If you think Buddhism is free from typical religious stupidity, read this
By DIKKY SINN, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 19 minutes ago
HONG KONG - Something was strange about the little brown bird found dead from bird flu in one of Hong Kong's busiest shopping districts.
The scaly breasted munia usually lives in rural areas of the territory. So how did it and five others come to be in a bustling urban district — raising the threat of exposing residents and tourists to the virus?
Experts think the birds may have been used in a Buddhist ritual that frees hundreds of birds to improve karma. So, with worries rising in Asia about a new outbreak of bird flu, officials are urging that the religious practice be stopped to protect public health.
Hong Kong is hypersensitive about disease outbreaks — especially bird flu. The illness first appeared here in 1997 when it jumped to humans and killed six people. That prompted the government to slaughter the territory's entire poultry population of 1.5 million birds, and the disease has since largely spared this city of 6.9 million people.
But authorities remain on alert, particularly with new outbreaks in other parts of Asia.
In Japan, agricultural officials announced Saturday that the H5 strain of bird flu had been identified in thousands of chickens that died at a poultry farm in the south. Further tests were under way to determine if it was the H5N1 strain, which has killed 157 people worldwide since 2003.
Indonesia said two more of its people died from bird flu, raising the toll this week to four in the latest cases to strike the country worst hit by the virus. Sixty-one Indonesians have died since H5N1 first appeared in the its commercial poultry stocks and backyard chickens in 2004.
Indonesian authorities said all four dead were believed to have caught the virus directly from chickens and were not known to have had contact with each other.
Bird flu remains hard for humans to catch, but international experts are keeping close watch for signs it has mutated into a form that could spread easily between humans and potentially set off a worldwide pandemic.
When Hong Kong officials discovered that a scaly breast munia found dead on New Year's Eve tested positive for the H5 virus, they held a televised news conference to alert the public. A few days later, they said further tests showed the bird had the H5N1 strain.
The scaly breasted munia is native to Hong Kong, but is usually found in tussocks in rural areas, said Lew Young, a manager at the Chinese territory's Mai Po bird sanctuary.
"Six scaly breasted munia being found dead at the same spot at one time easily leads one to suspect whether they were being released," he said.
The birds are commonly used in the Buddhist ceremonies, Young added.
"They are usually transported to Hong Kong from the mainland in boxes. If one of the birds is sick, the rest are likely to be sick as well since they are crammed in one box," he said.
Aidia Chan, a postgraduate student in ecology who studied the releases for her thesis last year at Hong Kong University, said the frequency of releasing birds in Hong Kong is far more than had been suspected.
She contacted 229 religious groups in the city and 48 admitted they released birds to seek blessings. The groups practice the ritual one to 18 times each year, releasing as many as 3,000 birds each time, she said.
"Based on the figures they gave me, I estimate they released a range of 400,000 to 600,000 birds in 2006," Chan said.
"There are also people who buy and release birds individually, and there's no way for me to quantify them, so there should be more other than these 48 groups," she said.
One Buddhist group said many of its followers had stopped releasing birds since the bird flu outbreak was reported in Hong Kong.
"Some of the followers do not feel comfortable getting in touch with birds since bird flu cases were reported. They were worried the birds might be infected," said Winnie Lam, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Buddhist Cultural Association.
Lam said the group used to free more than 1,000 birds at one time, but now release hundreds of fish into the sea each month. "We believe releasing life can build up one's benevolence and life belongs to the nature," she said.
The Hong Kong government has called on the public not to free birds but it declines to comment whether it has considered a formal ban on releases.
Young said while releasing life is a virtuous deed, people should realize the birds are caught somewhere else before they can be released to perform the ritual.
"It may take more than 150 (birds) to provide 100 birds" for releasing, Young said. "Many might have died before they were delivered in Hong Kong. So are they doing a good cause?"