This past summer Kari (my wife) and I traveled to our friend’s cabin near Independence Pass just west of Twin Lakes, CO for a weekend getaway. This has become somewhat of a tradition for us, though usually we make the trip together around July 4th. However, due to my work schedule and the many people seeking a weekend at this lovely cabin retreat, we were unable to go during our regular time. Still, we enacted some of our regular traditions.
We slept. We made a fire. We did yoga on the rocks by the river every morning. We read. We listened to books on audible.
And we did a life release ceremony.
What is a life release ceremony? I’m glad you asked.
Buddhists from all over the world and from many different traditions practice life release. For a life release ceremony, animals who are destined to be slaughtered or killed for food are purchased and released back into their natural habitat. For example, monks and nuns at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia practice this by purchasing lobsters from local fishermen to release back into the ocean. Kari and I practice it by purchasing worms from the store in Twin Lakes and releasing them back into the “wild” soil from whence they came.
During a life release it is customary to say prayers or make aspirations for the animals to be free and happy in the remainder of their current life, then to be reborn into a human or divine form, and to progress quickly on the path to liberation. For Buddhists on the Bodhisattva path, it is important to make a connection with your own precious heart of bodhichitta by making the aspiration that you will continue to be reborn with the beings you are releasing in order to help them progress on the path to Enlightenment.
Life release is considered to be an important part of the paramita of generosity and a positive form of the precept to avoid taking life. It is a great generosity to give beings life when they were destined for death. Whether these beings are lobsters, worms, insects, or fish does not matter so much. Life release gives and protects life, and in this way is a higher form of the vow to abstain from taking life. Traditional Buddhist teachings say that by sincerely engaging in the practice of life release an individual can accumulate great merit or karma and even prolong their own life or the lives of others.
So what did we do? Well, Kari and I purchased a container of worms from a local store in Twin Lakes. When a couple of locals asked us where we were going fishing I informed them that we weren’t, but that we were doing a Buddhist Life Release Ceremony. They promptly informed us that that wasn’t weird, which I suspect means that it probably was. That’s OK. We then went back to the cabin to release our western worms weirdly into the wild (yay alliteration!). Once there we looked around for a good spot to release them. We made our aspirations, said a prayer or two, and I sang some songs. We don’t have a formal liturgy for this practice, we just do it and make up our own liturgy as we go. The important thing is the intentional act of generosity.
You can do a life release too, if you desire. I highly recommend it if you want to cultivate generosity, compassion, and kindness. Step one: find something that is being sold to die or be killed. Pet stores often sell crickets, and bait shops often sell worms. These are fairly common species that are found most places. You don’t want to release exotic creatures into new habitats as they may carry diseases the native species are not prepared for. Next, find a suitable place for your release. A field for crickets, any spot with dirt for worms. Make your strong intention that these beings enjoy happiness and freedom in this life, as well as in the next, and that they may quickly progress on the path to full awakening. You can say a prayer or sing a Buddhist song if you know any. I often sing this song called the “Impartial Aspiration Prayer” by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche:
“All you sentient beings, I have a good or bad connection with
As soon as you have left this confused dimension
May you be born in the west in Sukhavati
And once you’re born there, complete the bhumis and the paths.”
Maybe you were compassionately released in a previous lifetime. Who knows?