Sunday, October 12, 2008

CSI: The Kushinara Files

CSI. The Kusinara File

- Venerable S. Dhammika

In his comment to my posting of 6th October Terrance included an article by Mettanando Bhikkhu about what might have caused the Buddha’s death. It is an interesting article although I have problems with some of its key points and interpretations of the evidence. This is my own take on the subject.

The Digha Nikaya records that before the Buddha passed away he ate a meal given to him by a blacksmith named Cunda. This meal consisted of a preparation called sukara maddava which can be translated as ‘pig’s delight’ (D.II,127). There has been a great deal of speculation as to what this meal consisted of. Some say that it was a pork dish, which is quite possible as the Buddha was not a vegetarian and did not advocate vegetarianism. One of the more bizarre theories and one that has gained wide acceptance is that it was a type of truffle or mushroom. Early European scholars of Buddhism theorized that as the French use trained pigs to find truffles, the ‘pig’s delight’ mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures might be a variety of truffle or mushroom. This theory is based on the false premise that what is so of the French countryside must have been so in ancient India. In fact, truffles do not grow in India and the use of trained pigs to find them, even in France, is a recent practice.* The usual Pali word for mushrooms, toadstools and other fungi is ahihattaka and means ‘snake umbrella.’ The modern Hindi equivalent sarpchatr has the same meaning. The Bengali word byaner chata means ‘frog/toad umbrella.’ I know of no connection between mushrooms/toadstools and pigs in any Indian language, mythology or folk lore. Thus the theory that the Buddha’s last meal was mushrooms or truffles is without any foundation. All we can say about sukara maddava is that it was some kind of preparation, the contents of which have long ago been forgotten.

The mention of sukara maddava in relation to the Buddha’s death has also led some uninformed people to believe that the Buddha died of food poisoning or even that he was poisoned. I have found this last claim on several Christian web sites. The attraction of the theory that the Buddha was poisoned, at least for some people, it that it suggests something slightly sinister about him or the people around him. Once again, there is no evidence that the Buddha died of food poison or that he was poisoned. The facts as they are presented in the Mahaparinibbana are pretty clear and do not need complex explanations to be understood.

In the months before his passing the Buddha had suffered ‘a severe illness causing him sharp pains as if he were to die’ and which he ‘endured mindfully, fully aware and without complaint’ (D.II,99). He was 80 years old, unusually long-lived for the time, and Ananda described him at this stage as having ‘slack and wrinkled limbs and being stooped’ (S.V,217). He himself said that his body could ‘only be kept going by being patched up’ (D.II,100). Mettanando reads this as the Buddha ‘grumbling about his failing health’, an interpretation which I find completely unwarranted. The Buddha was simply describing his state at that time. After his last meal he had a severe bout of ‘diarrhoea with blood’ (lohita pakkhandika), almost certainly a continuation of the sickness he had been suffering from for some time, and later the next day he passed away. Obviously the Buddha died of the typical complications brought on by exhaustion and the various afflictions that often accompany old age, not because of what he had eaten the day before. The Buddha died of old age and you do not need a CSI lab to come to this conclusion.

Now if we can put aside sukhara maddava, creative forensics and long-distance diagnosis for a while, I would like to draw attention to what I consider to be a more significant fact about the Buddha’s passing. From the point of view of the Dhamma, the most important thing about the Buddha’s last hours is that it demonstrated once again his infinite capacity for compassion. When he realized that the end was near, he immediately thought of Cunda and suspected that he might be blamed for causing his death. To prevent this from happening, he instructed Ananda to return to Cunda's village and tell him that to serve an enlightened one his last meal was a most auspicious and blessed act. Thus, even being sick, exhausted and nearing death the Buddha’s only thought was for the welfare of others.

*Just to pre-empt anyone who might take issue with me on this point – several types of truffles actually do grow in India. The Tuber cabarium is found in Kashmir, the Melanogater durissimus grows in the Kangra Valley and several species of white and black truffles are found in the hills of West Bengal. But all these areas are far beyond the Middle Land where the Buddha lives and it is highly unlikely that they were imported to there or, if they were, that a poor blacksmith would have had access to them. My good friend Anil Sharma tells me that he has never heard of either pigs or dogs being used to find truffles in India. He also informs me that the Indians have never had the passion for their truffles that the French have had for theirs. The Indians are not into subtle flavours – they like pungency, piquancy and peppery hotness.

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