Did Buddha die of eating pork? : with a note on Buddha's image
Melanges Chinois et bouddhiques
Anyone who is known to take an interest in the
history of Buddhism is bound to be asked from time
to time whether it is true that Buddha died of
eating pork. The idea that he should have done so
comes as a surprise to most Eurpoeans; for we are in
the habit of regarding vegetarianism as an intrinsic
part of Buddhism. Enquirers with an iconoclastic
bend of mind are anxious to have it confirmed that
Buddha was something quite different from the
conventional holy man ów something robuster at the
same time less pretentious; while those who have
treasured the figure of Gautama the Saint, immune
from every worldly appetite or desire, are eager to
secure authority for a figurative interpretation of
the pork-eating passage.(1)
The ease with which such a question is answered
depends on the extent of the informant's researches.
Regarding the passage by itself and merely from the
point of view of Pali Buddhism, I think anyone not
influenced by romantic preconceptions about Buddha's
personality must come to the conclusion(2) that the
words suukara-maddava('pig-soft') are to be taken
So soon however as one studies the question from
a wider aspect and, taking into consideration the
equally early(3) Chinese Hiinayaana
1 Mahaaparinibbaana-sutta(Diighanikaaya 16). Tran-
slated in Dilogues of the Buddha II, 137.
2 As recently the editors of the Pali Text Society's
dictionary have done.
3 I know of no reason for regarding the Sanskrit
AAgamas (preserved in Chinese) in general as later
than the Pali Niikaayas. In some cases they can
certainly be shown to be earlier. The same applies
to the various Hiinayaana Vinayas (Monastic Rules)
preserved in Chinese.
documents, traces the history of the Buddhist
attitude towards the eating of meat, the whole
question becomes infinitely more complicated, and a
confident answer far less easy to give.
The story of Buddha's last meal, as told in the
Mahaaparinibbaana-sutta ('Book of the Great
Decease') is well summed up by E.J.Thomas(1). At
Paavaa, Budha stayed in the mango grove of Cunda
Thomas(1). At Paavaa, Buddha stayed in the mango
grove of Cundathe smith. There Cunda provided a meal
with the excellent food, hard and soft, and a large
amount of suukaramaddava. Before the meal Buddha
said, ((Serve me, Cunda, with the suukaramaddava
that you have prepared, and serve the order with the
other hard and soft food.)) Cunda did so, and after
the meal Buddha told him to throw the remainder of
the suukaramaddava into a hole, as he saw no-one in
the world who could digest it other than the
Tathaagata.(2) The sharp sickness arose, with flow
of blood, and violent deadly pains, but Buddha
mindful and conscious controlled them...and set out
Tje word suukaramaddava occurs nowhere else(except
in discussions of this passage) and the -maddddava
part is capable of at least four interpretations.
Granting that it comes from the root MRD 'soft',
cognate with Latin mollis, it is still ambiguous,
for it may either mean 'the soft parts of a pig' or
'pig's sofg-food' i.e. food eaten by pigs.(3) But it
may again come from the same root as our word 'mill'
and mean'pig-pounded', i.e. 'trampled by pigs'.
There is yet another similar root meaning 'to be
pleased', and as will be seen below one scholar has
supposed the existence of a vegetable called
The question whether Buddha did or did not die of
eating pork has naturally presented itself to the
lay mind as a theological one. Actually, however, no
theological point is involved. Even specialists have
very imperfectly realized that till late in the
history of Bud-
1 The Life of Buddddha (Kegan Paul. 1927)p.149.
2 No feature in the story is stranger than this
apparent touch of irony.
3 If derived from this root maddava may be copmared
etymologically to our word 'mallow', the soft plant.
dhism, the eating of flesh was permitted, except
under certain exceptional circumstances. The
Buddhist monk must refrain from eating meat if he
'knows, hears or infers' that it has been killed
specially for him(1). The latitude allowed was very
great; for example, it was considered wrong for a
monk to go to a house and ask for meat, unless he
was ill. But he might ask for it if the householder
said to him 'Is there anything else you could
It was therefore not in the least suprising that in
commenting on the Diigha-nikaaya's account of
Buddha's last meal, Buddhaghosha (beginning of the
5th century) should have been quite content to take
suukara-maddava as meaning pork. But the commentary
on the Udaana(3), in dealing with this passage,
says: suukara-maddava in the Great Commentary(4) is
said to be the flesh of a pig made soft and oily;
but some say it was not pig's flesh but the sprout
of a plant trodden by pigs; other that it was a
mushroom growing in a place trodden by pigs; other
again have taken it in the sense of a flavouring
One's first impression on reading these 'vegetarian'
explanations is that they are pure sophistry, dating
from a time when the idea of Buddha's eating flesh
was so unacceptable that the commentators felt
obliged at all costs to twist the passage into
If no other vegetable names of similar formation
existed, it would indeed seem almost certain that
the 'mushroom' explanation was a mere flight of
fancy. But Neumann(5) has shown that in Narahari's
Raajanigha.n.tu, among the names of medical plants,
there occurs a whole series of compound words having
'pig' as their first element; thus suukara-kanda,
'pig-bulb': suukara-paadika, 'pig's
1 Majjhima Nikaaya (Jiivaka Sutta) 55. There is, I
think, no corresponding suutra in the Chinese
aagamas; but the same permission is given in the
Chinese Hinayaana Vinayas, e.g. Ss í╝ F^en L í╝, 58
(Taishoo Tripi.taka xxii, 998b).
2 Exposition of the Muulasarvaastivaadin Vinaya.
Taishoo Tripitaka, xxiv, 588.
3 i, 399; Steinthal's edition of the Udaana, p. 81
4 Now lost. For this passage, see Edward Thomas,
5 Preface to the Majjhima Nikaaya, p.xx.
foot', sukaresh.ta ('sought-out by pigs'). On the
analogy of the last, Neumann takes suukaramaddava to
mean 'pig's delight', and assumes that it is the
name of some kind of truffles.
It seems to me that philologically Neumann's view
has much to be said for it and has not been
sufficiently taken into account. It is perfectly
conceivable that the commentators who have been
suspected of 'explaining away' the expression 'pork'
were in reality better informed than Buddhaghosha.
Plant names tend to be local and dialectical. It is
quite likely that if such an expression as
suukara-maddava meant 'truffles' in Maghada, it
might, in the more western and southern centres
where Pali Buddhism came into existence, have been
entirely unknown and consequently misunderstood.
Unfortunately the term, so far as is known, occurs
only in this passage and in discussions of it. In
Sanskrit no corresponding expression seems to exist
The Chinese Hiinayaana documents.
The account of Buddha's Decease occurs in the sec-
ond book of the Diirghaagama(1). This version was
translated in 412-413 and is therefore contemporary
with Buddhaghosha. It supports the 'vegetarian'
theory. Cunda makes 'a separate stew of ears of the
sandal-wood tree, which the world esteems as a great
dainty'. 'Treeear' is still the current Chinese for
a fungus growing on a tree. Fragments of the
Sanskrit Diirghaagama exist, but unfortunately not
his passage. Presumably the Sanskrit phrase in front
of the Chinese translator was Candana ahicchatraka,
candanachattra or the like.
There are four other versions of the Hiinayaana
(1) Nanjio 552,translated in 290-306 by Po Fa-tsu.
(2) Nanjio 119,translator unknown.
(3) Nanjio 118,falsely attributed to Fa-hsien.
(4) A long passage(2) in the Kshuraka-vaastu of the
Muula-sar-vaastivaada Vinaya (translated in 710).
1 Taishoo Tripi.taka, i, 18b.
2 ibid. xxiv, 382 seq.
In none of these works is the nature of the food
offered by Cunda specified.
The passage is quoted in the Milinda Questions (í▒
175); but in a section that is lacking in the
The idea then that Buddha died of eating pork is
wholly absent from the Chinese Canon, and can never
have entered the head of any Far Eastern Buddhist
till the Pali scriptures began to be studied at the
end of the 19th century.
There was indeed another occasion (1) when Buddha
accepted a similar offering. The householder Ugga
brought him some suukarama.msa. Here again the
Chinese Canon fails us, for this sutta does not
exist in the Ekottaraagama or elsewhere. No-one,I
think, has ever suggested that suukara-ma.msa('pig's
flesh') does not mean pork.
All that has been said so far applies only to the
Hiinayaana. From the Mahaayaana standpoint not
merely a philological but a moral issue is involved;
for as is well known many of the principal
Mahaayaana scriptures forbid the eating of flesh
The earliest work to contain such a prohibition
(2) is the Mahaaparinirvaa.na Suutra, a Mahaayaana
remodelling of the old Suutra of the Great Decease.
When Fa-hsien visited India early in the 5th
century, he found that in the whole of the Middle
Country (Madhyade'sa i.e. Magadha and the
surrounding parts) 'the people abstain from taking
life. They drink no wine nor do they eat onions or
garlic...they do not breed pigs or poultry or sell
any animal food'(3).
1 See A^nguttara Nikaaya, Vol. III, 49, (Manaapad-
2 Fa-hsien's translation (Nanjio, 120), Taishoo
Tripi.taka, xii,868c.The wording in the Dharmakshema
version (Thaishoo Tripi.taka xii, 386b) is
identical. The so-called Southern Version (Nanjio
114) is merely a transcript of Nanjio 113 with a
division of chapters imitated from Nanjio 118 and a
few verb alalterations.
[On peut signaler ici les Suutras de Maitreya
resumes par P.Demieville, BEFEO. 1920, 4, p.165-167:
((L'ermite fait voeu de ne jamais manger de viande,
ainsi que l'ordonnent les suutras de misericorde de
tous les buddhas...AAnanda fait remarquer combien
est ((etrange et particuliere)) cette prescription
de s'abstenir de viande.)) ów Morale bouddhique,
3 Taishoo Tripi.taka, i, 859b.
Had Fa-hsien enquired what scriptural authority
there was for this absolute prohibition of meat, no
doubt the Mahaaparinirvaa.na Suutra would have been
pointed to. And it is certain that Fa-hsien took a
particular interest in this suutra, for he acquired
a copy of it in Paa.taliputra, and it was this
version that he translated into Chinese in 417 A.D.
What was the origin of this new view about
meat-eating, which seems to have sprung up somewhere
about the 3rd century?
An explanation that at once occurs to me is as
follows: The Gupta kings, who at this period ruled
over the Middle Country, though they tolerated
Buddhism and sometimes even supported it, were
themselves worshippers of Vish.nu. Now the
Vaishnavite ascetic 'must abstain from animal food
of any kind'(1), and it must naturally have occurred
to Buddhists to say 'If even the misguided Hindus
abstain from meat, how much the less ought we...' or
something of that kind. Such an hypothesis finds
complete confirmation in the La^nkaavataara Suutra
(2) , a work somewhat later than the
Mahaaparinirvaa.na: 'If even the infidels in their
heretical treatises and the Lokaayatikas in their
worldy teachings and those who fall into the error
of regarding (the dharmas) either as permanent or as
without duration, as existent or as non-existent,
even such people forbid the eating of meat...'
Again(3): 'Even secular magicians abstain from meat,
knowing that upon this depends the success of their
performance; how much the more must my disciples in
pursuit of the Tathaagata's supreme way of spiritual
The La^nkaavataara has indeed a special chapter(4)
(Ma.msabhaksha.na) dealing with the prohibition of
To justify this prohibition it refers to five
suutras(5): the A^nguli-
1 Vish.nu Sm.rti, 51,72 (Sacred Books of the East,
2 Bodhiruci's translation.Taishoo Tripi.taka, xvi,
3 Taishoo Tripi.taka, xvi, 562b.
4 Gu.nabhadra's translation ( 443 A. D. ), Taishoo
Tripi.taka, xvi, 513c.
5 Gu.nabhadra's translation (514b) adds the Mahaa-
nirvaa.na, and substitutes the 'Sriimaalaa for the
maataa,the Mahaanegha, the 'Sriimaalaa, the Hastika-
kshya and the Mahaa-parinirvaa.na.
The first is a well-known Hiinayaana sutta and in
its early form(1) of course contains no such
prohibition. It exists however in an expanded
Mahaayaana form, and in one passage(2) says that the
'Buddhas do not eat flesh'. The second (translated
414-421) contains only a very indefinite reference(3)
to the question.
The third contains no reference to the subject at
all, and is obviously quoted by mistake for the
A^ngulimaala. The fourth(4) merely says that the
efficacy of the spell at the end of the suutra
depends on abstinence from flesh.
It is evident that at the time when the
La^nkaavataara was composed, the Mahaaparinirvaa.na
was the only scripture that definitely forbade the
eating of meat. When therefore the Mahaayaana set
itself to produce its own set of monastic rules, it
had but the slenderest authority for enforcing
complete vegetarianism. And indeed in the Fan-wang
Ching(5), which Far Eastern Buddhists regard as the
foundation of their Monastic Rules, flesh-eating
does not rank as a major sin, but merely as one of
the forty-eight 'light defilements'. It is thus
regarded as less serious than, for example, losing
But to return to the question of Buddha's last meal
ówwe have seen that philologically there is no reason
1 Majjhima-nikaaya 86. Sa^myuktaagama 1077. Taisnoo
Tripi.taka ii, 281.
2 Ibid, ii, 540.
3 Ibid, xii, 1099c.
4 Ibid, xvii, 787a. Translated in 424-441.
5 Ibid, xxiv, 1005b. It purports to be an extract
from a long Sanskrit work. But the Chung Ching Mu Lu
(Nanjio 1609; compiled in 594 A.D.) dismisses it as
a forgery. The Tibetan version, which has no
Sanskrit title and merely prefixes a literal
rendering of the full Chinese title, is probably
translated from the Chinese. It seems likely indeed
that the work was originally composed in China some
time after 507; for in that year, at a conference
convened by the emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty to
discuss the question of meat-eating, the Fan-wang
Ching is not cited among other relevant scriptures.
It is interesting that one of the Vinaya authorities
who gave evidence at this enquiry confessed that he
was not himself a vegetarian (Taisho, Lii, 299).
should not be the name of a root or fungus. And
granted that this was the original meaning, it is
quite comprehensible that after the centre of
Buddhism shifted westward and southward(1), this
original meaning may have been forgotten.
Had Hiinayaana Buddhism viewed the eating of flesh
with abhorrence, the expounders of the Sutta would
then have found themselves in an embarrassing
position. Actually, however, they had(as we have
seen) no such prejudice and it was quite easy for
them to accept the term suukara-maddava in the sense
pork. The 'other commentators', who maintained that
a vegetable was meant, were on this hypothesis not
dishonest theologians, but merely people who
happened to come from some part of India where the
term suukara-maddddava in a vegetable sense was
I know of no argument that could render such an
The alternative is to suppose that, although no
existing Hiinayaana work contains any general
prohibition of uthe eating of meat, the feeling in
favour of vegetarianism, then rather generally
prevalent in the world(2) , had affected the
Hiinayaana as well as the Mahaayaana, with the
result that certain commentators were shocked by the
idea of Buddha's eating pork, and invented a
fanciful inter-pretation of the passage. The same
sentiment, it must be supposed, is responsible for
the subtitution of fungi for pork in the Chinese
I think the second theory involves rather larger
unproved assumptions than the first. But, in the
existing state of our knowledge, either seems to me
to be reasonable. The interest of such an enquiry as
the above, despite its negative result, lies in the
picture it gives of the method by which Buddhism
adapted itself to fresh currents of thought and
feeling in a method in complete contrast with that
of Christianity. Whenever, under the influence of
fresh environment or creative individual thought,
the Buddhists were attracted
1 After the persecutions of Pushyamitra ( 185-148
2 The Christian gnostics also advocated complete
by a new point of view, they felt the necessity of
investing this point of view with written authority.
Thus, so long as the religion was a living organism,
its scriptures continually expanded and the
Tripi.taka in its Hiinayaana and Mahaayaana forms is
in itself a history of Buddhism. Such a method,
implying as it does in the faithful a critical
capacity so limited that they will be at any moment
ready to accept a modern document as the
newly-recovered teaching of the Founder, was not
possible in the West. Instead, the Christian Church
has often been forced to adopt a complicated
metaphorical interpretation of its Seriptures,
particularly of the Old Testament, but has (since a
very early period) scrupulously avoided the policy
of expansion and interpolation which produced the
riches of the Tripi.taka. Thus, whereas in the West
it is to the works of theologians that we must turn
if we wish to study the successive phases of
Christianity, in Buddhism the whle process of growth
lies open before us in the scriptures themselves.
The Western method has its advantages. It is easy
to regard past theologians as fallible. In Buddhism
on the contary the successive stages of doctrine,
often irreconcilable with what went before, are
expounded in scriptures which all make equal claim
to be the actual words of Buddha. The difficulty was
met, inadequately enough, by maintaining that the
later scriptures had been mysteriously 'held up'
till the world was in a fit state to receive them.
In a case such as the one I have been discussing,
this type of explanation could not be very
convincing, and it is not surprising to find the
great Buddhist biographer and compiler Tao-hsuan
(596-667), who founded a sect which based its
teaching on the Vinaya, embarrassed by the fact that
in this portion of the Scriptures the eating of
flesh (regarded by 7th century Buddhists with
horror) was most definitely permitted. Fortunately
the difficulty was solved by a vision in which a
prpohecy(1) was revealed to him, to the
1 FA Yuan Chu-lin, Ch. 94. Taishoo Tripi.taka Lvii,
980c, quoting Tao-hsuan's lost I-fa Chu-chih
Kan-ying Chi: 'Record of Rewards to those who held
fast to the remnants of the Law.'
effect that in the degenerate days long after
Buddha's death there would be monks who finding
support in passages of the Hiinayaana scriptures
would misinterpret the meaning of the Vinaya and
pretend that Buddha allowed the monks to eat meat.
'In those days the monks in their temples will slay
living creatures, making the places they live in no
better than the homes of hunters or butchers.'
To illustrate the way in whcih disearded doctrines
have left their mark on the Tripi.taka, I will
discuss, as an appendix to this essay, an opposite
case: one in which a former prohibition was
It is well-known to all students of Indian art that
in the earliest Buddhist monuments ów at Saanehii,
Baarhut and Bodhgayaa-the figure of Buddha is not
represented, but replaced by some symbol, such as
the Wheel of the Law, or an empty throne. Modern
Buddhists can furnish no explanation of this
peculiar fact, and European writers (among them,
M.Foucher(1)) have generally been content to accept
the Indian view that, if early Buddhist art did not
represent the Buddha, it was 'because it was not
customary to do so'. I do not think any European
scholar(2) has noted the fact that a definite
embargo on the representation of Buddha is referred
to in the Chinese Tripi.taka. In Chapter 48 of the
Vinaya of the Sarvaastivaadins (3) there is a long
passage which deals with the decoration of
monasteries. Anaathapi.n.dika says to Buddha:
'World-honoured one, if images of yours are not
allowed to be made, pray may we not at least make
images of Bodhisattvas(4) in attendance upon you?'
Buddha then grants this permission.
1 The Beginnings of Buddhist Art, p.7.
2 Attention was briefly called to the passage by
Iwasaki Masumi, in a review of M.Foucher's book,
Kokkwa, May 1920.
3 The Shih Sung Lu,Taishoo Tripi.taka, xxiii, 352.
4 Though in later Buddhism new ideas centred round
the term Boddhisattva, its occurrence does not
necessarily imply a late date. Possibly some of the
figures identified as Naagas in early Buddhist
sculpture would have been regarded by the writer of
this passage as Bodhisattvas.
All branches of the Sarvaastivaadin School were
however apparently not in agreement on this point,
for, in the Vinaya(1) of the Cashmirian branch, the
same Anaathapi.n.dika asks if it is permissible to
make images of the Buddha's earthly semblance, and
is told that there is no objection to doing so.
The first work was translated into Chinese in 404.
It would I think be generally accepted that the
original goes back at least to the 1st century A.D.
The occurrence in it of the passage I have quoted
suggests that it goes back still further, or, at any
rate, that certain elements in it reflect the state
of affairs, with regard to the representation of
Buddha's figure, that we are familiar with at
Saanchi, Baarhut and Bodhgayaa; that is to say, it
is in part at least as early as the first century
B.C. The second work, the Nidaana, is certainly much
The cult of images, influenced perhaps in part by
Hinduism and in part by contact with the Hellenistic
world, seems to have been adopted by Hiinayaana and
Mahaayaana Buddhism more or less simultaneously. To
justify it, a story was told of how the great kings
Udayana and Prasenajit made the first images of
Buddha during the Blessed One's absence in the
Trayastrim'sa heaven, which he had visited in order
to convert his mother. Variants of the story are
found both in the Hiinayaana and the Mahaayaana
Canon. In the 28th chapter of the Ekottaraagama(2),
Udayana makes an image of sandalwood five feet high
and Prasenajit follows suit with a golden image.
There is no corresponding passage in the A^nguttara
Nikaaya(3), nor anywhere in the Pali Canon.
The legend makes its appearanc e in other works
translated about the same time. Thus in the Kuan Fo
San-mei Hai Ching(4) Udayana makes a golden image.
More commonly there is only one
1 Muulasarvaastivaada-nidaana, Taishoo Tripi.taka,
xxiv, 434b.Translated in 170 A.D.
2 Taishoo Tripi.taka,ii,706.Translated in 384- 385.
3 The Pali equivalent to the Ekottaraagama.
4 Taishoo Tripi.taka, xv, 678b, Chapter vi.
image, a wooden one made by Prasenajit. This version
of the story was heard in India by the pilgrim
Fa-hsien(1) early in the 5th century, and by
Hsuan-tsang(2) in the 7th.
It is possible that future research will discover
passages in the Pali Vinaya which have some bearing
on the introduction of the cult of images. But the
innovation was one which took place at so early a
period in Buddhist history that we should not in any
case expect to find much echo of it in the written
records, all of which were redacted at a
comparatively late period. Indeed, were it not for
the existence of early Buddhist sculpture, the
passage I have quoted from the Vinaya of the
Sarvaastivaadins would be uninteligible. The change
in the Buddhist attitude towards flesh-eating took
place at a far later date, long after the written
redaction of the Hiinayaana Canon, and consequently
the whole process lies open before us. The fact
that, in Buddhist scriptures, it is possible to
trace the evolution of such a change says much for
the fidelity with which the Cannon has been
1 Ibid. li, 860b.
2 Ibid. 899b.