views updated


Mahākāśyapa (Pāli, Mahākassapa), a disciple of the Buddha, was of Brahmin descent. According to Buddhist legend, the Buddha was aware of a karmic connection between himself and Mahākāśyapa, and waited for him as his most distinguished disciple to accept him into the order. In the MahĀyĀna sūtras, Mahākāśyapa readily understands the deeper meaning of the Buddha's teachings. Mahākāśyapa's super-normal powers and talents of meditation indicate his ability to penetrate to a soteriological layer of the dharma that is not accessible to the normal "hearers" (śrāvaka) of the Buddha or even to Buddhist saints, the arhats. The Chan school symbolized this capacity by showing Mahākāśyapa holding a lotus flower in his hand, which represents his grasp on the Buddha's teaching. Mahākāśyapa was made the first patriarch of the Chan school.

Legend holds that Mahākāśyapa became the head of the Buddhist community after the Buddha's parinirvāṇa. Shortly after the death of the Buddha, Mahākāśyapa convened the first Buddhist council near Rājagṙha, India, an event that is traditionally understood to have led to the codification of the Buddhist canon (Tripiṫaka). Mahākāśyapa also functions as the transmitter of the dharma from the Buddha to the future Buddha Maitreya. Buddhist tradition describes Mahākāśyapa as absorbed in the "attainment of cessation" (nirodhasamapātti) deep inside Cockfeet Mountain (Kukkuṫapadagiri), where he keeps the garment of the Buddha, which he received from the hand of the master and will transfer to Maitreya as a symbol of the latter's legitimate succession.

See also:Councils, Buddhist; Disciples of the Buddha


Nyanaponika, Thera, and Hecker, Hellmuth. Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy. Boston: Wisdom, 1997.

Ray, Reginald A. Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Max Deeg