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Mahakshyapa (sometimes spelled "Mahakasyapa"), the Golden-Hued Ascetic, is one of the Buddha's Ten Disciples. The exact dates of his life are unknown, but he died some time around 360 BCE as an old man.

Biography:1, 2
(actual and legendary, as best as I can/want to separate them)

Mahakashyapa was born to a brahmin family in Mahatitta, the capital of Magadha (what is now Bihar, India). He was originally called Pippala, because (according to legend) his mother either gave birth while resting under a pipal (bodhi tree) or prayed to the spirit of a pipal for a son, but as a member of the Kashyapa tribe, later in life he became known as Mahakashyapa (Great Kashyapa). By the age of eight, he had mastered the Brahman precepts and was talented in all areas of art and learning. However, in contrast to the life of luxury he was raised in, Mahakashyapa wanted to search for spiritual enlightenment and live as an ascetic, but his parents continually pestered him to marry. To satisfy them, he agreed to wed but had a statue commissioned that was his epitome of a perfectly beautiful woman, and told his parents that the woman they choose as his wife should look just like the statue, thinking that they would never find such a woman. His parents managed to find Bhadra Kapilani, who not only looked just like the statue but shared Mahakashyapa's desire to abandon the material home life — the two had spent previous lifetimes with each other, seeking enlightenment and virtue. The couple vowed to live pure, chaste lives and continue their quests for enlightenment.

Twelve years after Mahakashyapa's parents passed away, Mahakashyapa decided to leave his secular life and find a good spiritual teacher, promising to inform his wife when he found one (that very day, legend says, Shakyamuni attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree). During Mahakashyapa's search, he spotted the Buddha surrounded by disciples (legend says he was emitting rays of light), and he approached the Buddha and said he would be his disciple. The Buddha replied with a brief teaching and accepted him. As a show of gratitude, Mahakashyapa folded up his outer robe and offered it as a cushion to sit on, and the Buddha offered his robe to Mahakashyapa who happily accepted it. It was the only time the Buddha exchanged robes with a disciple.

Upon following the Buddha, Mahakashyapa followed dhuta, the Buddha's teachings designed for those who wish to live as simply as possible, and became one of the strictest and most achieved in this practice, abiding by the Twelvefold Practices to remove all forms of attachment. He was known for cherishing the offerings of the poor, as the giving of their hard-earned scraps of food was a great deed. So highly regarded was Mahakashyapa that children would sometimes rush up to offer their alms to him instead of to the Buddha. As an old man, he even turned down the Buddha's suggestions to wear lighter robes, accept invitations to the meals of believers and sleep in the warm temples, instead saying that the ascetic life and the example it made gave him more happiness than any other thing possibly could. It is because of this that he was known as "the Golden-Hued Ascetic."

Near Kushingara, upon hearing of the Buddha's impending death, Mahakashyapa was stricken with grief but immediately began arranging the compilation and preservation of the Buddha's many teachings and precepts. It is thanks to his efforts (and Ánanda's strong memory and constant presence at the Buddha's side) that we have much of the information about the Buddha and his teachings today, and it is said that without his work Buddhism would never have fully developed. He also gathered the elders among the Buddha's followers into what was known as the First Council, and became the leader of the group.

Twenty years after the Buddha's death, as Mahakashyapa began to sense his own end, he left the Council in the hands of Ánanda and climbed to the top of Mount Kukkutapada-giri. He sat in silent meditaiton there, next to the Buddha's robe and alms bowl, and peacefully passed away. Legend says that at his passing, the mountains around him crumbled and Mahakashyapa was one with them.

...but what of his wife? She also found the Buddha and achieved great things. Bhadra Kapilani traveled to Shravasti, the capital of Kaushali, and joined of order of nuns that was later initiated into the Buddha's sangha. She soon attained arhatship, free from the cycle of birth and death, and became a popular teacher of the dharma. One of her famed achievements was the memory of many previous lives, during which she seeked enlightenment with Mahakashyapa.

Mahakashyapa and Zen:1, 3, 4, 5

Mahakashyapa was the first patriarch of the Ch'an (Sanskrit: Dhyana; Japanese: Zen) tradition. The start of this school of Buddhism is often reflected in this story:

At Mount Grdhrakuta (Vulture's Peak), instead of delivering a dharma speech, the Buddha stood in front of the thousands of students, saying nothing and holding just a flower (said to be the golden lotus presented by the Great Brahma Heaven King to the Buddha after he first pronounced the dharma). As the crowd waited for something to happen or for the sermon to start, the World-Honored One just looked at the flower in his hand.

Mahakshyapa, one of the disciples in the crowd, suddenly smiled. The Buddha saw him, called him up to where he stood, and handed him the flower. He said to the crowd, "I have the eye treasury of right Dharma, the subtle mind of Nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flow-less gate of teaching. It is not predicated on words and phrases. It is a special transmission outside tradition. I now transmit it to you, Mahakashyapa."

This sort of "special transmission" between the Budhha and Mahakashyapa is said to have happened two other times. The first one was even before the Flower Sermon (as the event of the above story is called), at the Pagoda of Many Children where the Buddha was to give a speech. Mahakashyapa, an old man, was a bit late for the sermon and arrived just before the Buddha was to start. As he neared the assembly, the Buddha and Mahakashyapa's eyes met for a moment, and Mahakashyapa walked to the front of the assembly, where the Buddha was seated. As the old man neared, the Buddha moved over on the cushion he was seated on to make room for Mahakashyapa, and he sat down.

The third "special transmission" occurred after the Buddha's death. Many monks, especially the newer ones, were very upset at the Buddha's passing — if he said he had "no life, no death" how could he die? Were his teachings wrong? When the Buddha was in his casket, Mahakashyapa circled it three times and bowed three times, holding his hands in hapchang the whole time. Suddenly the Buddha's feet burst through the bottom of the casket, and without a word, everyone watching understood — only the body dies, not what makes the Buddha.

In the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha speaks about Mahakashyapa's enlightenment:

There is also Mahakashyapa in this assembly, dwelling in the samadhi of extinction, having obtained the stillness of a Sound-Hearer. He has long since extinguished the mind-organ, and yet he has a perfectly clear knowledge which is not due to the mental process of thinking.

Shurangama Sutra, 4:198

Mahakashyapa is most often depicted as an old monk with a begging staff.

1: Who's Who on the Gohonzon: http://campross.crosswinds.net/ShuteiMandala/shravaka.html
2: Shakyamuni's Ten Disciples: http://www.sotozen-net.or.jp/kokusai/friends/zf13_3/disciples.htm
3: Buddhism A to Z: http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/BuddhistDict/BDM.html
4: The Call of the Whippoorwill: http://www.buddhistinformation.com/zen/call_of_the_whippoorwill.htm
5: Transmission to the West: http://www.kwanumzen.com/primarypoint/v10n1-1993-winter-DSSN-TransmissionToTheWest.html

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