Buddha’s death considered as we approach Vesak
Shakyamuni died from eating tainted pork accidentally offered to him by a well-meaning lay devotee…. that story permeates Buddhist history and mythology, and has spawned many debates both about both his death and the morality of eating animal flesh. Okay, it wasn’t necessarily bacon…
This story is mentioned in the book, Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression, as well as on many online sites. Generally, the Western Buddhist sources I read accept it as factual and some take it as permission for Buddhists to eat meat.
But is it history? or is it a morality tale, meant to instruct rather than to be taken as fact? Or is there something else in it?
On the Fraught With Peril blog, it offers some insight into the challenges – and subtleties – of interpreting the tale. The meal contained something called…
…sukara-maddava, which can be translated as either “soft pork” or as “pig’s delight.” No one knows for sure what this was. It might have been pork, because the Buddha allowed monastics to accept meat as long as it was not seen, heard, nor suspected that an animal had been killed for their sake. On the other hand, it might have been a type of mushroom that pig’s also liked to eat. In any case, the Buddha tried some of this and sensed that something was wrong.
The ‘something’ that was wrong was happening inside his gut. Here’s where the modern twist enters the story. Modern doctors, reading the stories, have applied their diagnostic skills and come up with an alternative to food poisoning:
Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu has argued that it was not food poisoning after all, but rather a condition known as mesenteric infarction that was what killed the Buddha. As mentioned before, this is a condition brought on by old age in which the artery that supplies blood to the small intestines is blocked. This causes an infarction or gangrene of the intestinal wall or mesentery. Mesenteric infarction is fatal if untreated by surgery. The Buddha’s severe abdominal pains or angina during the rainy season retreat in Beluva signaled the onset of this condition. During his meal at the home of Chunda the Buddha suffered a second angina attack and at first thought the sukara-maddava was responsible. Food poisoning, however, would not be felt until at least a couple of hours after the meal and not immediately. After the meal was finished the Buddha gave a Dharma talk to his host and then took his leave. That is when other more severe symptoms occurred, and the Buddha realized that this was no mere food poisoning.
So it might not have been the food itself, but simply the Buddha’s age (he was 80 at the time), that caused the problem. Age, however inevitable, doesn’t make much of a morality lesson.