Two thousand and five hundred years ago, in the village of Magadha Kingdom, there was a rich Brahmin whose wealth and property were estimated to be more than those of the king. Venerable Maha Kassapa was born in this Brahmin family.
Like Buddha, Maha Kassapa was also born under the tree. He was named Pipphali which meant ” born under the tree”. As he was the only son in the family, he received every care and love from his parents. At the age of eight, he learned painting, arithmetic, literature, music and so on. Unlike the 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 wish to practise a religious life. But his parents did not approve him to do so. 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 Magadha. 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 sailed across the Ganges (or the Holy River) and 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.
Everything was arranged and Subhadra was brought to the family of Maha Kassapa. 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 have no desire for the five passions and 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 practicing a religious life was dashed.”
Maha Kassapa was glad to learn this and both agreed to sleep on separate beds.
Their parents were very unhappy when they came to know their son and daughter-in-law slept separately. They ordered one bed to be removed from their room. Maha Kassapa dared not oppose his parents and he comforted Subhadra: “Don’t be depressed, we can take turns to sleep. As I am the only son, I don’t want to disappoint my parents. 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 saw the farmer and the buffalo working toilsomely in the field and observed that countless worms were killed by the plough and treads. 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 so that they could renounce the world together.
It was said that the day Maha Kassapa renounced the world coincided with the day that the 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 who was dwelling in Venuvana (Bamboo-grove) with His thousand disciples. Hence Maha Kassapa followed the devotees to Venuvana to listen to the preaching of the Buddha and was deeply moved by the virtues and wisdom of Buddha. One day, after listening to the preaching of 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.”
The Buddha rose and went in the direction of Venuvana. Walking behind the Buddha, Maha Kassapa shed tears of joy. 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 to the propagation of Buddhism. Do take good care of yourself.”
Maha Kassapa attained enlightenment seven days after he was ordained as a monk.
Three years after the Buddha attained the Way, 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. Two years after Maha Kassapa renounced the world, Subhadra had actually also renounced the world and became an ascetic of another religion. Maha Kassapa then asked a nun to fetch her.
After Subhadra joined the Order of Bhikkhunis, her surpassing beauty became the topic of gossipers. She hence isolated herself from the masses and stopped begging for food.
Maha Kassapa felt pity for her and with the approval of the Buddha, he shared the food that he begged with her. This however became the topic of gossipers, some even accused them of having an intimate relationship. Maha Kasssapa did not take all this gossip to heart, but in order to encourage Subhadra to practise the Way, he left her alone.
Subhadra devoted every effort to practicing the Way and she finally 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 the monks? Why do you come to see me? You should instead try to save me from poverty.”
Maha Kassapa replied, “No one in this world is more dignified and benevolent than the Buddha or His disciples. 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 in the heavenly realms.”
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 teachings 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 the deva realm. Due to the merits of offering water to Maha Kassapa, she became a beautiful deva. 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 practices. These practices are optional for the monks as they are very demanding, those who practice follow these rules: one dwells under the open sky; eats only alms food; stays no more than three day in one place; takes one meal a day; accept alms food from everyone, without preference; possess only three robes; mediates at the foot of a tree or the open air; wear only rag robes; and live and meditate in burial grounds.
Maha Kassapa enjoyed the life of austerity. He did not join Sariputra and Maha Mogallana in teaching. He just cultivated the this way of practiced earnestly and hence when the Buddha entered Nirvana, he was able to unify the Order.
Maha Kassapa lived as an austere monk even in his old age. Once Buddha held an assembly in the hall and asked Maha Kassapa to sit with Him. Maha Kassapa prostrated himself before the Buddha and said, “Lord Buddha, I am not your chief disciple and hence I am not qualified to sit with you.”
The Buddha then described to the Order the boundless virtue of Maha Kassapa and added that even without the His help, Maha Kassapa could still seek his own enlightenment and attain the stage of Pratyeka Arahant.
The Buddha advised Maha Kassapa to stop the austerities practicise, but Maha Kassapa said, “Lord Buddha, I need to continue on in these practices as I am not as able as Sariputra, Maha Mollagana and Purna in Teaching. But I will not forget the kindness of the Buddha and can repay the kindness of the Buddha in this way. One who is propagating the Dharma must set a good example to people, and virtue can be cultivated through the austere life. If one can get used to such an austere life, it shows one’s ability for tolerance and the spirit of utter devotion to the Dharma and the people. My practice of the austerities will exert a subtle influence on people’s thinking and will indirectly help them. Lord Buddha, for the consolidation of the Buddha’s Order and the salvation of all living beings, I feel I can not give up the practice. Please forgive my obstinacy.”
After hearing that, the Buddha was pleased, He said to the Bhikkhus, “What Maha Kassapa has said is correct. To propagate the Dharma we must consolidate the Order. To consolidate the Order, we must allow some people if they wish to follow these practices. People like Maha Kassapa can inspire one in the practice of the Dharma. Maha Kassapa, you may do as you wish.”
The Buddha decided to enter Parinirvana at the age of eighty. During the same year, Maha Mollagana died and entered Nirvana and Sariputra went back to his home town to enter Nirvana. The most suitable persons who could take over the task of Buddha were Maha Kassapa and Ananda.
When Buddha entered Nirvana in the city of Kusinagara, Maha Kassapa was still propagating the Dharma in the northern country. He immediately returned to Kusinagara when he received the news. Everyone was deeply grieved by the departure of the Buddha.
Seven days after Lord Buddha entered Parivirvana. 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, “Lord 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 Dharma.
Ninety days after the Buddha entered Parinirvana, a Great Assembly was held to agree upon the text of the Buddha’s Teachings.
The First Council headed by Maha Kassapa, Ananda, Aniruddha, Upali and Purna was formed and was preside over by Maha Kassapa. When the Buddha was alive, Sariputra and Maha Mollagana were the Buddha’s right-hand men. Maha Kassapa seldom participated in religious activities, but he practised the Way diligently. When the Buddha and His two chief disciples entered Nirvana, Maha Kassapa unexpectedly took the responsibility of leading the Order. Thus it can be seen that his attainment and virtue were indeed great.
About thirty years after the assembly of the First Council, Maha Kassapa enter Nirvana. He entrusted his duties to Ananda, then he leaped into the air and went to the Buddha’s pagoda to pay homage and make offerings.
When he returned to Savatthi, he paid a visit to King Ajatasatru to make his farewell. But the guards said that the King was asleep and should not be disturbed. Hence he left the palace and came to the Kukkutapada Mountain. The Kukkutapada resembled the shape of the three feet of a cock as there were three small mountains standing on it.
When Maha Kassapa arrived at this mountain, the three mountains split and formed a seat to receive him. Maha Kassapa covered it with grass and sat on it. He said to himself: “I will preserve my body with my miraculous power and cover it with my rag robes. The the three mountains enclosed his body. King Ajatasatru was deeply grieved by the news of Maha Kassapa’s departure. He went to Kukkutapada Mountain with Ananda. When they reached there, the three mountains opened up and they saw Maha Kassapa sitting up straight and meditating. In addition, his body was covered with Mandara flowers. They both paid homage and made offerings to Maha Kassapa. When they left, the three mountains closed again.