The next stop on the Buddha’s final journey was the mango grove belonging to Chunda the smith near the village of Pava. It was there that Chunda served the Buddha his last meal. This meal included something called sukara-maddava, which can be translated as either “soft pork” or as “pig’s delight.” No one knows for sure what this was. It might have been pork, because the Buddha allowed monastics to accept meat as long as it was not seen, heard, nor suspected that an animal had been killed for their sake. On the other hand, it might have been a type of mushroom that pig’s also liked to eat. In any case, the Buddha tried some of this and sensed that something was wrong.

Then the Lord said to Chunda: “Whatever is left over of the “pig’s delight” you should bury in a pit, because, Chunda, I can see none in this world with its gods, devils, and Brahmas, in this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, its princes and people who, if they were to eat it, could thoroughly digest it except the Tathagata.” (Ibid, pp. 256-257)

The grim irony here is that this would be the Buddha’s last meal, and as we shall see even he was not able to digest it. It has long been thought that the Buddha was a victim of food poisoning. If sakara-maddava was pork, then the pork was bad; if it was a mushroom dish, then poison mushrooms had been served by mistake. However, Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu has argued that it was not food poisoning after all, but rather a condition known as mesenteric infarction that was what killed the Buddha. As mentioned before, this is a condition brought on by old age in which the artery that supplies blood to the small intestines is blocked. This causes an infarction or gangrene of the intestinal wall or mesentery. Mesenteric infarction is fatal if untreated by surgery. The Buddha’s severe abdominal pains or angina during the rainy season retreat in Beluva signaled the onset of this condition. During his meal at the home of Chunda the Buddha suffered a second angina attack and at first thought the sukara-maddava was responsible. Food poisoning, however, would not be felt until at least a couple of hours after the meal and not immediately. After the meal was finished the Buddha gave a Dharma talk to his host and then took his leave. That is when other more severe symptoms occurred, and the Buddha realized that this was no mere food poisoning.

After having eaten the meal provided by Chunda, the Lord was attacked by a severe sickness with bloody diarrhea, and with sharp pains as if he were about to die. But he endured all this mindfully and clearly aware, and without complaint. Then the Lord said: “Ananda, let us go to Kushinagara.” “Very good, Lord,” said Ananda.

Then turning aside from the road, the Lord went to the foot of a tree and said: “Come Ananda, fold a robe in four for me: I am tired and want to sit down.” “Very good, Lord,” said Ananda, and did so.

Then the Lord sat down on the prepared seat and said: “Ananda, bring me some water: I am thirsty and want to drink.” Ananda replied: “Lord, five hundred carts have passed this way. The water is churned up by their wheels and is not good. It is dirty and disturbed. But, Lord, the River Kakuttha nearby has clean water, pleasant, cool, pure, with beautiful banks, delightful. There the Lord shall drink the water and cool his limbs.”

A second time the Lord said: “Ananda, bring me some water…” And Ananda replied as before.

A third time the Lord said: “Ananda, bring me some water: I am thirsty and want to drink.” “Very good, Lord,” said Ananda and, taking his bowl, he went to the stream. And that stream whose water had been churned up by the wheels and was not good, dirty and disturbed, as Ananda approached it began to flow pure, bright, and unsullied.

And the Venerable Ananda thought: “Wonderful, marvelous are the Tathagata’s great and mighty powers! This water was churned up by wheels…, and at my approach it flows pure, bright, and unsullied!” He took water in his bowl, brought it to the Lord and told him of his thought, saying: “May the Lord drink the water, may the Well Farer drink!” And the Lord drank the water. (Ibid, pp. 257-258)

So here we have three symptoms in immediate succession: bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and shock from blood loss that prevented the Buddha from continuing on to the river where there was cleaner water. Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu points out that these symptoms would be consistent not with food poisoning but with mesenteric infarction.

One might also read this story about the purification of the water in a more metaphorical way. The muddy churned up stream could be compared to the ways the stream of our consciousness is usually churned up and muddy. Ananda looks forward to arriving at purity in another place and time, and does not have the confidence or patience to take the water from the stream at hand, in other words to find purity within his own consciousness. Ananda is not yet an arhat. So for him, the purity of his own consciousness is not something he has awakened to. The Buddha, however, keeps directing Ananda back to the stream at hand, and of course the stream eventually does clear up. If Ananda had sat by the stream long enough without interfering, clearly observing and mindful, he would have witnessed its growing calmness and clarity. As it is, Ananda attributed the stream’s purity to the Buddha’s miraculous power. But it is not the Buddha as an outside entity, it is the miraculous power of Buddhist practice that enables us to sit still with our minds until the churning of consciousness subsides and peace and clarity are restored.

At that time, Pukkusa the Malla, a former student of the late meditation teacher Alara Kalama, happened upon the Buddha and Ananda. After a conversation in which Pukkusa was duly impressed by the Buddha’s ability to transcend all noise and distractions through meditative absorption he offered golden robes to the Buddha and Ananda.

Soon after Pukkusa had gone, Ananda, having arranged one set of the golden robes on the body of the Lord, observed that against the Lord’s body it appeared dulled. And he said: “It is wonderful, Lord, it is marvelous how clear and bright the Lord’s skin appears! It looks even brighter than the golden robes in which it is clothed.” “Just so, Ananda. There are two occasions on which the Tathagata’s skin appears especially clear and bright. Which are they? One is the night in which the Tathagata gains supreme enlightenment; the other is the night when he attains the nirvana without remainder at his final passing. On these two occasions the Tathagata’s skin appears especially clean and bright.

“Tonight, Ananda, in the last watch, in the sal grove of the Mallas near Kushinagara, between two sal trees, the Tathagata’s final passing will take place. And now, Ananda, let us go to the River Kakuttha.” “Very good, Lord,” said Ananda.

Then the Lord went with a large number of monks to the River Kakuttaha. He entered the water, bathed and drank, and, emerging, went to the mango grove, where he said to the Venerable Chundaka: “Come Chundaka, fold a robe in four for me. I am tired and want to lie down.” “Very good, Lord,” said Chundaka, and did so.

Then the Lord adopted the lion posture, lying on his right side, placing one foot on the other, mindfully and with clear awareness bearing in mind the time of awakening. And the Venerable Chundaka sat down in front of the Lord. (Ibid, pp. 260-261)

Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu points out that the Buddha would not have been in any state to walk, and that most likely the monks had to carry him until he finally arrived in Kushinagara. That he needed to lie down and to be covered with a folded robe would make sense, considering that the Buddha was in shock from loss of blood due to internal bleeding and would most likely have felt very cold. Despite is great physical distress however, the Buddha remained mindful and clearly aware and as noted above, did not complain. The Buddha faced his death with great peace of mind, dignity, and acceptance. In fact, as we shall see, he showed great concern for the people around him right until the very end. How the Buddha faced his own death is in itself a great inspiration.

One of the people the Buddha was concerned about was Chunda, who had served the Buddha his last meal. The Buddha knew that the sukara-maddava could not be at fault for his condition, and even if it had been there would have been no reason to blame Chunda. Rather than blame, Chunda should be honored for having been able to serve the Buddha’s last meal. Though on his deathbed and in great pain, the Buddha instructed Ananda regarding Chunda, so that the smith would not blame himself for the Buddha’s death.

Then the Lord, said to the Venerable Ananda: “It might happen, Ananda, that Chunda the smith should feel remorse, thinking: ‘It is your fault, friend Chunda, it is by your misdeed that the Tathagata gained final nirvana after taking his last meal from you!’ But Chunda’s remorse should be expelled in this way: ‘That is your merit, Chunda, that is your good deed, that the Tathagata gained final nirvana after taking his last meal from you! For, friend Chunda, I have heard and understood from the Lord’s own lips that these two alms offerings are of very great fruit, of very great result, more fruitful and advantageous than any other. Which two? The one is the alms offering after eating which the Tathagata attains supreme enlightenment, the other that after which he attains the nirvana without remainder at his final passing. These two alms offerings are more fruitful and profitable than all others. Chunda’s deed is conducive to long life, to good looks, to happiness, to fame, to heaven and to lordship.” In this way, Ananda, Chunda’s remorse is to be expelled.” (Ibid, p. 261)