Kacchayana, foremost among the Buddha's disciples for his explanations of the Buddhist teachings, was born into a Brahman family in Ujjeni, the capital of Avanti, a kingdom far to the west of the places in northeastern India where Shakyamuni taught, such as the Bamboo Grove and Jetavana monasteries. Studious from childhood, he grew up in rivalry with his only brother, who was older than he.
Kacchayana's brother once left home to tour various regions and study literature and martial arts. After his return, he assembled the local people and expounded what he had learned. Soon Kacchayana too began gathering groups of people and instructing them with even greater skill than his brother. Unwilling to allow his brother to get the better of him, Kacchayana had studied assiduously during his absence.
But his brother was equally unwilling to be outshone, and the rivalry between the two intensified until their father sent Kacchayana away to live with an uncle, the hermit-seer Asita, who lived on Mount Vindhya. This was the man who, on the birth of Prince Siddhattha, had predicted that if the child remained in the secular world he would become a “wheel-rolling king “ or ideal ruler, and that if he abandoned the secular world for a life of religion he would become a buddha.
Asita willingly undertook the training of Kacchayana, whom he recognized as an intelligent
boy. His efforts soon bore fruit, for Kacchayana is said to have immediately mastered the four stages of meditation and to have attained the five supernatural powers.
Asita firmly believed the day would come when an enlightened Prince Siddhattha would begin to expound the supreme teaching. But Asita was an old man and did not live to see it. Before his death, he told Kacchayana, “When the prince has attained enlightenment and has become a buddha, go to him and request that he teach you.”
Not long after Asita's death, word of Siddhattha's enlightenment reached Kacchayana. Imperceptibly, however, Kacchayana had grown proud of his own high level of meditation and supernatural powers. He forgot his uncle's bidding and lost the will to seek the Way. Instead, he became adept at inspiring people to make offerings to him.
Kacchayana's father was a councilor to Pajjota, the king of Avanti. When the king heard that Shakyamuni was expounding the supreme teaching in northeastern India, he became greatly
interested. He instructed Kacchayana's father to send Kacchayana to the Buddha to see what kind of person he was and what philosophy he taught. In compliance with the king's orders, Kacchayana and seven ministers made the long journey to the Jetavana Monastery in Savatthi.
Though Kacchayana had considered his own state of training and discipline superior to all others', as soon as he met Shakyamuni he realized that here was a person who had attained a stage of development far beyond his own. It is said that he immediately asked to join the Sangha.
Because Kacchayana had already advanced fairly far under Asita, he was able to understand everything Shakyamuni taught him and to explain it convincingly to others. This ability eventually earned him the epithet “foremost in explaining the Dharma.” He was declared by the Buddha to be the chief among those who taught in full, what the Buddha said in brief. When he had mastered Shakyamuni's teachings, Kacchayana returned to Ujjeni to carry the Buddhist message to as many people as possible.
One day, as Kacchayana was approaching a river, he heard the sound of weeping. He stopped and, parting the tall grasses, saw an old woman crouching on the riverbank. He asked her in the gentlest possible voice, “What unhappiness makes you weep this way ?” At first she stiffened in fear. But the kind eyes of the man gazing down on her eased her alarm, and haltingly she told her story.
She was a servant in the house of one of the wealthiest men in town. Though the man had several storehouses filled with riches, he was stingy and cruel. The woman said that every day was a living hell. Though old and weak, she was forced to work from dawn until late at night and was often whipped like a beast of burden. She was poorly fed.
If she became too weary to move or did something wrong, she was beaten more severely. Lacking relatives or friends to protect her, she had no choice but to put up with this treatment. She was thinking of hanging herself. “Today 1 was told to come to the river to draw water, and I cried when 1 saw the reflection of my wretched face,” she concluded.
As the old woman broke into tears again, Kacchayana said to her, “If you hate your poverty so much, why don't you sell it?”
Raising her face in amazement, the woman replied, “But no one buys poverty!”
“There is one person who buys it,” said Kacchayana. “I will teach you about him. Do as I instruct you. First cleansed yourself in the river.”
The old woman followed his instructions, though she looked doubtful.
“Now that you have cleansed yourself, you must make an offering.”
“But I own nothing at all. Even this water jug belongs to my master, the woman answered.”
“Yes, you do own something,” Kacchayana said. “Go now and fill my begging bowl with pure water.”
The woman did as she was told and gave the water to Kacchayana. Accepting her offering, he explained slowly and carefully, “Old woman, it is the Buddha who buys poverty. If you purify your heart as you cleansed your body with pure water, your soul will become an immense treasure. You could then give that treasure to others, just as you have given this water to me.”
The old woman nodded, and Kacchayana continued, “Can you stop hating your master ? Can you make up your mind to serve him well in all the work you undertakes ?” Tears flowed from the old woman's eyes.
“Very well,” said Kacchayana. “Tonight, after your master goes to sleep, meditate on the
Buddha and remember that he is always by your side and that he understands your sufferings and hardships.”
It is said that on the same night, in a corner of her master's house, the old woman died in tranquillity. To convert people to Buddhism in a place so distant from where Shakyamuni himself was teaching must have demanded tremendous effort. Kacchayana meditated upon and organized the teachings he had received from Shakyamuni so that he could explain the Dharma convincingly, to others.
Once, when Kacchayana was resting with a group of people beside a pond, an old
Brahman, leaning on a stick. joined the assembly and stood for a while observing. Then he tottered toward Kacchayana and angrily asked if none of the people in the gathering kneel, the respect due the elderly. Kacchayana said quietly that he had never forgotten the reverence due to age but that he saw no elderly people around him.
“I am older than all the rest of you,” snapped the Brahman, “yet no one showed me proper courtesy, when I came to this place!”
Kacchayana remained calm, as he said, “Shakyamuni teaches that though a person is
eighty, or ninety years old, white haired and toothless, if he is still obsessed with the desires of the five senses--sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch--he is a child. And a person who is twenty-five, with lustrous skin and black hair, is an elder if he has been liberated from the desires of affectionate attachment.”
Hearing this, the old Brahman was abashed and departed in silence. Although Shakyamuni never went to Avanti, Kacchayana continued to be devoted to him. And Shakyamuni never forgot his disciple Kacchayana, who was spreading the Buddhist teachings in a distant land.
Later, when a man named Sona, who had accepted the Buddhist faith because of Kacchayana's teaching, made the long and difficult journey to the Jetavana Monastery to hear Shakyamuni directly, he described to Shakyamuni in detail the valuable work Kacchayana was doing in Avanti.