Consider the Lobsters

In September 2017, two London Buddhists were fined £28,000 after releasing hundreds of non-native lobsters and crabs into the sea near Brighton as part of a life-release ritual known as fangshen.

The practice of fangshen is often traced back to Chinese treatises such as the 10th-century work Wanshan tonggui ji, which praises the practice as an act of compassion intended to save living beings. Today, Buddhists in Taiwan, China, Nepal, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere practice fangshen to accumulate merit. Unfortunately, many of the animals are injured or killed during release, or are soon taken for prey in their unfamiliar environment; others thrive as invasive species and devastate local flora and fauna. The practice has developed into an industry of mass capture and release of thousands of birds, fish, and reptiles.

In this case, after more than 700 animals were released, officials offered fishermen £20 for every non-native crustacean they could recapture. But it was too little, too late: The Guardian reported that only 323 animals were retrieved—and some had already begun breeding.

Mindfulness May Help Prevent Domestic Abuse. But Does It Let the Perpetrators Off Too Easily?

In October 2017, Iowa implemented a new statewide program for domestic abusers known as Achieving Change through Values-Based Behavior (ACTV). The 24-week course, which incorporates mindfulness techniques to change violent behavior, replaces an earlier program that relied on anger-control techniques. By teaching that thoughts and feelings are transient, ACTV strengthens the perpetrator’s ability to recognize and withstand uncomfortable feelings.

ACTV was developed at Iowa State University by researcher Amy Zarling. To test its effectiveness, she compared 515 men who completed ACTV with 1,921 who had completed the previous curriculum. Twelve months later, those who had completed ACTV had half the rate of domestic violence arrests and were one-third less likely to commit any new offense.

Mindfulness may not rehabilitate every offender, however.

Researchers at George Mason University in Virginia wanted to know if mindfulness practice affected criminal thinking patterns common among offenders, such as notions of entitlement, failure to accept responsibility, a short-term orientation toward the future, insensitivity to the impact of crime, and negative attitudes toward authority.

The study showed mixed results. While the ability to regulate one’s emotions may mitigate criminal thinking patterns, one aspect of mindfulness as taught by ACTV encourages “not criticizing one’s own thoughts and actions” and may allow some offenders to use mindfulness to shirk responsibility for their own criminal acts. 

If ACTV mindfulness could help criminals let themselves off the hook, forms of mindfulness that encourage one to consider the ethics of one’s actions may be the better choice here.

And Can Mindfulness Make Teens More Anxious?

Researchers from several universities in Australia recently conducted a large-scale study to see if mindfulness could help reduce anxiety and depression, alleviate weight-related worries, and improve well-being in teens.

Three hundred and eight middle and high school students were split into a control group that took part in community projects and a mindfulness group that completed eight weeks of training based on a popular UK mindfulness curriculum. Both groups were assessed one week before the program, one week after sessions ended, and again three months later.

After analyzing the data, researchers found no benefit to the mindfulness group—in fact, participants with low baseline depression and weight concerns actually exhibited increased anxiety. And anxiety levels were higher for males in the mindfulness group as a whole when compared with the controls.

Of course, studies have their limitations. The mindfulness-training program that is widely used with adults, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), includes many more hours of formal training than a school day would allow, plus 45 minutes of daily practice at home. Teens had low compliance rates, too: only 26 percent of the mindfulness group practiced at home during the training period, and only 13 percent were still practicing at follow-up.

The only thing we know for sure is that if you want to know whether mindfulness is an effective practice, your subjects will actually have to do it.

Statue of an arhat bearing an alms bowl
Agalmatolite statue of an arhat bearing an alms bowl | Chinese Cultural Relics, a publication of East View Press

700-Year Old Chinese Shipwreck Reveals Buddhist Treasures

A Yuan dynasty shipwreck discovered in a dried-up riverbed in Shandong Province, eastern China, revealed a treasure trove of artifacts, including items from a Buddhist shrine room. Archaeologists recovered small stone arhats [enlightened beings] depicted with alms bowls, as well as gold and turquoise jewelry, porcelain, pottery, lacquerware, jade, and everyday items such as an iron pot and a wooden cutting board. All together, more than 100 pieces were found.

The ancient ship likely traveled along the Yellow River during the Mongol Empire in its river-faring days and sank because of a crack in its hull. It lay submerged in the soft mud of the riverbed for more than 700 years until its discovery during the excavation of a construction site.

Xu Zhen's Eternity Buddha in Nirvana
Installation of Xu Zhen’s Eternity Buddha in Nirvana, 2017 | Photo by Eugene Hyland

Melbourne’s Multifaith Buddha

The Shanghai-based Buddhist multimedia artist Xu Zhen has a new sculpture on display at Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria. His Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana is a 52-foot-long replica of a reclining Buddha from China’s Tang dynasty. Flanked by sculptures of gods and creatures drawn from Greco-Roman, neoclassical, and Renaissance art, the work is meant to represent interfaith harmony. It will be exhibited in Melbourne through April 15, 2018.