Limit yourself to just a few activities and undertake them with all diligence.
∼Chadral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche.
On Ransoming Lives.
One of the activities that Chadral Rinpoche undertook with all diligence, was and remains, the annual fish release into the sacred Indian river, the Ganges. This happens right at the point where this vast river finally flows out into the Bay of Bengal and the wide open sea.
He began this project in the 1960s with little more than an old wooden canoe, a few bucket loads of fish and a couple of helpers. Today the work is carried on primarily by his wife, Sangyum Karmala and various sponsors and volunteers. It is now a large operation involving many helpers, a number of boats and many truckloads of fish which are purchased from the fish farms in and around Kolkata and then released with prayers and auspicious mantras into the milky green waters of the great Mother Ganga.
During the 1990s I used to wonder about the little black pouch that Rinpoche always wore around his waist. He guarded this pouch very carefully as it was stuffed full of various denominations of Indian and Nepali rupee notes which devotees had offered for the purchase and release of fish. He was thoroughly scrupulous about the offerings which came in. Each was assigned to its own purse which denoted a particular cause, but somehow the funds for the fish release were always very abundant and the little black pouch was fairly bursting at its seams.
However, this had not always been the case. When Rinpoche first began this project, he was only newly arrived in India as a refugee from Tibet and extremely poor. In those days he was establishing the very first Buddhist meditation center for three year retreat on the Sub-continent and as they could not afford to hire many workers, he rolled up his sleeves and took up a shovel, carrying and laboring on the repair work site with everyone else.
Funds for the fish release were very scarce. One time the monastery caretaker walked into Rinpoche’s room with tears in his eyes. He had just discovered that Rinpoche had sold a lovely piece of precious brocade, one of very few items that they had managed to bring with them from Tibet. With these funds he had bought a dial-up phone so that he could call Kolkata to order fish and keep tabs on progress for the annual end of year release!
The caretaker was in a state of utter misery a good deal of the time during those years of scarcity. He was always wondering how on earth they would all be able to eat and carry on the general business of very simple living, but Rinpoche was never concerned and always waved him away with words of solace, telling him that all would be well. I know that Rinpoche would have given the clothes off his own back in order to keep on releasing fish into the Ganges. In fact he ordered Lolu, the caretaker, to sell some of his scant personal possessions in order to do just this, on more than one occasion.
I used to watch Rinpoche’s handpicked group leave from Salbari Gompa every year for this great event, with tears in my eyes, wondering if I would ever have enough merit to be allowed to go with them and help. They all stayed at the house of a Marwari Hindu who had taken a shine to Rinpoche’s project and Rinpoche, ever mindful and sensitive of others, was always careful never to take more people with him than was absolutely necessary for the task at hand. He did this so as not to overstep or impose on the kindness of a generous donor.
One year, however, I decided to take matters into my own hands. At the time, I was living in a small retreat hut in the forests of the Darjeeling hills and had come to know that Rinpoche had arrived at his Salbari temple. He had journeyed from Nepal and was already on his way to Kolkata. I did not want to ask for permission and risk being sent back to my hut, so I just packed a few things, went down the hill and caught the night train. After arriving in the wee hours of the following morning and finding myself a suitable lodging, I made my way to the place where I knew the fish release would be taking place. I was able to arrive at the banks of the Ganges just as they were all preparing to begin work that day.
It was naughty of me to go without his permission, but I never once regretted my decision and Rinpoche never said anything to reproach me nor showed any sign of displeasure at my unasked for appearance. Within an hour I was chugging out onto the river on a funky old wooden tugboat together with one of the lamas. The two of us had loaded our boat with the help of a band of Indian workers, with large waist-high buckets filled to the brim with fish. Four other boats, each with two helpers to unload the buckets came and went in a constant procession as we began to release into the river the truck loads of fish that had been bought.
It was hard work in the unforgiving sun, but we barely looked up to notice it. Throughout most of the day, Rinpoche sat quietly on the banks and watched us come and go. There was such a special atmosphere, like a rain of blessings enfolding the whole procedure and although we labored for hours without any breaks, none of us faltered or felt tired. Many times I found myself with tears in my eyes and quite involuntarily, mantras and prayers flowed from our lips as we lifted bucket after bucket-load of fish and poured them in droves into the waters. The moment of their release was so exhilarating. It was a joy to watch them flicker away like sparkling darts as the rays of the sun’s light flashed for a moment off their silvery fins. As it turned out, the year I went was one of the last that Rinpoche, already well into his nineties at the time, could attend in person and his wife, Sangyum Kamala, and others have come forward now to carry on the work.
Just think of how relevant and how meaningful this work, which had such humble beginnings, has now become. This is not just a symbolic act that shows remarkable foresight and conveys a powerful message; this is a living demonstration of something much deeper, which has profound implications. The fish in our seas are being caught indiscriminately and in droves and who is giving anything back? Can we take and take without end?
Before concluding, I want to add a brief mention of something that happened to a young newly-wed couple who were about to embark on their honeymoon on the Andaman Islands. This story is a remarkable tale that reveals the intricate and subtle underlying threads between the motivation and the activities of those who live, work and exist in this world only to benefit others.
On the day of their departure, the young, newly-weds were walking through the Kathmandu airport, when they noticed an elderly lama sitting to one side with his family and entourage. It was Chadral Rinpoche, about to set off for Kolkata to undertake the annual fish release. As the husband’s family members were all long time devotees of Rinpoche, he immediately went over to receive the old lama’s blessing. During this encounter Rinpoche made some comments which the young man was not able to fully understand at the time. He had asked Rinpoche to bless them on their trip and this Rinpoche had graciously done. However, he had also said something to them that they had both found very unexpected and disturbing.
He had said that something major was about to happen and that much life would be lost as a result. As a political conflict was raging in Nepal at that time, the couple attributed his words to this. Rinpoche had told them that he was going to Kolkata to buy and bless fish which had been raised in fish farms, and that he would release the fish into the Ganges. By doing this he prayed, he could save a few lives. The couple offered a donation towards the buying of the fish and he thanked them and then added that it would be offered in their name, not only for their long life, but for the benefit and long life of all beings.
It was mid-December in the year of 2004. Exactly two weeks later there was a huge 9.1 earthquake near Indonesia. The massive quake released a gigantic tsunami that devastated a vast swathe of south-east Asia and took with it some quarter of a million lives. It happened just off the coast of Aceh, not far from the Andaman Islands where the couple was still holidaying at that time. The newly-weds lives were spared but their known world thereafter was completely shaken and they could never forget the timely words or the powerful blessing of the lama.