As you might expect of America's oldest seaport, Gloucester Harbor gives up its bounty almost every day. And sometimes it receives some of it back.

On Sunday, as the winds died down and the late afternoon edged toward dusk, the Lady Jillian slipped her berth at Harbor Loop and Capt. Steve Douglass headed out toward the Outer Harbor.

The seats on his 39-foot Beachcat pontoon boat were filled with Buddhist members of the American Compassion Life Association and its deck was laden with 24 cardboard crates filled with live lobsters, surf clams, clams and other delicacies harvested from the sea, all of it heading back from whence it came.

The 25 Buddhists on board were engaging in a tradition as old as their ancient religion, a ritual of compassion and the unceasing affirmation of life.

Each month, the members, who hail from throughout the Boston area, try to come together to put their faith into action by helping give life back to animals on the very cusp of losing it.

Almost a dozen times in the past two years, they have ventured to Gloucester, purchased the live seafood at Intershell Inc. and boarded the Lady Jillian to practice the very compassion their religion teaches.

"You have to understand that, for us, all life is equal and there are ways to marry all life back to the world," said Eva Chen, one of the association members. "It's as if karma brings us here. It is a blessing."

Douglass' vessel was festooned for the occasion, with colorful pennants ringing the open cabin and a Buddhist altar set up near the bow.

As the passengers waited for their monk and spiritual leader, Geshe Tenley, to arrive, the children aboard the Lady Jillian occupied their time — and underscored their faith — by feeding bread to the seagulls that had flocked to the water near the dock.

At the same time, adult members sat quietly, talking quietly among themselves. Some worked their traditional prayer wheels and every once in a while someone would traverse the cabin, spraying holy water on the seafood.

"We believe that when they go back into the water, their next life will be better," Chen said. "We are just spreading love and compassion and by doing so, we believe we give life and gain wisdom."

If conditions are ideal, Douglass often will bring them out as far as the Dog Bar breakwater, where the assembled will pray, sprinkle more holy water and begin depositing the seafood back into the chilly waters of the harbor.

In doing so, they believe they redraw the circle of life.

"We also believe that when they go back, their next life will be better," Chen said. 

On Sunday, the strong winds from the south had left the water on the rough side, so Douglass opted to say closer to the Inner Harbor, heading for a spot just past Ten Pound Island for the ceremony, the seagulls following the boat through the Inner Harbor and beyond.

"Apparently, they used to have a lobsterman bring out the seafood products, but what they really were looking for was a vessel that could hold more people," Douglass said. "They found out about me and I've been able to accommodate them. They seem to be very happy about that and with the way things have gone."

It is an occasion both somber and joyful.

"Every life is precious," Tenley said. "Even if they are only lobsters, they are the same as us. We are just putting them back where they came from."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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