Putting the “tender” in tender pork

One of the best known controversies in Buddhism is over the Buddha’s last meal, and specifically whether sūkaramaddava refers to pork. Sūkara means “pig” and maddava means “ tender”, so the most obvious reading is “tender pork”.

However, the commentary, as well as various Chinese translations, include several different interpretations, showing that this is by no means just a modern question.

As a vegetarian all my adult life, I find the idea of eating pig quite revolting; but perhaps it is even more revolting than I thought.

One of the arguments that has been raised against “pork” and in favor of something like, say, mushroom that are eaten by pigs, is why the Buddha should fall sick after eating. Pork, despite the dirty reputations of pigs, is not an especially dangerous meat.

While discussion has been centered on the implication of sūkara, so far as I know no-one has pointed out that maddava occurs in a more precise sense at Dhp#377:

Vassikā viya pupphāni,
maddavāni pamuñcati;
Just as the jasmine creeper
sheds its withered flowers

Here it refers to flowers that have become overripe, softening and withering on the vine, until they fall off.

Now, it used to be quite a common practice that game meat would be left a little while to “turn” or become “high” before cooking, in order to tenderize it. This would naturally increase the amount of dangerous bacteria, as borne out by modern studies, in which wild pigs were used. (My apologies for the source, but it is quite a good article!)

The research itself is paywalled:

The authors argue that cooking evolved as a means of reducing bacteria in meat on the turn.

The distinction between wild and domesticated pigs in those days would not have been that great, and the flesh would probably have been much tougher than modern pork. So Cunda may have left the meat for a while to soften before cooking, and this could have been the source of the Buddha’s illness. Thus we should translate “pork on the turn”.

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Your approach to the translation sounds like a good one. I’ve always read with interest articles that discuss this last meal, and whether Cunda’s recipe was that of food for a pig ( such as mushrooms ), or a pork meal itself. The idea of the meal being pork meat that has turned has appeal.

The essay that appealed to me the most is one written by a former monk and physician who speculated that , based on the description of the Buddha’s behaviors and complaints after the meal (chills, thirst, bloody diarrhea), that the meal itself wasn’t the cause of his last illness, but that the meal aggravated the Buddha’s digestive system, leading to a mesenteric infarction. Certainly, if the meat itself were tainted “Whatever is left over of the “pig’s delight” you should bury in a pit, because, Cunda, 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” it would be no surprise that the combination of bacteria infested pork and mesenteric infarction would lead to a painful death.

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:grin: :grinning::grin:

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Cooking food has also the function of making it more digestible. Especially vegetables, even fruit. Also perhaps (and related to “on the turn”) the s/t touted superiority of (properly) “aged” meat.

Is this from a sutta? If it is, it seems like the Buddha is being witty saying “You’d better bury this pig meat Cunda, it’s so rank only a Tathagata could digest it properly!”

Yes, it’s from the Mahaparinibbana. Out of context, I admit it could sound funny, but the fact that it led to a bloody dysentery for the Buddha, which he may have died from, tends to take the edge off the humor. Too soon!

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I wonder if madda(va) might mean the same as majja ie -fermented, as in surameraya majjapamadattana vermani skkha padam samadiyami’. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

This could then lead to a meaning of ‘fermented pork’.

As it turns out…

Microbiology (of Naem)

Naem has on occasion been contaminated with parasites such as Taenia solium, Trichinella spiralis, and enteropathogenic bacteria such as coliform bacteria and Salmonella.[6] It has been demonstrated that Salmonella growth is inhibited by the formation of lactic acid during the fermentation process.[6] Use of the starter culture Lactobacillus curvatus has been shown to prevent “the outgrowth of pathogenic bacteria” in naem.[5] Naem is sometimes irradiated.[8]

Regulations on bacterial content

The bacterial content in Thai sour pork products is regulated. There should not be more than 0.1 grams (0.0035 oz) of Escherichia coli O157:H7, Staphylococcus aureus not more than 0.1 grams (0.0035 oz), Yersinia enterocolitica not more than 0.1 grams (0.0035 oz), Listeria monocytogenes not more than 0.1 grams (0.0035 oz), Clostridium perfringens not more than 0.1 grams (0.0035 oz), Fungi less than 10colony per gram, Trichinellaspiralis less than 100 grams (3.5 oz).[16] Bacteria at higher levels may cause sickness.[16]

A mnemonic for common infectious causes of bloody diarrhea: CHESS:
:black_medium_small_square:Campylobacter
:black_medium_small_square:Hemorrhagic E. coli (O157:H7)
:black_medium_small_square:Entamoeba histolytica
:black_medium_small_square:Salmonella
:black_medium_small_square:Shigella

A noteworthy point here is: “Monks, I allow you fish and meat that are quite pure in three respects: if they are not seen, heard or suspected to have been killed on purpose for a monk”. link.
This fits the idea that the meat was not fresh and the one way to preserve meat would be to ferment it. The Buddha would not have consumed it otherwise.

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But did it? I also read the article by the monk, which @AnagarikaMichael mentioned. And if I remember corectly, the conclusion was that the meal could not have been the cause - that the onset was too sudden for it to be food poisoning, and that the condition was already present, from which the Buddha had suffered also a recent episode. If that it to be believed, it was the Buddha’s mistaken assumption that the food was the cause, however ‘heretical’ that might sound for those who believe he was omniscient, that led to the burrying of the food and the long-held assumption that that was indeed the cause.

Interesting thought; it doesn’t seem implausible. Unfortunately, so far as I know there are no Sanskritic variants of the term. (The Skt text does not specify the food; we know from Chinese translations that some northern texts did specify the food, but the Chinese is not very helpful) So we have nothing to check what the actual etymology might have been. Still, even if it was so, it would not change the meaning much from the sense of maddava as attested in Dhp#377.

I read that article as well. In that article as well, it says that in some sutta the Buddha was said to have been unwell prior to the last meal. It is not possible to find what this sutta is as there is no reference, and other places quoting this prior illness, is quoting this article! In any case the Buddha being human, would have fallen ill sometimes. This doesn’t necessarily imply a connection. Also, there is no reason why ‘food poisoning’ isn’t quite acute- in fact most of the time it is, hence it is possible to find the culprit meal. Looking at the sutta below (and considering the summarized nature of suttas) it is not possible to draw a conclusion he fell ill immediately, or that he wanted to set off to Kusinara right away!

Cunda buried the remaining pig-delicacy in a pit, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, after bowing down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One — after instructing, urging, rousing, & encouraging him with Dhamma-talk — got up from his seat and left.

Then in the Blessed One, after he had eaten Cunda’s meal, there arose a severe illness accompanied with (the passing of) blood, with intense pains & deadly. But the Blessed One endured it — mindful, alert, & not struck down by it.

Then he addressed Ven. Ānanda, “Ānanda, we will go to Kusinarā.” Ud8.5

The dysentery is in itself necessary and sufficient to cause death, especially considering he was in his 80’s.

Clostridium perfringens could be the culprit- found in ‘tender’ pork:

Food poisoning

In the United Kingdom and United States, C. perfringens bacteria are the third most common cause of foodborne illness, with poorly prepared meat and poultry, or food properly prepared but left to stand too long, the main culprits in harboring the bacterium

Food poisoning incidents

On May 7, 2010, “42 residents and 12 staff members at a Louisiana state psychiatric hospital were affected experienced vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea”. Three patients died within 24 hours. The outbreak was linked to chicken which was cooked a day prior to being served and was not cooled down according to hospital guidelines. The outbreak affected 31% of the residents of the hospital and 69% of the staff who ate the chicken. It is unknown how many of the affected residents ate the chicken.

In May 2011, a man died after allegedly eating food contaminated with the bacteria on a transatlantic American Airlines flight…

In December 2012, a 46-year-old woman died two days after eating a Christmas Day meal at a pub in Hornchurch, Essex, England. She was among about 30 people to fall ill after eating the meal. Samples taken from the victims contained C. perfringens. The hotel manager and the cook were jailed for offences arising from the incident.

In December 2014, 87-year-old Bessie Scott died three days after eating a church potluck supper in Nackawic, New Brunswick, Canada. Over 30 other people reported signs of gastrointestinal illness, diarrhea and abdominal pain. The province’s acting chief medical officer says Clostridium perfringens is the bacteria that most likely caused the woman’s death.

The bhikkhu’s article brings in mesntric infarction to suggest that Cunda was not to ‘blame’, but the pre-existing illness. However the Buddha doesn’t say the food poisoning wasn’t to blame, but seeks to leave Cunda in a wholesome state of mind. In any case there was no intentional food poisoning as Cunda was a devotee of the Buddha:

Then the Blessed One addressed Ven. Ānanda, "Ānanda, if anyone tries to incite remorse in Cunda the silversmith, saying, ‘It’s no gain for you, friend Cunda, it’s ill-done by you, that the Tathāgata, having eaten your last alms, was totally unbound,’ then Cunda’s remorse should be allayed (in this way): 'It’s a gain for you, friend Cunda, it’s well-done by you, that the Tathāgata, having eaten your last alms, was totally unbound. Face to face with the Blessed One have I heard it, face to face have I learned it, "These two alms are equal to each other in fruit, equal to each other in result, of much greater fruit & reward than any other alms. Which two? The alms that, after having eaten it, the Tathāgata awakens to the unexcelled right self-awakening. And the alms that, after having eaten it, the Tathāgata is unbound by means of the unbinding property with no fuel remaining. [5]These are the two alms that are equal to each other in fruit, equal to each other in result, of much greater fruit & reward than any other alms. Venerable[6] Cunda the silversmith has accumulated kamma that leads to long life. Ud8.5

It is in an earlier section of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta.

But you are quite right, there is no necessary connection between this and the later illness, although there is no reason why it should be disconnected either.

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That is true.

They have also used the stock phrase used whenever someone is dying, so we cannot assume these are symptoms of the same illness, though nothing can rule it out.

Also we cannot be certain the pork was the cause of his death as he doesn’t confirm that either, though the time line is suggestive.

There maybe several factors at play 1) previous sickness 2) food poisoning 3) old age- weakened immune and other systems 4) giving up the will to live longer than a certain period.

The story makes it sound like he asked for the leftovers to be buried either while the meal was still happening or perhaps straight afterwards. It doesn’t sound as if there was much of a time gap, from looking at the sutta. And it seems safe to assume he asked it to be buried when he felt ill and assumed the cause was the food.

No, not necessarily, but it seems a reasonable hypothesis, at least the way it was presented in the article.

I’m in the UK so I have looked this up on the NHS website, under their page for food poisoning, which tells us:

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms of food poisoning usually begin within one to two days after eating contaminated food, although they may start at any point between a few hours and several weeks later.

The monk who wrote the article may have discounted food poisoning on the basis that he believed the Buddha became ill sooner than ‘a few hours’ after eating, presumably based on the way he took the description in the sutta.[quote=“Mat, post:10, topic:5762”]
The dysentery is in itself necessary and sufficient to cause death, especially considering he was in his 80’s.
[/quote]

But we know that was not his only symptom. He had pain and blood.

Neither your quote nor my (very brief) search showed blood in the stool as a symptom for this. And I think the monk had this as an important point. What explains his symptoms? Apparently not food poisoning.

I am not sure that’s why he brought the idea of infarction! I think he did that because it was the best fit he could find to explain the evidence.

Just because the Buddha didn’t say it wasn’t the food, does not mean it was the food. The monk hypothesises that the Buddha mistakenly thought it was the food. That sounds totally reasonable to me. Hopefully we all agree he was not omniscient!

Ok, how about my other friend Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli O157:H7 also found in rotting meat (see my post above with the bacteria).

Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a serotype of the bacterial species Escherichia coli and is one of the Shiga toxin–producing types of E. coli. It is a cause of disease, typically foodborne illness of the “colonic escherichiosis” type, through consumption of contaminated and raw food, including raw milk. Infection with this type of pathogenic bacteria may lead to hemorrhagic diarrhea, and to kidney failure; these have been reported to cause the deaths of children younger than five years of age, of elderly patients, and of patients whose immune systems are otherwise compromised.
Transmission is via the fecal–oral route, and most illness has been through distribution of contaminated raw leaf green vegetables, undercooked meat and raw milk.[4]

Signs and symptoms
E. coli O157:H7 infection often causes severe, acute hemorrhagic diarrhea (although nonhemorrhagic diarrhea is also possible) and abdominal cramps. Usually little or no fever is present, and the illness resolves in five to 10 days. It can also be asymptomatic.

Ven Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu states:

Before passing away, the Buddha told Ananda that Cunda was not to be blamed and that his death was not caused by eating Sukaramaddava. link

Actually the Buddha doesn’t directly state this in the sutta, but simply states Cunda shouldn’t feel remorse if someone rebukes him in that way.

Then the Blessed One addressed Ven. Ānanda, "Ānanda, if anyone tries to incite remorse in Cunda the silversmith, saying, ‘It’s no gain for you, friend Cunda, it’s ill-done by you, that the Tathāgata, having eaten your last alms, was totally unbound,’ then Cunda’s remorse should be allayed (in this way): 'It’s a gain for you, friend Cunda, it’s well-done by you, that the Tathāgata, having eaten your last alms, was totally unbound. Face to face with the Blessed One have I heard it, face to face have I learned it, "These two alms are equal to each other in fruit, equal to each other in result, of much greater fruit & reward than any other alms. Which two? The alms that, after having eaten it, the Tathāgata awakens to the unexcelled right self-awakening. And the alms that, after having eaten it, the Tathāgata is unbound by means of the unbinding property with no fuel remaining. [5]These are the two alms that are equal to each other in fruit, equal to each other in result, of much greater fruit & reward than any other alms. Venerable[6] Cunda the silversmith has accumulated kamma that leads to long life. Ud8.5

Yes he doesn’t have omniscience, but even someone of mundane intelligence would know whether they are dying from an exacerbation of a previous illness or due to something they just ate. :grin:

with metta

Well, the text says he knew it was bad before eating it. If it was indeed “high” meat, this wouldn’t have required psychic powers! The Buddha fell sick after telling Cunda to throw away the leftovers.

Apart from that, we really can’t say anything about the time. Constructions like atha kho in Pali simply express sequence, they can apply to any gap of time. It seems reasonable to suppose that he fell ill either right after the meal or some time later that day, but even that is a guess.

Yes, Mettanando’s readings of the text are not very reliable.

Early in the Parinibbana sutta we read that the Buddha had decided not to stay much longer, although he could have if asked by Ananda.
Could we say that, similar to the Arahats who took the knife and were not to be blamed for it, the Buddha did the same, not with a knife but with rotten meat?

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Well, yes, this is the other problem, the buddha voluntarily relinquishes the life force. I think we are supposed to understand that, if he so willed, the Buddha could have suppressed the illness and lived on. This is, in fact, what happened the first time he fell ill, as referred to above. So eating the rotten pork seems to be superfluous; perhaps it was just the immediate cause of something that was going to happen anyway.

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Yes, the pork could have gone either way! The dysentery could have been self-limiting in other people, in different circumstances. I am reminded of old couples who die soon after one dies. Maybe nothing psychic (rather it maybe sub- or unconscious alterations in the mind) in allowing death to happen when that happens.

with metta

I looked that up on the NHS website, and it says:

People usually notice symptoms 3-4 days after they’ve been infected, but symptoms can start any time between 1 and 14 days afterwards.

So it would seem that this is ruled out due to the sudden onset of the Buddha’s symptoms. Thus the monk’s hypothesis seems to fit the evidence better than this idea does, so far as I can see.

If his pre-existing condition were the cause of the sudden onset of pain, but that sudden onset occured after eating a meal, it is not unreasonable to speculate that the Buddha mistakenly attributed the cause to the meal. Even highly qualified doctors have been known to attribute illnesses to the wrong causes. And it is, I would say, fairly common for someone to become ill and not know exactly why, or to jump to the wrong conclusion as to the cause. I would say there is nothing particularly abnormal about that. And expecially so when the cause is something uncommon. Food poisoning is fairly common, and thus would be a fairly logical, if not correct, guess as to the cause.

I am not convinced that it is necessary to believe the text on that point. Do you not think that the authors of the text could have created that detail? For example, to support their idea that he was omniscient (if they had such an idea)? Or to pump up the image of the Buddha, rather than supplying the story that their great teacher unknowingly ate food that killed him? Don’t you think that it sounds a bit ‘better’ that he knew about it, and thus that this gives them motive to create such a fiction?

Furthermore, do you think that the Buddha was the kind of person to willingly poison himself by eating food that he knew was poisonous? That would seem illogical to me. If we are to believe the story that he knowingly ate food that killed him, that sounds rather like suicide. Even just to make himself ill for a while, would have the result in making the teachings less available, by making the teacher unable to teach, even if for a while, let alone permanently by killing him!

Right, and that apparently rules out his symptoms being caused by the food, so far as I have understood by the medical analysis. (I am not saying that I know that analysis to be correct).