In her poem “Mushrooms,” Sylvia Plath evokes the early appearance of forest fungi, calling them “soft fists” that insist their way up through needles and leafy bedding. Soft fists. I love it. Especially because my lesson learned through a bit of mycological exploration was something of a gentle punch.

Mushrooms were on my mind after a royal risotto extravaganza served up with immense grace by my friend Cecile. Fifteen people from around the world dove into the meal around a long table in Manhattan as the conversation veered from drones shaped like bees to torched castles to psychedelic ecstasies, then back around to the historical Buddha’s toxic last supper, known as the sukara-maddava.

It’s generally agreed that Shakyamuni Buddha’s death at the age of 80 was caused by some kind of food poisoning. Often sukara-maddava is translated as “pork,” but sometimes it’s rendered as “mushroom.” I supplicated Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, the preeminent scholar and translator of Pali texts, to translate a key passage from the Digha Nikaya, in theMahaparanibbana Sutta, in which the story of the Buddha’s death is told. “Sukara means ‘pig,’” he wrote, “and maddava can mean either ‘softness,’ ‘tenderness,’ or ‘trampled.’ So the identification with mushrooms may have been derived from the idea that these were mushrooms that pigs trampled on, or mushrooms that wild pigs were fond of.”

Cecile explained that near her home in the Dordogne, France, not far from the sanctum of the late Dudjom Rinpoche, she gets down pig-style and sniffs for truffles. The trick is to watch for transparent flies who also have a taste for delicacy. She lies in the grass under hazelnut trees, tapping the ground until she identifies the favored spot of the flies. She scratches the earth there, sniffs, and digs. “Truffles are like treasures hidden in the earth,” she said.

I’d love to be foraging for truffles in France right this minute, but as I write this, I am housebound in upstate New York; the earth is frozen and mushrooms are sleeping. No mycologist in the tristate area is willing to take me out for a mushroom hunt in the middle of the polar vortex.

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