Maha-Kassapa is said to have become a disciple of Shakyamuni shortly after Sariputta and Moggallana. He is called Maha-Kassapa, or Great Kassapa, to distinguish him from other disciples named Kassapa. The story of how Maha-Kassapa gave up secular life to seek religious truth resembles the course of events that inspired Shakyamuni himself to leave his father's palace in Kapilavatthu and devote himself to religion.
Maha-Kassapa was born in a village near Rajagaha into a Brahman family so wealthy that it had twenty-five storehouses filled with gold, silver, and other valuables and cultivated more land than the king himself. He was reared in the innermost part of the family mansion, with four nurses to tend to his every need.
Extremely talented from early youth, by the age of eight he had mastered the rules of Brahman religious practice and was diligently applying himself to such pursuits as painting, dancing, and mathematics. Gradually, however, he became so alienated from his life of luxury and from people driven solely by the desire for wealth and glory that he resolved to abandon it all someday for a life of religious pursuit.
Observing how little pleasure he took in anything, his parents began to worry. Fearing that he would leave home to devote himself to religion, they decided he should marry and settle down. Maha-Kassapa shrank from their almost daily urgings to wed, but they continued to plead with him to do-as they wished and fulfill his duties as heir.
At his wits' end, Maha-Kassapa finally had a sculptor mold a supremely noble and beautiful female figure in pure gold. Showing it to his parents, he said, "If you can find a woman as lovely as this, I promise to make her my wife." Though they feared that they would never find a woman as lovely as the statue, his parents searched the land and finally found a woman identical in every feature to the gold scripture. Maha-Kassapa had no choice but to keep his promise.
The wedding safely concluded, his relieved parents happily awaited the birth of a grandchild. But no child was born. Nor is this surprising, since the young couple never so much as touched each other, for the woman Maha-Kassapa had married was completely free of ordinary human desires.
Finally Maha-Kassapa's parents died without a grandchild. Because the family's immense wealth could not merely be abandoned, Maha-Kassapa was compelled to become head of the household. But before long something happened that showed him that people cannot escape repeated sin until they abandon the world.
One day, observing workers in his family's fields, he saw how the spade turned up earth teeming with white insects, which were crushed to death in the next instant by blows of the hoe. He saw how the farmers whipped groaning oxen that were forced to pull heavy loads. Through these images Maha-Kassapa came to understand the transience of life and the great suffering required to support his life of luxury.
The same day, Maha-Kassapa's wife saw with horror how countless tiny insects were killed in the process of pressing sesame oil. That evening, Maha-Kassapa said to his wife, "As long as my mother and father were alive, I suppressed my longing to leave secular life because I could not bear to make them unhappy. But now this way of life has become like a prison to me, and I wish to devote myself exclusively to religion." His wife made no objection since she shared his feelings.
The scriptures say that Maha-Kassapa made the following comment at the time of his decision: "A layman's way life is filled with obstructions and rubbish. A monk's life, in contrast, is as open and pleasant as the sky itself. It is difficult while living in a house to perform purifying deeds that gleam like pearls. I therefore leave my house, shave my head, don a monk's robe, and devote myself to the search for truth." With that, Maha-Kassapa gave up his wealth to search for a teacher and eternal happiness.
One day Shakyamuni was resting in the shade of a tree beside a road in the village of Nalanda, not far from Rajagaha. Maha-Kassapa, who was passing by, stopped to look at this man, whom he did not remember having seen before but whose face was filled with compassion, purity and nobility. Making up his mind at once that this was the person he wanted as his teacher and master, he fell at Shakyamuni's feet and asked if he might become one of his disciples.
Shakyamuni replied, "The head of a man revered as a teacher who claims to know what he does not know and to have seen what he has not seen will split into seven parts like a fig. But put your mind at rest: I am not such a person." Then, as his first teaching to Maha-Kassapa, he said, "You must think correctly all the time and thoroughly grasp the nature of all things in the world as they inevitably come into and go out of existence.”
As soon as Maha-Kassapa had been accepted as a disciple, he folded his own garment, made a cushion of it, and invited the Buddha to sit on it. When he did so, the Buddha commented on the pleasant softness of the cloth. Noticing that the Buddha wore a shabby robe of stitched-together rags, Maha-Kassapa begged him to accept his own robe. The Buddha did so and offered his own ragged garment in return to Maha-Kassapa, who was overcome with gratitude.
From that time on, Maha-Kassapa devoted himself to the life of an ascetic. He said, "The ascetic lives in the forest. Since he knows that accepting offerings from good houses pollutes him, he eats only what he obtains by begging and wears only rags, but must consider this way of life pleasant."
For a man who had formerly lived in comfort, waited on by servants, it must have been unimaginably difficult to beg from door to door. Yet Maha-Kassapa never flinched from it, as the following passage from the Theragatha reveals: "Once, leaving my lodging, I entered a city to beg. I approached and respectfully stood by a leper who was eating.
With his rotting hand, the man offered me some rice. As he was placing it into my bowl, one of his fingers dropped off and fell into the bowl. But 1 ate that rice and neither then nor thereafter felt any disgust."
As the number of lay believers wanting to hear the Buddha's teachings increased, more and more offerings were made to the Sangha, and the monks were able to wear finer garments. Never deviating from his ascetic path, however, Maha-Kassapa continued to wear only robes made of rags.
Other members of the Sangha began to whisper behind his back and to criticize him for his unsightly appearance when better clothing was available. No doubt to rebuke these monks, one day Shakyamuni prepared a place beside his own and invited Maha-Kassapa to sit there. Then he said to everyone, "Maha-Kassapa's ascetic practices is in no way different from my own self-discipline."
Even in old age, Maha-Kassapa continued to in-crease the rigor of his asceticism, so much so that Shakyamuni began to worry about his health and one day said to him, "Maha-Kassapa, you are no longer young. Walking about in those ragged garments must be difficult for you. Why not change them for the soft, light garments rich people donate? And instead of begging, accept donations from the wealthy. Don't sleep at night under trees anymore. From now on, stay by my side."
Fears rising in his eyes at the thought of the Buddha's concern for his welfare, Maha-Kassapa said, "Master, 1 still have the ragged garment you gave me, when I first became a monk. I have never worn anything softer than the master's robe.
My daily food has always been what 1 obtained by begging. I have sought the Way thus to avoid losing the spiritual attitude I had when 1 be-an this kind of life. But 1 have regarded the ascetic way of life not as suffering but as happiness, because it brings the unsurpassed joy of wanting little and knowing sufficiency."
The Buddha responded, "Maha-Kassapa, you have spoken well and will be a light to people who come after you. Through the model of your unflagging discipline, many will find happiness." And until his death, Maha-Kassapa continued to require no more than was actually necessary to sustain life.
After the Buddha's death, Maha-Kassapa presided over the First Council, at which Shakyamuni's teachings were compiled. He continued to expound these teachings until his death, serving as a model for those devoting themselves to ascetic practices.