What the historical Buddha ate for his last meal has been the subject of much debate. The controversial passage from the  Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the sutta that recounts the Buddha’s final days, tells us that on his last night the Buddha rested in the home of Cunda, a metalsmith apparently known to the Buddha. In honor of his guest, Cunda prepared (probably not personally) “hard and soft delicious food, and also a large quantity of sukaramaddava.” The difficulty lies in the translation of sukaramaddava. The amateur mycologist Gordon Wasson studied the available literature on the problem and admirably summarized it in his essay “The Last Meal of the Buddha”:

The first part of that compound word, sukara-, is simple: ‘pertaining to pig or swine,’ suk-being cognate with Latin sus. The second element is generally thought to mean tidbits, dainties, but whether as a specially delicate part of the pig’s meat or as food of which swine were specially fond, whether a subjective or objective genitive, no one can say. Rhys Davids, noticing that in Bihar there was a common edible underground fungus, translatedsukaramaddava by ‘truffles.’ This was a successful pitch, considering that by ‘truffles’ he meant an underground fungus common thereabouts, although no truffle (=tuber) has been discovered so far in Bihar.

Drawing on the available scholarship, Wasson builds a convincing case that sukaramaddava, while not a truffle, must have been a kind of mushroom grown on a spot trodden by pigs.

But even if Wasson is correct about the translation of the term, the mushrooms were only one item on the menu. What were the “hard and soft delicious foods”? “Soft food” is defined in the Vinaya (IV 92) as “the five (kinds of) meals: cooked rice, food made with flour, barley-meal, fish, meat.” Here too, we cannot say with certainty that meat was served as one of the “soft foods,” but we can say that meat might have been, that there was no inherently Buddhist reason why it would not have been.

Illustration by Greg Hull.
Illustration by Greg Hull.

There are, of course, other indications in the canon that Buddha did eat meat. There is, for example, the account of a nun, Uppalavanna, who obtained meat from a cattle rustler and thereafter contributed the meat to the Buddha. When making the gesture, one of the Buddha’s attendants, receiving the meat, said to Uppalavanna, “You, sister, have pleased the lord with this meat…”

Perhaps the most definitive answer to the question is given by the Buddha in the Vinaya in the famous story of the attempt by his cousin, Devadatta, to wrest control of the sangha by creating a schism based on an appeal for stricter rules and regulations. Devadatta proposed that monks should live only in forests and never visit towns, monks should only wear rags and never accept donated robes, monks should not accept invitations to meals, they should live only “at the foot of a tree” and not in dwellings of any sort, and monks should never eat fish or meat. The Buddha responded to Devadatta by saying that whoever wished to live according to those rules could do so (except that a dwelling was required during the monsoon season), but that to do so was voluntary and not required.

Although the Buddha did not make a prohibition against eating meat, there were certain conditions that pertained to the eating of meat. According to the Vinaya, meat—or any food—could be eaten so long as the monk did not know that the food had been specially and specifically killed for the purpose of feeding the sangha. But what is easily overlooked is that the Buddha made special conditions for the procurement and consumption of all food. The institution of begging for one’s meal meant that despite one’s likes and dislikes, one ate whatever was given, whether it was meat or nuts, tasteless or delicious, stale or fresh. Another incident in the Vinaya (IV 82) reminds us that the Buddha intended his disciples to struggle with the unconscious habits of appetite: if you are satisfied, do not eat again later just because some tempting dish has been put in front of you.

The canonical material does not support a prohibition against meat eating. A vegetarian who delights in his or her own meal, who eats too much, who rejects what is offered, or is unconsciously driven by habitual appetites and hunger, is undoubtedly more “at fault” (according to the Buddha of the Vinaya) than someone who eats meat because it is served to him or her. What the Buddha seemed to be most interested in was the attitude one had toward food and eating, and this attitude must have had something to do with a struggle to awaken and to become an eater who was awake while eating. The conditions that the Buddha applied to food and eating might allow us to discover the actual force of our hunger and how this force, when we are unconscious of it, keeps us from awakening.

A second look at restrictions on eating in Buddhism makes clear that the essential issues are not ethical or moral, but rather conditions for further discipline, practice, and questioning. The mysteries of food, desire, and hunger are central to all religious disciplines, but in the canonical texts of early Buddhism we can see the extraordinary concerns taken by the Buddha to call attention to this very direct experience of seeing into one’s true nature.

Find other perspectives on food and practice in our special section: Meat: To Eat It or Not

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