One of the Buddha’s most eminent disciples, chief among those who upheld austere practices. AN.i.23 His personal name was Pippali, but he is usually known by his clan name Kassapa, prefixed with Mahā to distinguish him from the other Kassapas.
Mahākassapa went forth, apparently together with his wife Bhaddā Kāpilānī, before meeting the Buddha on the road. He gave him a brief teaching: SN.ii.220 ‘There shall be a lively sense of conscience and regard towards all monks, seniors, novices, and those of middle status.’ ‘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.’ ‘Happy mindfulness with respect to the body shall not be neglected by me.’
The Buddha exchanged his worn robes for Kassapa’s, which was regarded as a unique honor. SN.ii.221
Kassapa was not present at the death of the Buddha; as he was journeying from Pāvā to Kusināra he met an Ājīvaka carrying in his hand a mandārava flower picked up by him from among those which had rained from heaven in honour of the Buddha, and it was he who told Kassapa the news. It was then the seventh day after the Buddha’s death, and the Mallas had been trying in vain to set fire to his pyre. The arahant theras, who were present, declared that it could not be kindled until Mahā Kassapa and his five hundred companions had saluted the Buddha’s feet. Mahā Kassapa then arrived and walked three times round the pyre with bared shoulder, and it is said the Buddha’s feet became visible from out of the pyre in order that he might worship them. He was followed by his five hundred colleagues, and when they had all worshipped the feet disappeared and the pyre kindled of itself. DN.ii.163f.
At Pāvā (on the announcement of the Buddha’s death), Kassapa had heard the words of Subhadda, who, in his old age, had joined the Order, that they were “well rid of the great samaṇa and could now do as they liked.” This remark it was which had suggested to Kassapa’s mind the desirability of holding a Recital of the Buddha’s teachings. The five hundred who were selected met in Council under the presidency of Kassapa and recited the Dhamma and the Vinaya.
The books contain numerous references to Mahā Kassapa—he is classed with Moggallāna, Kappina, and Anuruddha for his great iddhi-powers. SN.i.114
The Buddha regarded him as equal to himself in exhorting the monks to lead the active and zealous lives, SN.ii.205 and constantly held him up as an example to others in his great contentment SN.ii.194f. and his ability to win over families by his preaching. The Buddha compares him to the moon, unobtrusive; his heart was free from bondage, and he always taught others out of a feeling of compassion. SN.ii.197ff. The Buddha also thought him equal to himself in his power of attaining the jhānas and abiding therein. SN.ii.210ff.
Kassapa was willing to help monks along their way, and several instances are given of his exhortations to them. Thag.1051–1057 Thag.1072–1081 AN.v.161ff. But he would not address them unless he felt them to be tractable and deferential to instruction. SN.ii.203ff. SN.ii.219
He was very reluctant to preach to the nuns, but on one occasion he allowed himself to be persuaded by Ānanda, and accompanied by him he visited the nunnery and preached to the nuns. He was probably not popular among certain nuns, for, at the end of his discourse, Thullatissā openly reviled him for what she called his impertinence in having dared to preach in the presence of Ānanda, “as if the needle pedlar were to sell a needle to the needle maker.”. SN.ii.215f. Kassapa was very careful of the good name of the Order, and we find him SN.ii.218f. blaming Ānanda for admitting into the Order new members incapable of observing its discipline and of going about with them in large numbers, exposing the Order to the criticism of the public. “A corn trampler art thou, Ānanda,” he says, “a despoiler of families, thy following is breaking up, thy youngsters are melting away,” and ends up with “The boy, methinks, does not know his own measure.” Ānanda, annoyed at being called “boy,” protests “Surely my head is growing grey hairs, your reverence.” Ānanda regarded Kassapa in some sort of way as a teacher, and held him in great respect, not daring to mention even his name, lest it should imply disrespect. Vin.i.92f.
Thullanandā heard Kassapa censuring Ānanda and raised her voice in protest, “What now? Does Kassapa, once a heretic, deem that he can chide the learned sage Ānanda?” Kassapa was hurt by her words, and complained to Ānanda that such things should be said of him who had been singled out by the Buddha for special honour.
Kassapa viewed with concern the growing laxity among members of the Order with regard to the observance of rules, even in the very lifetime of the Buddha, and the falling off in the number of those attaining arahantship, and we find him consulting the Buddha as to what should be done. SN.ii.224f. At the First Council, when Ānanda stated that the Buddha had given leave for the monks to do away with the minor rules of the Order, Kassapa was opposed to any such step, lest it should lead to slackness among the monks and contempt from the laity. Vin.ii.287f.
Kassapa himself did his utmost to lead an exemplary life, dwelling in the forest, subsisting solely on alms, wearing rag robes, always content with little, holding himself aloof from society, ever strenuous and energetic. See also the Mahāgosiṅga Sutta, MN.i.214 where Kassapa declares his belief in the need for these observances; that his example was profitable to others is proved by the case of Somamitta who, finding his own teacher Vimala given up to laziness, sought Kassapa and attained arahantship under his guidance.
When asked why he led such a life, he replied that it was not only for his own happiness but also out of compassion for those who came after him, that they might attain to the same end. Even when he was old and the Buddha himself had asked him to give up his coarse rag robe and to dwell near him, he begged to be excused. SN.ii.202f.
Once, when Kassapa lay grievously ill at Pipphaliguhā, the Buddha visited him and reminded him of the seven bojjhangas which he had practised. SN.v.78
Kassapa had special compassion for the poor and would sgo to the poorest families to seek alms. Ud.iii.7
Sāriputta seems to have held Kassapa in great esteem, and the Kassapa Saṃyutta contains two discussions between them: one on the necessity for zeal and ardour in the attainment of Nibbāna, SN.ii.195f. and the other on the existence of a Tathāgata after death. SN.ii.222f. This regard was mutual, for when Kassapa saw the great honour paid to Sāriputta by the devas he rejoiced greatly and broke forth into song. Thag.1082–1085