A Buddhist teacher in Bhutan has set up an unusual network of sanctuaries in the hills and jungles of the tiny Himalayan kingdom and in its giant neighbor India to care for hundreds of animals saved from slaughter.
“I would like to save as many animals as I can, but it won’t be possible to save them all,” the lama, Kunzang Dorjee, said in an interview. “No one can do that. But we have to do whatever we can.”
Monasteries and private individuals have donated funds for the sanctuaries, Lama Kunzang said. Money has even been raised by taxi drivers who support his work. Bhutan’s government also pays a small amount.
Saving animals is common among Buddhists, who believe saving the lives of other sentient beings will create positive karma that can affect the nature of future rebirths. Saving the lives of animals destined for slaughter is frequently prescribed by lamas as a form of spiritual practice.
I would like to save as many animals as I can, but it won’t be possible to save them all,
Lama Kunzang said that butchers have also called to see if they can sell their animals, and that this has sometimes led to difficulties. “They would raise the price, but we would try to negotiate and bring them down,” he said.
Local villagers paid by Lama Kunzang now feed and look after the animals he has saved so that they can live out their lives in peace.
Lama Kunzang began to rescue animals seven years ago, he said, when five bulls escaped from a slaughterhouse and made their way directly to his monastery in Kalimpong, India, passing other houses on the way.
The bulls refused to leave the temple grounds, and it seemed to him that they were seeking help, Lama Kunzang said.
When a butcher arrived to reclaim the bulls, Lama Kunzang bought the animals and kept them at his monastery. Later, Lama Kunzang said, he was also moved to pity when he saw bulls running from a slaughterhouse in neighboring Sikkim.
“So, I thought this was some kind of message for me—that this was my destiny, what I should be doing,” he said.
“I thought to have [these sanctuaries] in every part of Bhutan, so that people would look at that and some people would become vegetarian, and even so that the people who slaughter would abandon that work,” he said.
Zach Larson, an American Buddhist and editor of the recently published book Compassionate Action , said the practice—called tse-thar in Tibetan—of saving animals is actively promoted by one of his own teachers, a Tibetan lama now in his 90s living in Nepal.
“Chatral Rinpoche himself, every year, saves anything from insects and reptiles to all kinds of mammals, birds, or fish,” Larson said.
“Chatral Rinpoche is most famous for his annual fish release in Calcutta, India. He purchases 70 truckloads of fish which have been live-caught to be sold, and purchases them so they can be released back into a protected part of the Indian Ocean.”
“So that’s several million fish,” Larson said.
“According to the Tibetan Buddhist view, there is no real hierarchy among nonhuman sentient beings,” Larson said. “So they don’t differentiate between saving the life of an insect when you have the opportunity, or saving the life of a yak or a frog.”
Though “merit,” a kind of positive energy, can be gained by saving lives, Larson said, this is always dedicated to the further benefit of others and never for one’s personal advantage alone.
“So at no point do you want to do something like tse-thar for your own meritorious benefit, such as: ‘This will help me have a longer life. This will help me gain more money.’ That is not the proper motivation.”
Virginia-based psychologist and Buddhist practitioner Lorne Ladner, a student of the Tibetan lama Zopa Rinpoche, said he has practiced tse-thar with friends, and this has led to a feeling of deeper connection among the group and with the animals being saved.
Ladner called tse-thar the “real” practice of compassion. “It’s one thing when you sit alone in a room and you sort of think about compassion. But it’s another thing when you have a sentient being in your hands.”
Original reporting by Richard Finney. Edited for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.