly and randomly. Seeing as this was so obviously the activity of a group named “Land of Snows’ Animal Release Group”, then why is all the commentary centering on this one girl? Honestly, this is not the way to do self-media. This irresponsible reporting is nothing but nonsense self-media…

Anyhow, after this incident happened, it really shocked the whole of Tibet (整个大藏区). In addition to the fanning of flames by these irresponsible public WeChat accounts, the incident has now been raised to the level of morality and ethics. Some people clap their hands and shout ‘bravo’, admiring Drolma and her group’s actions to the point of worship. However, many have expressed the opinion that this incident was not reasoned or rational, and moreover, has actually inadvertently placed further moral and ethical pressures on poverty-stricken ordinary people at the lower rungs of the social ladder.

As it so happens, quite a while back, I, along with a good friend named Lobsang (a monk from Kumbum Monastery), made a radio show called “Don’t Let Animal Release Become The Taking of Animal Lives”. The show analysed the merits and virtues of animal release from social and religious perspectives and at the same time exposed some very unorthodox animal release practices happening at present. After this recent incident, Lobsang and some of his friends again engaged in a “war of words”, during which one friend expressed the following:

even though this pretty woman made every effort she could to save so many lives, which is totally commendable and worth learning from, these livestock cannot evade the fate of slaughter nor that of eventually dying of old age. This kind of animal release makes me think firstly about meddling with reincarnation cycles, secondly about the destruction of ecosystems, thirdly about the indirect opportunities it gives to criminals and those who carry out illegal activities, and fourthly about the awkward contrasts it poses with the circumstances of poverty-stricken people nearby and those afflicted by serious illnesses. I support sustainable animal release, but for those wealthy people like this pretty woman, well surely it is better to use resources where they are needed most?

But this friend still missed out on one other issue, and that is that this incident is going to perpetuate the development of a larger chain of animal release industries, and just like the aquatic markets that sell “fish release” across interior China, the problematic signage of “sheep release for sale”, “yak release for sale” and so on will start springing up by roadsides and slaughterhouses in Tibetan areas. There are always some people ready to take advantage.

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Lobsang told me a parable. Once upon a time, there was a monastery, and near that monastery there was a slaughterhouse. How could the monks endure such a thing? Consequently, they took great pity and for a high price they bought that slaughter house. However, it was not long before the group of people who had originally managed the slaughterhouse staged a comeback and opened a factory that was even larger than before. This new factory then became a dark graveyard, a point of no return for a large number of livestock. So, dare we ask who was it that gave those people the opportunity to become more powerful? Both you and I know the answer all too well….

Among the intense collisions of modern urban culture and the traditional culture of Tibetan areas, many unharmonious things have become regular occurrences. Just take animal release as an example – originally it was a means of increasing one’s good fortune and wisdom, but you cannot just gaze passively upon the cultivation of merit. Not only is that not the route to enlightenment, it is also lacking in wisdom. Undertaking animal release in accordance with reason and Buddhist doctrine is the only proper way to go about it. Rationally releasing animals and doing so in an appropriate way is so very important. Miss Drolma is pretty, and the resolve and compassion of the “Land of Snows’ Animal Release Group” cannot be faulted. My concern here however is not how much money they paid to release the animals. What I am much more concerned about is the fate of these many animals that have been released, as well what the unanticipated “butterfly effects” created by such a large-scale animal release will be.

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His Holiness 17th Gyalwang Karmapa has given talks on animal release of which the general point was that in the case where an animal who is right about to be slaughtered, we should save them and release them. Sure that animal who has not being killed today has been saved, but perhaps this will indirectly harm the next animal. So the killing of that second animal might have been briefly delayed, but now that the first one has been saved, the slaughter of that second animal is moved forward. As a result, His Holiness 17th Gyalwang Karmapa considers the best method for protecting animal lives to be vegetarianism. This is a bit of a roundabout method of going about things, but at the same time, it is also a fundamental in the freeing of oneself from this cycle of suffering. At the same time, being vegetarian is also something that “Door 12th” (a popular online Tibetan radio show presenter) consistently promotes as the most rational form of animal release.

But no matter what, these 6000 sheep are further away from the butchers’s knife.  This is also their good fortune from previous incarnations. The kindness and compassion of Drolma and her group members is admirable, but just like “Birendandao” wrote on his Weibo account:

A bowl of clear water could be sweet dew and a pool of mud could become an elephant’s play area. Ignorantly transmitting pious deeds is not compassion because it is not wise, and beating those with good intentions is also not wise because it lacks compassion. As for finding a way of manifesting wisdom in a compassionate way, that takes a long consideration….. The sheep said thanks, Drolma said that was the collective effort of our group.


*Self-media refers to WeChat news feeds that are created, managed and/or compiled by individuals and small groups without media organization funding. They send out free content on a wide variety of topics. See more at http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/03/16/chinas-new-media-species-now-endangered/

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