Shortly before his parinibbāna the Buddha had refused to appoint a personal successor. Instead, he urged the monks to look upon the Dhamma and the Vinaya—the doctrine and the discipline—as their Master, for within the teachings proclaimed during his forty-five-year ministry they could find all the instructions they needed to tread the path to deliverance.


Nevertheless, though the monks did not select a successor, in the period immediately following the Blessed One’s demise the community came to regard with increasing reverence one solitary elder whose person emanated a natural aura of strength and authority. This figure, whom the Pāli commentaries describe as ‘the disciple who was the Buddha’s counterpart’, was known as the Venerable Mahākassapa, Kassapa the Great.


There were many factors that contributed to Mahākassapa’s rise to pre-eminence in the newly orphaned Sangha. He shared with the Buddha seven of the thirty-two ‘marks of a great man’ and had been praised by the Master for his meditative attainments and realizations.


 He was the only monk with whom the Buddha had exchanged robes, a special honour. Mahākassapa possessed to the highest degree the ‘ten qualities that inspire confidence.’ He was also a model of a disciplined and austere life devoted to meditation. So it is hardly surprising that he assumed the presidency of the First Council of the Sangha, which had been summoned on his urgent advice.


Like the two chief disciples, Sāriputta  and  Moggallāna,

Mahākassapa was of brahmin descent. Some years before the Bodhisatta’s own birth he was born in the Magadha country, in the village Mahātittha, as the son of the brahmin Kapila and his wife Sumanādevī. He was named Pipphali. His father owned sixteen villages over which he ruled like a little king, so Pipphali grew up in the midst of wealth and luxury.


Yet already in his youth he felt a longing to leave the worldly life behind and hence he did not want to marry. When his parents repeatedly urged him to take a wife, he told them that he would look after them as long as they lived but that after their deaths, he would become an ascetic.


Yet they insisted again and again that he should take a wife, and thus just to comfort his mother he finally agreed to marry—on the condition that a girl could be found who conformed to his idea of perfection.


For that purpose he commissioned goldsmiths to fashion for him a golden statue of a beautiful maiden. He had it bedecked with fine garments and ornaments and showed it to his parents, saying:

“If you can find a maiden like this for me, I shall remain in the home life.”

But his mother was a clever woman and thought: ‘Surely my son must have done deeds of merit in the past, and he must have done them together with a woman who is the counterpart of this golden image.’


Thus she approached eight brahmins, showered them with rich gifts, and asked them to take the image and travel around in search of a human likeness of it. The brahmins thought: ‘Let us first go to the Madda country, which is a gold mine of beautiful women.’ There they found at Sāgala a girl whose beauty equalled that of the image. She was Bhaddā Kapilānī, a wealthy brahmin’s daughter, age sixteen, four years younger than Pipphali Kassapa.


Her parents agreed to the marriage proposal, and the brahmins returned to tell of their success.


Yet Bhaddā Kapilānī too did not wish to marry. Like Pipphali, she longed to live a religious life and wished to leave home as a female ascetic. Such correspondence between her aspiration and that of Pipphali was not due to chance but sprang from the strong kammic bond they had forged in previous lives. Maturing in the present life, this bond was to unite them in marriage in their youth and to lead to a decisive separation later on—a separation which was again to be resolved by a union at a still higher level, when both consummated their spiritual endeavours by winning the supreme fruit of holiness under the Enlightened One.


Pipphali was most distressed to hear that his plot had been foiled and that his parents had actually found a girl who matched the golden statue. Still intent on escaping from his agreement, he sent the following letter to the girl:

“Bhaddā, please marry someone else of equal status and live a happy home life with him. As for myself, I shall become an ascetic. Please do not have regrets.

Bhaddā Kapilānī, like- minded as she was, independently sent him a similar letter.


But their parents, suspecting such an exchange would take place, had both letters intercepted on the way and replaced by letters of welcome.


So Bhaddā was taken to Magadha and the young couple were married. However, in accordance with their ascetic yearning, both agreed to maintain a life of celibacy. To give expression to their decision, each night they would lay a garland of flowers between them before they went to bed, resolving, If on either side the flowers wilt, we shall understand that the person on whose side they wilted had given rise to a lustful thought. At night they lay awake all night long from fear of making bodily contact; during the day they did not even smile at one another. As long as their parents lived, they remained aloof from worldly enjoyment, and they did not even have to look after the estate’s farms.

When Pipphali’s parents died, the couple took charge of the large property. It was then that they felt the spur that set them on the course of renunciation.


One day, as Pipphali was inspecting the fields, he saw as if with new eyes something that he had seen so often before.


He observed that when his farm hands ploughed the land, many birds gathered and eagerly picked the worms from the furrows. This sight, so common to a farmer, now startled him. It struck him forcefully that what brought him his wealth, the produce of his fields, was bound up with the suffering of other living beings. His livelihood was purchased with the death of so many worms and other little creatures living in the soil. Thinking about this, he asked one of his laborers:

“Who will have to bear the consequences of such an evil action?”

“You yourself, sir,” was the answer.

Shaken by that insight into kammic retribution, Pipphali went home and reflected:

“If I have to carry along the burden of guilt for this killing, of what use to me is all my wealth? I would be better off giving it all to Bhaddā and going forth into the ascetic life.


But at home, at about the same time, Bhaddā had a similar experience, seeing afresh with a deeper understanding something she had very often seen before. Her servants had spread out sesamum seeds to dry in the sun, and crows and other birds ate the insects that had been attracted by the seeds.


When Bhaddā asked her servants who had to account morally for the violent death of so many creatures, she was told that the kammic responsibility was hers. Then she thought:

If even by this much I commit evil, I wont be able to lift my head above the ocean of rebirths even in a thousand lives. As soon as Pipphali returns, I shall hand over everything to him and leave to take up the ascetic life.”


When both found themselves in accord, they had saffron cloth and clay bowls brought for them from the bazaar and then shaved each other’s head. They thus became like ascetic wanderers, and they made the aspiration:


“We dedicate our going forth to the arahants in the world!”


Even though they had not yet encountered the Buddha or his Teaching, they knew instinctively that they should follow the ascetic life in a state of ‘adopted discipleship’ to the truly wise and holy ones, whoever they might be. Then, slinging their alms bowls over their shoulders, they left the manor house, unnoticed by the servants.


When, however, they reached the next village, which belonged to the estate, the labourers and their families saw them. Crying and lamenting, they fell at the feet of the two ascetics and exclaimed:


“Oh, dear and noble ones! Why do you want to make us helpless orphans?”


“It is because we have seen the three worlds to be like a house afire that we go forth into the homeless life.”


To those who were serfs, Pipphali Kassapa granted freedom, and he and Bhaddā continued on, leaving the villagers behind still weeping.


As they walked, Kassapa went ahead while Bhaddā followed behind him. Then the thought occurred to Kassapa:  Now, this Bhaddā Kapilānī follows me close behind, and she is a woman of great beauty. Some people could easily think: ‘Though they are ascetics, they still cannot live without each other! What they are doing is unseemly!’ If they spoil their minds by such false thoughts or even spread evil rumors, they will cause great harm to themselves. It is better that we separate.


Thus, when they reached a crossroads, Kassapa told her what he had been thinking and said to her:

“Bhaddā, you take one of these roads, and I shall go the other way.

She replied:

It is true, for ascetics a woman is an obstacle. People might suspect us of misconduct and slander us, so let us part. You go your way and Ill go my way.


She then respectfully circumambulated him three times, saluted his feet, and with folded hands she spoke:


“Our close companionship and friendship that had lasted for an unfathomable past comes to an end today. Please take the path to the right and I shall take the other road.”


Thus they parted and went their individual ways, seeking the high goal of arahantship, final deliverance from suffering. It is said that the earth, shaken by the power of their virtue, quaked and trembled, and peals of thunder came forth from the sky, and the mountains at the edge of the world system resounded.


Let us first follow Bhaddā Kapilānī. Her road led her to Sāvatthī where she listened to the Buddha’s discourses at the Jetavana monastery. As the Bhikkhunī Sangha, the order of nuns, did not yet exist at that time, she took up residence at a nunnery of non-Buddhist female ascetics not far from Jetavana. There she lived for five years until she could obtain ordination as a bhikkhunī. It was not long afterward that she attained the goal of the holy life, arahantship. The Buddha praised Bhaddā as being the foremost among the nuns who could recollect their past lives. The Pali commentaries and the Jātaka stories leave us a record of some of her former existences in which she had been Kassapa’s wife.


One day she uttered the following verses in which she praised Mahākassapa and declared her own attainment:


A son of the Buddha and his rightful heir,

Kassapa who is well concentrated

Knows his abodes in previous lives

And sees the heavens and planes of woe.

He too has attained the destruction of birth,

A sage consummate in direct knowledge;

Endowed with these three modes of knowledge,

The brahmin is a triple-knowledge bearer.

Just so is Bhaddā Kapilānī

A triple-knowledge nun who has left Death behind.

Having conquered Māra and his mount,

She lives bearing her final body.

Having seen the grave danger in the world,

We both went forth into homelessness.

Now we are destroyers of the cankers;

Tamed and cool, we have won Nibbāna.


As an arahant bhikkhunī, Bhaddā devoted herself chiefly to the education of the younger nuns and their instruction in monastic discipline. In the Bhikkhunī Vibhaṅga (Analysis of Nuns’ Discipline), instances are recorded involving her pupils which led to the prescribing of certain disciplinary rules for bhikkhunīs. There were also two instances when Bhaddā Kapilānī had to bear the envy of another nun who was hostile toward Mahākassapa, too.


The nun Thullanandā was learned in the Dhamma and a good preacher, but evidently she had more intelligence than gentleness of heart. She was self-willed and not prepared to change her conduct, as evidenced by several Vinaya texts.


When Bhaddā, too, became a popular preacher of Dhamma, even preferred by some of Thullanandā’s own pupils, Thullanandā became jealous. In order to annoy Bhaddā, once she and her pupil nuns walked up and down in front of Bhaddā’s cell, reciting loudly. She was censured by the Buddha on that account. Another time, at Bhaddā’s request, she had arranged temporary living quarters for Bhaddā when the latter visited Sāvatthī. But then, in another fit of jealousy, she threw her out of those quarters. Bhaddā, however, being an arahant, was no longer affected by such happenings and looked at them with detachment and compassion.


Mahākassapa and Bhaddā Kapilānī originally formed their aspirations to great discipleship under the Buddha Padumuttara, the fifteenth Buddha of antiquity, who arose a hundred thousand aeons in the past and had his main monastic seat in the Khema Deer Park near the city of Haṃsavati. At that time the future Kassapa was a wealthy landowner named Vedeha and Bhaddā was his wife.


One day Vedeha went to the monastery and was seated in the assembly at the very moment that the Teacher declared an elder named Mahānisabha his third pre-eminent disciple, the foremost of the proponents of the ascetic practices. The lay devotee Vedeha was pleased by this and invited the Teacher and his entire Sangha to his home for the next day’s meal.


While the Buddha and the monks were in his house taking their meal, the lay devotee caught sight of the Elder Mahānisabha walking on his alms round down the street. He went outside and invited the elder to join the gathering, but the elder declined. Vedeha then took his bowl, filled it with food, and brought it back to him. When he returned to the house he asked the Buddha about the reason for the elder’s strange refusal. The Teacher explained:


Lay devotee, we accept invitations to homes for meals, but that bhikkhu lives solely on food gained on alms round; we live in town monasteries, but he lives solely in the forest; we live with a roof over our head, but he lives out in the open air.”


When the lay devotee heard this he became even more pleased ‘like an oil lamp sprinkled with oil,’ and he reflected: ‘Why should I be satisfied simply with arahantship? I will make an aspiration to become the foremost disciple among the practitioners of the ascetic practices under a Buddha in the future.’


Then he invited the Buddha and the community of monks to his home for alms for a week, made presentations of the triple robe to the entire Sangha, and prostrating himself at the Master’s feet, he declared his aspiration. The Buddha Padumuttara looked into the future and saw that the aspiration would be fulfilled. He then gave Vedeha the prediction:


“In the future, 100,000 aeons from now, a Buddha named Gotama will arise in the world. Under him you will be the third chief disciple named Mahākassapa.


Bhaddā, on her part, had been inspired by the bhikkhunī pronounced the foremost among those who recollect their past lives and she formed the aspiration to attain this position under a future Buddha. She too was assured by the Lord Padumuttara that her wish would be fulfilled.


For the rest of their lives the couple observed the precepts and did meritorious deeds, and after death they were reborn in heaven.


The next past life recorded for Mahākassapa and Bhaddā Kapilānī takes place much later, during the Dispensation of the Buddha Vipassi, the sixth predecessor of the Buddha Gotama. At this time, they had been a poor brahmin couple. They were so extremely poor that they had only a single upper garment, and hence only one of them at a time could go out of their hut. In this story the brahmin was therefore called ‘he with one garment’ (ekasātaka). Though it may not be easy for us to understand such extreme poverty, it will be still more difficult to understand that there have been many people for whom such utter poverty did not mean subjective deprivation. This was so with those two beings who later were to be Kassapa and Bhaddā.


In their life as that poor brahmin couple, they had lived in such perfect harmony that their happiness was not diminished by their indigence.


One day, when the Buddha Vipassi was to give a special sermon, they both wished to attend, but as they had only a single upper garment between them they could not both go at the same time. The wife went during the day and her husband went at night. As the brahmin listened to the sermon, the value of giving and generosity became so deeply impressed on his mind that he wanted to offer his only upper garment to the Buddha. But after he had so resolved, scruples came to his mind:

‘This is our only upper garment, so perhaps I should first consult with my wife. How can we manage without an upper garment? How can we get a replacement?’

But he resolutely pushed aside all such hesitation and placed the garment at the Blessed One’s feet. Having done so, he clapped his hands and joyfully called out:


“I have vanquished! I have vanquished!”


When the king, who had listened to the sermon behind a curtain, heard that shout of victory and came to know the reason, he sent sets of garments to the brahmin and later made him his court chaplain. So the couple’s plight had come to an end.


As a result of his selfless giving, the brahmin was reborn in a celestial world. After parting from there he became a king on earth, a great benefactor of his people who generously supported the ascetics living at that time. Bhaddā was then his chief queen.


As to Bhaddā, she was once the mother of a brahmin youth who was a pupil of the Bodhisatta (the future Buddha) and wanted to become an ascetic. Kassapa was her husband, Ānanda her son. Bhaddā had wanted her son to know the worldly life before she would permit him to become an ascetic. But that knowledge came to the young brahmin in a drastic and heart-rending way. His teacher’s old mother fell passionately in love with him and was even ready to kill her son for his sake. This encounter with reckless passion caused in him a deep revulsion for worldly life, and after that experience his parents gave him permission to go forth as an ascetic.


Another time Kassapa and Bhaddā had been the brahmin parents of four sons who in the future were to be our Bodhisatta, Anuruddha, Sāriputta, and Mahāmoggallāna. All four wanted to become ascetics.


At first the parents refused permission, but later they came to understand the fruits and benefits of the ascetic life and they themselves became ascetics.


In still another life, two village headmen who were friends decided that the children they were expecting should marry each other if they were of the opposite sex. And so it happened. But in their previous life both children had been deities of the Brahma-world. Hence they had no desire for sensual pleasures and, with their parents’ permission, chose the ascetic life.


Bhaddā’s only wrong act reported in the stories of her past lives was this: At a time between the appearance of two Buddhas, Bhaddā was the wife of a landowner. One day she had a quarrel with her sister- in-law. Just then a paccekabuddha drew near to their house on alms round. When her sister-in-law offered him food, Bhaddā, seeking to spite her, took the paccekabuddha’s bowl, threw away the food, and filled the bowl with mud. At once, however, she was stung by remorse. She took the bowl back, washed it with scent, and filled it with delicious, fragrant food. Then she offered it back to the paccekabuddha and apologized for her rudeness.


As a kammic consequence of this deed, a mixture of the dark and bright, in her next life Bhaddā possessed wealth and great beauty but her body exuded a loathsome odour. Her husband, the future Kassapa, could not bear the noxious smell and left her. As she was beautiful other suitors sought her hand, but all her later marriages had the same end. She was full of despair and felt there was no point continuing to live. To dispose of her property, she had her ornaments melted down and formed into a golden brick, which she brought to the monastery as a contribution to the stūpa being erected in honour of the Buddha Kassapa, who had just passed away. She offered the golden brick with great devotion, and as a consequence her body became fragrant again and her first husband, Kassapa, took her back.


Two lives before her present existence, Bhaddā was the queen of Benares and used to support several paccekabuddhas. Deeply moved by their sudden death, she renounced her worldly life as a queen and lived a meditative life in the Himalayas. By the power of her renunciation and her meditative attainments, she was reborn in a Brahma-world, and so was Kassapa. It was after that life in the Brahma- world that they were reborn in the human world as Pipphali Kassapa and Bhaddā Kapilānī.


From these accounts we gather that in their former existences both had lived a life of purity in the Brahma-world and that both had repeatedly been renunciants. Hence, in their final existence, it was not difficult for them to keep to a life of celibacy, to give up all possessions, and to follow the Buddha’s Teaching to its culmination in arahantship.

To be Continued…..