August 22, 2011

Consider the Lobster… as a symbol

David Foster Wallace would have been proud.* A couple of weeks ago, a group of Tibetan Buddhists bought and released 534 lobsters into the Atlantic ocean. The group traveled from the Kurukulla Center in Medford to Gloucester, MA to purchase the lobsters from a seafood wholesaler on August 3, this year's Wheel-Turning Day on the Tibetan lunar calendar.

Heart-warming stuff, right? Sounds like the kind of story that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would eat up.

Not quite. And, on second thought, maybe DFW wouldn't have been so proud.** As PETA points out in an open letter to the Buddhists, by buying the lobsters from a seafood merchant they're supporting the lobster industry and perpetuating the cycle of catch and eat (even if in this instance the lobsters get to live a little longer, it's likely a cycle of catch and re-catch).

From the PETA letter:

I hope that you will consider shifting course slightly and encourage your practitioners to save animals permanently by going vegan during this celebration instead of purchasing animals to release them.

Buying lobsters, even for this admirable reason, fuels the lobster industry, allowing it to catch and sell other animals to be confined in crowded tanks and boiled alive. For many years now, PETA's Indian affiliate has been encouraging celebrants of Wheel-Turning Day not to buy animals to release on this holiday because they often unwittingly contribute to animal suffering by offering financial incentives for vendors to bring more animals to market. In fact, quite shockingly, sellers are known to stock extra animals specifically for this celebration, knowing that they will be bought. While their intentions are good, compassionate people who buy animals in order to release them are encouraging those who exploit animals for profit to stay in a cruel business.

Asking our fellow Buddhists to go vegan for Wheel-Turning Day—and beyond—is a wonderful way to celebrate the kind spirit of the holiday and practice ahimsa.

This is an important point to consider and Buddhists celebrating Wheel-Turning Day in this fashion would be served well to take note. Although, I wonder whether PETA has considered the symbolic value of the lobster release. An action like this, it seems to me, might serve as a catalyst to inspire even more meaningful and substantial action on the behalf of animals. Especially after the level of media attention that this lobster release received.

Consider the lobster as a symbol. By purchasing and releasing all those lobsters in this way a group of Buddhists made manifest a complicated question—How should we be compassionate towards animals? A symbol like that can last. Symbols can carry the culture forward. Even though they are not the real thing—they will always lack real world dynamism—symbols can have real world effects. The question is whether those real world effects are worth the costs.

At the very least, events like this lobster release can start conversations—this blog post, for example, or PETA's letter. To take an extreme example, look at the recent Tibetan Buddhist monk who lit himself on fire to call attention to the situation in Tibet. He wasn't being responsible, but he has made people stop and think: What's going on here?

*In his essay "Consider the Lobster," which appeared in Gourmet magazine years ago, Wallace writes about the nervous systems and neurology of lobsters and wonders if they feel pain and, if so, whether they suffer from it. After exploring the science of the situation, he goes on to look at the facts available to the naked eye: "Still, after all the abstract intellection, there remain the facts of the frantically clanking lid, the pathetic clinging to the edge of the pot. Standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience. To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering."

**I can imagine him feeling conflicted about it.

Image: from the Flickr photostream of shelley_ginger


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nickribush's picture

First of all, lobsters are not symbols...they are sentient beings. The purpose of being born human is to liberate all sentient beings from suffering, not inflict more upon them.

Anyway, all the above completely misses the main point of the practice, which is what happens before the lobsters are released. They are circumambulated around hundreds of holy objects while prayers and mantras are chanted loudly so that they can hear. In addition, they are sprinkled with blessed water before being put back in the sea. The reason this is done is to place Dharma imprints in their minds so that they will be reborn human in a place where the Dharma teachings exist and with an interest in practicing.

Of course, saving them from a pot full of boiling water is a big part of it but giving them Dharma imprints is the most important part. This makes their life meaningful.

I wouldn't expect any non-Buddhist to understand this but this is why we do it. I would, by the way, second PETA's suggestion that we all go vegan...for life.

Sam Mowe's picture

Thank you for your comment, nickribush. Yes, the belief that the released lobsters will be reborn human should have been mentioned above. I wasn't thinking about the ritual in terms of rebirth, but it makes sense that the Tibetan practitioners would be.

I wonder whether people with a belief in rebirth and those without such a belief could come to a consensus about what to do in the case of the lobsters.

In the current issue of Tricycle, Rita Gross writes about respecting religious diversity without resorting to relativism:

[The Buddha] directed seekers to examine whether any specific religious belief or practice led to beneficial or harmful results. The effect a belief or practice has on those who hold the belief or do the practice is crucial, while the belief or practice itself should be largely irrelevant to outsiders who do not value it. If religious practitioners become more intolerant and strident, less kind and compassionate, and do not take good care of people, animals, and the earth, then their beliefs and practices are not to be recommended.

Does a practice like this lobster release take good care of animals and the earth?


nickribush's picture

Well, certainly takes care of the lobsters...and, as mentioned above, the event generated worldwide publicity, so it got a lot of people thinking about it and maybe a few will become kinder and more compassionate as a result.

But although we release lobsters regularly, this is not all we do...

...and much more...

In terms of taking care of animals and the earth, however, the best thing we can do personally is become vegan...have you?

bunchofpants's picture

I have a hard time taking anything PETA says about "ethical" treatment of animals seriously when they annually KILL upwards of 90% of the adoptable dogs and cats they take into their Norfolk, VA, facility. According to numbers that PETA themselves report to the Virginia Department of Agriculture, PETA killed 2,200 of the 2,345 pets it took in, for a whopping 94% kill rate--the highest of all pounds and shelters in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. The VA Dept. of Agriculture only requires shelters to count their savable or adoptable animals in the totals, so these were not animals that were irreparably suffering. Their record of animal killing is so appalling that animal welfare activist Nathan Winograd calls PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk "The Butcher of Norfolk" (

Meanwhile, PETA criticizes monks who choose to give the gift of LIFE to lobsters? I really must question PETA's "ethics" here. I can't help but disagree that boiling 534 sentient beings alive so they can be eaten is at all ethically preferable to letting them live. I'm sure the lobsters in question agree with me.

mehlinger333's picture

I can't say how I feel about this situation. I agree that saving the lobsters is a merciful act, and I agree that it isn't without the downsides that PETA pointed out. However, imagine another suffering being in that situation-- a human. Would it be cause for even momentary concern if you released a person or group of peoples from slavery or capture by buying their freedom? Sure, you're fueling the industry that caused them the suffering in the first place, but each of those people is an individual with memories and feelings and fear. Is it not merciful to save as many as you can, even if they continually are replaced? It might be questionable if the industry would survive forever, but at that point comes in the power of a public statement like that. It is not only saving a few individual lives, but is working toward the end of saving the rest of their kind, hopefully making even some small amount of progress.
All people are not going to begin treating animals as persons unless they see animals treated as persons, and that is what the lobster-liberation gesture is about.

Great article, thanks!

Sam Mowe's picture

Thank you for your comment. I'm not sure if this is exactly what you mean, but this reminds me that we should consider the human too. Maybe this action was good for the lobsters, but it seems more likely that it wasn't. But it also seems to me that this was definitely good for the humans involved. Intention counts for a lot. We have to imagine that this group of Buddhists believed that they were doing a good deed. And putting belief into action like that is character-building for those involved and admirable to others.