Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pork? Mushroom? How the Buddha Died

The Buddha's last illness: the result of eating sukara-maddava, pork or mushroom (LINK).

The Buddha is shown here leaving Cunda's the Blacksmith's house. He eventually walked a great distance to Kusinara (modern Kushinagar, India, site of an enormous Tibetan reliquary and monument), where he intended to pass into final nirvana at an out of the way site Ananda found very strange. The final passing took place between two Sala trees, and the Buddha explained to Ananda the very strategic reasons for the site.

Passing away into final nirvana (parinibbana): Instructing his last disciple, Subhadda the Wanderer, the Buddha entered nirvana for the final time on the full moon day in the month of Vesakha. This is part of the reason for annual Vesak celebrations throughout the world. It is the same day he attained he was born and attained enlightenment.

Cunda the Blacksmith offered the Buddha a meal. As an alms gatherer, the Buddha accepted his offer for lunch the following day. Together with the Sangha, the Buddha attended. But seeing the food -- sukara maddava ("pig's delight") -- being offered, he asked Cunda to only serve it to him and bury the rest.

What is a meal of "Pig's Delight"?
British Buddhist scholar Maurice Walshe

I have chosen this ambiguous expression to translate the controversial term sukara-maddava (sukara = "pig," maddava = "mild, gentle, soft," also "withered"). It could therefore mean either "the tender parts of a pig" or "what pigs enjoy" (cf. note 46 in The Last Days of the Buddha, Wheel Publication 67-69, BPS 1964, see note 363 [below]).

What is quite clear is that the old commentators did not know for certain what it did mean. DA [Digha Nikaya (Lengthy Discourses) Commentary (Sumangalavilasini by Buddhaghosa, see p. 50)] gives three possibilities:

  1. The flesh of a wild pig, neither too young nor too old, which had come to hand without being killed,
  2. soft boiled rice cooked with "the five products of the cow," or
  3. a kind of elixir of life (rasayana) (cf. next note).


Modern interpreters from Rhys Davids onwards have favored truffles [which pig's love and are obtained by having pigs root for them] as a plausible explanation, and some evidence for this has been adduced.

Trevor Ling , in Note 31 to his revision of the Rhys Davids translation of this Sutta [The Buddha's Philosophy of Man (Everyman's Library, London 1981, p. 218)], remarks: "This explanation seems intended to avoid offense to vegetarian readers or hearers. Rhys Davids's statement that Buddhists 'have been mostly vegetarians, and are increasingly so,' is difficult to accept."

Be that as it may (and in fact Eastern Theravada Buddhists have rarely been vegetarians, though some are now almost certainly under Western influence!), the question of vegetarianism has frequently been raised in the Buddhist field.

The standard Theravada position is set out in the Jivaka Sutta (MN 55), in which the Buddha tells Jivaka that monks must not eat the meat of any animal concerning which they have

  • seen,
  • heard, or
  • suspect

that it was specially killed for them. The Buddha rejected Devadatta's proposal to forbid meat-eating altogether to the monks.

[Devadata is the Buddhist of a backbiting Judas or proud Lucifer figure, who repeatedly attempted to assassinate the Buddha. This was not a sincere request by Devadatta., Rather, it was part of a plot to discredit the Buddha as not being austere enough to run the Sangha; Devadatta used the Buddha's unwillingness to consent to it to cause a schism in the Sangha. He then formed his own short-lived splinter group, impersonating the fully enlightened Buddha in the process instituting this and other mandatory austerities. The Buddha left it to nuns, monks, and followers to be vegetarians if they chose without making it mandatory. He soon became very ill, urgently sought out the Buddha to apologize for his misguided views but, it is said, was swallowed by earth before he could do so because the earth was unable to bear the gravity of his misdeeds.]

Living on alms as they did in the conditions of rural India at the time, they would either have gravely embarrassed those who offered them food, or starved if they had refused all meat. At the same time, under modern conditions, especially in the West, the question does arise as to whether the Sangha might not educate the laity into offering only vegetarian food. Many Western Buddhists (and not only Mahayanists) are in fact vegetarians today.

In many schools of Mahayana Buddhism, vegetarianism is the rule, and some writers have indulged in polemics against the Theravada school on this score. This, whatever may be said, has not always been purely for reasons of compassion. Shinran Shonin, the founder o the Shin School in Japan, abolished compulsory vegetarianism along with celibacy because he construed it a penitential practice.


The reference to an elixir noted above is interesting. E. Lamotte, The Teaching of Vimalakirti (English translation, PTS, London 1976), p. 313f., has an interesting and learned note in which he refers to deities mentioned in MN 36, who offered to insert a special divine essence into the Bodhisatta's pores to keep him alive, at the time of his extreme austerities.

He compares the Buddha's last meal with the wondrous food served to the Boddhisattvas by Vimalakriti, which takes seven days to digest, whereas the sukara-maddava eaten by the Buddha can only be digested by the Tathagata [another name for the Buddha] (or so we are told). The trouble was, of course, that in fact even the Tathagata failed to digest it! Cf. also SN 7.1.9.


With this Sutta [Sanskrit, sutra, "discourse"], Mrs. Bennett's volume of abridged translations comes to an end. Of greater value was The Last Days of the Buddha, translated by Sister Vajira and revised by Francis Story, with notes by the Ven. Nyanaponika Mahathera (Wheel Publication 67-69, BPS, Kandy 1964).

The Sutta is a composite one, many portions of which are found separately in other parts of the Canon, as listed by Rhys Davids. No doubt it contains the basic facts about the Buddha's last days, but various late and more than dubious elements have been incorporated in it -- a process which continued in the later Sanskrit versions (produced by the Sarvastivadins and other schools), which are known to us mainly from the Chinese and Tibetan translations (though some Sanskrit fragments have been found). For E. Waldschmidt's (German) study of these, see A.K. Warder, Indian Buddhism (2nd ed., London 1907), pp. 123-147.

It should perhaps be mentioned that the (expanded, Sanskrit-based) Mahaparinirvana Sutra is sometimes cited as evidence for the belief in a supreme self in Mahayana Buddhism. One Chinese version does indeed contain a passage to this effect, but this is a late interpolation, and is not representative of the general Mahayana position.

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