This discourse is referenced by the late Venerable Sayādaw in his discourse on cows and intoxicants (Goṇasurā Dīpanī). The section on cows is translated as Cow Dhamma. Largely due to the influence of this famous Sayādaw the eating of beef is not common in Burma. The Burmese are rarely vegetarians — eating pork, goat, duck, chicken, and all manner of sea-food — but not often eating beef. The late Sayādaw emphasised the debt of gratitude owed to cattle that — in his era — laboured on farms pulling ploughs, threshing the crops, and transporting goods to market, as well as providing milk and butter.
There are ten kinds of meat proscribed by the Buddha in the Vinaya Mahāvagga as not allowable to be eaten by monks, but beef is not one of them. Nevertheless, this discourse indicates that cattle have a special place in Buddhism, though they are not sacred as in Hinduism. There are ten kinds of meat not allowable for monks (even if free from the three defects of seeing, hearing, or thinking that the animal has been slaughtered to offer almsfood), with the reasons why they are unsuitable for almsfood:
The ancient brahmins referred to lived during the time of King Okkāka, the first king of the Sakyan race. It is the nature of traditions to degrade over many generations. The Saṅgha has suffered the same fate as the ancient brahmins, no longer being content with the four basic requisites, but in many cases falling under the influence of sensual pleasures. The remedy is to study and practise the teachings so that one again becomes intent on the pursuit of knowledge and insight. Lay Buddhists should do the same, becoming intent on the pursuit of knowledge and insight rather than on accumulating mundane merit.
Thus have I heard — At one time the Blessed One was dwelling at Sāvatthi in Prince Jeta’s grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. Then a large number of wealthy brahmins, decrepit, venerable, elderly, having reached the end of life, approached the Blessed One; having approached, they exchanged friendly greetings. Having engaged in polite and friendly conversation, they sat down at one side. Sitting at one side, those wealthy brahmins said to the Blessed One: “Are the brahmins of today seen to follow the practices of the ancient brahmins?”
“No, brahmins, the brahmins of today do not follow the practices of the ancient brahmins.”
“It would be good if the Venerable Gotama would speak about the practices of the ancient brahmins, if it is not troublesome to the Venerable Gotama.”
“Then, brahmins, listen and pay careful attention, I will speak.”
“Very well, venerable sir,” those wealthy brahmins replied to the Blessed One.
The Blessed One said this:–
“The sages of former times, virtuous and self-controlled,
Renouncing the five strands of sensuality, they lived intent on their own welfare.
“The ancient brahmins kept no cattle, grain, nor wealth.
Learning and recitation was their wealth and grain, the brahmins guarded this treasure.
“Whatever food was placed at their door,
They regarded it as given by those with faith in seekers.
“With cloths of various colours, beds and dwellings,
Prosperous people of the country honoured those brahmins.
“The brahmins were inviolable, they wee invincible, being protected by the truth.
No one obstructed them, the doors of all households were open for them.
“Practising chastity until the age of forty-eight.
Learning and good conduct was the brahmins’ quest.
“The brahmins did not go to others’ wives, neither did they purchase a wife.
Only living together by mutual affection, they delighted in each other’s company.
“Except during the fertile season, after menstruation had ceased,
The brahmins did not engage in sexual intercourse.
“Chastity, morality, integrity, gentleness, and austerity,
Restraint, harmlessness, and patience they praised.
“Whoever was supreme among them, observed constant chastity.
He did not engage in sexual intercourse, not even in his dreams.
“He fulfils his training, those with discretion,
Praise chastity, morality, and patience.
“Rice, bedding, cloths, ghee, and oil received as alms,
Collected righteously, they made an offering from them.
"In making offerings, they did not kill cattle.
Like our mother, father, brother, or other relatives,
Cattle are our best friends, since they produce medicines.
“They give food, strength, beauty, and happiness,
Knowing these benefits, they did not kill cattle.
“Refined, corpulent, handsome, and honoured,
The brahmins were attentive to their duties to be done and avoided.
While these were maintained, their community prospered.
“They became corrupt, having seen worthless things —
Decorated palaces and bejewelled women.
“Chariots yoked with thoroughbreds, beautifully decorated
Gateways and dwellings, with well-proportioned sections precisely measured.
“Enjoyment of herds of cattle, harems of lovely women,
Excellent human wealth, were coveted by the brahmins.
“They composed verses and approached King Okkāka,
Saying, ‘You have abundant wealth, sacrifice and offer wealth to us.’
“Persuaded by the brahmins, the king, the lord of chariots,
Performed the horse sacrifice, the human sacrifice,¹
Sacrificed wealth to the brahmins, without holding back.
“Cattle, beds, clothes, adorned women,
Chariots pulled by thoroughbreds, and beautifully decorated,
Charming dwellings, divided into well-proportioned rooms,
Filled with various grains, he gave wealth to the brahmins.
“They, having obtained wealth, agreed to storing it,
Overwhelmed by desire, their craving grew all the more.
Having composed verses, they approached Okkāka again.
“Like water and earth, gold and grain,
Thus are cattle to human beings, requisites for life,
Sacrifice much property, sacrifice great wealth.’
“By that the king, the lord of chariots, persuaded by the brahmins,
Had several hundred thousand cattle slaughtered in sacrifice.
“Neither with hooves nor horns, did they harm anyone,
The cattle were as tame as lambs, giving buckets of milk,
Taking them by the horns, the king slaughtered them with a sword.
“Then the gods and ancestors, Indra, the jealous gods and demons
Cried out, ‘This is unjust,’ as the sword fell on the cows.
“In former times there were three diseases: desire, hunger, and decay,
From the slaughter of cattle, ninety-eight came into existence.²
“This unrighteous cruelty has come down from the ancient brahmins.
The slaughter of innocent beasts, the sacrificing priests fell from righteousness.
“Thus this ancient practice of the ancients blamed by the wise,
Whenever this is seen the sacrificing priests are blamed by the people.
“Thus when righteousness was lost workers and merchants were divided,
Many warriors were divided, and wives disregarded their husbands.
“Warriors, brahmins and others who protected their clans,
Disregarding reputation of birth,³ came under the sway of sensuality.”
When this had been said, those wealthy brahmins said to the Blessed One: “It is wonderful, venerable sir, it is marvellous, venerable sir! It is as if, venerable sir, someone had set upright what had been overturned, revealed what was hidden, pointed out the path to one who was lost, brought a light into the darkness so that those with eyes can see. Thus, venerable sir, the Blessed One has explained the Dhamma in various ways. We go for refuge to the Blessed One, to the Dhamma, and to the Saṅgha. May the Blessed One regard us as disciples who have taken refuge from today for as long as we shall live.”
1. It seems improbable that human beings or horses were sacrificially slaughtered to honour the brahmins. It is more likely that horses were donated to them along with grooms and charioteers.
2. There is ample evidence that a vegetarian diet is healthier than one that relies heavily on meat, especially red meat. During the Buddha’s time nine foods were regarded as superior foods, which a monk could not request for his own use unless sick: ghee, butter, oil, honey, palm-sugar, fish, meat, milk, and curds. The staple diet of grains, pulses, and vegetables was apparently the norm, while wealthy donors offered the superior foods to the monks, resulting in them becoming sick. To combat these digestive problems the Buddha allowed (recommended) the monks to do sweeping. The first five of these superior foods were permitted as seven-day medicines for monks to take when famished due to being unable to digest regular almsfood at the right time. They can be consumed at any time, and stored until before dawn on the eighth day after receiving them.
3. Status in Indian society was structured according to four main castes: brahmins, warriors, merchants, and employed workers, with beggars, slaves, garbage collectors, fishermen, slaughtermen, or leather-workers being regarded as outcastes. The Buddha redefined the meaning of caste in the Caṇḍāla Sutta and the Brahmaṇavagga of the Dhammapada — teaching that it was conduct that made one a brahmin or an outcaste, and not birth. Nevertheless, worldly values determined, and still determine, to a great extent, that one would not marry outside of one’s current social status. Parents would seek a suitable bride for their son from a family of similar social status. Due to sensual desire, one might marry another below one’s social status. See also the Soṇa Sutta, wherein the decline in the standards of brahmins during the Buddha’s time is taught. The Sakyans, who were of the warrior caste, were also too proud of their status due to birth as shown by the story of the Buddha’s cousin, Mahānāma.