Mahākāśyapa (Sanskrit; Pali: Mahākassapa; Wyl. 'od srung chen po; Japanese: 摩訶迦葉 Maha Kasho or Makakasho) or Kāśyapa was from Magadha, who became one of the principal disciples of Śākyamuni Buddha and who convened and directed the first council.
In early Buddhism
Mahākāśyapa is one of the most revered of the Buddha's early disciples, foremost in ascetic practices. He is often depicted in statuary together with Ananda, each standing to one side of the Buddha.
In the Lotus Sutra
In Lotus Sutra Chapter 6 (Bestowal of Prophecy), the Buddha bestows prophecies of enlightenment on the disciples Mahakashyapa, Subhuti, Maha Katyayana, and Mahamaudgalyayana.
In Zen Buddhism
According to Zen, Mahākāśyapa was the first to receive Dharma transmission from Gautama Buddha. Zen purports to lead its adherents to insights akin to that mentioned by Śākyamuni Buddha in his Flower Sermon in which he held up a white flower and just admired it in his hand. All other disciples just looked on without knowing how to react, but Mahākāśyapa smiled faintly, and Śākyamuni Buddha picked him as one who truly understood him and the worthy one to be his successor. (This can be explained thus: Mahākāśyapa's spiritual attainment had reached the point where he can understood the hidden meanings conveyed by the Buddha's act, like two people who have undergone the same experiences understand each other completely.)
The words of the Śākyamuni Buddha addressed to Mahākāśyapa are described below:
- I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle dharma gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.
Thus, a way within Buddhism developed which concentrated on direct experience rather than on rational creeds or revealed scriptures. Zen is a method of meditative religion which seeks to enlighten people in the manner that the Mahākāśyapa experienced.
In the Song of Enlightenment (證道歌 Zhèngdào gē) of Yongjia Xuanjue (665-713) —one of the chief disciples of Huìnéng, the 6th patriarch of Chan Buddhism—it is written that Bodhidharma was the 28th patriarch in a line of descent from Mahākāśyapa, a disciple of Śākyamuni Buddha, and the first patriarch of Chan Buddhism:
- Mahākāśyapa was the first, leading the line of transmission;
- Twenty-eight Fathers followed him in the West;
- The Lamp was then brought over the sea to this country;
- And Bodhidharma became the First Father here:
- His mantle, as we all know, passed over six Fathers,
- And by them many minds came to see the Light.
In Chinese culture
According to Chinese legend, the monk Ji Gong is a reincarnation of Mahākāśyapa (known as the Taming Dragon arhat).
Mahakasyapa's entire body was enshrined underneath the mountain Kukkutapada where it is said to remain until the appearance of Maitreya. Pali sources say that beings in Maitreya's time will be much bigger than during the time of Sakyamuni. In one prophecy his disciples are contemptuous of Mahakasyapa, whose head is no larger than an insect to them. Buddhas robe is barely covers two fingers making them wonder how tiny Buddha was. Mahakasyapa, is said to be small enough in comparison to cremate in the palm of Maitreya's hand. Mahakasyapa wears the pamsukula robe.
Mahakashyapa (Skt. Mahākāśyapa; Wyl. 'od srung chen po) — one of the principles disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni and the first of the seven patriarchs who upheld the Dharma and succeeded to the Buddha as heads of the Buddhist community. He was responsible for holding the first Buddhist council in Rajagriha. It is said he attained the state of an arhat only eight days after his first encounter with the Buddha.
- Nyanaponika Thera, The Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy (Wisdom Publications, 2003).
Mahākāśyapa. (P. Mahākassapa; T. ’Od srung chen po; C. Mohejiashe; J. Makakashō; K. Mahagasŏp 摩訶迦葉). Sanskrit name of one of the Buddha’s leading disciples, regarded as foremost in the observance of ascetic practices (P. Dhutaṅga; S. dhūtaguṇa). According to the Pāli accounts (where he is called Mahākassapa) his personal name was Pipphali and he was born to a brāhmaṇa family in Magadha. Even as a child he was inclined toward renunciation and as a youth refused to marry. Finally, to placate his parents, he agreed to marry a woman matching in beauty a statue he had fashioned. His parents found a match in Bhaddā Kapilānī (S. Bhadra-Kapilānī), a beautiful maiden from Sāgala. But she likewise was inclined toward renunciation. Both sets of parents foiled their attempts to break off the engagement, so in the end they were wed but resolved not to consummate their marriage. Pipphali owned a vast estate with fertile soil, but one day he witnessed worms eaten by birds turned up by his plowman.
Filled with pity for the creatures and fearful that he was ultimately to blame, he resolved then and there to renounce the world. At the same time, Bhaddā witnessed insects eaten by crows as they scurried among sesame seeds put out to dry. Feeling pity and fear at the sight, she also resolved to renounce the world. Realizing they were of like mind, Pipphali and Bhaddā put on the yellow robes of mendicants and abandoned their property. Although they left together, they parted ways lest they prove a hindrance to one another. Realizing what had transpired, the Buddha sat along Pipphali’s path and showed himself resplendent with yogic power. Upon seeing the Buddha, Pipphali, whose name thenceforth became Kassapa, immediately recognized him as his teacher and was ordained. Traveling to Rājagaha (S. Rājagṛha) with the Buddha, Mahākassapa requested to exchange his fine robe for the rag robe of the Buddha. The Buddha consented, and his conferral of his own rag robe on Mahākassapa was taken as a sign that, after the Buddha’s demise, Mahākassapa would preside over the convention of the first Buddhist council (see Council, First).
Upon receiving the Buddha’s robe, he took up the observance of thirteen ascetic practices (dhutaṅga) and in eight days became an arahant (S. Arhat). Mahākassapa possessed great supranormal powers (P. iddhi; S. Ṛddhi) and was second only to the Buddha in his mastery of meditative absorption (P. Jhāna; S. Dhyāna). His body was said to be adorned with seven of the thirty-two marks of a superman (Mahāpuruṣalakṣaṇa). So revered by the gods was he, that at the Buddha’s funeral, the divinities would not allow the funeral pyre to be lit until Mahākassapa arrived and had one last chance to worship the Buddha’s body. Mahākassapa seems to have been the most powerful monk after the death of the Buddha and is considered by some schools to have been the Buddha’s successor as the first in a line of teachers (dharmācārya).
He is said to have called and presided over the first Buddhist council, which he convened after the Buddha’s death to counter the heresy of the wicked monk Subhadra (P. Subhadda). Before the council began, he demanded that Ānanda become an arhat in order to participate, which Ānanda finally did early in the morning just before the event. At the council, he questioned Ānanda and Upāli about what should be included in the Sūtra and Vinaya collections (Piṭaka), respectively. He also chastised Ānanda for several deeds of commission and omission, including his entreaty of the Buddha to allow women to enter the order (see Mahāprajāpatī), his allowing the tears of women to fall on the Buddha’s corpse, his stepping on the robe of the Buddha while mending it, his failure to recall which minor monastic rules the Buddha said could be ignored after his death, and his failure to ask the Buddha to live for an eon or until the end of the eon (see Cāpālacaitya).
Pāli sources make no mention of Mahākassapa after the events of the first council, although the Sanskrit Aśokāvadāna notes that he passed away beneath three hills where his body will remain uncorrupted until the advent of the next buddha, Maitreya. At that time, his body will reanimate itself and hand over to Maitreya the rag robe of Śākyamuni, thus passing on the dispensation of the buddhas. It is said that the robe will be very small, barely fitting over the finger of the much larger Maitreya.
Like many of the great arhats, Mahākāśyapa appears frequently in the Mahāyāna sūtras, sometimes merely listed as a member of the audience, sometimes playing a more significant role. In the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, he is one of the Śrāvaka disciples who is reluctant to visit Vimalakīrti. In the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, he is one of four arhats who understands the parable of the burning house and rejoices in the teaching of a single vehicle (Ekayāna); later in the sūtra, the Buddha prophesies his eventual attainment of buddhahood. Mahākāśyapa is a central figure in the Chan schools of East Asia. In the famous Chan story in which the Buddha conveys his enlightenment by simply holding up a flower before the congregation and smiling subtly (see Nianhua Weixiao), it is only Mahākāśyapa who understands the Buddha’s intent, making him the first recipient of the Buddha’s “mind-to-mind” transmission (Yixin Chuanxin). He is thus considered the first patriarch (Zushi) of the Chan school.
The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.}