The Controversy of Merit Birds

The Controversy of Merit Birds

Posted on August 24 by Kelley Powell
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After a breathtaking tragedy, Cam, the main character of my novel, The Merit Birds, seeks catharsis in the ancient Buddhist practice of releasing caged birds. At once merit bird release is a deeply beautiful ritual – sparrows, plovers and buntings flee from handmade cages in an act meant to show compassion and build merit, or karma. The tradition is ancient (according to a Scientific American article, mention of merit bird release can be found in 5th century Chinese Buddhist texts) and it happens in a variety of countries, including the novel’s setting, Laos, as well as Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

On the other side of this gentle, contemplative practice lies a conservation tragedy that severely impacts wild bird populations. Often merit birds are released on temple grounds near busy city streets. Many are killed when they fly into traffic; those that aren’t may stay in the area only to be recaptured again. As Cam says in The Merit Birds, “Wouldn’t it have been better to leave the birds to their freedom in the first place?” He says, “I decided a captor probably really makes merit when he no longer captures.” However at the same time Cam realizes that the money he paid for the merit birds allowed the seller to eat dinner that night.

Buddhist communities are currently seeking a solution to the dilemma, such as raising birds in captivity specifically for the practice, rather than taking them from the wild. Have you ever seen a merit bird release? You can share your experience and thoughts with me using the social media buttons at www.kelleypowell.com.

Kelley Powell

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014
Kelley Powell photo

Kelley Powell

Kelley Powell has worked at a home for impoverished women and children in India, researched domestic violence in Laos, and served in the Canadian government’s family violence prevention unit. She lives in Ottawa.