And yet not all meat;
these meats you should never eat:
elephants and dog,

snakes, lions, tigers,
panthers, bears and hyenas;
– always forbidden!

Yet some other meat,
are allowed only sometimes:
– cat, pig, cow and stuff!

Confused, you will be!
here’s more rules to baffle you;
– meat must be blameless!

What pray is blameless?
it must not be killed for you,
neither bought for you.

This the rule for monks,
lay people eat whatever;
– go knock yourself out!

And Mahayana?
No meat is blameless ever,
– please never eat meat!

Beings are family,
that cow was once your
sister and brother.”

The first precept corresponds to the Hindu and Jain concept of ahimsa (Harvey, 2000,p 69), ‘no-injury’ and is generally regarded as the most important one (Harvey, 2000,p 69). The spirit of the precept is expressed thus: Laying aside violence in respect of all beings, both which are still and those which move … he should not kill any living creature, nor cause to kill, nor approve of others killing (sn 394)

This precept applies to all sentient beings since we all share the same cycle of rebirths and experience the same kind of suffering (Harvey, 2000,p 69). In other words all Buddhist lineages teach that that animals are capable of suffering and joy just as we are (Phelps, 2004)and therefore it follows that the first precept forbids a Buddhist for involvement in killing any sentient being.

On the face of it then Buddhists would not be able to do anything that will kill any animal and would automatically disapprove of anyone or anything that did kill any animal. This would mean, in essence, that Buddhists would not eat meat, wear leather or be involved with any process or material that involved the killing of animals which is the position the Jains took. However, this is not what we find and the stories of the Pali-cannon report that Buddha set up a hierarchy of animals and instructed his followers to eat some types of meat as long as certain conditions were met while never eating other types and yet monks never refuse any food that was given.

This contradictory state of affairs was arrived at by taking the varied recorded teachings of the Pali-cannon that the Buddha was meant to have taught at different times and places to different people. Some of the diverse dietary rules arrived at in this way are that some meats were banned altogether such as the flesh of elephants, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, panthers, bears and hyenas (Harvey, 2000,p 159) while allowing the eating of other meats only on the condition that the eater had not have seen, heard, nor have any reason to suspect that the animal was killed or bought specifically for them and under these circumstances this was called ‘blameless’ meat (Majjhima, Anguttara Nikayas, and the Vinaya). In fact, Buddha was thought to have gone further than only allowing the so-called ‘blameless’ meat for monks but actually insisting that monks accept and eat all food offered from alms since it is important to be neither attracted nor averted by meat or to deny the foods donor of their karmic rewards (Harvey, 2000,p 160). Nevertheless, Buddha instructed his followers that being averted from the meat industry was acceptable insisting that that is wrong livelihood (AN 5:177) while actually refusing to allow his followers to be vegetarian when his cousin Devadatta suggested it (vin. II.171-2).

It is hard to see how this hotchpotch of rules make any sense at all as they seem contradictory in essence and function. For instance, one should eat some meats as a practice of being neither attached nor averted to it, but then some are always banned. Furthermore, Buddha seems to recognised that in many cases meat wouldn’t be ‘blameless’ but forbids his followers to seek a meat-free life. How then, can we understand how the Buddha set up a system with such hotchpotch of contradictory practices?

The first thing is to remember the Pali-cannon does not contain a divine revelation but at best the worlds of the Buddha who was usually solving problems on the fly. So, for example, when it is said he banned eating elephant it was because in those times elephant was under royal protection. Likewise, he suggested not eating tigers because they were dangerous and might kill you. It is hard to see how this ban would affect the offering of an elephant-burger to a 21st century monk, and therefore quite clearly some or all of the rules need no longer apply. The second thing to understand is that when the Buddha was talking to his monks he was talking to a small group of homeless mendicants like himself who begged for all their food and as the saying goes: “beggars can’t be choosers”. In a small group like this an injunction to accept only ‘blameless’ food made sense since a monk should focus on his or her meditation. It was only much later after the Buddha’s death that monks built monasteries and became integrated into society. Indeed, there have been times and places where Buddhists became powerful and influential and even became representatives of the state religion.

Once Buddhism grew into a large and powerful religion it would have been easy for monks that relied on begging to specify which kinds of food that they would like from lay donors. After all, every lay Buddhist should not kill an animal for food, or tell someone else to do it for them as this is breaking the first precept (Harvey, 2000,p 160) and therefore meat is forbidden once one has an easy choice and where it is offered and accepted there is a chain of guilt since it would have been easy to ask all lay people for alms to be meat-free. How then, were the rules that were created to address the needs of a few homeless recluses begging for their food in a society they have no direct influence over later justified be later justified in quite different circumstances?

The answer to these questions depends on which school of Buddhism we are talking about. In the Theravada tradition they stuck to the strange and contradictory rules from the Pali-cannon described above. The Mahayana on the other hand took the first precept seriously and encouraged people to not eat meat to maximise compassion. In fact, in the Mahayana scriptures there is no reference to the ‘blamelessness’ concept and secondly meat eating is very vigorously and unreservedly denounced and the idea that monks who go out begging and receive meat from a donor should eat it is specifically rejected. Each school developed a theory, or theories of ‘sentient-being’ that allowed them to either ignore the plight of animals or aim to protect them.