Sujata’s Gift

Realizing the middle way between asceticism and indulgence, Siddhartha accepted milk-rice from the farmer Sujata. Hun Lye celebrates the delicious, healthy rice dishes, which can remind us of that pivotal meal.

Lama Hun Lye
30 March 2023
Kheer, a kind of milky rice pudding, has been enjoyed in India since ancient times. The word kheer is derived from the Sanskrit word for milk. © Stock Image Factory |

Not long after eating what would be his last meal, signs of food poisoning began to show as the octogenarian Buddha slowly journeyed towards the groves of Kushinagar accompanied by his disciples. Concerned that others would blame the host of this last meal for the severe dysentery that would soon take his life, the Buddha told his disciples that of all the meals he had been offered in his life, two bore the greatest merit: This last meal offered by Cunda the silversmith and the meal offered to him by Sujata the milkmaid,  right before he attained Buddhahood forty-five years earlier.

Perhaps Sujata’s meal—whether sweet or savory, dairy or vegan, long-grain or short—isn’t supposed to be common.

While the actual content of this last meal is uncertain – some believe it was a type of pork dish, while others suggest it was likely a type of mushroom or tuber. The other meal, Sujata’s offering, was straightforward enough. Believing that the emaciated yet radiant figure seated under an ancient pipal tree was the tree spirit who had granted her prayers for a son, Sujata offered a nourishing bowl of pāyasam to the soon-to-be Buddha as thanksgiving. Pāyasam is very simply “milk-rice.” And in case there’s any debate about what “milk-rice” could mean, the 3rd-century biography of the Buddha, “The Play in Full” (Lalitavistara), provides us with the recipe for Sujata’s offering:

  • Gather “the milk of a thousand cows” and skim the cream from the milk “seven times” until you get “a thick, strength-giving cream.”
  • Add some “freshly-cooked rice” into this skimmed-seven-times-cream-of-a-thousand-cows and boil them together in a clay pot.
  • Stir regularly until “a number of auspicious signs such as the contours of an endless-knot, a lotus or a flask” turn up in the milk.
  • Add honey (to taste) before serving.
  • Serve “in a golden bowl.”

With or without a thousand cows, auspicious signs, and golden bowls, Sujata’s meal is recognizable. It’s the soothingly sweet kheer that we order at Indian restaurants after a satisfying, spicy meal. It’s the rice pudding that many of us longed for as a simple but comforting childhood treat. It’s the arroz con leche that mamita uses as a “bandaid” for all bad days. Milk, rice, and sugar (or their close equivalents) are sources of nourishment and comfort for many societies around the world. A simple combination that provided the severely malnourished and weakened Siddhartha the energy he needed for his final breakthrough from an ordinary being to a buddha.

As much as the Buddha praised both his “last meals” as equally meritorious for their respective donors—his last meal as a mundane, unawakened being and his last meal as a full and complete buddha—it is not surprising that no tradition developed among Buddhists out of the Buddha’s last meal. On the other hand, Sujata’s milk-rice offering did inspire the development of several culinary traditions in different Buddhist cultures that we can recognize as “incarnations ” of the original payāsam.

I grew up in Malaysia as an ethnic and religious minority—Chinese and Buddhist. Our variation on Sujata’s recipe takes the form of a special porridge. I have fond memories of it being prepared at Phor Tay, the vegetarian hall in Penang, which my grandmother attended throughout my childhood and early adulthood. Vegetarian halls are a uniquely Chinese institution; they’re communities of unmarried women who have a life-long commitment to Buddhist or Daoist practice, or sometimes a fusion of both. These nuns are supported by a larger community of laywomen, such as my “Ah Ngen,” (“grandma” in our regional sub-dialect Chinese.) By the time my Ah Ngen became a regular at the Phor Tay, it was a center of devotional religiosity, spiritually anchored by a respected handful of resident nuns. These nuns were supported by a larger community of laywomen such as my Ah Ngen.

I spent many hours with her in Phor Tay’s exceptionally large kitchen where large vegan meals were prepared regularly—meals offered to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, to ancestors and hungry ghosts, and to hundreds of human devotees who visited on special holy days to offer prayers and always to “eat vegetarian.” “Eating vegetarian” was religious in nature— partaking a vegan lunch was a direct way of “taking the blessings” into one’s own person.

Annually, a week or so before the day East Asian Buddhists observe as the “Awakening Day” of the Buddha, (the eighth day of the twelfth month in the East Asian lunisolar calendar), preparations for making ba bao zhou or “eight treasures porridge” would get underway. My Ah Ngen was always part of the kitchen crew who sorted, washed, rinsed, peeled, chopped, steamed, and stirred all the ingredients for this Chinese incarnations of Sujata’s milk-rice offering, which only retained the rice and the sugar of payāsam. Milk was left behind as payāsam made its journey from dairy-centered India to lactose-intolerant China. To commemorate Sujata’s offering to Siddhartha, Chinese Buddhists added a number of native ingredients to turn the milk-rice offering into “eight treasures porridge.” Although there are many variations possible, the ba bao zhou of Phor Tay usually included white rice, black glutinous rice, mung beans, red adzuki beans, lotus seeds, peanuts, dried longans, and dried jujubes:

  • Cook the two types of rice separately, al dente. Glutinous black rice should be steamed instead of cooked like regular white rice, which is submerged in water.
  • Separately cook the pre-soaked mung beans and red adzuki beans, also al dente. Include some sugar (or any sweetener of choice).
  • Do the same to the lotus seeds and peanuts. Most lotus seeds sold these days have their bitter germ core removed but do make sure this is the case for your lotus seeds.
  • In a large pot, fill water to about a third of the pot, add sweetener, and bring this porridge base to a boil. Among our community in Malaysia, we often sweeten our desserts with either “rock sugar” or coconut sugar. For babao zhou, rock sugar is preferred.
  • When sugar is fully dissolved, lower the heat to medium or lower and add the pre-cooked lotus seeds and peanuts and the liquid they were cooked in as they contain the various flavors and scents.
  • After 15-20 minutes, add the beans and rice.
  • After another 15-20 minutes, add the dried longans and cored jujubes.
  • Add water as necessary—you want the thickness of porridge rather than broth or Add more sweetener if desired.
  • Serve babao zhou warm and by the bowlfuls.

Ah Ngen and friends would spend days sorting the rice and beans, grain by grain, to make sure each grain was “good.” The peanuts had to be softened by soaking them in water and rinsing off their layer of skin. Extracting each lotus seed’s bitter germ with a toothpick seed after seed took a lot of patience and good eyesight. Removing the kernel from each dried jujube without splitting the dried jujube in two took skill. It was a lot of work, but work done as an offering—an offering to the Buddha, to Sujata’s timely generosity, and to the many hundreds who came to Phor Tay on Awakening Day to offer their devotions.

Many years later, karmic winds took me far away from Malaysia, from my family, and from my Ah Ngen and her spiritual sisters at the Phor Tay. It was in the United States where I encountered dresil, another incarnation of Sujata’s meal. First concocted in the Land of Snows, it was brought to the West by Tibetan refugees. While kheer—the present-day Northern Indian descendent of Sujata’s payāsam—is a creamy, milky rice soup spiced with cardamom and served chilled, and the Chinese ba bao zhou is a lactose-free porridge cooked with grains, legumes, dried fruit, and nuts and served warm, Tibetan/Himalayan dresil is bowl of buttery, nutty receive often served at room temperature. Dresil is a must-have at Losar New Year festivities—first offered to the Three Jewels and protector deities and then eaten by the family as the first food on New Year’s Day. Offering and eating dresil is believed to create the “auspicious interdependence” (tashi tendrel) for success in achieving one’s goals. This Tibetan belief is rooted in Sujata’s words to the future Buddha when she offered him her milk-rice: “Sir! Just as my hopes for a child have been successful, may yours also succeed!” And succeed indeed did Siddhartha!

Dresil is such a potent form of auspicious food that it is offered to the buddhas and served to guests on any special, happy occasions such as the visit or teaching events of important lamas, weddings, and during festivals, and holy days. My introduction to dresil was at my teacher’s Tibetan Buddhist center, where often a Tibetan would supervise its making whenever there was a special event. Dresil is a satisfying treat, even if it is the least sugary of all the different incarnations of Sujata’s offering. Rice, butter, golden raisins, a bit of sugar, and a fistful of tiny, highly nutritious tubers known as droma (sometimes called “Tibetan ginseng”) are what you need for dresil. Since it is hard to source droma outside of Tibet, nuts often serve as substitutes—cashews, pine nuts, or walnuts are especially good. Dresil looked simple enough to make, but over the years, the Buddha’s warning that “appearances are deceptive” rings more and more true for me when it comes to making dresil right. Although it is relatively easy and quick to make, it is also very easy to mess up when we mistake simplicity for simpleness. Many attempts of making dresil that look and taste right have ended with a mushy, oily, and sometimes even rancid bowl of unappetizing rice mush! But if you’re up for the goodness of simplicity, try the following:

  1. Cook some long grain, low-starch rice like basmati rice and set aside. Your rice should not be overcooked — each grain should be intact and not mushy.
  2. If you have droma, cook it separately for 35-40 minutes over low heat and thoroughly rinse it after it’s cooked.
  3. Mix rice, droma and/or nuts, golden raisins, butter, and sugar together. The sweetness of dresil should not be the in-your-face kind of sweetness, rather, it should be only a tease of sweetness that does not linger long.
  4. In some Himalayan versions of dresil, the rice is sometimes cooked with a few strands of saffron, thus giving it a golden color and the clean and exquisite scent of saffron.

Easy right? I paraphrase Nagarjuna: Yes. No. Both and neither.

While India’s northern Buddhist neighbors have kept Sujata’s original payāsam ingredients of dairy, grain, and sweetener, on the Island of Lanka at the southern tip of the Indian sub-continent, I encountered yet another incarnation of this milk-rice offering. During a visit to Sri Lanka as an observer at the executive meeting of the World Buddhist Sangha Council in 1999, I took note of a special rice dish called kiribath that was served at breakfast at all the hotels we stayed at. Kiribath literally means “milk-rice” in Sinhala, but instead of dairy milk, kiribath is usually cooked with coconut milk. And instead of sugar, salt is added to this Sri Lankan version of Sujata’s offering.

In Sri Lankan culinary customs, kiribath, like the Tibetan-Himalayan dresil, is first offered to the Buddha on the morning of New Year’s Day and later eaten as the main food for the first meal of the year. It is also often eaten at home on the new moon day of each month to usher in a smooth and successful month for the family. Like dresil, kiribath is also indispensable at all festive and auspicious occasions. While the other incarnations of Sujata’s payāsam have retained the sweet character of the offering, in Sri Lanka kiribath is often taken with a savory relish made from raw red onions, hot pepper flakes, Maldive fish flakes, salt and lime. It can also be taken with a variety of other Sri Lankan savory-sweet-spicy relishes known as “sambols.” To prepare kiribath:

  1. Choose a short-grain rice to use and follow the instructions given, but use only 3/4 of the recommended amount of water.
  2. As the water in your rice begins to dry up—about 15 minutes into the cooking—lower the heat and add creamy coconut milk to the rice, making up for the 1/4 portion of water that you omitted.
  3. Add a few pinches of salt and continue to cook rice using low heat until all the coconut milk is absorbed by the rice.
  4. Turn off the stove and let the cooked kiribath rest and cook down a bit with the lid on.
  5. Scoop the cooked kiribath into a small bowl and lightly compress the rice before turning the bowl over a plate and letting the mound of lightly compressed rice set on the plate.
  6. Garnish with a savory sambol relish on top.

This savory incarnation of Sujata’s offering is a personal favorite. Ironically, it’s the version I’ve had the fewest opportunities to enjoy. But perhaps Sujata’s meal—whether sweet or savory, dairy or vegan, long-grain or short—isn’t supposed to be common, daily fare. After all, rice cooked with milk from a thousand cows, skimmed seven times, and served in a golden bowl is something special, and as the Tibetans put it: “Even the magnificent snow lion will be mistaken for a common dog if it’s seen in town too frequently.”

Lama Hun Lye

Lama Hun Lye

Lama Hun Lye grew up in Malaysia and has a Ph.D in Religious Studies from University of Virginia. He is a lama in the Drikung Kagyu since being appointed a Dorjé Lopön (lit. “vajra-master”) by H.H. Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang Rinpoché in 2013. He is founder of Urban Dharma NC and Drikung Dharmakirti International Sangha.