Venerable Maha Kassapa is one of the few renowned disciples of buddha who is foremost in ascetic practice.
His younger days
He was born in the Magadha, in the village of Mahatittha, son of a wealthy Brahmin, Kapila and his wife Sumanadevi. He was named Pipphali and was older than the Buddha. At 20, his parents wanted him to marry, but he refused. After their repeated requests, he agreed only if they could find a girl as perfect as the golden statute that he created.
His parents found such a beautiful girl was found in Sagala called Bhadda Kapilani. She also did not wish to marry. Their letters of refusal to marriage to each other were intercepted by their parents. They were married but they maintained a life of celibacy by mutual consent.
Once his parents died, both decided to become ascetics and parted company. Bhadda went to Savatthi and joined a nunnery of non-Buddhist female ascetics. She joined the Bhikkhuni order once it was formed and became an Arahanti shortly after her ordination. She was foremost of nuns who could recollect past lives.
Maha Kassapa's ordination
As for Pipphali, it was said that the Buddha walked 5 miles to meet him at the cross roads of Rajagaha and Nalanda. On seeing the radiance of the Buddha, Pipphali immediately paid homage to Him as his teacher. Unlike the other monks, Pipphali was ordained upon acceptance of advice (Ovadapatiggahana) given by the Buddha. The 3 exhortations:
One should develop a keen sense of shame and fear of wrong doing (hiri-ottappa) towards all monks in the Sangha.
One should listen attentively, examine, reflect and then absorb wholesome teachings.
One should always train in Mindfulness of the Body.
On the way to Rajagaha, Maha Kassapa exchanged his robes with the Buddha who in turn gave him His rough and worn out rag robes. This exchange of robes was an honor not shared by any other disciples. 7 days after ordination, Maha Kassapa became an Arahant.
His appearance was very similar to the Buddha and often he had been mistaken for the Buddha by even King Bimbisara and vice versa by lay devotees.
Once, Maha Kassapa became ill and Buddha visited him, reminding him of the seven factors of enlightenment. He became well.
Maha kassapa's ascetic practice
Maha Kassapa was contented with his requisites. He wore rag robes, went on alms round, lived as a forest dweller and was contented with whatever medicine he received. He continued the strict practice into his old age. This was for his own well being and as an inspiration for later monks who could emulate this.
He would go on alms especially to the poor, for them to make merits. Once he stood in front of a leper whose leprous finger dropped into his alms bowl while he was offering food. Maha Kassapa was said to partake of that meal mindfully. It was believed that even the gods would vie with each other to give alms to Maha Kassapa. He chided Sakka when he discovered that Sakka transformed himself into an old person to give alms that Maha Kassapa had accepted.
Maha Kassapa was said to gain at will the 4 fine material and 4 immaterial meditative absorptions, the cessation of perception and feeling and could attain the six supernormal knowledges.
Maha Kassapa had once asked the Buddha the reasons for decline in the number of arahants with the increased in rules. The decline is not due to disasters from the 4 elements of earth, water, fire and air but the presence of 5 detrimental attitudes:
Lack of respect for the Buddha
Lack of respect for the Dhamma
Lack of respect for the Sangha
Lack of respect for the training
Lack of respect for meditative concentration by the Sangha and laity.
Maha Kassapa was one who went from abundance to abundance. As a lay life, he had lived in abundance of wealth and harmony. As a monk, he dwelt in abundance of jhanic experience.
Relationship with pupils and fellow monks
The subject of overestimation of one’s attainments had been discoursed by Maha Kassapa. On questioning by Buddha or Arahants who were capable of knowing the minds of others, the monk would be confused and embarrassed as he was still obstructed by fetters. (Anguttara 10:86)
He had close relations with Sariputta and Ananda. He declared to Sariputta that a monk who was a forest dweller, living mindfully, with few wants would illumine the Gosinga Forest.
Maha Kassapa would admonish Ananda on the few occasions. Once, Ananda insisted that Maha Kassapa gave a talk to the nuns. A nun, who preferred Ananda, said that speaking Dhamma in presence of Ananda, is like a needle peddler trying to sell a needle to the needle maker. Maha Kassapa cautioned Ananda not to be too involved in the ministering of the nuns. Maha Kassapa had on another occasion admonished Ananda for taking alms alone with unrestrained young men; once monks, who had returned to lay life. 3 monks are required to take alms meal among families as this is for restraining ill-behaved persons, well being of good monks, and consideration for lay families.
After the Buddha’s Mahaparinibbana
Maha Kassapa was on the road from Pava to Kusinara with a large company of monks when he met a naked ascetic who told him of Buddha’s Mahaparinibbana one week earlier. An elderly monk, Subhadda told the others not to grieve as they had gotten rid of the Great ascetic who would no longer tell them what to do and what not to do. They could now do what they liked. This comment should not come from a disciplined monk. This was one of the reasons for Maha Kassapa to call for the First Buddhist Council: he thought that they should consolidate the dhamma and vinaya to have proper discipline and dignified sangha.
After Maha Kassapa and the group of monks had arrived, walked round the pyre, bowed and paid homage at the feet of the Buddha, the pyre burst into flames by itself. A respected Brahmin, Dona, divided the remains of the Buddha into 8 portions. Maha Kassapa brought the share of relics to King Ajatasattu.
To prevent the decline of the Dhamma and the Sangha, Maha Kassapa called for a council of 500 arahants to be held at Rajagaha. Maha Kassapa presided over the council. Venerables Upali and Ananda recited the texts of Vinaya and Sutta respectively. All the minor rules were kept intact so that the vinaya will be complete.
Maha Kassapa lived for 120 years. The circumstances of parinibbana were not recorded in the Pali Canon. Maha Kassapa is regarded as the first patriach of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism due to his personality and his ascetic life.