Maha Kassapa was the only son in the family. He received every care and love from his parents. Unlike other kids, he had no desire for material comfort and pleasures, and he preferred to be alone.
Time passed quickly, Maha Kassapa had grown into a handsome young man and his parents wanted him to get married. Maha Kassapa expressed his will to practise a religious life, but his parents did not approve of it. Maha Kassapa thought out a plan to stop his parents from forcing him to get married. He hired a famous sculptor to sculpture a statue of a beautiful lady out of gold. He then took the statue to his parents and said, “If you want me to get married, you must find a lady as pretty as this statue to be my wife.”
His parents were troubled by his request and finally they followed the advice of a brahmin who placed the golden statue under a great umbrella and sent it to every corner of the kingdom. Whenever the statue was brought to a place, the Brahmin would tell the crowd, “Ladies, give offerings to this goddess and you will get your wish.”
He later reached a city called Vaisali. There lived a rich Brahmin who had a pretty daughter named Subhadra. One day, Subhadra, noted for her great beauty, was invited by her friends to worship the golden goddess. She was so pretty that the golden goddess was overshadowed by her. The Brahmin was very delighted. He then paid a visit to her family and her parents gladly approved of the marriage.
On the wedding night, both of the bridegroom and the bride looked worried and sat aside. Finally Maha Kassapa broke the silence and asked Subhadra what troubled her. Subhadra replied, “I would like to practise a religious life, but my father was tempted by the wealth of your family and agreed to this marriage. Now my hope of practising a religious life is dashed.”
Maha Kassapa was glad to learn this, he said, “Do be patient, our ambition will be fulfilled one day.”
Twelve years passed and Maha Kassapa’s parents had left the world. One day, Subhadra ordered the servants to extract some sesame oil. There were countless worms wriggling in the sesame oil. Subhadra overheard a conversation by her servants, “There will be a day of retribution as we have killed so many living things. But this is not our fault, we just carry out the order of our mistress.” Subhadra was very shocked to hear that and ordered the servants to stop extracting the sesame oil. Then she stayed in her room and immersed herself in thought.
On the same day, Maha Kassapa was inspecting the farm. He observed that countless worms were killed by the plough. As Maha Kassapa was disgusted at seeing all these living beings suffer, he decided to go home.
When he returned home, he saw his wife looking rather troubled. After saying out what they had seen, both of them felt that the worldly life was miserable and meaningless. Maha Kassapa decided to renounce the world and he asked Subhadra to wait for him at home. He promised her that once he had found a good teacher, he would return and fetch her.
It was said that the day Maha Kassapa renounced the world coincided with the day Lord Buddha attained perfect enlightenment.
Maha Kassapa looked for a religious teacher everywhere, but none could satisfy him. Two years later, he was told that Sakyamuni Buddha was the Great Enlightened One. Maha Kassapa went to Venuvana to listen to the teaching of the Buddha and was deeply moved by the virtues and wisdom of the Buddha. One day, after listening to a discourse of the Buddha, he went home. On his way home, he saw the Buddha sitting under a tree, as stately as a golden mountain. He was surprised to see the Buddha there as he remembered that the Buddha was still in Venuvana before he left there. He prostrated himself before the Buddha and said, “Lord Buddha, my great teacher, please take me as your disciple.”
The Buddha said, “Maha Kassapa, no one in this world is qualified to be your teacher unless he had attained enlightenment. Do come with me.” Walking behind the Buddha, Maha Kassapa shed tears of joy. The Buddha turned his head and said, “I have heard about you for a long time and I know you will come to see me one day. You will be a great help in the spread of the Dharma.”
Maha Kassapa attained enlightenment within seven days.
Three years after the Buddha attained Enlightenment, His foster mother Mahaprajapati was allowed to enter the Order and thus a religious group of nuns was formed. This reminded Maha Kassapa of what he had promised Subhadra. Maha Kassapa asked a nun to fetch her. Subhadra devoted every effort to practising the Way and she also attained enlightenment.
In Savatthi, there was a poor woman who had neither relatives nor home. Once she was seriously ill and lay in the open air. Sometimes, when servants of a rich family happened to pour beside her the water used for rinsing rice, she would use a piece of tile to collect the dirty water for drinking.
Maha Kassapa felt pity for her and paid a visit to her. The old lady was surprised to see Maha Kassapa and said, “I am in extreme poverty, no one else in this country is poorer than me. Isn’t there any person in this world giving offerings to you monks?” Why do you come to see me? You should instead try to save me from poverty.”
Maha Kassapa replied, “I am here to save you in poverty. I have thought of helping you to meet your material needs, but material goods can only save you for the time being and you will become poorer in the future. It would be better if you offer anything to me so that you can accumulate merits for your future life and be reborn in a wealthy family or heavens.”
But the old woman could not find anything to offer to him and she cried sadly, “I have neither food nor clothes to offer to you.”
“One who has the will to give alms is not a poor man, one who has a sense of shamefulness is the follower of the Buddha. You possess these two rare treasures in the world, hence you are not poor at all. Those rich people who do not give alms and are shameless are the most ignorant and poorest men.”
The old woman was in great joy upon hearing the preaching of Maha Kassapa and she cherished much hopes for the future. She offered Maha Kassapa the water used for rinsing rice. Maha Kassapa drank it before her and her heart was filled with happiness.
Not long after that, this old woman passed away and entered heavens. Due to the merits of offering water to Maha Kassapa, she became a beautiful fairy. Once, she recalled her good karma and the kindness of Maha Kassapa, hence she descended from the heavens and spread flowers on Maha Kassapa.
Maha Kassapa was a strict observer of the austerity rules, they are:
(1) He must dwell under the open sky.
(2) He must eat only alms food.
(3) He must stay only three day in one place.
(4) He can only take one meal a day.
(5) He should accept alms food from everyone – rich or poor.
(6) He should possess only three robes and a bowl.
(7) He should mediate at the foot of a tree.
(8) He should meditate in open air.
(9) He should wear rag robes.
(10) He should dwell among tombs.
Maha Kassapa lived as an austere monk even in his old age.
The Buddha advised Maha Kassapa to stop practising the austerities, but Maha Kassapa said, “Lord Buddha, I like the practice with my own interest. One who is propagating the Dharma must set a good example to people, and virtue can be cultivated through the austere life. The practice will exert a subtle influence on people’s thinking and will indirectly save them.”
When Buddha entered Nirvana in the city of Kusinagara, Maha Kassapa away teaching the Dharma in the northern country. He immediately returned to Kusinagara when he received the news. Seven days after Buddha entered Nirvana. Maha Kassapa finally arrived. When he saw the feet of the Buddha stretching out from the coffin, he made an obeisance to the Buddha and said, ” Buddha, the Great Saviour, we will follow your steps.”
After that, the feet of the Buddha were back into the coffin and He finally entered Nirvana. Thereupon, Maha Kassapa took the responsibility for the spreading of the Buddha’s Dharma. Ninety days after Buddha entered Nirvana, an assembly (The First Council) was held to agree upon the text of Buddhist scriptures.