The Buddha’s Last Supper
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). The ancient commentaries to the Buddhist scriptures, the Sumangalavilasani and the Paramatthajotika, give a variety of explanations as to what this food was; tender fatty pork, bamboo shoots, a rice preparation, etc. Obviously the identity of sukara maddava was forgotten very early and later Buddhists had to resort to guesswork. The earliest Buddhists probably did not preserve information about sukara maddava because quite correctly they thought it unimportant. There has been a great deal of speculation of late as to what the Buddha’s last meal was. Scholars such as Arthur Waley, E. J. Thomas and J. F. Fleet, Walpola Rahula, R. Gordon Wasson, Karl Neumann and most recently Thich Nhat Hanh, have all weighed in on the subject. Adding to all this are the opinions of numerous amateurs, usually ignorant of the Buddhist scriptures, ancient Indian social history and much else besides. Some have said sukara maddava was a pork dish, which is quite possible as the Buddha was not a vegetarian. One of the more bizarre theories and one that has gained wide acceptance is that it was a type of truffle.
Early European scholars of Buddhism theorized that because the French use trained pigs to find truffles, the ‘pig’s delight’ mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures might be a variety of truffle. This theory is based on the false premise that what is so of the French countryside in the 19th century must have been so in India in the 5th century BCE. In fact, truffles do not grow in India and the use of trained pigs to find them even in France is a recent practice. Thus the theory that the Buddha’s last meal was truffles is without any foundation. Equally unfounded theories, presumably derived from this first one, is that sukara maddava was a type of mushroom, that the Buddha died of eating poison mushrooms, from food poisoning or even that he was poisoned. Again, the facts contradict such fanciful speculations.
While acknowledging that the matter is obscure and unlikely ever be settled, the general consensus amongst scholars is that sukara maddava may have been some kind of pork dish. Partisans of vegetarianism vehemently deny this and insist that it was truffles or mushrooms or at least not meat. Those who mistakenly think that vegetarianism was an integral part of early Buddhism jump to the conclusion that the Buddha was contradicting his own teachings by eating meat, and accuse the truffle/mushroom party of denying the obvious and trying to perpetuate a cover-up. Religious zealots intent on replacing Buddhism with their own faith prefer the ‘Buddha was poisoned’ scenario as it introduces a sinister aspect into the Buddha’s life and mission. All we can say with certainty is that sukara maddava was some kind of culinary preparation, the ingredients of which have long ago been forgotten.
Now let’s just look at the facts. 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.” (Digha Nikaya II,99). This took place during the monsoon when even in India today water-born diseases are very common. The Buddha 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.” (Samyutta Nikaya V,217). He himself said that his body could “only be kept going by being patched up.” (Digha Nikaya II,100). After his last meal, he had a severe bout of “diarrhea with blood” (lohita pakkhandika), 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, sickness and old age, not because of what he had eaten the day before. This more sound conclusion was still current when the Milindapanha was written (2nd century BCE – 1st century CE). It says; “It was not from the food that the Lord became sick. It was because of the natural weakness of his body and the completion of his lifespan that the sickness grew worse.” (Mil.175).
From the Buddhist perspective the only significance of the Buddha’s last meal is that it demonstrated once again his infinite capacity for compassion. When he realized that the end was near, he immediately thought that Cunda 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.