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Mahā-Kassapa Thera

One of the Buddha’s most eminent disciples, chief among those who upheld minute observances of form (dhutavādānaṃ).¹ He was born in the brahmin village of Mahātittha in Magadha, and was the son of the brahmin Kapila, his mother being Sumanādevī; he himself was called Pippali.² 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. Bhaddā Kāpilānī was found at Sāgala 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. However, by mutual consent 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 Magadha-nāḷī, for his person alone. He had sixty lakes with water works attached, and his workmen occupied fourteen villages, each as large as Anurādhapura. One day he went to a field that was being ploughed and saw the birds eating the worms turned up by the plough. On being told that the fault therein was his, he decided to renounce all his possessions. At the same time, Bhaddā had been watching the crows eating the little insects, which ran about among the sesame seeds that had been put out to dry, and when her attendant women told her that it was her fault 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 clothes 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. However, 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 Gandhakuṭi in Veḷuvana, knew what the earthquake signified, and having walked three quarters of a league,³ sat down at the foot of the Bahuputtaka Nigrodha, between Rājagaha and Nāḷandā, resplendent in all the glory of a Buddha. Pippali⁴ 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,⁵ gave him his ordination.

Together they returned to Rājagaha, 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 (pilotikasanghāti) 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.⁶ 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 (dhutaṅga) and, after eight days, became an Arahant.

In the past, Kassapa and Bhaddā had been husband and wife and companions in good works in many births. In the time of Padumuttara Buddha, Kassapa was a very rich householder named Vedeha and married to Bhaddā, and very devoted to the Buddha. One day he heard the Buddha’s third disciple in rank (Nisabha) being awarded the place of pre-eminence among those who observed austere practices, and registered a wish for a similar honour for himself in the future. He learnt from the Buddha of the qualities in which Nisabha excelled the Buddha himself, and determined to obtain them. With this end in view, during birth after birth, he expended all his energies in goods deeds. Ninety-one world-cycles ago; in the time of Vipassī Buddha, he was the brahmin Ekasāṭaka and Bhaddā was his wife. In the interval between Koṇāgamana and Kassapa Buddha he was a millionaire’s son. He married Bhaddā, but because of an evil deed she had done in the past,⁷ she became unattractive to him and he left her, taking her as wife again when she became attractive. Having seen from what had happened to his wife how great was the power of the Buddhas, the millionaire’s son wrapped Kassapa Buddha’s golden cetiya with costly robes and decked it with golden lotuses, each the size of a cartwheel.⁸

In the next birth he was Nanda, king of Bārāṇasī, and, because he had given robes in past lives, he had thirty-two world-cycles, which provided him and all the people of his kingdom with garments. At the suggestion of his queen, he made preparations to feed holy men, and five hundred Pacceka Buddhas, sons of Padumā, came to accept his gift. In that life, too, Nanda and his queen renounced the world and became ascetics, and having developed the jhānas, were reborn in the Brahma world.⁹

Kassapa was not present at the death of the Buddha; as he was journeying from Pāvā to Kusinārā 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.¹⁰

It is said ¹¹ that the relics of the Buddha which fell to Ajātasattu’s share were taken to Rājagaha by Kassapa, in view of that which would happen in the future. 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 recluse 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. He announced his intention to the assembled monks, and, as the senior among them and as having been considered by the Buddha himself to be fit for such a task, he was asked to make all necessary arrangements.¹² In accordance with his wishes, all the monks, other than the Arahants chosen for the Recital, left Rājagaha during the rainy season. The five hundred who were selected met in Council under the presidency of Kassapa and recited the Dhamma and the Vinaya.¹³ This recital is called the Therasaṅgitī or Theravāda.

The books contain numerous references to Mahā-Kassapa — he is classed with Moggallāna, Kappina, and Anuruddha for his great psychic-powers.¹⁴

The Buddha regarded him as equal to himself in exhorting the monks to lead the active and zealous lives,¹⁵ and constantly held him up as an example to others in his great contentment.¹⁶ and his ability to win over families by his teaching.¹⁷ The Buddha also thought him equal to himself in his power of attaining the absorptions (jhāna) and abiding therein.¹⁸

Kassapa was willing to help monks along their way, and several instances are given of his exhortations to them;¹⁹ but he was evidently sensitive to criticism, and would not address them unless he felt them to be tractable and deferential to instruction.²⁰

He was very reluctant to teach the nuns, but on one occasion he allowed himself to be persuaded by Ānanda, and accompanied by him he visited the nunnery and taught the nuns. He was probably not popular among them, for, at the end of his discourse, Thulla-Tissā openly reviled him for what she called his impertinence in having dared to teach in the presence of Ānanda, “as if the needle-pedlar were to sell a needle to the needle-maker.”²¹ Kassapa loved Ānanda dearly, and was delighted when Ānanda attained Arahantship in time to attend the First Recital, and when Ānanda appeared before the Arahants, it was Kassapa who led the applause.²² However, Kassapa was very protective of the good name of the Order, and we find him ²³ 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. “You are a corn-trampler, 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.” This incident, says the Commentary ²⁴ took place after the Buddha’s death, when Ānanda, as a new Arahant and with all the honour of his intimacy with the Buddha, whose bowl and robe he now possessed, had become a notable personage. 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 shocked 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.²⁵ 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.²⁶ 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.²⁷ Once, when Kassapa lay grievously ill at Pippaliguhā, the Buddha visited him and reminded him of the seven factors of enlightenment (bojjhaṅga), which he had practised.²⁸ The knowledge that he had profited by the Master’s teaching, we are told,²⁹ calmed his blood and purified his system, and the sickness fell away from him “like a drop of water from a lotus leaf.” He disdained being waited upon by anybody, even by a goddess such as Lājā, lest he should set a bad example.³⁰

Owing to his great saintliness, even the gods vied with each other to give alms to Kassapa. Once when he had risen from a trance lasting seven days, five hundred nymphs, wives of Sakka, appeared before him; but, snapping his fingers, he asked them to depart, saying that he bestowed his favours only on the poor.³¹ When Sakka heard of this, he disguised himself as a weaver worn with age, and accompanied by Sujātā, transformed into an old woman, appeared in a weaver’s hut along the lane where Kassapa was begging. The ruse succeeded and Kassapa accepted their alms; but, later, be discovered the truth and chided Sakka. Sakka begged forgiveness, and, on being assured that in spite of his deception the almsgiving would bring him merit, he flew into the air shouting, “Aho dānaṃ, mahā danaṃ, Kassapassa patitthitaṃ.” The Buddha heard this and sympathised with Sakka in his great joy.³² However, on one occasion so great was the importunity with which the monks of Āḷavi had wearied the people, that even Mahā-Kassapa failed to get alms from them.³³ The Visuddhimagga ³⁴ relates a story of how once, when Kassapa was begging for alms in Rājagaha, in the company of the Buddha, on a festival day, five hundred maidens were going to the festival carrying cakes, “round like the moon.” They saw the Buddha but passed him by, and gave their cakes to Kassapa. The elder made all the cakes fill just his single bowl and offered it to the Buddha.³⁵

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,³⁶ and the other on the existence of a Tathāgata after death.³⁷ This regard was mutual, for when Kassapa saw the great honour paid to Sāriputta by the devas he rejoiced greatly and broke forth into verse.³⁸

Kassapa lived to be very old, and, when he died, had not lain on a bed for one hundred and twenty years.³⁹ He is several times referred to in the Jātaka stories. Thus, he was the father in the Bhagga Jātaka,⁴⁰ the brahmin in the Kurudhamma,⁴¹ one of the devaputtas in the Kakkāru,⁴² Mendissara in the Indriya,⁴³ and in the Sarabhaṅga,⁴⁴ the father in the Padakusalamāṇava,⁴⁵ the teacher in the Tittira,⁴⁶ Mātali in the Bīlārakosiya,⁴⁷ one of the seven brothers in the Bhissa,⁴⁸ the bear in the Pañcuposatha,⁴⁹ the chaplain in the Hatthipāla,⁵⁰ Vidhura in the Sambhava,⁵¹ the senior ascetic in the Saṅkhapāla,⁵² the millionaire Kulavaḍḍhana in the Cūḷasutasoma,⁵³ Suriya in the Sudhābhojana,⁵⁴ the tree sprite in the Mahāsutasoma,⁵⁵ the father in the Sāma,⁵⁶ and Sūra Vāmagotta in the Candakumāra.⁵⁷

Mahā-Kassapa was so called to distinguish him from other of the same name,⁵⁸ and also because he was possessed of great virtues (mahanti hi sīlakkhanda hi Samannāgatattā).


¹ A.i.23. ² At Ap.ii.583, vs. 56; but there his father is called Kosiyagotta.

³ This journey of the Buddha is often referred to, e.g., MA.i.347, 357.

Henceforth called Mahā-Kassapa, no explanation is to be found anywhere as to why he is called Kassapa; it was probably his clan name, but see Ap.ii.583, vs.56.

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.”

The robe that Kassapa exchanged with the Buddha was Puṇṇā’s cloak. See Puṇṇā (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.

See Bhaddā Kāpilānī.

The Therī Apadāna (Ap.ii.582. vs. 47‑51) gives an account of two more of his lives, one as Sumitta and the other as Koliyaputta, in both of which he and his wife ministered to Pacceka Buddhas.

This account of Kassapa’s last life and his previous life is compiled from AA.i.92 ff; SA.ii.135 ff; ThagA.ii.134 ff; Ap.ii.578 ff. Ap.i.33 ff. gives other particulars — that he made offerings at Padumuttara’s funeral pyre and that he was once a king named Ubbiddha in the city of Rammaka; see also ApA.i.209 f.

¹⁰ D.ii.163 f. ¹¹ Mhv.xxxi.20 f; see also Vism.430. ¹² E.g., DA.i.3.

¹³ DA.i.3 f; 5 ff; Sp.i.4.ff; Mhv.iii.3 ff.

¹⁴ E.g., S.i.114; but his range of knowledge was limited; there were certain things which even Kassapa did not know (DhA.i.258).

¹⁵ S.ii.205. ¹⁶ S.ii.194 f.

¹⁷ The Buddha compares him to the moon (candopama), unobtrusive; his heart was free from bondage, and he always taught others out of a feeling of compassion. S.ii.197 ff. Kassapa’s freedom from any kind of attachment was, as the Buddha pointed out to the monks, due to the earnest wish he had made for that attainment in the past, “He has no attachment to requisites or households or monasteries or cells; but is like a royal swan which goes down into a lake and swims there, while the water does not adhere to his body.” (DhA.ii.169 f).

¹⁸ S.ii.210 ff.

¹⁹ E.g., Thag.vss.1051‑57, 1072‑81, and his long discourse at A.v.161 ff.

²⁰ E.g., S.ii.203 ff; and at 219, when Thullanandā finds fault with him for blaming Ānanda. Kassapa had good reason for not wishing to address recalcitrant monks. The Kuṭidūsaka Jātaka relates how one of his disciples, Uluṅkasaddaka, angered by some admonition from Kassapa, burnt the latter’s grass hut while he was away on his alms round (J.iii.71 f ).

²¹ S.ii.215 f. ²² DA.i.10 f. ²³ S.ii.218 f.

²⁴ SA.ii.133; 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 (see Vin.i.92 f).

²⁵ S.ii.224 f. 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.287 f).

²⁶ See also the Mahāgosiṅga Sutta (M.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.

²⁷ S.ii.202 f; but See Jotidāsa, who is said to have built a vihāra for Kassapa, and entertained him.

²⁸ S.v.78. ²⁹ SA.iii.128. ³⁰ DhA.iii.6 ff.

³¹ The story of Kāḷavilaṅgika is an example of Mahā-Kassapa’s compassion for the poor. Once, after a seven days’ trance, he went to the house of Kāḷavilaṅgika and received alms from his wife, which he gave to the Buddha for their greater benefit. The Buddha took a portion of this and gave the rest to five hundred monks. Kāḷavilaṅgika, received only a mouthful of the food left. The Buddha said that as a result he would be a millionaire within seven days. Kāḷavilaṅgika told this to his wife. It happened that a few days later the king saw a man impaled alive in the place of execution; the man begged him for some food, which he agreed to send. At night, when eating, the king remembered his promise, but could find no one bold enough to go to the cemetery. On the offer of one thousand pieces, Kāḷavilaṅgika’s wife agreed to go in the guise of a man. On the way she was stopped by the yakkha Dīghataphala, who, however, later released her and gave her treasure, as did also the yakkha’s father-in-law, the deva Sumana. The man ate the food and, when wiping his mouth, recognised her as a woman and caught hold of her hair. However, she cut off her hair, and proved to the satisfaction of the king that her mission had been accomplished. She then recovered the treasure given her by the yakkha and Sumana; when the king discovered her wealth, she and her husband were raised to the rank of treasurer (seṭṭhi) (MA.ii.812 ff).

³² DhA.i.423 ff; cp. Ud.iii.7. ³³ J.ii.282. ³⁴ Vism.403.

³⁵ This is probably the incident referred to at Vism.68.

³⁶ S.ii.195 f. ³⁷ S.ii.222 f. ³⁸ Thag.vs.1082‑5.

³⁹ DA.ii.413; AA.ii.596; he was one hundred and twenty at the time of the First Recital (SA.ii.130). According, to northern sources, Kassapa did not die; he dwells in the Kukkuṭagiri Mountains, wrapt in concentration, awaiting the arrival of Metteyya Buddha (Beal, op.cit., ii.142 f ). A tooth of Mahā-Kassapa was enshrined in the Bhīmatittha-vihāra in Sri Lanka (Cv.lxxxv.81).

⁴⁰ J.ii.17. ⁴¹ J.ii.381. ⁴² J.iii.90. ⁴³ J.iii.469. ⁴⁴ J.v.151. ⁴⁵ J.iii.514.

⁴⁶ J.iii.545. ⁴⁷ J.iv.69. ⁴⁸ J.iv.314. ⁴⁹ J.iv.332. ⁵⁰ J.iv.491. ⁵¹ J.v.67.

⁵² J.v.177. ⁵³ J.v.192. ⁵⁴ J.v.412. ⁵⁵ J.v.511. ⁵⁶ J.vi.95. ⁵⁷ J.vi.157.

⁵⁸ BuA.42; chiefly Kumāra Kassapa, VibhA.60.

Finding Footnote References

Mahāparinibbāna Sutta: Dīghanikāya, D.ii.163

References in the notes are to the Pāḷi texts of the PTS. In the translations, these are usually printed in the headers near the spine, or in, for example, the Visuddhimagga, they are given in square brackets in the body of the text, thus [163]. References to the Jātaka Commentary are given as J, not JA, which would normally be used, as that is reserved for the Journal Asiatic.

2. Mahā-Kassapa.– An eminent thera of Sri Lanka, incumbent of Udumbaragirivihāra, who, as the most senior monk, was in charge of the reform of the Saṅgha carried out by Parakkamabāhu I. Cv.lxxviii.6, 16, 57; Cv. Trs.ii.102, n.2.