How to Live Longer: The Buddhist Practice of Saving Life

piggie & dougie
Creative Commons License photo credit: BarefootAdrianne

“No thing is as dear to someone as his or her own life, so no greater crime is there than taking life away. And no conditioned virtue brings greater merit than the act of saving beings and ransoming their lives.” – Chatral Rinpoche.

Many years ago in the Himalayas I met a Buddhist master who was a practitioner of tsethar; a Buddhist practice that involves saving the lives of animals. Buddhists assert that saving the lives of animals that are doomed to be killed increases ones lifespan, protects from certain illnesses and helps to remove obstacles in your life.

Over time I have come to appreciate this practice more and more and today I decided I would share it with you in the hope that some of you decide to take it up. It truly is one of the most beneficial things you will ever do with your time and money.

How does one perform this practice?

As far as practices go, this one is the easiest. You need no special training or implements, just a bit of cash and some spare time. The traditional way to carry out this type of activity is make sure you do three things:

  • The beginning: generate a compassionate motivation
    The first thing you need to do is develop some sort of compassionate motivation. For example, if you know someone who is sick you might generate the motivation that you are doing this practice to help them get better and live a longer life. Or, you might do the practice with the idea that you simply want to free sentient beings from suffering and fear and be a protector for those who need protection.

    The traditional Buddhist motivation is called bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the wish that all beings will one day be free from suffering and never separated from happiness. When you arouse the motivation of bodhicitta you are also developing the warrior-like mentality of bravery; you yourself are going to free sentient beings from suffering without any help from anyone else.

  • The middle: Maintain a good attitude
    During the practice itself you should try to remember your motivation and not let too many self-centered thoughts enter your mind. This ensures that you really work with your mind and leave some positive imprints on your mental continuum. You should also try to concentrate single pointedly on what you are doing and not let your mind wander off too far.
  • The end: make vast aspirations and dedications
    Buddhists assert that good actions need to be dedicated to positive causes. This ensures that the merit is not wasted. At the end of this practice you should sit down for a few minutes and make as many vast and compassionate aspirations as you can. For example, you might dedicate saving the lives of these animals to the long life of you and your family members, the removal of disease and suffering in our society and the culmination of world peace. Or you might dedicate it to someone specific who is suffering from cancer or some serious illness.

    The dedication is super important. The bigger the better. Many of my teachers have said that during the dedication one should be as assertive and free thinking as possible; it is no time to be humble.

If you follow these simple guidelines I am confident that your practice of releasing lives will be extremely beneficial for yourself and others. Spending the afternoon purchasing and releases animals is an extremely joyous occasion and lots of fun for everyone involves.

What types of animals should I use?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Hendricks Photos

Short answer: it doesn’t matter. Any living creature that is about to be cooked or killed is suitable for this practice. Some animals that Buddhist monasteries use in this practice include:

  • Fish from Chinese restaurants and fish markets
    If you go in to almost any Chinese restaurant or fish market you will see tens of big fish swimming in the tank ready to be killed and served on a dish. These are perfect animals to free. Some times there will be crabs, lobster and eels – all suitable for this practice.
  • Crickets from pet stores
    Many pet stores now sell crickets that are bred to be fed to lizards and snakes. Often you can get 100 crickets for $5! That is a lot of positive karma.
  • Chickens from battery farms and suppliers
    Although the chickens from battery farms are not killed for food, they do live horrible lives in tiny cages. I am certain that there is a lot of good done every time one of these birds is taken from its cell to a nice big backyard pen.

Obviously you don’t want to go and buy a pet puppy and let it go in the woods. That isn’t the point! The point is to free animals who are about to have their life taken as the karma is considered to be especially potent.

It is extremely important, however, to only release animals that are native to the local environment. A lot of harm can be done by foreign fish when released into local waters. Here in Australia we have lost hundreds of local species of fish because English Carp were introduced into our rivers a hundred years ago. Make sure you do your research before letting animals go. Make sure they are locals.

The benefits of saving lives

There are many Buddhist texts out there that speak of some incredible benefits relating to this practice. Some of main ones include extending your life and the lives of others, healing and in some cases curing serious diseases, removing obstacles that are holding you back in life and so on. The main benefit (from a Buddhist point of view) is that you will create the causes to attain enlightenment in the very near future.

The Dalai Lama and other masters on saving lives
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has spoken of this practice many times, especially in his autobiography Freedom in Exile. In it he tells the story of how he would spend all monastery’s money as a young boy by purchasing sheep that were about the be slaughtered for meat. Thousands of sheep were spared the knife. At the end of the story he recounts that later in his life he saw in his meditation that this practice actually increased his life and will be a cause for him to live a long time.

One Buddhist master, Chatral Rinpoche, has been particularly outspoken on the issue of saving the lives of animals. He believes it should be a regular activity for all Buddhists and anyone who cares about living creatures. Here is a short poem he composed about the issue. And here is another text by a master called DoDrupchen on the benefits of saving animals. Finally, here is a fantastic resource on how to be creative with this practice as instructed by the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa.

My own experiences
I have been doing this practice for a few years now and every time I do it I enjoy it more. It is quite special knowing that you have freed living creatures from certain death, and, to be honest, I don’t really care if my life is extended or not. Knowing that I have done something positive for some helpless creature is enough for me.

That being said, my friends and I have done this practice on a large scale at several important junctions in our life. When my best friend had stage four cancer a few years ago we released a lot of animals. Things turned out a lot better than we had expected. He is in remission now.


I really do believe in the power of this activity. I would be extremely happy if only a handful of our community here at The Daily Mind took up this practice and dedicated the merit towards the peace and well being of all living creatures. If you do free some animals please stop back and leave a comment and let us know how it went.

16 thoughts on “How to Live Longer: The Buddhist Practice of Saving Life

  1. I doubt there’s any good evidence that releasing animals increases your life span, but as you say, it doesn’t really matter if it does. You’re doing it for the psychological boost you get from it, which is entirely different.

    I’ve never done it. I know animals are kept in less-than-ideal conditions, and while I would prefer they be given an open-range environment, I’m not sure freeing one or two animals would give me much of a sense of accomplishment. I also wonder if being released into the wild is any less stressful or fatal for some creatures. Then again, at least they aren’t in cramped, dirty cages. Of course, I don’t buy into the idea that there will ever be a time without suffering, either. Basically, I guess, if you feel good about it, do it!

    You hint around that freeing animals had some effect on your friend’s cancer treatment. I’d be careful with drawing conclusions like that. It is, certainly, the type of thing that can be tested, though I can’t imagine who would take the initiative or provide the funding to test it. I generally feel it isn’t fair to the medical treatment and spontaneous remission rates when recovery is attributed to these sort of outside factors (not just this one, but also things like prayer, lighting candles, etc).

    In any event, this was an interesting, unusual post.

  2. That is beautiful.

    I have made a habit of picking up stray dogs and cats, spaying, neutering, vaccinating, and feeding them, and finding them loving homes. It is expensive, so for example right now I am taking a break due to financial necessity. But I have found homes for 3 dogs this year and served as a temp home for 3 cats picked up by other activists.

    I don’t dedicate the act to anything – this act is so powerful on its own that I don’t need to. It may be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It is a lovely thing to do, and the love you get back is worth all the potential trouble.

  3. Nice post.
    One good buddhist habit is to release worms you can buy in fisher shops. In one single time you can release many animals.
    Many tibetan masters said it has great benefits and gives good karma.

  4. “Many tibetan masters said it has great benefits and gives good karma.”

    That just sounds like one would be doing it strictly for the benefits, not out of love. If you’re only thinking of yourself, it probably won’t “work.”

  5. Good point Natalia. You are right in picking up the fact that the benefits are lessened if the motivation is solely to benefit oneself as opposed to benefiting others. But you have to remember that the point of amassing good karma (from a Buddhist POV) is to attain enlightenment to free all beings from suffering. In the higher schools of Buddhism there is no pursuit of happiness for oneself.

    Thanks Nat!

  6. @Natalia The benefits are for the animals you get free and for the ones you dedicate the merits to. The good karma is just the consequence of a good action. But without dedication the action has less power of compassion.

  7. Hello,

    I love your article…I also release lives very often as well. I go to Bait shop on top of what you mentioned, I don’t release Chicken but now I think I should. I just don’t know where to let them go.

    anyway, I know what you mean by you don’t care your life extend or not. I did not start release live for healthy but I only felt healthier, well I still get sick sometimes like flu or slight backache but really I did not do it for my own healthy. I love the feeling them running away or fly or swiming away that they get to live it. It made you so happy and peaceful in heart to see that.

    Please keep up the good works.


  8. I’m about to institute this as part of our Buddhist center’s practice but it’s a bit tricky to be environmentally safe. Fishing worms from bait shops are not always native and they’ve caused problems around areas of the Great Lakes (I’m in U.S.) when people using them for fishing dump them out and they destoy the local forest floor. So, even seemingly benign creatures like worms can cause problems. We’ve done crickets before and smaller redworms that like the compost pile.

  9. Hi Dharmadog.

    Its super important to do a lot of research before doing it in order to make sure they won’t do more harm than good once released. I’ve found crickets and native fish from fish markets to be the safest bet. Also, if you want to do worms you can always keep them in a compost at the center like you say.

    Good luck!

  10. This is a most-beautiful practice! I can personally attest to how powerful these actions are in clarifying the mind and allowing one’s feelings of compassion to be brought into focus. No matter what personal dramas I may be going through prior to performing a release ceremony, the actions of saving lives always brings such joy and lightness. I hope that many more people come to learn of the beauty of this practice.

    As others have wisely stated: just be very sure the animals you release are native to your area, and choose animals who are most likely to survive the stresses of their captivity and release (I live on the coast, so locally-caught mussels and clams released in deep water at low-tide are a good bet).


  11. It all started more than 10 years ago. I saw a fish at the market and just felt like buying (something to this effect) and releasing it.After releasing it,the fish swam to the middle of the lake and turn back and nodded 3 times towards me as though it was paying respect and said thank you before swimming away.It was an incredulous and fantastics moment for me! From that moments it gave me much encouragement and motivation to practice life liberation.Nowadays I make it a practice to release fishes once a month.

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