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Petit Futé

How the Buddha Died (part I/IV)

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 Mahaparinibbana Sutta from the Long Discourse of Pali Tipitaka ko, is without doubt the most reliable source for details on the death of Siddhattha Gotama (BCE 63-483), the Lord Buddha. It is composed in a narrative style that allows readers to follow the story of the last days of the Buddha, beginning a few months before he died.
To understand what really happened to the Buddha is not a simple matter, though. The sutta, or discourse, paints two conflicting personalities of the Buddha, one overriding the other.

The first personality was that of a miracle worker who beamed himself and his entourage of monk across the Ganges River (D II, 891) who had a divine vision of the settlement of gods on earth (D II, 87), who could live until the end of the world on condition that someone invite him to do so ID II, 103), who determined the time of his own death (DII. 1051, and whose death was glorified by the shower of heavenly Bowers and sandal powder and divine music (D II, 1381).

Shwetalyaung Bouddha a Bago Myanmar
The other personality was that an old man who grumbled about his failing health and growing senility ID II, 120), who almost lost his life because of a severe pain during his last retreat at Vesali (D II. 100) and who was forced to come to terms with Isis unexpected illness and death after consuming a special cuisine offered by his generous host. These two personalities take turns emerging in different parts of the narrative.
Moreover, there also appear to be two explanations of the Buddha's cause of death:

- One is that the Buddha died because his attendant, Ananda, failed to invite him to live onto the age of the world or even longer (D II, 117).
- The other that he died by a sudden illness which began after he ate what is known as 'Sukaramaddava" (D II. 127-157). The former story was probably a legend, or the result of a political struggle within the Buddhist community during a stage of transition, whereas, the latter sounds more realistic and accurate in describing a real life situation that happened in the Buddha's last days.

A number of studies have focused on the nature of the special cuisine that the Buddha ate during his last meal as being the agent of his death. However, there is also another approach based on the description of the symptoms and signs given in the sutta, which modern medical knowledge can shed light on.

What we know

In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta we are told that the Buddha became ill suddenly after he ate a special delicacy, Sukaramaddava, literally translated as "soft pork", which had been prepared by his generous host, Cunda Kammaraputta.
The name of the cuisine has attracted the attention of many scholars, and it has been the focus of academic research on the nature of the meal or ingredients used in the cooking of this special dish. 1The sutta itself provides details concerning the signs and symptoms of his illness in addition to some reliable information about his circumstances over the previous four months, and these details are also medically significant.

The sutta begins with King Ajatasattus' plot to conquer a rival state, Vajji. The Buddha had journeyed to Vajji to enter his last rainy-season retreat. It was during this retreat that he fell ill. The symptoms of the illness were sudden, severe pain. However, the Sutta provides no description of the location and character of his pain. It mentions his illness briefly, and says that the pain was intense, and almost killed him.

Subsequently, the Buddha was visited by Mara, the God of Death, who invited him to pass away.
The Buddha did not accept the invitation right away. It was only after Ananda, his attendant, failed to recognize his hint for an invitation to remain that he died. This piece of the message, though tied up with myth and supernaturalism, gives us some medically significant information. When the sutta was composed, its author was under the impression that the Buddha died, not because of the food he ate, but because he already had an underlying illness that was serious and acute - and had the same symptoms of the disease that finally killed him.

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