The Death of the Buddha

The Death of the Buddha

After his enlightenment sitting under a tree at Bodhgaya, the Buddha went on to teach for an additional 45 years before his death.  In this article, I’ll be covering the events and the cause of his death according to modern science based on accounts found in the Buddhist sutras.

The main source for the events surrounding the death of the Buddha is the Mahaparanibbana Sutta which belongs to the Pali canon. The Buddha died at approximately 483BC, at the age of 80 in the city of Kusinara (present-day Kushinagar).

Buddha’s Last Meal

Three months before his death, he predicted the specific day and time that he would abandon his earthly body upon which he would enter a state of Nirvana called Parinirvana.

He naturally met with as many of his adherents and fellow monks before he passed on and gave discourses to them on various Buddhist teachings.

Not long after this the Buddha ate his last meal which was given to him as an offering from a blacksmith named Cunda.  However, the contents of the meal are still debated by both Theravada and Mahayana. According to the Theravada school, the Buddha ate a dish made from pork, while in the Mahayana school it is said that the dish contained truffles, a kind of mushroom.  The Pali word from this dish is sukara-maddava, sukara meaning pig and maddava meaning soft, tender, delicate.

In the Mahaparanibbana Sutta, it is said that after he had eaten of the dish prepared for him, he instructed Cunda to bury the remains of it in a pit.

Last Words and Teachings

He then took Cunda aside and instructed him in the Dharma and then he went away.  Shortly after that, the Buddha started experiencing massive and deadly pains and bloody diarrhea.  He instructed Ananda to relate to Cunda that his meal was not the cause of the Buddha’s illness and prophesied death and that Cunda received great merit because he provided the last meal for a Buddha.

Soon after he instructed Ananda to take him to Kusinara and he endured the bodily pains he experienced with the pure concentration of his mind absorbed in meditation.  They stopped frequently to quench the Buddha’s thirst on the way to Kusinara. And on the way he came across many of adherents of his teachings and he instructed them in the Dharma before actually getting to Kusinara.

Upon arrival at Kusinara, he instructed Ananda to prepare a bed for him between two Sala trees with the head pointing to the north.  This was to be the place where he would cast off his mortal coil. He commented to Ananda that the site of Kusinara was once ruled by a righteous king thousands of years before.

He then lay down on his right side and as he did so, the sala trees bloomed which was remarkable since it was out of season.  Interestingly he is described as having golden light exuding from his skin during his journey to Kusinara in spite of his deteriorating physical condition.

His final words were said to be this: “All composite things are perishable.  Strive for your own liberation with diligence.”

the death of the buddha

The Buddha entering Parinirvana

The Buddha’s Relics

After the Buddha died, he was wrapped and linen and burned on a funeral pyre.  A stupa was erected on the site containing a portion of his ashes. The rest of his ashes were kept as relics and divided amongst 8 royal families and among his disciples.  Later under the reign of Emperor Ashoka, they would be enshrined into 84,000 stupas.

death of the buddha

Buddha’s Cremation Stupa

Cause of Death

So what does modern medicine have to say about the cause of Buddha’s death?

According to the Mahaparanibbana Sutta, here is what we know about the Buddha’s symptoms that he experienced after his last meal:

  • Severe abdominal pains
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Severe thirst/dehydration

At this point in time, the Buddha is quite old being 80 years of age so his body was more susceptible to illnesses.  And in this case the symptoms are consistent with a medical condition called “mesenteric infarction” which is condition that some people get in old age.

Mesenteric Infarction

Also called Mesenteric ischemia, mesenteric infarction is a medical condition that develops as a result of not enough blood supply to the small intestine.  This is usually the result of a clot that forms in the artery.  One main symptom is the experience of sudden severe abdominal pain after eating which is consistent with the description in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta.

Notice that the Buddha instructed Ananda to tell Cunda that his illness wasn’t the result of the food he prepared. Another telling symptom of Mesenteric Infarction is bloody stools and dehydration which again is consistent with the description in the sutra.

Nearly everyone who develops mesenteric infarction is over the age of 60 which is again consistent with the sutras which describe the Buddha being 80 years old at the time of his death.

Conclusion

The Buddha developed mesenteric infarction as a result of his advanced age instead of by food poisoning as some Buddhists have come to believe to this day.  The events surrounding his death really tells you how revered the Buddha as a teacher and guide to many.

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10 Responses to The Death of the Buddha

  1. Blame says:

    Buddha brought a lot of important revelations to humanity. A lot of his followers can learn a lot from him. Back then he gave up his royalty to understand life for what it really is without illusions.

    It doesn’t really matter whether his last meal had a problem or not. To him, he probably wanted to pass his final teachings to the person cooking for him so he took up his offer on the food.

    Thank you for the read.

    • Ian H says:

      Yes, I think you’re right that even if the food did cause his death, he would bless Cunda the blacksmith anyway recognizing the truth of the impermanence of the human body.

  2. Courtney says:

    I am sorry but my studies of comparative religions did not include Buddhism, a now deceased friend of mine who was an atheist but studied in India for a while, he tried to engage me in conversations several times but I was having issues with religion and History and did not engage him. I have read the article with curiousity and great interest and will make it my business to educate myself.Thanks for sharing. Best wishes.

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Courtney,
      No problem. You can learn a lot about Buddhism by reading the various articles that I’ve posted, which is not including the book reviews.

  3. Farhan says:

    Who doesn’t know Buddha, one of the most wise individual in the history of mankind. However, many do not know how he died, and this article does a great job explaining it.

    Even when he knew when he was going to die, he was still committed to educating his disciples. I hope Buddha did not suffer too much pain before he died. Thanks for this great article!

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Farhan,
      Buddha did suffer from severe abdominal pain prior to his death, but he used mindfulness and meditation to deal with the pain.

  4. Jerry says:

    Interesting topic and definitely got me wanting to study a bit more about the Buddha. Esoteric teachings always fascinate me and it’s also quite perplexing how there’s a divide on a lot of opinions of the Buddha’s life. Who should have ultimate authority over the facts ? Just a few thoughts.

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Jerry,
      There are many legends that arose around the Buddha, especially after his death. Many of the episodes of his life in the sutras are also metaphors for his teachings as well.

  5. Jackie says:

    Wow, I’d never really known the story of the Buddha’s death. I had the opportunity to see the traveling Buddha relics tour two years ago in Santa Barbara. I was moved by the ‘energy’ in the room. Call it what you will, it was very real.

    I’m always so curious as to who these great beings were. Where is his burial stupa? Thanks for the great post. I found it very interesting.

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