Mahakasyapa is called the "father of the sangha." After the historical Buddha died, Mahakasyapa assumed a leadership position among the Buddha's surviving monks and nuns. He is also a patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism.
Note that Mahakasyapa or Mahakashyapa is the Sanskrit spelling of his name. His name is spelled "Mahakassapa" in Pali. Sometimes his name is given as Kasyapa, Kashyapa, or Kassapa, without the "maha."
Early Life With Bhadda Kapilani
According to Buddhist tradition, Mahakasyapa was born into a wealthy Brahmin family in Magadha, which in ancient times was a kingdom in what is now northeast India. His original name was Pipphali.
From his childhood he wished to be an ascetic, but his parents wanted him to marry. He relented and took a very beautiful wife named Bhadda Kapilani. Bhadda Kapilani had also wished to live as an ascetic, and so the couple decided to be celibate in their marriage.
Bhadda and Pipphali lived happily together, and when his parents died he took over management of the family property. One day he noticed that when his fields were plowed, birds would come and pull worms out of the freshly turned earth. It occurred to him then that his wealth and comfort were purchased by the suffering and death of other living beings.
Baddha, meanwhile, had spread seeds upon the ground to dry. She noticed that birds came to eat the insects attracted to the seeds. After this, the couple mutually decided to leave the world they had known, and even each other, and become genuine ascetics. They gave away all their possessions and property, set their servants free, and walked away on separate roads.
In later times, when Mahakasyapa became a disciple of the Buddha, Bhadda also took refuge. She would became an arhat and a great matriarch of Buddhism. She was especially devoted to the training and education of young nuns.
Disciple of the Buddha
Buddhist tradition says that when Bhadda and Pipphali parted with each other to walk separate roads, the earth trembled with the power of their virtue. The Buddha felt these trembles and knew that a great disciple was coming to him.
Soon Pipphali and the Buddha met and recognized each other as disciple and teacher. The Buddha gave Pipphali the name Mahakasyapa, which means "great sage."
Mahakasyapa, who had lived a life of wealth and luxury, is remembered for his practice of asceticism. In one famous story, he gave the Buddha his relatively unworn robes to use as a cushion, and then asked for the privilege of wearing the Buddha's threadbare robes in their place.
In some traditions this exchange of robes signified that Mahakasyapa was chosen by the Buddha to take his place as leader of the assembly someday. Whether that was intended or not, according to the Pali texts the Buddha often praised Mahakasyapa's abilities as a teacher of the dharma. The Buddha sometimes asked Mahakasyapa to preach to the assembly in his place.
Makasyapa as Zen Patriarch
According to a classic text attributed to Japanese Soto Zen Master Keizan Jokin (1268-1325), The Transmission of the Light (Denkoroku), one day the Buddha silently raised a lotus blossom and blinked his eyes. At this, Mahakasyapa smiled. The Buddha said, "I have the treasury of the eye of truth, the ineffable mind of Nirvana. These I entrust to Kasyapa."
Thus in the Zen tradition, Mahakasyapa is considered the first dharma heir of the Buddha, and in the lineage of ancestors his name goes after the Buddha's. Ananda would become Mahakasyapa's heir.
Mahakasyapa and the First Buddhist Council
After the death and Parinirvana of the Buddha, estimated to have been about 480 BCE, the assembled monks were grief-stricken. But one monk spoke up and said, in effect, that at least they wouldn't have to follow the Buddha's rules any more.
This remark alarmed Mahakasyapa. Now that the Buddha was gone, would the light of the dharma go out? Mahakasyapa decided to convene a great meeting of enlightened monks to decide how to keep the Buddha's teaching alive in the world.
This meeting is known as the First Buddhist Council, and it is one of the most important events in Buddhist history. In a remarkably democratic fashion, the participants agreed on what the Buddha had taught them and how these teachings would be preserved for future generations.
According to tradition, over the next several months Ananda recited the sermons of the Buddha from memory, and a monk named Upali recited the Buddha's rules for monastic conduct. The Council, with Mahakasyapa presiding, voted to approve these recitations as authentic and prepared to preserve them through oral recitation. (See The First Buddhist Scriptures.)
Because his leadership held the sangha together after the Buddha's death, Mahakasyapa is remembered as the "father of the sangha." According to many traditions, Mahakasyapa lived for many more years after the First Buddhist Council and died peacefully while seated in meditation.