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How the Buddha Died (part II)

BUDDHISM Ancient texts weave two stories about the Lord Buddha's death. Was it planned and willed by the Buddha, or was it food poisoning, or something else altogether?

(article published in the Bangkok post Mai 17 2000)

The Timing

Theravada Buddhist tradition has adhered to the assumption that the Historical Buddha passed away during the nigh t of the full moon in the lunar month of Visakha (which falls sometime in May to June). But the timing contradicts information given in the sutta, which states clearly that the Buddha died soon after the rainy-season retreat, must likely during the autumn or mid-winter, that is,November to January.

A description of the miracle of the unseasonal blooming of leaves and flowers on the sala trees, when the Buddha was laid down between them indicates the time frame given in the sutta.Autumn and winter, however, are seasons that are not favorable for the growth of mushrooms, which some scholars believe to be the source of the poison that the Buddha ate during his last meal.


The sutta tells us that the Buddha felt ill immediately after eating the Sukaramaddava. Since we do not know anything about the nature of this food, it is difficult to name it as the direct cause of the Buddha's illness. But from the descriptions given, the onset of the illness was quick. While eating, he felt there was something wrong with the food and he suggested his host have the food buried. Soon afterward, he suffered severe stomach pain and passed blood from his rectum. We can reasonably assume that the illness started while he was having his meal, making him think there was something wrong with the unfamiliar delicacy.

Out of his compassion for others, he had it buried. Was food poisoning the cause of the illness? It seems unlikely. The symptoms described do not indicate food poisoning, which can be very acute, but would hardly cause diarrhoea with blood. Usually, food poisoning caused by bacteria does not manifest itself immediately, but takes an incubation period of two to 12 hours to manifest itself, normally with acute diarrhoea and vomiting, but not the passage of blood.
Another possibility is chemical poisoning, which also has an immediate effect, but it is unusual for chemical poisoning to cause severe intestinal bleeding. Food poisoning with immediate intestinal bleeding could only have been caused by corrosive chemicals. But corrosive chemicals should have caused bleeding in the upper intestinal tract, leading to vomiting blood. None of these severe signs are mentioned in the text.

Peptic ulcer diseases can be excluded from weight loss, growth or mass in the abdomen the list of possible illnesses as well. In spite of the fact that their onset is immediate, they are seldom accompanied by bloody stool. A gastric ulcer with intestinal bleeding produces blackstool when the ulcer penetrates a blood vessel
An ulcer higher up in the digestive tract would be more likely to manifest itself as bloody vomiting not a passage of blood through the rectum
Other evidence against this possibility is that a patient with a large gastric ulcer usually does tint have an appetite. By accepting the invitation for lunch with the host, we can assume that the Buddha felt as healthy as any man in his early 80s would feel. Given his age we cannot rule out the Buddha did not have a chronic disease, such as cancer or tuberculosis or a tropical infection such as dysentery or typhoid which cold have been quite common in the Buddha's time.

These diseases could produce bleeding of the lower intestine depending on their location.They also agree with the history of earlier his illness during the retreat. But they can be ruled out since they are usually accompanied by other symptoms such as lethargy, loss of appetite, weight loss; grow or mass in the abdomen. None of these symptoms were mentioned in the sutta. A large hemorrhoid can cause severe rectal bleeding, but it is unlikely that a hemorrhoid could cause severe abdominal pain unless it is strangulated But then it would have greatly disturbed the walking of the Buddha to the house of his host, and rarely is hemorrhoid bleeding triggered by a meal.

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