The Bird in the Cage Dilemma

C. Pierce Salguero contemplates the karmic framework in Buddhism, and how it informs life’s ethical dilemmas. 

C. Pierce Salguero
13 March 2023
Photo by Ojaswi Pratap Singh.

One of the first times I visited a Buddhist temple in Thailand, I saw that a woman had set up a stall out front in order to sell birds in small bamboo cages. The idea was to buy a bird from her and set it free. Since you’re liberating a living being from suffering, this is an act of generosity that will earn you some good karma or “merit.”

Karma, or the notion that all of our actions have ethical consequences, is a common feature of many Indian religious and philosophical traditions. The common view of karma among Buddhists is that it is something like a cosmic bank account with credits and debits that affect your wellbeing and happiness in this life as well as determining the conditions of future reincarnations. In determining whether your actions are beneficial or harmful, Buddhism places a lot of importance on the intention behind them. More than the action or its results, it is the intention that matters above all else.

Thinking in terms of karma doesn’t give us pat answers to these questions, but it gives us tools to help move past a simplistic understanding of ethics

This can lead to confusing situations in which the right thing to do is exceedingly difficult to untangle. For example, I initially thought that people buying birds and setting them free from their cages was a nice idea. But as I was about to buy them, I noticed that the woman’s son was catching the released birds with a net. He was putting them back into cages and returning them to his mother in order for her to sell them again and again.

What are the karmic implications here? My first impulse was to buy a bird, to do a good deed by freeing it. But then I discovered that by buying a bird, I was in fact supporting an operation that was repeatedly ensnaring birds, causing them suffering for profit. Having discovered that, should I buy a bird or not? Maybe not.

Thinking further, though, I could also see the karmic ambiguity of this operation for the woman and her son. They are trapping birds and holding them for ransom. Surely, that must be bad karma for them. But, by doing so, they are giving the temple visitors the opportunity to make merit, which surely must mean good karma for them. So, maybe I should support their operation after all, because it’s generating beneficial karma for lots of people?

But wait! As I thought about it even further, I discovered another layer of consideration. As a Western traveler in Thailand, I have a lot more privilege and money than this rural Thai family who has to engage in such a paradoxical profession in order to eke out a living. Maybe, I thought, I should buy the whole lot of birds at once and set them all free. Maybe I should buy the bird-sellers out for the whole day so they can go home and rest.

Ah, yes, but then, won’t I have sent the message to the community that you can potentially earn a lot of money from tourists in this bird-trapping profession? And won’t then even more people be out here selling birds tomorrow?

What’s the best thing to do in this situation? What would you have done?

The Buddhist notion of karma usually won’t give you a straight answer about what’s right and what’s wrong in any particular situation. It’s not a black-or-white system of rules or a simple equation. It’s more like a framework for thinking through the ethical implications of your decisions within a larger picture that is ever expanding and more complex. It’s a self-reflective practice that asks you to take into account an increasing number of variables each time you look at it.

The birds in the cage are just one small example of how complex ethics can get once you start thinking with karma. More complicated scenarios, such as politics, war, or climate change, involve many more variables. Sorting out the right thing to do in real-life situations involving countless different actors who are affected in different ways can be enormously difficult. From a Buddhist perspective, the approach would be to try to see all of the options for action in any situation, to understand all of the implications of each, to see all of your own motivations and entanglements clearly, and then to intentionally make the best choice that benefits the greatest number of beings.

Clearly, what Buddhism is asking of us is exceedingly difficult or even impossible. For example, if you’re trying to live an ethical life, it’s easy enough to avoid intentionally killing beings with your own hands. But what about your consumer choices—buying meat or leather goods, let’s say—that cause beings to be killed by others? Okay, you say, so I’ll become a vegan. But even if you buy only plant-based foods, aren’t you contributing to the death of beings as their habitats are cleared to make room for agricultural fields? If you drive a car, aren’t you contributing to climate change that kills off species? Even if you hold perfectly still and do nothing, if you know that there are beings dying that you could help, yet you do not intervene, aren’t you contributing to their death through your inaction? Upon deeper investigation, don’t most of our decisions as modern human beings result in harm of some sort or another to other beings? How can we possibly navigate this thicket of contradictions and interconnections? Is it even possible to live an ethical life?

Thinking in terms of karma doesn’t give us pat answers to these questions, but it gives us tools to help move past a simplistic understanding of ethics. It invites us to question our actions from multiple angles and to evaluate our choices and their consequences in the broadest terms. For me, it’s here that the Buddhist notion of karma is most useful. Because I am not Buddhist, I am not interested in making the argument that karma is true in a scientific sense—that people are literally reborn in ways that are determined by some cosmic bank account. But, still, I think the idea of karma is extremely valuable as an extended metaphor. Even if we do not believe in rebirth, I think karma can still be a useful tool to help us to think more clearly about our decisions in a useful and productive way, in order to gain perspective on how our actions affect the other beings around us.

By the way, after some consideration, I bought three birds that day outside the temple. What would you have done?

Excerpted from Buddhish: A Guide to the 20 Most Important Buddhist Ideas for the Curious and the Skeptical by C. Pierce Salguero (Beacon Press 2022). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
C. Pierce Salguero

C. Pierce Salguero

Pierce Salguero is a transdisciplinary scholar of health humanities who is fascinated by historical and contemporary intersections between Buddhism, medicine, and cross-cultural exchange. He has a Ph.D. in History of Medicine from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (2010), and teaches Asian history, medicine, and religion at Penn State University’s Abington College, located near Philadelphia. He is the author of Buddhish: A Guide to the 20 Most Important Ideas for the Curious and Skeptical and A Global History of Buddhism & Medicine, both published in 2022.