Shortly before his parinibbāna the Buddha had refused to appoint a personal successor. Instead he urged the monks to look upon the Dhamma and the Vinaya—the doctrine and the discipline—as their Master, for within the teachings proclaimed during his forty-five-year ministry they could find all the instructions they needed to tread the path to deliverance. Nevertheless, though the monks did not select a successor, in the period immediately following the Blessed One’s demise the community came to regard with increasing reverence one solitary elder whose person emanated a natural aura of strength and authority.
This figure, whom the Pāli commentaries describe as “the disciple who was the Buddha’s counterpart” (buddhapaṭibhāga-sāvaka), was known as the Venerable Mahākassapa, Kassapa the Great. There were many factors that contributed to Mahākassapa’s rise to pre-eminence in the newly orphaned Sangha. He shared with the Buddha seven of the thirty-two “marks of a great man” and had been praised by the Master for his meditative attainments and realizations.1 He was the only monk with whom the Buddha had exchanged robes, a special honour. Mahākassapa possessed to the highest degree the “ten qualities that inspire confidence.”
He was also a model of a disciplined and austere life devoted to meditation. So it is hardly surprising that he assumed the presidency of the First Council of the Sangha, which had been summoned on his urgent advice. Evidently it was for the same reasons that, much later in China and Japan, this redoubtable elder came to be regarded as the first patriarch of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism. Like the two chief disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna, Mahākassapa was of brahmin descent. Some years before the Bodhisatta’s own birth he was born in the Magadha country, in the village Mahātittha, as the son of the brahmin Kapila and his wife Sumanādevī.
He was named Pipphali. His father owned sixteen villages over which he ruled like a little king, so Pipphali grew up in the midst of wealth and luxury. Yet already in his youth he felt a longing to leave the worldly life behind and hence he did not want to marry. When his parents repeatedly urged him to take a wife, he told them that he would look after them as long as they lived but that after their deaths he would become an ascetic. Yet they insisted again and again that he should take a wife, and thus just to comfort his mother he finally agreed to marry—on the condition that a girl could be found who conformed to his idea of perfection.
For that purpose he commissioned goldsmiths to fashion for him a golden statue of a beautiful maiden. He had it bedecked with fine garments and ornaments and showed it to his parents, saying: “If you can find a maiden like this for me, I shall remain in the home life.” But his mother was a clever woman and thought: “Surely my son must have done deeds of merit in the past, and he must have done them together with a woman who is the counterpart of this golden image.” Thus she approached eight brahmins, showered them with rich gifts, and asked them to take the image and travel around in search of a human likeness of it. The brahmins thought: “Let us first go to the Madda country, which is a gold mine of beautiful women.”
There they found at Sāgala a girl whose beauty equalled that of the image. She was Bhaddā Kapilānī, a wealthy brahmin’s daughter, age sixteen, four years younger than Pipphali Kassapa. Her parents agreed to the marriage proposal, and the brahmins returned to tell of their success. Yet Bhaddā Kapilānī too did not wish to marry. Like Pipphali, she longed to live a religious life and wished to leave home as a female ascetic. Such correspondence between her aspiration and that of Pipphali was not due to chance but sprang from the strong kammic bond they had forged in previous lives. Maturing in the present life, this bond was to unite them in marriage in their youth and to lead to a decisive separation later on—a separation which was again to be resolved by a union at a still higher level, when both consummated their spiritual endeavours by winning the supreme fruit of holiness under the Enlightened One. Pipphali was most distressed to hear that his plot had been foiled and that his parents had actually found a girl who matched the golden statue.
Still intent on escaping from his agreement, he sent the following letter to the girl: “Bhaddā, please marry someone else of equal status and live a happy home life with him. As for myself, I shall become an ascetic. Please do not have regrets.” Bhaddā Kapilānī, likeminded as she was, independently sent him a similar letter. But their parents, suspecting such an exchange would take place, had both letters intercepted on the way and replaced by letters of welcome.
So Bhaddā was taken to Magadha and the young couple were married. However, in accordance with their ascetic yearning, both agreed to maintain a life of celibacy. To give expression to their decision, each night they would lay a garland of flowers between them before they went to bed, resolving, “If on either side the flowers wilt, we shall understand that the person on whose side they wilted had given rise to a lustful thought.” At night they lay awake all night long from fear of making bodily contact; during the day they did not even smile at one another. As long as their parents lived they remained aloof from worldly enjoyment, and they did not even have to look after the estate’s farms.
When Pipphali’s parents died, the couple took charge of the large property. It was then that they felt the spur that set them on the course of renunciation. One day, as Pipphali was inspecting the fields, he saw as if with new eyes something that he had seen so often before. He observed that when his farm hands ploughed the land, many birds gathered and eagerly picked the worms from the furrows. This sight, so common to a farmer, now startled him. It struck him forcefully that what brought him his wealth, the produce of his fields, was bound up with the suffering of other living beings. His livelihood was purchased with the death of so many worms and other little creatures living in the soil. Thinking about this, he asked one of his laborers: “Who will have to bear the consequences of such an evil action?” “You yourself, sir,” was the answer.
Shaken by that insight into kammic retribution, Pipphali went home and reflected: “If I have to carry along the burden of guilt for this killing, of what use to me is all my wealth? I would be better off giving it all to Bhaddā and going forth into the ascetic life.” But at home, at about the same time, Bhaddā had a similar experience, seeing afresh with a deeper understanding something she had very often seen before. Her servants had spread out sesamum seeds to dry in the sun, and crows and other birds ate the insects that had been attracted by the seeds. When Bhaddā asked her servants who had to account morally for the violent death of so many creatures, she was told that the kammic responsibility was hers. Then she thought: “If even by this much I commit evil, I won’t be able to lift my head above the ocean of rebirths even in a thousand lives.
As soon as Pipphali returns, I shall hand over everything to him and leave to take up the ascetic life.” When both found themselves in accord, they had saffron cloth and clay bowls brought for them from the bazaar and then shaved each other’s head. They thus became like ascetic wanderers, and they made the aspiration: “We dedicate our going forth to the arahants in the world!” Even though they had not yet encountered the Buddha or his Teaching, they knew instinctively that they should follow the ascetic life in a state of “adopted discipleship” to the truly wise and holy ones, whoever they might be. Then, slinging their alms bowls over their shoulders, they left the manor house, unnoticed by the servants.
When, however, they reached the next village, which belonged to the estate, the labourers and their families saw them. Crying and lamenting, they fell at the feet of the two ascetics and exclaimed: “Oh, dear and noble ones! Why do you want to make us helpless orphans?” “It is because we have seen the three worlds to be like a house afire that we go forth into the homeless life.” To those who were serfs, Pipphali Kassapa granted freedom, and he and Bhaddā continued on, leaving the villagers behind still weeping. As they walked, Kassapa went ahead while Bhaddā followed behind him. Then the thought occurred to Kassapa: “Now, this Bhaddā Kapilānī follows me close behind, and she is a woman of great beauty. Some people could easily think: ‘Though they are ascetics, they still cannot live without each other! What they are doing is unseemly!’ If they spoil their minds by such false thoughts or even spread evil rumors, they will cause great harm to themselves. It is better that we separate.”
Thus, when they reached a crossroads, Kassapa told her what he had been thinking and said to her: “Bhaddā, you take one of these roads, and I shall go the other way.” She replied: “It is true, for ascetics a woman is an obstacle. People might suspect us of misconduct and slander us, so let us part. You go your way and I’ll go my way.” She then respectfully circumambulated him three times, saluted his feet, and with folded hands she spoke: “Our close companionship and friendship that had lasted for an unfathomable past comes to an end today. Please take the path to the right and I shall take the other road.” Thus they parted and went their individual ways, seeking the high goal of arahantship, final deliverance from suffering. It is said that the earth, shaken by the power of their virtue, quaked and trembled, and peals of thunder came forth from the sky, and the mountains at the edge of the world system resounded.
BHADDĀ KAPILĀNĪ Let us first follow Bhaddā Kapilānī. Her road led her to Sāvatthī where she listened to the Buddha’s discourses at the Jetavana monastery. As the Bhikkhunī Sangha, the order of nuns, did not yet exist at that time, she took up residence at a nunnery of non-Buddhist female ascetics not far from Jetavana. There she lived for five years until she could obtain ordination as a bhikkhunī. It was not long afterward that she attained the goal of the holy life, arahantship. The Buddha praised Bhaddā as being the foremost among the nuns who could recollect their past lives (AN 1, chap. 14). The Pali commentaries and the Jātaka stories leave us a record of some of her former existences in which she had been Kassapa’s wife. One day she uttered the following verses in which she praised Mahākassapa and declared her own attainment: A son of the Buddha and his rightful heir, Kassapa who is well concentrated Knows his abodes in previous lives And sees the heavens and planes of woe. He too has attained the destruction of birth, A sage consummate in direct knowledge; Endowed with these three modes of knowledge, The brahmin is a triple-knowledge bearer. Just so is Bhaddā Kapilānī A triple-knowledge nun who has left Death behind.
Having conquered Māra and his mount, She lives bearing her final body. Having seen the grave danger in the world, We both went forth into homelessness. Now we are destroyers of the cankers; Tamed and cool, we have won Nibbāna. (Thī 63–66) As an arahant bhikkhunī, Bhaddā devoted herself chiefly to the education of the younger nuns and their instruction in monastic discipline. In the Bhikkhunī Vibhaṅga (Analysis of Nuns’ Discipline), instances are recorded involving her pupils which led to the prescribing of certain disciplinary rules for bhikkhunīs.5 There were also two instances when Bhaddā Kapilānī had to bear the envy of another nun who was hostile toward Mahākassapa, too.
The nun Thullanandā was learned in the Dhamma and a good preacher, but evidently she had more intelligence than gentleness of heart. She was self-willed and not prepared to change her conduct, as evidenced by several Vinaya texts. When Bhaddā, too, became a popular preacher of Dhamma, even preferred by some of Thullanandā’s own pupils, Thullanandā became jealous. In order to annoy Bhaddā, once she and her pupil nuns walked up and down in front of Bhaddā’s cell, reciting loudly. She was censured by the Buddha on that account.6 Another time, at Bhaddā’s request, she had arranged temporary living quarters for Bhaddā when the latter visited Sāvatthī. But then, in another fit of jealousy, she threw her out of those quarters. Bhaddā, however, being an arahant, was no longer affected by such happenings and looked at them with detachment and compassion.
THE SAṂSĀRIC BACKGROUND
Mahākassapa and Bhaddā Kapilānī originally formed their aspirations to great discipleship under the Buddha Padumuttara, the fifteenth Buddha of antiquity, who arose a hundred thousand aeons in the past and had his main monastic seat in the Khema Deer Park near the city of Haṃsavati. At that time the future Kassapa was a wealthy landowner named Vedeha and Bhaddā was his wife. One day Vedeha went to the monastery and was seated in the assembly at the very moment that the Teacher declared an elder named Mahānisabha his third pre-eminent disciple, the foremost of the proponents of the ascetic practices (etadaggaṃ dhutavādānaṃ).
The lay devotee Vedeha was pleased by this and invited the Teacher and his entire Sangha to his home for the next day’s meal. While the Buddha and the monks were in his house taking their meal, the lay devotee caught sight of the Elder Mahānisabha walking on his alms round down the street. He went outside and invited the elder to join the gathering, but the elder declined. Vedeha then took his bowl, filled it with food, and brought it back to him. When he returned to the house he asked the Buddha about the reason for the elder’s strange refusal. The Teacher explained: “Lay devotee, we accept invitations to homes for meals, but that bhikkhu lives solely on food gained on alms round; we live in town monasteries, but he lives solely in the forest; we live with a roof over our head, but he lives out in the open air.”
When the lay devotee heard this he became even more pleased “like an oil lamp sprinkled with oil,” and he reflected: “Why should I be satisfied simply with arahantship? I will make an aspiration to become the foremost disciple among the practitioners of the ascetic practices under a Buddha in the future.”
Then he invited the Buddha and the community of monks to his home for alms for a week, made presentations of the triple robe to the entire Sangha, and prostrating himself at the Master’s feet, he declared his aspiration. The Buddha Padumuttara looked into the future and saw that the aspiration would be fulfilled. He then gave Vedeha the prediction: “In the future, 100,000 aeons from now, a Buddha named Gotama will arise in the world. Under him you will be the third chief disciple named Mahākassapa.”
Bhaddā, on her part, had been inspired by the bhikkhunī pronounced the foremost among those who recollect their past lives and she formed the aspiration to attain this position under a future Buddha. She too was assured by the Lord Padumuttara that her wish would be fulfilled. For the rest of their lives the couple observed the precepts and did meritorious deeds, and after death they were reborn in heaven. The next past life recorded for Mahākassapa and Bhaddā Kapilānī takes place much later, during the Dispensation of the Buddha Vipassi, the sixth predecessor of the Buddha Gotama. At this time they had been a poor brahmin couple. They were so extremely poor that they had only a single upper garment, and hence only one of them at a time could go out of their hut.
In this story the brahmin was therefore called “he with one garment” (ekasātaka). Though it may not be easy for us to understand such extreme poverty, it will be still more difficult to understand that there have been many people for whom such utter poverty did not mean subjective deprivation. This was so with those two beings who later were to be Kassapa and Bhaddā. In their life as that poor brahmin couple, they had lived in such perfect harmony that their happiness was not diminished by their indigence. One day, when the Buddha Vipassi was to give a special sermon, they both wished to attend, but as they had only a single upper garment between them they could not both go at the same time. The wife went during the day and her husband went at night.
As the brahmin listened to the sermon, the value of giving and generosity became so deeply impressed on his mind that he wanted to offer his only upper garment to the Buddha. But after he had so resolved, scruples came to his mind: “This is our only upper garment, so perhaps I should first consult with my wife. How can we manage without an upper garment? How can we get a replacement?” But he resolutely pushed aside all such hesitation and placed the garment at the Blessed One’s feet. Having done so, he clapped his hands and joyfully called out: “I have vanquished! I have vanquished!”
When the king, who had listened to the sermon behind a curtain, heard that shout of victory and came to know the reason, he sent sets of garments to the brahmin and later made him his court chaplain. So the couple’s plight had come to an end. As a result of his selfless giving, the brahmin was reborn in a celestial world. After parting from there he became a king on earth, a great benefactor of his people who generously supported the ascetics living at that time. Bhaddā was then his chief queen.
As to Bhaddā, she was once the mother of a brahmin youth who was a pupil of the Bodhisatta (the future Buddha) and wanted to become an ascetic. Kassapa was her husband, Ānanda her son. Bhaddā had wanted her son to know the worldly life before she would permit him to become an ascetic. But that knowledge came to the young brahmin in a drastic and heart-rending way. His teacher’s old mother fell passionately in love with him and was even ready to kill her son for his sake. This encounter with reckless passion caused in him a deep revulsion for worldly life, and after that experience his parents gave him permission to go forth as an ascetic (J 61).
Another time Kassapa and Bhaddā had been the brahmin parents of four sons who in the future were to be our Bodhisatta, Anuruddha, Sāriputta, and Mahāmoggallāna. All four wanted to become ascetics. At first the parents refused permission, but later they came to understand the fruits and benefits of the ascetic life and they themselves became ascetics (J 509). In still another life, two village headmen who were friends decided that the children they were expecting should marry each other if they were of the opposite sex. And so it happened. But in their previous life both children had been deities of the Brahma-world. Hence they had no desire for sensual pleasures and, with their parents’ permission, chose the ascetic life (J 540).
Bhaddā’s only wrong act reported in the stories of her past lives was this: At a time between the appearance of two Buddhas, Bhaddā was the wife of a landowner. One day she had a quarrel with her sisterin-law. Just then a paccekabuddha drew near to their house on alms round.9 When her sister-in-law offered him food, Bhaddā, seeking to spite her, took the paccekabuddha’s bowl, threw away the food, and filled the bowl with mud. At once, however, she was stung by remorse. She took the bowl back, washed it with scent, and filled it with delicious, fragrant food. Then she offered it back to the paccekabuddha and apologized for her rudeness.
As a kammic consequence of this deed, a mixture of the dark and bright, in her next life Bhaddā possessed wealth and great beauty but her body exuded a loathsome odour. Her husband, the future Kassapa, could not bear the noxious smell and left her. As she was beautiful other suitors sought her hand, but all her later marriages had the same end. She was full of despair and felt there was no point continuing to live. To dispose of her property, she had her ornaments melted down and formed into a golden brick, which she brought to the monastery as a contribution to the stūpa being erected in honour of the Buddha Kassapa, who had just passed away. She offered the golden brick with great devotion, and as a consequence her body became fragrant again and her first husband, Kassapa, took her back. Two lives before her present existence, Bhaddā was the queen of Benares and used to support several paccekabuddhas. Deeply moved by their sudden death, she renounced her worldly life as a queen and lived a meditative life in the Himalayas. By the power of her renunciation and her meditative attainments, she was reborn in a Brahma-world, and so was Kassapa.
It was after that life in the Brahma world that they were reborn in the human world as Pipphali Kassapa and Bhaddā Kapilānī. From these accounts we gather that in their former existences both had lived a life of purity in the Brahma-world and that both had repeatedly been renunciants. Hence, in their final existence, it was not difficult for them to keep to a life of celibacy, to give up all possessions, and to follow the Buddha’s Teaching to its culmination in arahantship.
HOW KASSAPA CAME TO THE BUDDHA
Continuing our story, we shall now return to Mahākassapa. Where did he go after he had come to the crossroads? As mentioned above, when the two ascetics separated, the earth shook by the force of their act of renunciation. The Buddha perceived this trembling of the earth and knew that it meant an outstanding disciple was on the way to him. Without informing any of the monks, he set out on the road alone, walking the distance of five miles to meet his future pupil—an act of compassion which later was often praised (J 469, Introd.).
On the road between Rājagaha and Nālandā, the Master sat down under a banyan tree by the Bahuputtaka Shrine, waiting for his future disciple to arrive. He did not sit there like an ordinary ascetic but displayed all the sublime glory of a Buddha. He emitted rays of light for eighty meters all around, so that the entire thicket became a single mass of light, and he manifested all his thirty-two marks of a great man. When Kassapa reached the spot and saw the Buddha sitting there in the full splendour of an Enlightened One, he thought, “This must be my master for whose sake I have gone forth!” He approached the Buddha, fell at his feet, and exclaimed: “The Blessed One, Lord, is my teacher, and I am his disciple! The Blessed One, Lord, is my teacher, and I am his disciple!” The Enlightened One said: “Kassapa, if anyone who does not know and see were to say to a disciple endowed with such sincerity as yourself, ‘I know, I see,’ his head would split. But, Kassapa, knowing, I say ‘I know’; seeing, I say ‘I see.’”
He then gave Kassapa the following three exhortations as his first formal introduction to the Dhamma: You should train yourself thus, Kassapa: “A keen sense of shame and fear of wrongdoing (hiri-ottappa) shall be present in me towards seniors, novices, and those of middle status in the Order. “Whatever teaching I hear that is conducive to something wholesome, I shall listen with an attentive ear, examining it, reflecting on it, absorbing it with all my heart. “Mindfulness of the body linked with gladness shall not be neglected by me!” Thus should you train yourself. According to the commentary, this triple exhortation constituted Kassapa’s going forth (pabbajjā) and higher ordination (upasampadā) together. Then both Master and disciple walked toward Rājagaha. On the way, the Buddha wanted to rest and went off the road to the root of a tree. Mahākassapa then folded his double-robe in four and requested the Master to sit on it “as this will be for my benefit for a long time.”
The Buddha sat down on Kassapa’s robe and said: “Soft is your robe of patched cloth, Kassapa.” Hearing this, Kassapa replied: “May the Blessed One, O Lord, accept this robe of patched cloth out of compassion for me!” “But, Kassapa, can you wear these hempen, worn-out rag robes of mine?” Full of joy, Kassapa said: “Certainly, Lord, I can wear the Blessed One’s rough and worn-out rag robes.” This exchange of robes bestowed a great distinction on the Venerable Mahākassapa, an honour not shared by any other disciple.
The commentary explains that the Buddha’s intention in exchanging robes with Kassapa was to motivate him to observe the dhutaṅga, the austere practices, from the time of his very admission into the Bhikkhu Sangha. Although, after his Enlightenment, the Buddha condemned extreme self-mortification as a blind alley which is “painful, ignoble, and unbeneficial,” he by no means rejected those ascetic practices that harmonized with the framework of the Middle Way. The true Middle Way is not a comfortable highway built out of easy compromises, but a lonely, steep ascent, which requires the renunciation of craving and the ability to endure hardship and discomfort. Hence the Buddha encouraged those monks who were truly keen on extricating from their hearts the subtlest roots of craving to adopt the dhutaṅga—special vows of austerity conducive to simplicity, contentment, renunciation, and energy—and he often applauded those monks who observed these vows.
The ancient suttas repeatedly commend several austere practices: using only the triple set of robes (and refusing to use additional robes); wearing only rag robes (and refusing robes offered by householders); subsisting only on food collected on alms round (and refusing invitations to meals); living only in the forest (and refusing to live in town monasteries). In the commentaries the list of austere practices is expanded to thirteen, which are explained in detail in such works on the meditative life as the Visuddhimagga. The robe that the Buddha offered Kassapa was made from a shroud that he had picked up in a cremation ground, and in asking Kassapa whether he could wear that robe he was implicitly asking whether he would be able to make the full commitment to the austere practices that the use of such a robe would entail.
When Kassapa affirmed that he could wear the robe, he was saying, “Yes, Lord, I can fulfil the ascetic practices you wish me to undertake.” From that moment on Kassapa pledged himself to uphold a life of strict austerity, and even in old age he insisted on observing the same vows that he had undertaken in his youth. On a later occasion the Buddha declared Mahākassapa foremost among the bhikkhus who observed the austere practices (AN 1, chap. 14), thereby bringing to fulfilment Kassapa’s original aspiration formed a hundred thousand aeons in the past. It was only seven days after his ordination and the exchange of robes that Kassapa attained the goal he was striving for, arahantship, the mind’s final liberation from defilements. Recounting this episode to Ānanda at a much later time, he declared: “For seven days, friend, I ate the alms-food of the country as a debtor, then on the eighth day the final knowledge of arahantship arose in me” (SN 16:11).
KASSAPA’S RELATIONSHIP TO THE BUDDHA
We have already seen that there was a deep inner relationship between the Venerable Mahākassapa and the Buddha. This relationship, according to our traditional sources, had its root in their past lives. According to the Jātaka stories, Kassapa was connected with the Bodhisatta in nineteen existences, frequently through a close family bond. No less than six times Kassapa had been the Bodhisatta’s father (J 155, 432, 509, 513, 524, 540), twice his brother (488, 522), and often his friend or teacher. As it was thus not their first meeting, we can understand why such an immediate and strong devotion and wholehearted dedication toward the Master arose in Kassapa’s heart at the first sight of him. From Kassapa’s final life, many conversations are reported between the Buddha and this great disciple. It happened on three occasions that the Master spoke to him: “Exhort the monks, Kassapa. Give them a discourse on the Dhamma, Kassapa. Either I, Kassapa, should exhort the monks, or you. Either I or you should give them a discourse on the Dhamma” (SN 16:6).
These words imply a high recognition of Kassapa’s ability, because not every arahant has the capacity to expound the Teaching well and effectively. The commentary raises here the question why it was Mahākassapa who was placed by the Buddha on such a high footing in this respect, and not Sāriputta or Mahāmoggallāna. The Buddha did so, says the commentary, because he knew that Sāriputta and Moggallāna would not survive him, but Kassapa would, and he wanted to bolster Kassapa’s stature before the other monks so they would consider him one whose advice is to be heeded. On three occasions when the Buddha requested Kassapa to exhort the monks, he refused to comply. On the first of these occasions Kassapa said that it had now become difficult to speak to some of the monks: they were not amenable to advice, were untractable, and did not accept admonitions with respect. He had also heard that two monks had been boasting of their skill in preaching, saying: “Come, let us see who will preach more profusely, more beautifully, and at greater length!”
When the Buddha was informed about this by Kassapa, he had these monks summoned and gave them a stern lecture, making them give up their childish conceit (SN 16:6). Hence we can see that Kassapa’s negative report turned out to be of positive benefit to those monks. It was not done just for the sake of criticizing others. On the second occasion, too, Kassapa did not wish to instruct the monks because they were not amenable to admonishment, lacked faith in the good, lacked a sense of shame and fear of wrongdoing, and were slack and devoid of wisdom. Kassapa compared such monks, in their state of decline, to the waning moon, which daily loses in beauty (confidence), in roundness (shame), in splendour (fear of wrongdoing), in height (energy), and in width (wisdom) (SN 16:7). On still a third occasion the Buddha asked Kassapa to instruct the monks, and Kassapa again expressed his reluctance for the same reason as before. It seems that this time, too, the Buddha did not urge Kassapa to change his mind, but he himself spoke of the reasons for their conduct: Formerly, Kassapa, there were elders of the Order who were forest dwellers, living on alms-food, wearing rag robes, using only the set of three robes, having few wants and being contented, living secluded and aloof from society, energetic; and they praised and encouraged such a way of life.
When such elders visited a monastery, they were gladly welcomed and honoured as being dedicated to the practice of the Dhamma. Then the younger monks would also strive to emulate them in their way of life, and this would be of great benefit to them for a long time. But nowadays, Kassapa, those who are honoured when visiting a monastery are not monks of austere and earnest life, but those who are well known and popular and are amply provided with the requisites of a monk. These are welcomed and honoured, and the younger monks try to emulate them, which will bring them harm for a long time. Hence one will be right in saying that such monks are harmed and overpowered by what does harm to a monk’s life. (Paraphrased from SN 16:8)
On another occasion, Kassapa asked the Buddha: “What is the reason that formerly there were fewer rules, but more monks were established in the knowledge of arahantship, while now there are more rules, but fewer monks are established in the knowledge of arahantship?” The Buddha replied: So it happens, Kassapa, when beings deteriorate and the true Dhamma vanishes: then there are more rules and fewer arahants. There will be, however, no vanishing of the true Dhamma until a sham Dhamma arises in the world. But when a sham Dhamma arises in the world, then the true Dhamma vanishes. But, Kassapa, it is not a cataclysm of the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—that makes the true Dhamma disappear. Nor is the reason for its disappearance similar to the overloading of a ship that causes it to sink. It is rather the presence of five detrimental attitudes that causes the obscuration and disappearance of the true Dhamma. These are the five: it is the lack of respect and regard for the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, the training, and meditative concentration, on the part of monks and nuns, and male and female lay devotees. But so long as there is respect and regard for those five things, the true Dhamma will remain free of obscuration and will not disappear. (SN 16:13)
We should note that, according to this text, the male and female lay followers are also preservers of the Dhamma. From this we may conclude that even when the Dhamma has come to oblivion among the monks, it will still remain alive when honoured and practiced by the laity. Other discourses relating to Mahākassapa deal chiefly with his austere way of life, which was highly praised and commended by the Buddha. But on one occasion late in his ministry the Buddha reminded Kassapa that as he had now grown old he must find his coarse, wornout rag robes irksome to use. Therefore, the Buddha suggested, he should now wear robes offered by householders, accept invitations for alms offerings, and live near him. But Kassapa replied: “For a long time I have been a forest dweller, going on alms round and wearing rag robes; and such a life I have commended to others. I have had few wants, lived contented, secluded, applying strenuous energy; and that too I have commended to others.”
When the Buddha asked: “But for what reason do you live in this way?” Kassapa replied: “For two reasons: for my own pleasant abiding here and now, and out of compassion for later generations of monks who, when they hear about such a life, might think to emulate it.” Then the Buddha said: “Well spoken, Kassapa, well spoken! You are living for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit and welfare of gods and humans. You may then keep to your coarse rag robes, go out for alms, and live in the forest” (SN 16:5).
“This our Kassapa,” said the Buddha, “is satisfied with whatever robes, alms-food, lodging, and medicine he obtains. For the sake of these he will not do anything that is unbefitting for a monk. If he does not obtain any of these requisites, he is not perturbed; and when he obtains them, he makes use of them without clinging or infatuation, not committing any fault, aware of (possible) dangers and knowing them as an escape (from bodily affliction). By the example of Kassapa, or by one who equals him, I will exhort you, monks. Thus admonished, you should practice in the same way” (SN 16:1). The Buddha also mentioned that Mahākassapa was exemplary in his relation to the laity. When going among the families on his alms round or on invitation, he did not think wishfully, “May people give amply and give things of quality! May they give quickly and respectfully!” He had no such thoughts, but remained detached like the moon that sheds its mild light from a distance: When Kassapa goes among families, his mind is not attached, not caught up, not fettered. He rather thinks: “Let those who want gain acquire gain! Let those who want merit do merit!” He is pleased and glad at the gains of others, just as he is pleased and glad at his own gains. Such a monk is fit to go among families.
When he preaches the doctrine, he will not do so for the sake of personal recognition and praise, but for letting them know the Teaching of the Exalted One, so that those who hear it may accept it and practice accordingly. He will preach because of the excellence of the Teaching and out of compassion and sympathy. (Paraphrased from SN 16:34) But the strongest recognition of Mahākassapa’s achievement, the highest praise given him by the Buddha, came when the Master said that Kassapa could attain at will, just as he himself could, the four fine material and the four immaterial meditative absorptions, the cessation of perception and feeling, and could also attain the six supernormal knowledges (abhiññā), which include the supernormal powers and culminate in the attainment of Nibbāna (SN 16:9). Here his powerful meditative achievements, akin to those of the Buddha, appear as a characteristic trait of Mahākassapa’s mind. It was because of that deep meditative calm that he could adapt himself, unperturbed, to all external situations and live as one of few wants, materially and socially. In his verses preserved in the Theragāthā, Mahākassapa praises again and again the peace of the jhānas. He was one who went from abundance to abundance.
In his lay life he had lived in the abundance of wealth and harmony. As a monk he dwelt in the abundance of jhānic experience, furthered by his former life in the Brahma-world. While in some of the texts he appears to be very severe, this should not lead us to believe that he was harsh by nature. When he occasionally rebuked others in stern words, he did so for pedagogical reasons, in order to help them. This we shall see especially when we deal with his relationship to Ānanda.
ENCOUNTERS WITH DEITIES
Our sources record two meetings of Mahākassapa with deities. They are related here because they illustrate his independence of spirit and his determination to keep to his austere way of living without accepting privileges even from beings of a higher order. The first was with a young female deity named Lājā. She remembered that she had obtained her present celestial happiness because, in her previous human existence as a poor woman, she had offered parched rice to the Elder Mahākassapa with a believing heart, uttering the aspiration: “May I be a partaker of the truth you have seen!”
On her way home, while reflecting on her offering, she was bitten by a snake and died, and was immediately reborn in the heaven of the Thirty-three in the midst of great splendour. This the deity remembered, and in her gratitude she now wanted to serve the great elder. Descending to earth, she swept the elder’s cell and filled the water vessels. After she had done so for three days, the elder saw her radiant figure in his cell, and after questioning her, asked her to leave; he did not wish monks of the future to criticize him for accepting the services of a deity. His entreaties were of no avail; the deity rose into the air, filled with great sadness.
The Buddha, aware of what had happened, appeared to the deity and consoled her by speaking of the worth of meritorious deeds and their great reward. But he also said that it had been Kassapa’s duty to practice restraint.12 In the other story it is told that Mahākassapa, while living at the Pipphalī Cave, had entered a period of seven days’ uninterrupted meditation. At the end of that period, after emerging from his absorption, he went to Rājagaha on alms round. At that time five hundred female deities of Sakka’s retinue keenly desired to offer him alms. They approached the elder with the food they had prepared, asking him to bestow his favour upon them by accepting their offering. Kassapa, however, declined, for he wanted to bestow his favour on the poor so that they could earn merit. They entreated him several times, but finally left after he repeatedly refused to yield. When Sakka, king of the gods, heard about their vain effort, he too experienced a keen desire to offer alms to the elder. To avoid being refused, he assumed the guise of an old weaver, and when Mahākassapa approached he offered rice to him. At the moment the rice was accepted it turned exceedingly fragrant.
Then Mahākassapa knew that this old weaver was not a human being but Sakka, and he reproached the deva king thus: “You have done a grievous wrong, Kosiya. By doing so, you have deprived poor people of the chance to acquire merit. Do not do such a thing again!” “We too need merit, revered Kassapa!” Sakka replied. “We too are in need of merit! But have I acquired merit or not by giving alms to you through deception?” “You have gained merit, friend.” Now Sakka, while departing, gave voice to the following solemn utterance (udāna):13 Oh, almsgiving! Highest almsgiving! Well bestowed on Kassapa!
RELATIONS WITH FELLOW MONKS
One as dedicated to the meditative life as the Venerable Mahākassapa was cannot be expected to have been eager to accept and train many pupils; and, in fact, the canonical texts mention only a few pupils of his. One of Kassapa’s few recorded discourses addressed to the monks deals with the subject of overestimating one’s attainments: “There may be a monk who declares he has attained to the highest knowledge, that of arahantship. Then the Master, or a disciple capable of knowing the minds of others, examines and questions him. When they question him, that monk becomes embarrassed and confused. The questioner now understands that the monk has made this declaration through overrating himself out of conceit.
Then, considering the reason for it, he sees that this monk has acquired much knowledge of the Teaching and proficiency in it, which made him declare his overestimation of himself to be the truth. Penetrating the mind of that monk, he sees that he is still obstructed by the five hindrances and has stopped halfway while there is still more to do” (AN 10:86). Apart from the few instances where Mahākassapa is speaking to unnamed monks or a group of monks, the texts record only his relationship to Sāriputta and Ānanda. According to the Jātakas, in former lives Sāriputta was twice the son of Kassapa (J 509, 515) and twice his brother (326, 488); once too he was Kassapa’s grandson (450) and his friend (525).
In his verses, Kassapa tells that he once saw thousands of Brahmā gods descend from their heaven, pay homage to Sāriputta, and praise him (Th 1082–86).14 Two conversations between Mahākassapa and Sāriputta have been recorded in the Kassapa Saṃyutta. On both occasions it was in the evening, after meditation, that Sāriputta went to see Mahākassapa. In the first text Sāriputta asked: “It has been said, friend Kassapa, that without ardour and without fear of wrongdoing, one is incapable of gaining enlightenment, incapable of attaining Nibbāna, incapable of attaining highest security, but that with ardour and with fear of wrongdoing, one is capable of such attainments. Now in how far is one incapable of such attainments and in how far is one capable of them?”
“When, friend Sāriputta, a monk thinks: ‘If bad and unwholesome states that have so far not arisen in me were to arise, this would bring me harm,’ and if then he does not arouse ardour and fear of wrongdoing, then he is lacking ardour and fear of wrongdoing. When he thinks: ‘If bad and unwholesome states that have now arisen in me are not abandoned, this would bring me harm,’ or: ‘If unarisen wholesome states were not to arise, this would bring me harm,’ or: ‘If arisen wholesome states were to vanish, this would bring me harm’-if on these occasions, too, a monk does not arouse ardour and fear of wrongdoing, then he is lacking these qualities, and lacking them, he is incapable of attaining enlightenment, incapable of attaining Nibbāna, incapable of attaining the highest security. But if a monk (on those four occasions for right effort) arouses ardour and fear of wrongdoing, he is capable of attaining enlightenment, capable of attaining Nibbāna, capable of attaining the highest security.” (SN 16:2; condensed.)
On another occasion Sāriputta asked Mahākassapa whether the Tathāgata, the Perfect One, exists after death, or does not exist, or (in some sense) both exists and does not exist, or neither exists nor does not exist. In each case Mahākassapa replied: “This was not declared by the Blessed One. And why not? Because it is of no benefit and does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life, because it does not lead to disenchantment, nor to dispassion, cessation, inner peace, direct knowledge, enlightenment, and Nibbāna.” “But what, friend, did the Blessed One declare?” “This is suffering—so, friend, has the Blessed One declared. This is the origin of suffering…the cessation of suffering…the way to the cessation of suffering—so, friend, has the Blessed One declared. And why? Because it conduces to benefit and belongs to the fundamentals of the holy life, because it leads to turning away (from worldliness), to dispassion, cessation, inner peace, direct knowledge, enlightenment, and Nibbāna.” (SN 16:12)
We have no explanation why Sāriputta posed these questions, which for an arahant should have been fully clear. It is, however, not impossible that this conversation took place immediately after Kassapa’s ordination and before his attainment of arahantship, and that Sāriputta wanted to test his understanding; or perhaps the questions were asked for the sake of other monks who may have been present. The Mahāgosiṅga Sutta (MN 32) records a group discussion led by the Venerable Sāriputta in which Mahākassapa along with several other eminent disciples once participated.
At the time these elders were residing in the Gosiṅga forest along with the Buddha, and on a clear moonlit night they approached Sāriputta for a discussion on the Dhamma. Sāriputta declared: “Delightful is this Gosiṅga sāla-tree forest, it is a clear moonlit night, the sāla-trees are in full bloom, and it seems as if celestial scents are being wafted around.” Then he asked each distinguished elder in the group—Ānanda, Revata, Anuruddha, Mahākassapa, and Mahāmoggallāna—what kind of monk could lend more lustre to that forest. Mahākassapa, like the others, replied according to his own temperament: Here, friend Sāriputta, a monk is himself a forest dweller and he speaks in praise of forest dwelling; he is himself an alms-food collector and he speaks in praise of collecting alms-food; he is himself a rag-robe wearer and he speaks in praise of wearing rag robes; he is himself a triple-robe wearer and he speaks in praise of wearing the triple robe; he himself has few wishes, is content, secluded, and aloof from society, and he speaks in praise of each of these qualities; he himself has attained to virtue, to concentration, to wisdom, to liberation, and to knowledge and vision of liberation, and he speaks in praise of each of these attainments. This is the kind of monk who could lend more lustre to this Gosiṅga sāla-tree forest.
According to tradition, Mahākassapa also had close connections in former lives with the Venerable Ānanda. Ānanda had twice been his brother (J 488, 535), once his son (450), once even the murderer of his son (540), and in this life he was his pupil (Vin I 92). The Kassapa Saṃyutta likewise has two conversations between them. They concern practical questions, while those with Sāriputta referred to points of doctrine. On the first occasion (related at SN 16:10) Ānanda asked Kassapa to accompany him to the nuns’ quarters. Kassapa, however, refused and asked Ānanda to go alone. But Ānanda seemed to be intent on getting Kassapa to give a Dhamma talk to the nuns, and he repeated his request twice. Kassapa finally consented and went along.
The result, however, turned out to be quite different from what Ānanda had expected. After the discourse one of the nuns, Thullatissā by name, raised her voice to make a rather offensive remark: “How could Master Kassapa presume to speak on the Dhamma in the presence of Master Ānanda, the learned sage? This is as if a needle peddler wanted to sell a needle to the needle maker.” Obviously this nun preferred the gentle preaching of Ānanda to Kassapa’s stern and sometimes critical approach, which may have touched on her own weaknesses.
When Kassapa heard the nun’s remarks, he asked Ānanda: “How is it, friend Ānanda, am I the needle peddler and you the needle maker, or am I the needle maker and you the needle peddler?” Ānanda replied: “Be indulgent, venerable sir. She is a foolish woman.” “Beware, friend Ānanda, or else the Sangha may further investigate you. How is it, friend Ānanda, was it you whom the Exalted One extolled in the presence of the Sangha, saying: ‘I, O monks, can attain at will the four fine-material and immaterial meditative absorptions, the cessation of perception and feeling, the six supernormal knowledges; and Ānanda, too, can so attain’?” “No, venerable sir.” “Or did he say: ‘Kassapa, too, can so attain’?” From the above account we see that the Venerable Mahākassapa did not think that Ānanda’s conciliatory reply was adequate or did full justice to the situation. Thullatissā’s remarks showed her personal attachment to Ānanda, who had always been a favourite with women, and who had also given his strong support to the founding of the Bhikkhunī Sangha. This emotional relation of Thullatissā’s to Ānanda could not be put aside just by Ānanda’s general remark.
Hence Kassapa responded in a way which, at first glance, appears rather harsh: “Beware, friend Ānanda, or else the Sangha may further investigate you.” With these words he wanted to warn Ānanda to avoid becoming too involved in ministering to the nuns, since they might become too fond of him and cause others to entertain doubts about him. Kassapa’s reply has therefore to be seen as the earnest advice of a taint-free arahant to one who had not yet reached that state. When, immediately after, Kassapa stressed that it was his own meditative attainments that the Buddha had extolled, and not Ānanda’s, this may be taken as pointing to the far different spiritual status of the two elders; and it may have served as a spur to Ānanda to strive for those attainments. The nun Thullatissā, however, left the Order.
Another conversation between the Venerable Mahākassapa and Ānanda arose on the following occasion (related at SN 16:11). Once the Venerable Ānanda went on a walking tour in the Southern Hills together with a large company of monks. This was at a time when thirty mostly young monks, pupils of Ānanda, had given up the robe and had returned to the lay life. After Ānanda had ended his tour, he came to Rājagaha and went to see the Venerable Mahākassapa. When he had saluted him and was seated, Kassapa said this: “What are the reasons, friend Ānanda, for the sake of which the Blessed One had said that no more than three monks should take their alms meal among families?” “There are three reasons, venerable sir: it is for restraining illbehaved persons, for the well-being of good monks, and out of consideration for the lay families.”
“Then, friend Ānanda, why do you go on tour with those young new monks whose senses are unrestrained, who are not moderate in eating, not devoted to wakefulness? It seems you behave like one trampling the corn; it seems you destroy the faith of the families.15 Your following is breaking up, your new starters are falling away. This youngster truly does not know his own measure!” “Grey hairs are now on my head, venerable sir, and still we cannot escape being called ‘youngster’ by the Venerable Mahākassapa.” But the Venerable Mahākassapa repeated the very same words he had spoken. This could have ended the matter, as Ānanda did not deny that the reproach was justified. He objected only to the hurtful way in which Mahākassapa had expressed his censure. In response to the admonition, Ānanda would have tried to keep his pupils under stricter discipline.
But, again, this matter was complicated by a nun, Thullanandā, who along with Thullatissā was one of the black sheep of the Bhikkhunī Sangha. She had heard that Ānanda had been called a “youngster” by the Venerable Mahākassapa, and full of indignation, she voiced her protest, saying that Kassapa had no right to criticize a wise monk like Ānanda, as Kassapa had formerly been an ascetic of another sect. In that way, Thullanandā diverted the matter of monastic discipline into personal detraction—personal detraction bordering on calumny; for, as our earlier account has shown, Kassapa had originally gone forth as an independent ascetic, not as a follower of another school.
Thullanandā soon left the Order, just as the other wayward nun, Thullatissā, had done When the Venerable Mahākassapa heard Thullanandā’s utterance, he said to Ānanda: “Rash and thoughtless are the words spoken by Thullanandā the nun. Since I left the home life, I have had no other teacher than the Blessed One, the Arahant, the Fully Enlightened One.” Then he related the story of his first meeting with the Buddha (SN 16:11).
AFTER THE BUDDHA’S PARINIBBĀNA
What remains to be said about the Venerable Mahākassapa’s relation to Ānanda is closely connected with his leading role in the Sangha after the Buddha’s passing away. At the demise of the Buddha only two of the five most prominent disciples were present, Ānanda and Anuruddha. Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna had expired earlier that year, and Mahākassapa, with a large company of monks, was just then en route from Pāvā to Kusinārā. During that walk he happened to step aside from the road and sat down under a tree to rest. Just then a naked ascetic passed that way holding a coral-tree flower (mandārava), which is said to grow only in the world of the gods.
When Mahākassapa saw this, he knew that something unusual must have happened for the flower to be found on earth. He asked the ascetic whether he had heard any news about his teacher, the Buddha, and the ascetic told him: “The recluse Gotama passed into Nibbāna a week ago. This coral-tree flower I picked up from the site of his demise.” Among the monks in Mahākassapa’s company only the arahants remained calm and composed; those who were still unliberated from the passions fell to the ground, weeping and lamenting: “Too soon has the Blessed One passed into Nibbāna! Too soon has the Eye of the World vanished from our sight!” There was, however, one monk in the group named Subhadda, ordained in his old age, who addressed his comrades: “Enough, friends! Do not grieve, do not lament. We are well rid of the Great Ascetic. We were constantly troubled by his telling us: ‘This is proper for you, that is improper.’ Now we can do what we like, and we won’t have to do what we don’t like.”
The Venerable Mahākassapa did not reply to those callous words at that time. Just then he may have wanted to avoid striking a discordant note by censuring the monk or having him disrobed as he deserved. But, as we shall see later, Mahākassapa referred to this very incident shortly after the Buddha’s cremation when he spoke of the need to convene a council of elders to preserve the Dhamma and Vinaya for posterity. Now, however, he merely admonished his group of monks not to lament but to remember that all conditioned things are impermanent. He then continued his journey to Kusinārā together with his company. Until then the village chieftains at Kusinārā had not been able to set the Buddha’s funeral pyre alight. The Venerable Anuruddha explained that the deities, invisible but present, wanted to hold up the proceedings until the Venerable Mahākassapa came and paid his final homage to the Master’s remains.
When Mahākassapa arrived, he walked around the pyre three times, reverently, with clasped hands, and then with bowed head paid his homage at the feet of the Tathāgata. When his group of monks had done likewise, the pyre burst into flames by itself. Hardly had the bodily remains of the Tathāgata been cremated when there arose a conflict about the distribution of the relics among the lay folk assembled and those who had sent messengers later. But the Venerable Mahākassapa remained aloof in that quarrel, as did the other monks like Anuruddha and Ānanda. It was a respected brahmin named Doṇa who finally divided the relics into eight portions and distributed them among the eight claimants. He himself took the vessel in which the relics had been collected. The Venerable Mahākassapa himself brought to King Ajātasattu of Magadha his share of the relics. Having done so, he turned his thoughts to the preservation of the Master’s spiritual heritage, the Dhamma and the Vinaya. The necessity for this was plainly demonstrated to him by Subhadda’s challenge of the monastic discipline and his advocacy of moral laxity. Mahākassapa took this as a warning of what the future held in store unless clear strictures were established now. If Subhadda’s attitude were to spread—and there were groups of monks who shared that attitude even while the Buddha was alive—it would rapidly lead to the decline and ruin of both the Sangha and the Teaching.
To prevent this at the very start, Mahākassapa proposed holding a council of elders to rehearse the Dhamma and Vinaya and preserve them for posterity.16 With that suggestion, he turned to the monks gathered at Rājagaha. The monks agreed, and at their request Mahākassapa selected five hundred elders all but one of whom were arahants. The one exception was Ānanda, whose position was ambivalent. As he had not yet succeeded in reaching the final goal, he could not be admitted to the council; but as he excelled in remembering all the Buddha’s discourses, his presence was essential. The only solution was to give him an ultimatum that he must reach arahantship before the council began, which he did on the very night before it opened.
Thus Ānanda was admitted to complete the five hundred members of the First Council. All other monks were to leave Rājagaha for the duration of the meeting. As the first item of the council’s proceedings, the Vinaya, the code of monastic discipline, was recited by the Venerable Upāli, the leading Vinaya expert. The second item was the codification of the teachings laid down in the suttas. Here it was the Venerable Ānanda who, on being questioned by Mahākassapa, recited all those texts which were later collected into the five collections (nikāya) of the Sutta Piṭaka. Finally, some special matters concerning the Sangha were discussed. Among them, Ānanda mentioned that the Buddha, shortly before his death, had permitted the abolishment of the lesser and minor rules.
When Ānanda was asked whether he had inquired from the Buddha what these minor rules were, he had to admit that he had neglected to do so. Now different monks expressed various opinions about this matter in the assembly. As there was no consensus, Mahākassapa asked the assembly to consider that if they were to abolish rules arbitrarily, the lay followers and the public in general would reproach them for being in a hurry to relax discipline so soon after the Master’s death. Hence Mahākassapa suggested that the rules should be preserved intact without exception, and so it was decided. After the holding of the First Council, the high regard in which the Venerable Mahākassapa was held grew still greater, and he was seen as the de facto head of the Sangha. His seniority would have contributed to this, as he was then one of the oldest living disciples. Later on, Mahākassapa handed over the Buddha’s alms bowl to Ānanda as a symbol of the faithful preservation of the Dhamma.
Thus Mahākassapa, who had been generally recognized in the Order as the worthiest in succession, on his part chose Ānanda as being the worthiest after him. There is no report in the Pāli literature about the time and circumstances of Mahākassapa’s death, but a Sanskrit chronicle on “the Masters of the Law” offers us a curious account of the great elder’s end according to the Northern Buddhist tradition. According to this record, after the First Council Kassapa realized that he had fulfiled his mission and decided to attain final Nibbāna. He transmitted the Dhamma to Ānanda, paid his final respects to the holy places, and entered Rājagaha. He intended to inform King Ajātasattu of his impending demise, but the king was asleep and Kassapa did not wish to wake him up.
Thus he climbed to the summit of Mount Kukkaṭapāda alone, sat down cross-legged in a cave, and made the determination that his body should remain intact until the coming of the future Buddha, Metteyya. It was to Metteyya that Kassapa was to hand over the robe of Gotama Buddha—the very same rag robe that the Blessed One had bestowed on him at their first meeting. Then Kassapa attained final Nibbāna, or, according to a variant, the meditative attainment of cessation (nirodhasamāpatti).
The earth quaked, the devas strewed flowers over his body, and the mountain closed over him. Soon afterwards King Ajātasattu and Ānanda went to Mount Kukkaṭapāda to see Mahākassapa. The mountain partly opened and Kassapa’s body appeared before them. The king wanted to cremate it, but Ānanda informed him that Kassapa’s body must remain intact until the coming of Metteyya. Then the mountain closed up again and Ajātasattu and Ānanda departed. Chinese Buddhist tradition locates Mount Kukkaṭapāda in Southwest China, and Chinese legend abounds in reports of pious monks who, on pilgrimage to the mountain, managed to gain a glimpse of Kassapa’s corpse sitting in meditation posture awaiting the arrival of the next Buddha.
THE VERSES OF MAHĀKASSAPA
In the Theragāthā, forty verses (1051–90) are ascribed to the Venerable Mahākassapa. These stanzas mirror some of the great elder’s characteristic qualities and virtues: his austere habits and his contentedness; his strictness toward himself and his brother monks; his independent spirit and his self-reliance; his love of solitude and aloofness from the crowds; his dedication to the practice of meditation and the peace of the jhānas. These verses also show what does not appear in the prose texts: his sensitivity to the beauty of nature that surrounded him.
Here only a selection of the stanzas is given, which may be read in full in the translations by C. A. F. Rhys Davids and K. R. Norman. First, here is an exhortation to the monks to practice contentment with regard to the four basic requisites of a monk’s life: Having come down from my mountain lodging, I entered the city to collect my alms. Courteously I came up to a man, A leper who was eating a meal. With his hand all leprous and diseased He offered me a morsel of food.
As he placed the morsel in my bowl A finger broke off and toppled in. I sat down at the base of a wall And ate the morsel he had given me.
While I was eating and after I had finished I did not feel the least disgust. Using left-over scraps as food, Putrid urine as medicine, The foot of a tree for one’s lodging, And a robe made from cast-off rags: One who has gained mastery over these Is truly a man everywhere at home. (Th 1054–57)
When Mahākassapa was asked why, at his advanced age, he still climbed daily up and down the rock, he replied: While some grow weary as they climb The steep slope of the rocky mountain, Kassapa ascends, buoyed by psychic power— The Buddha’s heir, aware and mindful.
Having returned from his daily alms round, Having climbed up the rocky mountain, Kassapa meditates free from clinging, With fear and trembling well abandoned.
Having returned from his daily alms round, Having climbed up the rocky mountain, Kassapa meditates free from clinging, Quenched among those who burn with passion.
Having returned from his daily alms round, Having climbed up the rocky mountain, Kassapa meditates free from clinging, His task done, his cankers gone. (Th 1058–61)
People asked again why the Venerable Mahākassapa, at his age, wishes to live in forests and mountains. Does he not like monasteries such as the Bamboo Grove and others?
Spread over with kareri garlands, These regions are delightful to my heart; Resounding with elephants, so lovely, Those rocky mountains give me delight.
The splendid hue of dark-blue clouds, Where streams are flowing, cool and clear, Covered with indagopaka insects: Those rocky mountains give me delight.
Like towering peaks of dark-blue clouds, Like lofty houses with gabled roofs, Resounding with elephants, so lovely: Those rocky mountains give me delight.
Their lovely surfaces lashed by rain, The mountains are resorted to by seers. Echoing with the cries of peacocks, Those rocky mountains give me delight.
This is enough for me, desiring to meditate, Enough for me, resolute and mindful; This is enough for me, a bhikkhu, Resolute, desirous of the goal.
This is enough for me, desiring comfort, A bhikkhu with a resolute mind. This is enough for me, desiring exertion, A stable one of resolute mind.
They are like the blue blossoms of flax, Like the autumn sky covered with clouds, With flocks of many kinds of birds: Those rocky mountains give me delight.
No crowds of lay folk visit these hills, But they are inhabited by herds of deer, With flocks of many kinds of birds: Those rocky mountains give me delight.
Wide gorges are there where clear water flows, Haunted by monkeys and by deer, Covered by wet carpets of moss: Those rocky mountains give me delight.
The music of a five-piece ensemble Can never give me so much delight As I derive when with one-pointed mind I gain proper insight into the Dhamma. (Th 1062–1071)
In the following verses the Venerable Mahākassapa voices his own “lion’s roar”: As far as the range of this Buddha-field extends, Excepting the great sage himself, I am the foremost in ascetic virtues: One my equal cannot be found.
The Teacher has been served by me, The Buddha’s Teaching has been done. The heavy burden has been dropped, The conduit to becoming has been uprooted.
Gotama the immeasurable does not cling To robe, to lodging, or to food. He is untainted like a spotless lotus, Bent on renunciation, beyond the three worlds.
The foundations of mindfulness are his neck; The Great Sage has faith for his hands; Above, his brow is perfect wisdom; nobly wise, He ever wanders with all desire quenched. (Th 1087–1090)
References: 1. The Great Disciples of The Buddha by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker 2. https://suttacentral.net/