Maha Kassapa: Father of the Sangha

Mahākāśyapa (Sanskrit; Pali: Mahākassapa; Japanese: Maha Kasho or Makakasho.) or Kāśyapa was a brahmin of Magadha, who became one of the principal disciples of Śākyamuni Buddha and who convened and directed the first council. 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.

One of the Buddha’s most eminent disciples, chief among those who upheld minute observances of form (dhutavádánam) (A.i.23). He was born in the brahmin village of Mahátittha in Magadha, and was the son of the brahmin Kapila, his mother being Sumanádeví; he himself was called Pippali. At Ap.ii.583, vs. 56; but there his father is called Kosiyagotta.

When he grew up he refused to marry in spite of the wishes of his parents; but in the end, to escape from their importunities, he agreed to marry if a wife could be found resembling a statue, which he had made. Bhaddá Kápilání was found at Ságala to fulfil these conditions, and though the young people wrote to each other suggesting that somebody else should be found as a match for each, their letters were intercepted and they were married. By mutual consent, however, the marriage was not consummated, the two spending the night separated by a chain of flowers. Pippali had immense wealth; he used twelve measures of perfumed powder daily, each measure a Magadhanáli, for his person alone. He had sixty lakes with water works attached, and his workmen occupied fourteen villages, each as large as Anurádhapura.

One day he went to a field, which was being ploughed and saw the birds eating the worms turned up by the plough. On being told that the sin therein was his, he decided to renounce all his possessions.

At the same time, Bhaddá had been watching the crows eating the little insects, which ran about among the seamsum seeds that had been put out to dry, and when her attendant women told her that hers would be the sin for their loss of life, she also determined to renounce the world.

The husband and wife, finding that they were of one accord, took yellow raiments from their wardrobe, cut off each other’s hair, took bowls in their hands, and passed out through their weeping servants, to all of whom they granted their freedom, and departed together, Pippali walking in front. But soon they agreed that it was not seemly they should walk thus together, as each must prove a hindrance to the other. And so, at the cross roads, he took the right and she the left and the earth trembled to see such virtue.

The Buddha, sitting in the Gandhakuti in Veluvana, knew what the earthquake signified, and having walked three gávutas (this journey of the Buddha is often referred to – e.g., MA.i.347, 357), sat down at the foot of the Bahuputtaka Nigrodha, between Rájagaha and Nálandá, resplendent in all the glory of a Buddha. Pippali (henceforth called Mahá Kassapa, no explanation is to be found anywhere as to why he is called Kassapa; it was probably his gotta name, but see Ap.ii.583, vs.56) saw the Buddha, and recognising him at once as his teacher, prostrated himself before him. The Buddha told him to be seated, and, in three homilies, gave him his ordination.

The three homilies are given at S.ii.220, “Thus Kassapa must thou train thyself:

(1) ‘There shall be a lively sense of fear and regard (hirotappa) towards all monks, seniors, novices, and those of middle status.’

(2) ‘Whatever doctrine I shall hear bearing upon what is good, to all that I will hearken with attentive ear, digesting it, pondering it, gathering it all up with my will.’

(3) ‘Happy mindfulness with respect to the body shall not be neglected by me.’”

Together they returned to Rájagaha, Kassapa, who bore on his body seven of the thirty two marks of a Great Being, following the Buddha. On the way, the Buddha desired to sit at the foot of a tree by the roadside, and Kassapa folded for him his outer robe (pilotikasangháti) as a seat. The Buddha sat on it and, feeling it with his hand, praised its softness. Kassapa asked him to accept it. “And what would you wear?” inquired the Buddha. Kassapa then begged that he might be given the rag robe worn by the Buddha. “It is faded with use,” said the Buddha, but Kassapa said he would prize it above the whole world and the robes were exchanged. (The robe which Kassapa exchanged with the Buddha was Punná’s cloak. See Punná 6).

This incident Kassapa always recalled with pride, e.g. S.ii.221. It is said that the Buddha paid him this great honour because he knew that Kassapa would hold a recital after his death, and thus help in the perpetuation of his religion, SA.ii.130. The earth quaked again in recognition of Kassapa’s virtues, for no ordinary being would have been fit to wear the Buddha’s cast off robe. Kassapa, conscious of the great honour, took upon himself the thirteen austere vows (dhutaguná) and, after eight days, became an arahant.

After the death of Shakyamuni Buddha, he assumes the leadership of the sangha, compiled the Buddha’s sayings (suttas) with 500 other disciples (First Buddhist councils), and became the first man who preached the Buddha’s teachings directly.

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. Mahākāśyapa smiled faintly, and Śākyamuni Buddha picked that disciple as one who truly understood him and who was worthy to be his successor.

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.”

Soon after the Buddha’s Mahaparinibbana:

Until then it had not been possible to set the funeral pyre alight as the deities present wanted to wait until the venerable Maha Kassapa came and paid his last homage to the remains of the Master. When the venerable Maha Kassapa arrived at the place of cremation, he walked three times around the pyre, reverently, with clasped hands, and then, with bowed head paid his homage at the feet of the Tathagata. When his group of monks had done likewise, the pyre, it is said, burst into flames by itself.

Maha Kassapa proposed holding a council by which the Dhamma and Vinaya could be reliably established and secured. With that suggestion, he turned to the monks gathered at Rajagaha. The monks agreed and at their request Maha Kassapa selected five hundred members, all but one of whom were Arahats. Ananda, however, at that time had not yet succeeded in reaching that final attainment, but as he excelled in remembering a large number of the Buddha’s discourses, he too was admitted to complete the five hundred members of the First Council.

As the first item of the council’s proceedings, the texts of the monastic discipline were recited by the venerable Upali, who was a Vinaya expert. The second item was the codification of the Teaching laid down in the discourses. Here it was Ananda who, on being questioned by the Venerable Maha Kassapa, recited all those texts which were later compiled in the Five Collections (nikaya) of the Sutta Pitaka.

After the holding of the First Council, the high regard in which the Venerable Maha Kassapa 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, the Venerable Maha Kassapa handed over the Buddha’s almsbowl to Ananda, as a symbol of continuing the faithful preservation of the Dhamma. Thus Maha Kassapa, who had been generally recognized in the Order as the worthiest in succession, chose on his part Ananda as being the worthiest after him.

There is no report in the Pali literature about the time and circumstances of his death. Kassapa lived to be very old, and, when he died, had not lain on a bed for one hundred and twenty years. He was one hundred and twenty at the time of the First Recital. According, to northern sources, Kassapa did not die; he dwells in the Kukkutagiri Mountains, wrap in samādhi, awaiting the arrival of Metteyya Buddha. A tooth of Mahā Kassapa was enshrined in the Bhīmatittha vihāra in Ceylon.

In the Song of Enlightenment (證道歌 Zhèngdào gē) of Yǒngjiā Xuánjué (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.


Great Disciples of the Buddha, Their Lives Their Works Their Legacy, Nyanaponika Thera
and Hellmuth Hecker, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, 2003, ISBN
0-86171-381-8, chapter 3
Buddhism A to Z, Ronald B Epstein, Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2003, ISBN
0-88139-353-3, pages 129 – 131


1. Mahākāśyapa – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
2. Maha Kassapa: Father of the Sangha
3. Mahā Kassapa Thera 1
4. Relatives and Disciples of the Buddha – 02a
5. Wh345 – Father of the Sangha — Plain Text

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