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Shaven monk in robes standing next to naked, shaved man
Mahākāśyapa (left) meets an Ājīvika ascetic (right) and learns of the Parinirvāna of the Buddha, Gandhāran sculpture. c. 2nd–3rd century CE.
TitlePāli: Tatiyasāvaka (Third chief disciple)
Other namesDhutaraja[1]

Maha Tittha village, Magadha
Died120 years old
In Kukkuṭapāda Mountain, Magadha. According to some traditional accounts, still alive there
ParentsFather Kapila, mother unknown
Educationbrahmin education
Known forThe leader of the First Buddhist Council, ascetic practices
Other namesDhutaraja[1]
Senior posting
TeacherGautama Buddha
SuccessorThe Elder Ānanda

Mahā Kāśyapa or Mahākāśyapa (Pali: Mahākassapa) was one of the principal disciples of Gautama Buddha. He came from the kingdom of Magadha and is regarded in Buddhism as an enlightened disciple of the Buddha, being foremost in ascetic practice.

Mahākāśyapa assumed leadership of the monastic community following the Paranirvāṇa (Pali: parinibbāna; meaning death) of the Buddha, presiding over the First Buddhist Council. He is considered to be the first patriarch in a number of Mahāyāna School lineages. In the Theravāda tradition, he is considered to be the Buddha's third foremost disciple, surpassed only by the chief disciples Śāriputra and Maudgalyayāna.

In early Buddhist texts[edit]

In the Early Buddhist Texts of several textual traditions, a dozen discourses attributed to Mahākāśyapa have been compiled in a separate section. In the Pāli tradition, this is part of the collection called the Saṃyutta Nikāya, and in the Chinese Buddhist texts, the collection is called the Saṃyukta Āgama. The latter collection contains two versions of the section on Mahākāśyapa, numbered Taishō 2:99 and 2:100.[3] The Chinese Ekottara Āgama also contains a passage that runs parallel to the Pāli Saṃyutta, T2:99 and T2:100, describing a meeting between the Buddha and Mahākāśyapa,[4] and another passage about him and the monk Bakkula.[5] Finally, there are also Vinaya texts from the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition about Mahākāśyapa in Tibetan language.[6]

Early life[edit]

Pipphali Cave in Rajgir, where Mahākāśyapa is recorded to have stayed.

Pāli accounts relate that Mahākāśyapa was born Pipphali in a brahmin family in Magadha, present-day India.[7] His father was a wealthy landlord by the name of Nyagrodha.[8] His body had some of the thirty-two characteristics of a Great Man (Sanskrit: Mahāpuruṣalakṣaṇa; Pali: Mahāpurissalakkhaṇa), which in Buddhism are seen as the characteristics of a future Buddha.[9] From his youth onward, he was inclined toward living a spiritual life rather than marrying, but his father wanted him to wed. To send his father on a wild goose chase, he agreed to marry but then produced a perfect golden statue of a woman, and asked his father to find him a woman that matched the statue. Four copies of the image were taken throughout the country to find the right woman. A brahmin from Kapila[note 1] had a daughter called Bhadra-Kapilānī (Pali: Bhaddā-kapilānī), who had no interest in a family life either. However, her parents wanted her to marry, and to please her mother, she agreed to pay her respects to a shrine of a goddess known for granting a marriage in a high-class family. When she approached the image, however, the image appeared ugly compared to her. Her reputation spread, and soon after Pipphali's family learned about her, she was offered in marriage to Pipphali.[10]

Next, in the Pāli version of the story, the two exchanged letters to indicate their lack of interest, only to find their letters intercepted by their parents and being forced to marry anyway.[7] In the Mūlasarvāstivāda version of the story, however, Pipphali went to visit Bhadra, and without revealing his identity, told her that her future husband would be a bad choice for her, because he had no interest in sensual pleasures. She replied she also did not care for such matters, whereupon he revealed that he was her future husband.[11] Although the two agreed to marry, they decided to live celibately, according to both versions of the story.[11][7] Pipphali's parents continued to push them to give up their shared celibacy, but to no avail.[11] Later, in the Pāli version, the two discovered animals eating each other on the fertile fields they owned, during the time the lands were plowed by their plowmen. The sight brought pity and fear to them, and they determined to live a mendicant live instead, and leave the agricultural business behind.[7] In the Mūlasarvāstivāda version, it was the pitiful sight of the workers instead which brought Pipphali to leave his lay life.[12] The two went their separate ways, as not to grow any attachment to each other.[13][12] Pipphali met the Buddha, recognized him as a his teacher, and was ordained under him. Thenceforth, he was called Kāśyapa.[13]

Monastic life[edit]

Shortly after, he travelled with the Buddha to Rājajgṛha (Pali: Rājagaha, present-day Rajgir), where he exchanged his fine robe with that of the Buddha, a robe made of rags. The exchange later came to be seen as a sign that Mahākāśyapa would preside over the First Council after the Buddha's demise.[7] The Buddha exhorted him that he should practice himself "for the welfare and happiness of the multitude" and impressed upon him that he should take upon himself ascetic practices (Sanskrit: dhūtaguṇa, Pali: dhutaṅga).[14] Accordingly, Mahākāśyapa took upon him the thirteen ascetic practices and became an enlightened disciple (arahat) in eight days.[7] He was then called 'Kāśyapa the Great' (Sanskrit: Mahākāśyapa).[12]

Mahākāśyapa was one of the most revered of the Buddha's disciples, the renunciant par excellence.[15] He was praised by the Buddha as foremost in ascetic practices and a foremost forest dweller.[16] He excelled in supernatural accomplishments (Pali: iddhi; Sanskrit: ṛddhi) and was second to the Buddha only in meditative absorption (Pali: jhāna; Sanskrit: dyāna).[7] In one discourse found in the Pāli and Chinese collections, the Buddha advised Mahākāśyapa that having grown old, he should give up ascetic practices and live close to the Buddha. Mahākāśyapa declined, however. When the Buddha asked him to explain, Mahākāśyapa said he found the practices of benefit to himself. He also argued he could be an example for next generations of practitioners. The Buddha agreed with him, and affirmed the benefits of ascetic practices,[17][18] which he had himself praised for a long time.[19] A second discourse found in the Pāli and two Chinese collections has Mahākāśyapa meet the Buddha as he was wearing simple rag-robes and, according to the Chinese versions, his hair and beard long. Other monks criticized Mahākāśyapa for not looking appropriate when meeting his master. The Buddha responded by praising Mahākāśyapa, however. In the Chinese versions, the Buddha even went so far as to allow Mahākāśyapa to share his seat, but Mahākāśyapa preferred to sit in a respectful manner instead.[20]

Relation with Ānanda[edit]

Mahākāśyapa pays respect to the Buddha's body; Intharam Temple [th], Bangkok, Thailand

In another discourse, the Buddha advised Mahākāśyapa to teach some monks. Mahākāśyapa refused, however, saying that the monks were hard to instruct. He gave the example of two of them, who were in the habit of using Buddhist teachings to determine who knew the best, and quarrel as a result. The Buddha then had those two monks called to him and he taught them about the real purpose of learning Buddhism. The two monks confessed their mistakes to the Buddha. In the two Chinese versions of the story, Ānanda, the Buddha's attendant, objected to Mahākāśyapa's criticism of the monks, but Mahākāśyapa dismissed Ānanda's objections critically.[21]

That would not be the first time Mahākāśyapa criticized Ānanda. For example, one time Mahākāśyapa chastised Ānanda in strong words, criticizing the fact that Ānanda was travelling with a large following of young monks who appeared untrained and who had built up a bad reputation.[22] According to the early texts, Ānanda's role in founding the bhikṣunī (nun) order made him popular with the bhikṣunīs. Ānanda often taught them,[23][24] often encouraged women to ordain, and when he was criticized by Mahākāśyapa, several bhikṣunīs tried to defend him.[25][26] Another time Mahākāśyapa gave a teaching to bhikṣunīs in the presence of Ānanda, to which one bhikṣunī called Sthūlanandā (Pali: Thullanandā, Thullatissā) responded by criticizing Mahākāśyapa. She felt it inappropriate that Mahākāśyapa should teach in Ānanda's presence, whom she thought of as the superior monk. Mahākāśyapa asked whether Ānanda agreed with her, but he dismissed her as a foolish woman.[27][28] Then Mahākāśyapa proceeded to have Ānanda admit that the Buddha publicly acknowledged Mahākāśyapa for numerous attainments.[29] In a similar event, Mahākāśyapa reprimanded Ānanda for not taking responsibility for his pupils. In this case, Sthūlanandā heavily criticized Mahākāśyapa for doing so, and accused him in a hateful rush for having been an adherent of a non-Buddhist religious sect. He tried to convince her that he was a legitimate disciple of the Buddha, but to no avail. Shortly after, she left the nun's life.[30] According to Indologist Oskar von Hinüber, Ānanda's pro-bhikṣunī attitude may well be the reason why there was frequent dispute between Ānanda and Mahākāśyapa, eventually leading Mahākāśyapa to charge Ānanda with several offenses during the First Buddhist Council, and possibly leading to two factions in the saṃgha (Pali: saṅgha; monastic community).[31][32]

In general, Mahākāśyapa was known for his aloofness and love of solitude. But as a teacher, he was a stern mentor who held himself and his fellow renunciates against high standards. He was considered worthy of reverence, but also a sharp critic who impressed upon others that respect to him was due. Compared to Ānanda, he was much colder and stricter, but also more impartial and detached, and religion scholar Reiko Ohnuma argues that these broad differences in character explain the events between Mahākāśyapa and Ānanda better than the more specific idea of pro- and anti-bhikṣunī stances.[33] Pāli scholar Rune Johansson (1918 – 1981) argued that the events surrounding Mahākāśyapa, Ānanda and the bhikṣunīs prove that in Buddhism, enlightened disciples can still be seen to make mistakes. Going against this, however, Buddhist studies scholar Bhikkhu Analayo hypothesizes that Mahākāśyapa chose to teach Ānanda to abandon favoritism, and left the bhikṣunīs for Ānanda himself to deal with.[34]

Mentor for the monastic community[edit]

Religion scholar Shayne Clarke argues that the image of Mahākāśyapa as a detached ascetic was the way he was "branded" by the early Buddhists to the public in general. Studying Mūlasarvāstivāda texts of monastic discipline, Clarke points out that there is also an "in-house" perspective on Mahākāśyapa, which shows that he interacted with his former wife turned bhikṣunī frequently to mentor her. Shortly after Mahākāśyapa became ordained under the Buddha, he met his former wife Bhadra, who had joined an order of naked ascetics led by Nirgrantha Pūraṇa (Pali: Pūraṇa Kassapa). She was regularly targeted for rape her fellow ascetics, however. Mahākāśyapa pitied her and persuaded her to become ordained as a Buddhist bhikṣunī instead. Nevertheless, due to her beauty, she was still harassed often, but now only when going outside. Since this happened when Bhadra went out in villages to obtain alms, Mahākāśyapa requested the Buddha's permission to daily give half of the alms food he had gained to her, so she did not need to go out anymore. His actions came under criticism, however, coming from monks (the Group of Six) and the bhikṣunī Sthūlanandā. Although these monastics were known for their misbehavior, Clarke thinks their criticism was probably indicative of "the general monastic ambivalence toward those of an ascetic bent".[35] Writing about Sthūlanandā, Ohnuma says that Sthūlanandā went against the idea of detachment and renunciation as generally advocated in early Buddhist monasticism, which is why she hated Mahākāśyapa and Bhadra.[36] Regardless, Mahākāśyapa continued to guide his former wife and she attained arahant afterwards. Nevertheless, since criticism against their relationship persisted, he suggested Bhadra that she should go for alms by herself again. She complied, but quickly got into trouble again, when ministers of King Ajātaśatru (Pali: Ajātasattu) captured her to present as a gift to their king, to improve his mood. She was raped by the king, but managed to escape later by performing a supernatural accomplishment.[37]

Mahākāśyapa was sometimes consulted by other leading monks on points of doctrine. After some sectarian teachers asked the elder Śāriputra about the unanswered questions, he consulted with Mahākāśyapa as to why the Buddha had never given an answer to these questions.[38] Mahākāśyapa was also Śroṇa-Koṭikarṇa's (Pali: Soṇa-Koṭikaṇṇa) teacher and friend of the family, and later his upādhyāya (Pali: upajjhāya).[note 2] He taught the Aṭṭhakavagga to him, and later Śroṇa became well-known for the recitation of it.[39]

In the Saṃyutta discourses featuring Mahākāśyapa in the Pāli and its Chinese parallels, he is raised as an example of teaching doctrine from a pure and compassionate intention.[40] Clarke argued that the aloof and austere ascetic as he is presented in most texts does not provide a complete picture.[41] Anālayo notes that he did take an active concern in community matters, spent time teaching doctrine and persuaded fellow monastics to practice asceticism. This is also shown in his role as leader of the First Council. However, because of his stern tone of teaching and his being selective in people to teach, his teaching style came under criticism by other monks and bhikṣunīs. This caused him to gradually withdraw from teaching. A similar monk called Bakkula completely withdrew from teaching for similar reasons, which led him to emphasize ascetic values even more than Mahākāśapa, to compensate and still be worthy of support from lay people. Such an ideal of an enlightened disciple with ascetic values, as depicted in Mahākāśyapa and in more an extreme form in Bakkula, could reflect sentiments and inclinations among some groups of early Buddhists, and may have contributed to how Mahāyānists later polemicized against what they perceived as "selfish arahants".[42]

According to the early discourse about the Buddha's last days and passing into Nirvāṇa, Mahākāśyapa learnt about the Buddha's death after seven days. He then rushed back from the Pāva Mountain to Kuśinagara. It turned out several people had attempted to light the funeral pyre, but were unable to.[43] Pāli accounts state that deities prevented the funeral pyre from being lit until the arrival of Mahākāśyapa,[44][16] though sixth-century Chinese Buddhist texts say it was the spiritual power of the Buddha instead which caused the delay.[45] The same accounts say that he then venerated the Buddha's feet as a gesture of homage, after which the pyre lit spontaneously.[46] The story of the delay in lighting the funeral pyre indicates how much he was respected.[7] The scene in which he paid his final respects to the Buddha became a well-known depiction in Buddhist art.[43]

First Buddhist Council and death[edit]

Two companion statues, 8th century, China
The First Buddhist Council began when Mahākassapa asked Ānanda to recite the discourses.

After the Buddha's parinirvana (death), the number of disciples that had once witnessed the Buddha teaching were becoming less.[47] Some monks, among which a monk called Subhadra (Pali: Subhadda), expressed satisfaction that they could now do as they pleased, because their teacher the Buddha was no longer there to prohibit them from anything. This alarmed Mahākāśyapa, and led him to set up the First Buddhist Council,[48] to record the Buddhist discourses and details of the monastic discipline and thereby prevent them from becoming corrupted.[47][49] According to the texts, the First Buddhist Council was held in Rājagṛha,[50] which was the site of many Buddhist discourses.[47] In the first rains retreat (Sanskrit: varṣa, Pali: vassa) after the Buddha had died, Mahākāśyapa called upon Ānanda to recite the discourses he had heard, as a representative on this council.[51][50][note 3] There was a rule issued, however, that only arahants were allowed to attend the council, to prevent bias like favoritism or sectarianism from clouding the disciples' memories. Ānanda had not attained enlightenment yet, in contrast with the rest of the council, consisting of 499 arahants.[53][54] Mahākāśyapa therefore did not yet allow Ānanda to attend. Although he knew that Ānanda's presence in the council was required, he did not want to be biased by allowing an exception to the rule.[55][7] The Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition adds that Mahākāśyapa initially allowed Ānanda to join as a sort of servant assisting during the council, but then was forced to remove him when the disciple Anuruddha saw that Ānanda was not yet enlightened.[55][56]

Nevertheless, that night, Ānanda was able to attain enlightenment.[57] When the Council began the next morning, Mahākāśyapa questioned Upāli, to establish the texts on monastic discipline for monks and bhikṣuṇis.[49] Ānanda was consulted to recite the discourses and to determine which were authentic and which were not.[58][59] Mahākāśyapa asked of each discourse that Ānanda listed where, when, and to whom it was given,[23][60] and at the end of this, the assembly agreed that Ānanda's memories and recitations were correct,[61] after which the discourse collection (Sanskrit: Sūtra Piṭaka, Pali: Sutta Piṭaka) was considered finalized and closed.[59] In some versions of the account, the Abhidharma (Pali: Abhidhamma) was also standardized during this council, with some texts saying it was Mahākāśyapa who reviewed it, and other texts saying it was Ānanda.[49]

During the same council, Ānanda was charged for an offense by Mahākāśyapa and other members of the saṅgha for having enabled women to join the monastic order.[58] Besides this, he was charged for having forgotten to request the Buddha to specify which offenses of monastic discipline could be disregarded;[note 4] for having stepped on the Buddha's robe; for having allowed women to honor the Buddha's body after his death, which was not properly covered, and during which his body was sullied by their tears; and for having failed to ask the Buddha to continue to live on. Ānanda did not acknowledge these as offenses, but he conceded to do a formal confession anyway, "... in faith of the opinion of the venerable elder monks".[63][64]

Indologists von Hinüber and Jean Przyluski (1885 – 1944), as well as Buddhologist André Bareau (1921 – 1993) argued that the account of Ānanda being charged with offenses during the council indicate tensions between competing early Buddhist schools, i.e. schools that emphasized the discourses and schools that emphasized monastic discipline. These differences have affected the scriptures of each tradition:[65] e.g. the Pāli and Mahīśāsaka textual traditions portray a Mahākassapa that is more critical of Ānanda than that the Sarvāstivāda tradition depicts him,[66][67] reflecting a preference for discipline above discourse on the part of the former traditions, and a preference for discourse for the latter.[66] Analyzing six recensions of different textual traditions of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta extensively, Bareau distinguished two layers in the text, an older and a newer one, the former belonging to the compilers that emphasized discourse, the latter to the ones that emphasized discipline; the former emphasizing the figure of Ānanda, the latter Mahākāśyapa.[68] Bareau, Przyluski and Indologist I. B. Horner (1896 – 1981) argued that the offenses Ānanda were charged with were a later interpolation. Scholar of religion Ellison Banks Findly disagrees, however, because the account in the texts of monastic discipline fits in with the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta and with Ānanda's character as generally depicted in the texts.[69] Expanding on the theory of the two factions, Przyluski noted that the figure of Ānanda represents Buddhism in an early form, whereas Mahākaśyapa represents a Buddhism that had undergone reform. Ānanda represents a "religion of love", whereas Mahākaśyapa represents "a rough ascetic spirit".[70] Indologist Erich Frauwallner (1898 – 1974) notes that in the early Buddhist discourses little mention is made of Mahākāśyapa, especially when compared to Ānanda. However, in the accounts about the First Council, Mahākāśyapa appears very prominent, whereas Ānanda is humbled and given far less credit. Frauwallner argues this points at an "a deep reaching modification and revaluation of the tradition".[71]

Two monks, one holding hands in front of chest, the other hands folded in front of belly
Mahākāśyapa (left) and Ānanda (right), China, Song Dynasty (960–1279)

Tradition states that the First Council lasted for seven months.[49] However, many scholars, from the late 19th century onward, have considered the historicity of the First Council improbable. Some scholars, such as orientalists Louis de La Vallée-Poussin (1869 – 1938) and I.P. Minayeff [ru] (1840 – 1890), thought there must have been assemblies after the Buddha's death, but considered only the main characters and some events before or after the First Council historical.[72][73] Other scholars, such as Bareau and Indologist Hermann Oldenberg (1854 – 1920), considered it likely that the account of the First Council was written after the Second Council, and based on that of the Second, since there were not any major problems to solve after the Buddha's death, or any other need to organize the First Council.[57][74] On the other hand, archaeologist Louis Finot (1864 – 1935), Indologist E. E. Obermiller [ru] (1901 –1935) and to some extent Indologist Nalinaksha Dutt (1893 – 1973) thought the account of the First Council was authentic, because of the correspondences between the Pāli texts and the Sanskrit traditions.[75] Indologist Richard Gombrich, following Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali's arguments, considers that the Council "makes good sense".[76]

In the Early Buddhist Texts, Mahākāśyapa's death is not discussed. This is discussed in post-canonical texts, however.[7]

Previous lives[edit]

In some early texts, accounts of Mahākāśyapa and Bhadra's previous lives are told, which illustrate how they vowed to lead celibate lives. In one life, they were making love in a forest and disturbed a pratyekabuddha (Pali: paccekabuddha) who was living and meditating there. When they discovered they had broken his meditative concentration, they felt so ashamed they took a vow together that from then onward, they would be reborn without sexual desire.[77]

In post-canonical texts[edit]

Thai statue of Mahākāśyapa, Wat Traimit [de]


In many Indian Sanskrit and East Asian texts, from as early as the second century CE, Mahākāśyapa is considered the first patriarch of the lineage which transmitted the teaching of the Buddha, with Ānanda a being the second.[78] There is an account dating back from the Sarvāstivāda and Mūlasarvāstivāda textual traditions which states that before Mahākāśyapa died, he bestowed the Buddha's teaching on Ānanda as a formal passing on of authority, telling Ānanda to pass the teaching on to his pupil Śāṇakavāsī (Pali: Saṇavāsī).[79] Later, just before Ānanda died, Śāṇakavāsī did as Mahākāśyapa had told him to.[55] Buddhist studies scholars Akira Hirakawa (1915 – 2002) and Bibhuti Baruah have expressed skepticism about the teacher–student relationship between Mahākāśyapa and Ānanda, arguing that there was discord between the two, as indicated in the early texts.[80][81] Regardless, it is clear from the texts that a relationship of transmission of teachings is meant, as opposed to a upādhyāya–student relationship in a lineage of ordination: no source indicates Mahākāśyapa was Ānanda's upādhyāya.[82] Nevertheless, the idea of transmission of the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine) through a list of patriarchs is not found in Pāli sources.[83]

Death and continuity[edit]

Some Buddhist texts relate that after the Buddha's paranirvāṇa, Mahākāśyapa gathered seven out of eight portions of the Buddha's remains or relics which were distributed earlier, and preserved them in an underground chamber called the "shrine for the eighty disciples". King Ajātaśatru helped him in this.[84] Later, according to post-canonical Buddhist texts such as the Theravāda Paṭhamasambodhi, the remains thus enshrined were taken out and divided by emperor Aśoka (c.268 to 232 BCE) throughout India.[85]

Post-canonical texts such as the Mahāvibhāṣā (Chinese: 阿毘達磨大毘婆沙論; pinyin: Apidamo dapiposha lun), the Divyāvadāna and other Avadānas, as well as Sanskrit chronicle on the "Masters of the Law", the travelogues of medieval Chinese pilgrims, and numerous Chinese translations in the Chinese Buddhist Canon, relate that Mahākāśyapa's body was enshrined underneath the mountain Kukkuṭapāda (a.k.a. Gurupādaka, in Magadha) where it remains until the arising of the next Buddha, Maitreya.[86] Mahākāśyapa chose the mountain as his last place of burial. Having settled in a cave there, he covered himself in the robe he had received from the Buddha.[87] He then took a vow that his body would stay there until the arriving of Maitreya Buddha, which is an uncountable number of years. In the time of Maitreya Buddha, his bodily remains would be disintegrated.[88] Though Mahākāśyapa died after the vow, his body remained intact according to his resolution.[89] After Mahākāśyapa's vow, Ānanda and King Ajātaśatru arrived at the mountain and it slightly opened. They found Mahākāśyapa's body. The king wanted to cremate it, but Ānanda told him it would remain until the time of Maitreya Buddha. When they left, the mountain closed up again.[90]

Pāli texts say that people in Maitreya Buddha's time will be much taller than during the time of Gautama Buddha.[91][7] In one text, Maitreya Buddha's disciples are contemptuous of Mahākāśyapa, whose head is no larger than an insect to them. Gautama Buddha's robe barely covers two of their fingers, making them wonder how small Gautama Buddha was.[92] Eventually, Mahākāśyapa disintegrates on the hand of Maitreya Buddha according to his vow.[93] But in the well-known account of the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (602 – 664), Mahākāśyapa waits in the cave standing rather than sitting. Up until the time of Maitreya he is still alive: he hands over the robe to Maitreya Buddha, then hovers in the air, displays supernatural accomplishments and bursts miraculously into flames.[94]

Gautama Buddha giving his robe (which in later texts is golden-colored) to Mahākāśyapa in the latter's early monastic years demonstrated a deep sense of respect for this disciple. Within the context of the later account in which Mahākāśyapa's body will last until the future Maitreya Buddha, Mahākāśyapa was seen to safeguard this robe to pass on to the future Buddha. Thus, the robe came to represent a passing on of the transmission of Buddhist teachings, and Mahākāśyapa became a symbol of the continuity of the Buddha's Dispensation.[95] Buddhist studies scholar Vincent Tournier speculates that the story of Mahākāśyapa resolving that his body endure until the next Buddha is a "conscious attempt to dress the arahat in a bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) garb".[96]

Thus, in Mahāyāna texts, Mahākāśyapa is often mentioned, though not all texts give him an important role. He is just briefly mentioned in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa and the Lotus Sūtra.[7] In the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, Vimalakīrti reprimands Mahākāśyapa for not practicing equanimity.[97]

In the Lotus Sūtra[edit]

Already in an early discourse in the Ekottarika-Āgama, Mahākāśyapa is depicted stating that he could have been a Pratyekabuddha (Pali: Paccekabuddha), if he had not become a disciple of the Buddha Gautama.[98] In the Lotus Sūtra, Chapter 6 ("Bestowal of Prophecy"), however, the Buddha prophecies that Mahākāśyapa will become enlightened as a fully enlightened Buddha. The sūtra also says that Mahākāśyapa, together with three other disciples, understood the Buddha's parable of the burning house, and rejoiced in the single vehicle (ekayāna), the idea that all Buddhist ideals culminate in the ultimate ideal of Buddhahood.[7]

In Chan Buddhism[edit]

Monk meditating and holding a flower
Mahākāśyapa holding a flower, following Chan tradition

Mahākāśyapa has a more significant role in texts from the Chan tradition.[7] In East Asia, there is a Chan and Zen tradition, related in the The Jingde Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (Chinese: 景德傳燈錄; pinyin: Tiansheng Guangdeng lu), which is a 1036 genealogical record about Chan Buddhism.[99] According to this chronicle, Mahākāśyapa once received a direct "transmission" from Gautama Buddha. Chan and Zen purport to lead their adherents to insights akin to that mentioned by the Buddha in the Flower Sermon (Chinese: 拈華微笑; pinyin: Nianhua weixiao; literally: 'Holding up a flower and smiling subtly')[note 5] given on the Vulture Peak, in which he held up a white flower and just admired it in his hand, without speaking. All the disciples just looked on without knowing how to react, but only Mahākāśyapa smiled faintly, and the Buddha picked him as one who truly understood him and was worthy to be the one receiving a special "mind-to-mind transmission" (pinyin: yixin chuanxin).[101]

Thus, a way within Buddhism developed which concentrated on direct experience rather than on rational creeds or revealed scriptures. Chan therefore became a method of meditative religion which seek to enlighten people in the manner that Mahākāśyapa experienced:[102][103] "A special transmission outside the scriptures, directly pointing at the heart of man, looking into one's own nature." This transmission was then purportedly passed on by the Buddha to Mahākāśyapa, who then passed it on to a long list of Indian and Chinese patriarchs, eventually reaching Bodhidharma (5th or 6th century CE), who brought Chan Buddhism to China, and passed it on to Huike (487–593 CE).[104] The Jingde Record took the passing on of the robe from Buddha Gautama to Mahākāśyapa to refer to a secret transmission of Chan teachings, within the specific Chan lineage.[105] The story of the Flower Sermon was also recorded in later texts, between the 11th and 14th centuries. At least one of these texts was probably written to defend the authenticity of the Flower Sermon, which was even questioned in Chan circles. Eventually, the story became well-known among both Buddhist monks and Chan-oriented literati. It was incorporated as a meditative topic in the 1228 Chan text The Gateless Barrier (pinyin: Wumen Guan), in which the Buddha confirmed that the mind-to-mind transmission was complete.[106] The Flower Sermon event is regarded by modern scholars as an invention, but does provide insight into the philosophical concerns and identity of Chan Buddhism.[103] Since Chan Buddhism values the direct transmission from the teacher's mind to that of the student, more so than scriptures, the unbroken lineage of patriarchs is an important part of the tradition.[107]

Mahākāśyapa loved the beauty of mountains and forests. The motif of flowers can also be found elsewhere. Shortly after the Buddha's Parinirvāṇa, Mahākāśyapa knew of the Buddha's passing when he saw an ascetic carrying a flower that had been offered in devotion.[108]


Ascetic values[edit]

Illustration in book, 3 monks sitting at fire
Funeral pyre of the Buddha being lit at the arrival of Mahākāśyapa, from Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1916

According to Chinese tradition, Mahākāśyapa is one of the Four Great Disciples (Sanskrit: Mahā-bhikṣu; pinyin: Sida Shengwen) to whom the Buddha entrusted to propagate his teachings after his death.[109] Being one of the most well-known disciples of the Buddha, he embodies the highest ideals of early Buddhist monasticism.[110] Buddhist studies scholar Asanga Tilakaratne points out that Mahākāśyapa's ascetic and austere values and dislike for women on the one hand, and Ānanda's active, city-dwelling values and support for women on the other hand, are two sides of the spectrum than can be seen throughout the history of Buddhist monasticism. Monastic vocations and monastic orders tend to be along these two ends of the spectrum, which can be traced back to these two disciples.[111] Specifically, the Theravāda tradition has been influenced much by the model of Mahākāśyapa.[112]

Przyluski and several other scholars have argued that in the early texts, Mahākaśyapa represents both ascetic and brahmin values.[113] The ascetic values are seen in the account in which Mahākaśyapa refuses to give up ascetic practices, going against the advice of the Buddha.[114][115] Such refusal was highly unusual for a disciple of the Buddha. The brahmin values can be observed from the account of the accusations leveled against Ānanda, which appear to be based more on brahmin values than violations of monastic discipline. Both these brahmin and ascetic values, as represented by the figure of Mahākaśyapa, would lead to strong opposition to the founding of the bhikṣunī order in early Buddhism.[116] The ascetic values Mahākāśyapa represented, however, were a reaction to less austere tendencies that appeared in early Buddhism at the time.[115]

Elder son of the Buddha[edit]

In Abhidharma texts of several Buddhist schools, the fulfilment of Mahākāśyapa's vow in the mountain Kukuṭapada is connected to a vow Gautama Buddha took to prevent his body from being cremated before Mahākāśyapa's arrival at his teacher's cremation grounds. Buddhist studies scholar Gregory Schopen analyzes several post-canonical Buddhist texts and concludes that in both instances, a vow is taken based on psychic powers, which is then shown to be effective after the death of the person with those psychic powers. Mahākāśyapa's psychic powers are needed for his role in the texts as the one who preserves the Buddha's dispensation. Indeed, later Buddhist texts depict Mahākāśyapa as the elder son of the Buddha, who leads both the funerals of his father and, as his heir, presides over the First Council. Eventually, he came to be seen as the first teacher after the Buddha and as the beginning of a lineage of teachers. This conceptualization is found within several Buddhist schools, including the Theravādins and the Mahāsaṅghikas.[117] Indeed, Theravāda sees him as a sort of "Father of the Church".[118]

Historical lineages[edit]

Furthermore, Mahākāśyapa is described in the Pāli commentary to the Dīgha Nikāya as the person responsible for the preservation of the precursor to the Saṃyutta Nikāya and the Saṃyuktaka Āgama. In both the Nikāya and Āgama version of this collection, therefore, a great deal of attention is given to him, and Tournier thinks it possible that the lineage of teachers preserving this collection, probably originating from the Sthāvirīyas, also conceived themselves as preservers of Mahākāśyapa's legacy. This is also reflected in the language used in inscriptions from the Sinhalese monk Mahānāman (5th–6th century CE) and in later texts used in the Sinhalese tradition, which both connect Mahānāman's lineage with that of Mahākāśyapa, and also that of the future Buddha Maitreya.[119]

One of the early Buddhist schools, the Kāśyapīyas (Pali: Kassapīya), was founded by Mahākāśyapa, according to scholars Paramārtha (499–569) and Kuiji (632–682). Other traditional scholars have argued instead it was another Kāśyapa, who lived three centuries after the Buddha.[120]

In art and culture[edit]

Temple with Buddha image, flanked by Ānanda and Mahākāśyapa
In Mahāyāna iconography, Ānanda is often depicted flanking the Buddha at the right side, together with Mahākāśyapa at the left. Temple of Heaven Garden [zh] in Shantou, China.

In Buddhist art, images of Mahākāśyapa have "left an indelible mark". He was depicted in paranirvāṇa scenes as a reassurance that Gautama Buddha's dispensation would not be lost; he was depicted next to Maitreya Buddha as an anticipatory vision of the future.[14]

In Chinese art, Mahākāśyapa was usually depicted with long beard and hair. Buddhist studies scholar Mun-Keat Choong hypothesizes that these depictions found their way back in at least one Chinese Buddhist discourse, the discourse in which Mahākāśyapa is criticized for not looking appropriate. This may have been the work of the translators.[121] In sixth-century Chinese steles, Mahākāśyapa is often depicted waiting for Maitreya Buddha in the cave, cloaked in the robe and a hood. He is given a role as successor of the Gautama Buddha. Buddhist studies scholar Miyaji Akira proposes that Mahākāśyapa waiting in the cave became the basis of a theme in Korean Buddhist art with monks meditating in caves. Korean studies scholar Sunkyung Kim does point out, however, that similar motifs can already be found in earlier Buddhist art, featuring Gautama Buddha sitting.[122]

In Mahāyāna iconography, Mahākāśyapa is often depicted flanking the Buddha at the left side, together with Ānanda at the right.[123] In Theravāda iconography, however, Mahākāśyapa is usually not depicted in this manner.[124]

According to Chinese legend, the monk Ji Gong(Chinese:濟公) is a reincarnation of Mahākāśyapa (known as the Taming Dragon Arhat).[citation needed]


  1. ^ Pāli sources have Sāgala instead, which is in present-day Pakistan.[7]
  2. ^ An upādhyāya is a preceptor in Buddhist ordinations.
  3. ^ This is the most well-known version of the account. However, texts of the Sarvāstivāda, Mūlasarvāstivāda, and Mahīśāsaka traditions relate that this was Ājñāta Kauṇḍinya (Pali: Añña-Koṇḍañña) instead, as Kauṇḍinya was the most senior disciple.[52]
  4. ^ The Buddha mentioned to Ānanda that "minor rules" could be abolished.[62]
  5. ^ The English title Flower Sermon is a Western invention.[99] It is also known as the "First Zen Story".[100]


  1. ^ Tournier 2014, p. 27.
  2. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2013, Śroṇa-Koṭikarṇa.
  3. ^ Mun-keat 2017, p. 295.
  4. ^ Analayo 2015, pp. 12–21.
  5. ^ Analayo 2010, p. 1.
  6. ^ Clarke 2014, p. 110.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Buswell & Lopez 2013, Mahākāśyapa.
  8. ^ For the father's occupation, see Buswell & Lopez (2013, Bhadra-Kapilānī). For the father's name, see Clarke (2014, p. 110).
  9. ^ Buswell & Lopez (2013, Mahāpuruṣalakṣaṇa) state he had seven characteristics; Kim (2011, pp. 135–136) refers to sources which state he lacked only two.
  10. ^ Clarke 2014, pp. 110–111.
  11. ^ a b c Clarke 2014, p. 111.
  12. ^ a b c Clarke 2014, p. 112.
  13. ^ a b Buswell & Lopez 2013, Bhadra-Kapilānī.
  14. ^ a b Kim 2011, p. 137.
  15. ^ Clarke 2014, p. 107.
  16. ^ a b Kim 2011, p. 131.
  17. ^ Mun-keat 2017, p. 300.
  18. ^ Analayo 2015, p. 14.
  19. ^ Mun-keat 2017, p. 301.
  20. ^ Mun-keat 2017, pp. 302–303.
  21. ^ Mun-keat 2017, p. 298.
  22. ^ Malalasekera 1960, vol. 1, Ānanda.
  23. ^ a b Buswell & Lopez 2013, Ānanda.
  24. ^ Findly 2003, p. 384.
  25. ^ Ambros 2016, p. 209.
  26. ^ Hinüber 2007, pp. 233–4.
  27. ^ Mun-keat 2017, pp. 303–304.
  28. ^ Ohnuma 2013, pp. 48–49.
  29. ^ Analayo 2010, p. 15.
  30. ^ Ohnuma 2013, pp. 47–48.
  31. ^ Ohnuma 2013, p. 51.
  32. ^ Findly 1992, pp. 253–4.
  33. ^ Ohnuma 2013, pp. 57, 59.
  34. ^ Analayo 2010, p. 16.
  35. ^ Clarke (2014, pp. 107, 112–113). Quote is on page 113.
  36. ^ Ohnuma 2013, p. 32.
  37. ^ Clarke 2014, pp. 113–114.
  38. ^ Mun-keat 2017, pp. 305–306.
  39. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2013, Soṇa-Koṭikaṇṇa.
  40. ^ Analayo 2010, pp. 14–15.
  41. ^ Clarke 2014, pp. 107, 109.
  42. ^ Analayo 2010, pp. 16–20, note 58.
  43. ^ a b Lee 2010, p. 57.
  44. ^ Harvey 2013, p. 28.
  45. ^ Lee 2010, p. 94.
  46. ^ Lee 2010, pp. 57–58, 91.
  47. ^ a b c Powers 2016, p. 19.
  48. ^ See Mun-keat (2017, p. 295) and Analayo (2016, pp. 170–171). Buswell & Lopez (2013, Mahākāśyapa) mention Subhadra.
  49. ^ a b c d Buswell & Lopez 2013, Council, 1st.
  50. ^ a b Thorp, Charley Linden (3 April 2017). "The Evolution of Buddhist Schools". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 29 August 2018.
  51. ^ Keown 2004, p. 12.
  52. ^ Prebish 2005, p. 230.
  53. ^ Powers 2007, p. 56.
  54. ^ Prebish 2005, pp. 225–6.
  55. ^ a b c Witanachchi 1965, p. 532.
  56. ^ Ohnuma 2013, pp. 49–50.
  57. ^ a b Prebish 2005, p. 231.
  58. ^ a b Keown 2004, p. 164.
  59. ^ a b MacQueen 2005, p. 314.
  60. ^ Zurcher 2005, p. 378.
  61. ^ Powers 2007, pp. 57–8.
  62. ^ Powers 2007, p. 55.
  63. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2013, Ānanda; Cāpālacaitya; Council, 1st.
  64. ^ Hinüber 2007, pp. 235–6.
  65. ^ See Findly (1992, pp. 253). For Bareau, see Analayo (2016, p. 172, note 75)
  66. ^ a b Findly 1992, p. 254.
  67. ^ Tsukamoto 1963, p. 821.
  68. ^ Bareau 1979, p. 70.
  69. ^ Findly 1992, p. 268.
  70. ^ Analayo 2016, p. 172, note 75.
  71. ^ Analayo 2010, p. 17 note 52.
  72. ^ Prebish 2005, p. 226.
  73. ^ Mukherjee 1994, pp. 453.
  74. ^ Mukherjee 1994, pp. 454–6.
  75. ^ Mukherjee 1994, p. 457.
  76. ^ Gombrich 2018, p. 73.
  77. ^ Clarke 2014, p. 114.
  78. ^ See Buswell & Lopez (2013, Damoduoluo chan jing; Madhyāntika) and Welter (2004, pp. 462–463). For the second century, see Morrison (2010, p. 20).
  79. ^ See Baruah (2000, pp. 9, 453). For the indication of the period just before death, see Strong (1994, p. 62). For the Mūlasarvāstivāda, see Hirakawa (1993, p. 85).
  80. ^ Baruah 2000, p. 10.
  81. ^ Hirakawa 1993, p. 85.
  82. ^ Hirakawa 1993, p. 86.
  83. ^ Lamotte 1988, p. 210.
  84. ^ Bautze-Picron 2010, p. 12.
  85. ^ Swearer 2012, pp. 43, 47.
  86. ^ See Strong (2007, p. 45–46). For the Mahāvibhāṣā and the Avadānas, see Tournier (2014, pp. 11–12). For the Sanskrit chronicle, the travelogues and the translations, see Kim (2011, pp. 131, 135).
  87. ^ See Tournier (2014, p. 12) and Kim (2011, p. 131). For the covering, see Tournier. For the cave, see Kim.
  88. ^ Tournier (2014, pp. 13, 16). For the uncountable number, see Adamek (2011, Bodhidharma's Robe).
  89. ^ Tournier 2014, pp. 15 notes 49, 51.
  90. ^ Kim 2011, p. 134.
  91. ^ Strong 2007, p. 220.
  92. ^ See Strong (2007, p. 220). Buswell & Lopez (2013, Maitreya) also mention the two fingers.
  93. ^ Tournier 2014, p. 16.
  94. ^ See Kim (2011, p. 135) and Adamek (2011, Bodhidharma's Robe). Kim mentions the supernatural accomplishments; Adamek says that Xuanzang's account is well-known, as well as that Mahākāśyapa is standing.
  95. ^ See Sanvido (2017, p. 343). For the symbol of continuity, see Adamek (2011, Bodhidharma's Robe) and Analayo (2015, p. 21).
  96. ^ Tournier 2014, pp. 44–45.
  97. ^ Adamek 2011, Section 10.
  98. ^ Analayo 2015, p. 21.
  99. ^ a b Buswell & Lopez 2014, nianhua weixiao.
  100. ^ Voros 2014, p. 388.
  101. ^ For the intention of Zen and the Flower Sermon, see Tarrant County College, 2007, p. 11). For the Vulture Peak, see Hershock, P. (2019). "Chan Buddhism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Archived from the original on 11 September 2019. For the Chinese terms, see Buswell & Lopez (2014, nianhua weixiao).
  102. ^ Tarrant County College, 2007, p. 11.
  103. ^ a b Hershock, P. (2019). "Chan Buddhism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Archived from the original on 11 September 2019.
  104. ^ Powers 2016, p. 47.
  105. ^ Sanvido 2017, p. 343.
  106. ^ See Buswell & Lopez (2014, nianhua weixiao) and Harvey (2013, p. 222). Harvey states that the story originated among the "Chan literati".
  107. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2013, fozu.
  108. ^ Harvey 2013, p. 222.
  109. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2013, Kuṇḍadhāna; Ṣoḍaśasthavira.
  110. ^ Ray (1994, p. 105), cited in Clarke (2014, p. 110).
  111. ^ Tilakaratne 2003, pp. 177–178.
  112. ^ Analayo 2010, p. 17.
  113. ^ See Analayo (2010, p. 14, note 42), Analayo (2016, p. 173) and Clarke (2014, p. 107). Only Anālayo mentions both.
  114. ^ Analayo 2016, p. 173.
  115. ^ a b Analayo 2010, p. 14.
  116. ^ Analayo 2016, pp. 174–175, note 78.
  117. ^ Tournier 2014, pp. 17–18, note 62, 20–22, note 78.
  118. ^ Lagirarde & Koanantakool 2006.
  119. ^ Tournier 2014, pp. 26–29.
  120. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2013, Kāśyapīya.
  121. ^ Mun-keat 2017, p. 303.
  122. ^ Kim 2011, pp. 126, 131, 133, 135.
  123. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2013, Er xieshi.
  124. ^ Edkins 2013, pp. 42–43.


External links[edit]

Buddhist titles
Preceded by
Beginning of the lineage
Lineage of Buddhist patriarchs
(According to the Zen schools of China and Japan)
Succeeded by