A Christian friend asked me this question because his pastor said so, and this pastor was quoting from a Buddhist book. The reason why they were interested in Buddha’s death, was because of a vested interest to depict Buddha as an ordinary man. Death from food poisoning appears adequately mundane to serve that agenda.
Did Buddha die from food poisoning or are there more than meets the eyes? Let us look at the events prior to Buddha’s parinirvana according to popular narratives.
1. Buddha’s hint to Ananda
Buddha told Ananda that He was getting old. Then He hinted that, if a Buddha willed so, a Buddha can prolong his physical existence. Buddha repeated the above thrice but Ananda did not respond to it. Thus, Buddha did not will an extension of His lifespan.
The physical aging and deterioration of Buddha’s physical body are inevitable. They are natural. However, Buddha has the ability to influence the functions of elements and thus, can prolong the physical body (which is made up of the elements) However, there is a window period for this lifespan extension process. Beyond that, the body is simply beyond repair.
This practice of announcing one’s parinirvana is still being honored by enlightened masters today. They will inform their close disciples of their impending parinirvana. These disciples may request their masters to prolong their lives. Some masters may accede while others may decline. Those who decline would simply go when their time is up. There is usually a religious fanfare to such events because the master appears to be perfectly healthy. He/she would be receiving guests and teaching disciples on that parinirvana day, then sit or lie down to enter parinirvana at the predetermined time. It is a religiously inspiring moment for Buddhists when we witness such an event.
2. Buddha’s decision to enter parinirvana
Following Ananda’s disregard, Buddha announced his parinirvana date shortly after. Only then, did Ananda cry and implored Buddha to stay. Unfortunately, the physical condition of Buddha’s body was beyond repair by then and it couldn’t be helped.
From the above 2 events, Buddhists should understand Buddha’s parinirvana as being caused by old age. Our physical body is precious to us when we are unenlightened. But to an enlightened person, this physical body is burdensome and a source of suffering. We can witness this perspective from poetry and commentaries left by enlightened masters. Therefore, losing their physical body is akin to breaking the last chain to Samsara. It is celebrated by the enlightened ones and nothing to be feared.
Here’s another interesting note. According to scriptural records, enlightened disciples of Buddha used to ask Him for permission to enter parinirvana. From this, we should gather that parinirvana is not a mundane death process.
3. Travelling to Kushinagar
There was a period of time between Buddha’s announcement and His parinirvana. In that manner, news of Buddha’s parinirvana was proclaimed far and wide so that far away disciples may travel to meet Buddha for the last time; so that they have an opportunity to clarify any doubts in their practices.
The final meeting place was decided to be Kushinagar. During this period, Buddha’s body began to show active signs of deterioration. He was ill and had fevers while traveling to Kushinagar. Why the trouble to travel when the body was ill?
Buddha spent his entire life teaching us enlightenment. He would survey the world for potential disciples who were ripe for enlightenment and He would travel towards them. His ability to call out their personal name without an introduction impresses them to take His message seriously.
His last disciple was Subhadda and many Buddhists believed that Buddha traveled all the way to Kushinagar just to teach Subhadda. Interestingly, Ananda tried to prevent Subhadda from disturbing Buddha and it was Buddha who instructed Ananda to let Subhadda in. Subhadda gained full enlightenment on that same day.
4. Accepting a meal from Cunda
This is where the food poisoning claim comes from. According to scripture, Cunda (a Buddhist lay follower) offered a meal to Buddha and his entourage of monks. Amongst the dishes being served, was something called Sūkara-maddava. This term translates into “Pig’s delight”. Some said it means a delightful part of a pig (to be eaten) and others said it means something that a pig would find delightful (Mushroom or truffle).
As it was customary to serve the most respectable guest first, Cunda served Sukara-maddava to Buddha. Buddha accepted the dish but instructed Cunda to bury the rest of it. Buddha said that no mortal would be capable of digesting that dish except Him.
Buddha praised Cunda for being the last offeror of a meal to Buddha. Just like how he praised Sujata for offering a meal before His enlightenment. Buddha’s health turned from bad to worse after that meal.
In this manner, many historians and even Buddhists attributed Buddha’s death to food poisoning. “That is why Buddha instructed Cunda to bury that dish specifically and refused others from eating it”
As mentioned, Buddha already foretold his parinirvana and His body had displayed all manner of deterioration from that point onwards.
Did Sukara-Maddava kill Buddha?
Based on the scripture, Buddha obviously knew there was something SPECIAL about that dish. Because He instructed Cunda to bury it. BUT if we believe that means the dish is poisonous; Then that also means we believe BUDDA COMMITTED SUICIDE?
I mean, if you know something is poisonous and purposely eat it; isn’t that suicide?
Thus, a more reasonable conclusion is that there was something special about that dish. Some Buddhist elders opined that unseen celestial beings had injected some form of ambrosia into the food. Although it is beneficial for celestial beings, ordinary men cannot digest it with their biological system. That is why Buddha informed Cunda:
” whatever that is left-over of the Sukara-Maddava, you should bury in a pit, because, Cunda I can see none in this world who could thoroughly digest it except the Tathāgata (When Buddha refers to Himself). “Very good Lord” said Cunda and, having buried the remainings of the ‘Sukara-Maddava’ in a pit, he came to the Lord, saluted him and sat down to one side.
5. Travelling to final resting place
As you can see above, Buddha did not fall to the ground, writhing in pain. He had his meal together with His monks. Then gave a sermon to Cunda. Then walked a distance towards a forested grove to lie down between 2 trees. Met Subhadda and taught him enlightenment.
If something is that poisonous that it had to be buried, wouldn’t its effect be more immediate? And like I said, it is highly improbable that Buddha committed suicide, having known that there was something special about the dish.
Does it mater how Buddha died?
I think it matters.
If we (Buddhists) believe that Buddha died of food poisoning, that means we are implying that He committed suicide or euthanasia (since His body was beyond repair) I don’t think that is correct.
It is more important for us to focus on Buddha’s announcement on His parinirvana. It shows that Buddha was aware of His deteriorating physical condition due to old age. He was in his 80s when he entered Parinirvana. That was a remarkable feat if we consider the primitive medical science at that time.
Hope you enjoy reading and Buddha did not die of food poisoning. 😉
May all be well and happy.
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