What remains to be said about the Venerable Mahākassapa’s relation to Ānanda is closely connected with his leading role in the Sangha after the Buddha’s passing away. At the demise of the Buddha only two of the five most prominent disciples were present, Ānanda and Anuruddha. Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna had expired earlier that year, and Mahākassapa, with a large company of monks, was just then in route from Pāvā to Kusinārā. During that walk he happened to step aside from the road and sat down under a tree to rest. Just then a naked ascetic passed that way holding a coral-tree flower (mandārava), which is said to grow only in the world of the gods. When Mahākassapa saw this, he knew that something unusual must have happened for the flower to be found on earth. He asked the ascetic whether he had heard any news about his teacher, the Buddha, and the ascetic told him:


The recluse Gotama passed into Nibbāna a week ago. This coral-tree flower I picked up from the site of his demise.


Among the monks in Mahākassapa’s company only the arahants remained calm and composed; those who were still unliberated from the passions fell to the ground, weeping and lamenting:

Too soon has the Blessed One passed into Nibbāna! Too soon has the Eye of the World vanished from our sight!

There was, however, one monk in the group named Subhadda, ordained in his old age, who addressed his comrades: Enough, friends! Do not grieve, do not lament. We are well rid of the Great Ascetic. We were constantly troubled by his telling us: ‘This is proper for you, that is improper.’ Now we can do what we like, and we won’t have to do what we don’t like.”


The Venerable Mahākassapa did not reply to those callous words at that time. Just then he may have wanted to avoid striking a discordant note by censuring the monk or having him disrobed as he deserved. But, as we shall see later, Mahākassapa referred to this very incident shortly after the Buddha’s cremation when he spoke of the need to convene a council of elders to preserve the Dhamma and Vinaya for posterity. Now, however, he merely admonished his group of monks not to lament but to remember that all conditioned things are impermanent.


He then continued his journey to Kusinārā together with his company.


Until then the village chieftains at Kusinārā had not been able to set the Buddha’s funeral pyre alight. The Venerable Anuruddha explained that the deities, invisible but present, wanted to hold up the proceedings until the Venerable Mahākassapa came and paid his final homage to the Master’s remains. When Mahākassapa arrived, he walked around the pyre three times, reverently, with clasped hands, and then with bowed head paid his homage at the feet of the Tathāgata. When his group of monks had done likewise, the pyre burst into flames by itself.


Hardly had the bodily remains of the Tathāgata been cremated when there arose a conflict about the distribution of the relics among the lay folk assembled and those who had sent messengers later. But the Venerable Mahākassapa remained aloof in that quarrel, as did the other monks like Anuruddha and Ānanda. It was a respected brahmin named Doṇa who finally divided the relics into eight portions and distributed them among the eight claimants. He himself took the vessel in which the relics had been collected.


The Venerable Mahākassapa himself brought to King Ajātasattu of Magadha his share of the relics. Having done so, he turned his thoughts to the preservation of the Master’s spiritual heritage, the Dhamma and the Vinaya. The necessity for this was plainly demonstrated to him by Subhadda’s challenge of the monastic discipline and his advocacy of moral laxity. Mahākassapa took this as a warning of what the future held in store unless clear strictures were established now. If Subhadda’s attitude were to spread—and there were groups of monks who shared that attitude even while the Buddha was alive—it would rapidly lead to the decline and ruin of both the Sangha and the Teaching. To prevent this at the very start, Mahākassapa proposed holding a council of elders to rehearse the Dhamma and Vinaya and preserve them for posterity. With that suggestion, he turned to the monks gathered at Rājagaha.


The monks agreed, and at their request Mahākassapa selected five hundred elders all but one of whom were arahants. The one exception was Ānanda, whose position was ambivalent. As he had not yet succeeded in reaching the final goal, he could not be admitted to the council; but as he excelled in remembering all the Buddha’s discourses, his presence was essential.


The only solution was to give him an ultimatum that he must reach arahantship before the council began, which he did on the very night before it opened. Thus Ānanda was admitted to complete the five hundred members of the First Council. All other monks were to leave Rājagaha for the duration of the meeting.


As the first item of the council’s proceedings, the Vinaya, the code of monastic discipline, was recited by the Venerable Upāli, the leading Vinaya expert. The second item was the codification of the teachings laid down in the suttas. Here it was the Venerable Ānanda who, on being questioned by Mahākassapa, recited all those texts which were later collected into the five collections (nikāya) of the Sutta Piiaka.


Finally, some special matters concerning the Sangha were discussed. Among them, Ānanda mentioned that the Buddha, shortly before his death, had permitted the abolishment of the lesser and minor rules. When Ānanda was asked whether he had inquired from the Buddha what these minor rules were, he had to admit that he had neglected to do so. Now different monks expressed various opinions about this matter in the assembly.


As there was no consensus, Mahākassapa asked the assembly to consider that if they were to abolish rules arbitrarily, the lay followers and the public in general would reproach them for being in a hurry to relax discipline so soon after the Master’s death. Hence Mahākassapa suggested that the rules should be preserved intact without exception, and so it was decided.


After the holding of the First Council, the high regard in which the Venerable Mahākassapa was held grew still greater, and he was seen as the de facto head of the Sangha. His seniority would have contributed to this, as he was then one of the oldest living disciples. Later on, Mahākassapa handed over the Buddha’s alms bowl to Ānanda as a symbol of the faithful preservation of the Dhamma. Thus Mahākassapa, who had been generally recognized in the Order as the worthiest in succession, on his part chose Ānanda as being the worthiest after him.


There is no report in the Pāli literature about the time and circumstances of Mahākassapa’s death, but a Sanskrit chronicle on “the Masters of the Law” offers us a curious account of the great elder’s end according to the Northern Buddhist tradition.


According to this record, after the First Council Kassapa realized that he had fulfiled his mission and decided to attain final Nibbāna. He transmitted the Dhamma to Ānanda, paid his final respects to the holy places, and entered Rājagaha. He intended to inform King Ajātasattu of his impending demise, but the king was asleep and Kassapa did not wish to wake him up. Thus he climbed to the summit of Mount Kukkaiapāda alone, sat down cross-legged in a cave, and made the determination that his body should remain intact until the coming of the future Buddha, Metteyya. It was to future Buddha Metteyya that Kassapa was to hand over the robe of Gotama Buddha—the very same rag robe that the Blessed One had bestowed on him at their first meeting. Then Kassapa attained final Nibbāna, or, according to a variant, the meditative attainment of cessation (nirodhasamāpatti). The earth quaked, the devas strewed flowers over his body, and the mountain closed over him.


Soon afterwards King Ajātasattu and Ānanda went to Mount Kukkaiapāda to see Mahākassapa. The mountain partly opened and Kassapa’s body appeared before them. The king wanted to cremate it, but Ānanda informed him that Kassapa’s body must remain intact until the coming of Buddha Metteyya.


Then the mountain closed up again and Ajātasattu and Ānanda departed.


In the Theragāthā, forty verses are ascribed to the Venerable Mahākassapa. These stanzas mirror some of the great elder’s characteristic qualities and virtues: his austere habits and his contentedness; his strictness toward himself and his brother monks; his independent spirit and his self-reliance; his love of solitude and aloofness from the crowds; his dedication to the practice of meditation and the peace of the jhānas. These verses also show what does not appear in the prose texts: his sensitivity to the beauty of nature that surrounded him.


Here only a selection of the stanzas is given…… First, here is an exhortation to the monks to practice contentment with regard to the four basic requisites of a monk’s life:


Having come down from my mountain lodging,

I entered the city to collect my alms.

Courteously I came up to a man,

A leper who was eating a meal.

With his hand all leprous and diseased

He offered me a morsel of food.

As he placed the morsel in my bowl

A finger broke off and toppled in.

I sat down at the base of a wall

And ate the morsel he had given me.

While I was eating and after I had finished

I did not feel the least disgust.

Using left-over scraps as food,

Putrid urine as medicine,

The foot of a tree for one’s lodging,

And a robe made from cast-off rags:

One who has gained mastery over these

Is truly a man everywhere at home.


When Mahākassapa was asked why, at his advanced age, he still climbed daily up and down the rock, he replied:


While some grow weary as they climb

The steep slope of the rocky mountain,

Kassapa ascends, buoyed by psychic power—

The Buddha’s heir, aware and mindful.

Having returned from his daily alms round,

Having climbed up the rocky mountain,

Kassapa meditates free from clinging,

With fear and trembling well abandoned.

Having returned from his daily alms round,

Having climbed up the rocky mountain,

Kassapa meditates free from clinging,

Quenched among those who burn with passion.

Having returned from his daily alms round,

Having climbed up the rocky mountain,

Kassapa meditates free from clinging,

His task done, his cankers gone.


People asked again why the Venerable Mahākassapa, at his age, wishes to live in forests and mountains. Does he not like monasteries such as the Bamboo Grove and others?


Spread over with kareri garlands,

These regions are delightful to my heart;

Resounding with elephants, so lovely,

Those rocky mountains give me delight.

The splendid hue of dark-blue clouds,

Where streams are flowing, cool and clear,

Covered with indagopaka insects:

Those rocky mountains give me delight.

Like towering peaks of dark-blue clouds,

Like lofty houses with gabled roofs,

Resounding with elephants, so lovely:

Those rocky mountains give me delight.

Their lovely surfaces lashed by rain,

The mountains are resorted to by seers.

Echoing with the cries of peacocks,

Those rocky mountains give me delight.

This is enough for me, desiring to meditate,

Enough for me, resolute and mindful;

This is enough for me, a bhikkhu,

Resolute, desirous of the goal.

This is enough for me, desiring comfort,

A bhikkhu with a resolute mind.

This is enough for me, desiring exertion,

A stable one of resolute mind.

They are like the blue blossoms of flax,

Like the autumn sky covered with clouds,

With flocks of many kinds of birds:

Those rocky mountains give me delight.

No crowds of lay folk visit these hills,

But they are inhabited by herds of deer,

With flocks of many kinds of birds:

Those rocky mountains give me delight.

Wide gorges are there where clear water flows,

Haunted by monkeys and by deer,

Covered by wet carpets of moss:

Those rocky mountains give me delight.

The music of a five-piece ensemble

Can never give me so much delight

 As I derive when with one-pointed mind

I gain proper insight into the Dhamma.


In the following verses the Venerable Mahākassapa voices his own ‘lion’s roar’:


As far as the range of this Buddha-field extends,

Excepting the great sage himself,

I am the foremost in ascetic virtues:

One my equal cannot be found.

The Teacher has been served by me,

The Buddha’s Teaching has been done.

The heavy burden has been dropped,

The conduit to becoming has been uprooted.

Gotama the immeasurable does not cling

To robe, to lodging, or to food.

He is untainted like a spotless lotus,

Bent on renunciation, beyond the three worlds.

The foundations of mindfulness are his neck;

The Great Sage has faith for his hands;

Above, his brow is perfect wisdom; nobly wise,

He ever wanders with all desire quenched.