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There has been some controversy about the diet of Buddha, if he ate meat or if he was strictly vegetarian. The first Precept states no killing or causing to kill living beings, but at the same time, monastics are expected to take what is offered them, living by the Threefold rule.
The Buddha's final meal
At his final days in the parinibbana sutta, the food that led to his death was at one time translated as pork. The terms have been translated as “pig’s truffles” which was originally mistranslated as pork. Modern scholars including, Arthur Waley, K. E. Neumann, and Mrs. Rhys Davids have corrected this to “the food of pigs” which are mushrooms. Today, the majority of Buddhist scholars agree that the Buddha ate mushrooms, which may have been poisonous and led to his death at the age of 80. Or it could simply have been the size of the meal that led to his death as there is evidence that the Buddha was already suffering from digestive problems well before eating the final meal (from previous suttas where the Buddha was ill and then recovered). However, the Buddha eats from the dish and requests for the remaining amount to be buried, apparently knowing that the food was in some way tainted and not simply a large meal. This suggests that the food was in some way not fit to eat, such as the wrong type of mushrooms. From the Digha Nikaya, Mahaparanibbana Sutta, no. 16:
19. Thereafter the Blessed One spoke to Cunda, saying: "Whatever, Cunda, is left over of the sukara-maddava, bury that in a pit. For I do not see in all this world, with its gods, Maras, and Brahmas, among the host of ascetics and brahmans, gods and men, anyone who could eat it and entirely digest it except the Tathagata alone."
And Cunda the metalworker answered the Blessed One saying: "So be it, O Lord."And what remained over of the sukara-maddava he buried in a pit.
20. Then he returned to the Blessed One, respectfully greeted him, and sat down at one side. And the Blessed One instructed Cunda the metalworker in the Dhamma, and roused, edified, and gladdened him. After this he rose from his seat and departed.
21. And soon after the Blessed One had eaten the meal provided by Cunda the metalworker, a dire sickness fell upon him, even dysentery, and he suffered sharp and deadly pains. But the Blessed One endured them mindfully, clearly comprehending and unperturbed.
Even today, in modern times, it sometimes happens that people prepare and cook the wrong type of mushrooms and then become ill and pass away. And the illness and passing happen very quickly. The food may have been the wrong type, not from poisoning, but simply by accident and therefore, no intent to harm by the giver of the food, Cunda. The Buddha continued showing his compassion for all by prasing the gift of the food and then later teaching Dhamma to Cunda, others, and even one last ascetic who came from far to see the Buddha to learn the Dhamma.
Further evidence that the Buddha did not eat pork can be seen in the fact that Cunda was a blacksmith, the one who offered the final meal to the Buddha. The three highest castes do not eat pork or other foods from pig meat. As a blacksmith, he was a member of the third caste and therefore, could not have prepared pork.
There appears to be one place, and apparently only this one place, where he is described as eating meat. At A.III,49 it mentions that the Buddha was once served sukaramamsa (Pali) with jujube fruit. The term mamsa = meat or flesh.
The sutta mentions that the Buddha ate "out of pity" apparently suggesting that he wanted to please the layman by accepting his food.
Yet in spite of the one reference to meat, there are numerous other places where it mentions what the Buddha ate and they are vegetarian:
- Thick milk-rice porridge and fresh ghee (Udana 4.3)
- Wild rice (Majjhima Nikaya I. 78)
- Rice with grains (M. 247), (Majjhima Nikaya 36.33)
- Barley meal honey balls (Vinaya I. 4)
- Choice rice with curry (Majjhima Nikaya II. 7)
- Rose apple, mango, myrobalan fruits (Vin. I. 30)
- Steamed barley and rice (Vinaya, Suttavibhanga 1)
- Lettuce and fruit salad (Vinaya, Suttavibhanga 33.1)
- Vegetables and rice (Vinaya, Cullavagga VI 4.1)
- Milk (Vinaya, Mahavagga VI 34.20)
- Conjey (watery rice porridge) and honey lumps (Vinaya, VI 24.3-7)
- Vegetables and bread (Vinaya, VI 36.7)
In the Khuddaka Nikaya, Vimanavatthu, there are stories of meritorious deeds done by lay people who then ascended to a deva (heavenly) realm. Many of the meritorious deeds were giving alms food to the Buddha or one of his monks. Here we find several examples of only vegetarian food either given to the Buddha or one of his chief monk disciples, Moggallana or Sariputta:
- Ghee, honey, sugar, rice, milk (Vim. 1.5)
- Molasses (Vim. 4.2) and (Vim. 6.4) and (Vim 6.5)
- Rice-crust (Vim. 2.10)
- Cake (Vim. 3.1)
- Sugar-cane (Vim. 3.2) and (Petav. 4.5)
- Rice-crust, soups and curries (Vim. 2.3)
- Mangoes (Vim. 6.3) and (Vim. 6.5) and (Vim. 4.8)
- Rice custard / pudding (Vim. 6.7)
- Rice gruel (Vim. 4.4) and (Vim 4.5) and (Petav. 3.5)
- Rice, cane-juice, sugar cane (Vim. 5.12)
- Rice gruel and mangoes (Petav. 4.12)
- Beans, grains (Vim. 7.6)
Vegetarian foods served to former buddhas
The bhikkhuni Rohini was an arahant (enlightened) and in a previous life, from a prior aeon, she served "sweet cakes" to a former Buddha (Thi. 67).
The Three most important meals
According to Buddhism, the three most important foods served to the Buddha were the final meal (discussed above), most likely mushrooms, the meal just before enlightenment, which was the milk rice served by Sujata, and the meal right after enlightenment, which was barley meal honey balls. All three of these meals were vegetarian.
A scientific sample is one that is done without any bias toward selecting the things to be studied or evaluated. The passages mentioning what the Buddha ate appear to fall into that category as they are spread out through the Pali Canon and refer to other teachings, not about diet and thus, appear to be random mentions of his diet. As such we can use the above as a representative sample. If we count all of the above plus the last meal, the meal Sujata gave to the Buddha and the mention of meat above, we come to: 35 vegetarian meals and 1 meat meal. This results in a diet by the Buddha that is 97% vegetarian. This is the equivalent of eating vegetarian all year except for 10 days per year which is less than one meat meal per month. Such a person even in modern times would most likely be defined as a vegetarian who makes some rare exceptions as may be necessary for social reasons.
- Vegetarianism and Buddhism
- Food of enlightenment
- 3 most important meals to a Buddha
- 3 fold rule
- Edicts of Ashoka
- Anguttara Nikaya 3.16
- 8 points of the Lankavatara