Mahakashyapa Thero the third Chief Disciple of Lord Gautama Buddha endowed with physical features strikingly similar to those of the Great Being Himself, ardent practitioner of all thirteen ascetic rules (dhutanga) enshrined in the Order, steadfast disciplinarian and resolute Spartan of the Buddhist dispensation was a recipient of reverential homage paid by celestial beings throughout his bhikkhu life.
It is said, as an ancestrally wealthy aristocratic Brahmin prior to monkhood he owned machine-operated factories extending to three hundred yojuns. The person of destiny decided to renounce lay life on witnessing a sight hardly ever taken note of by ordinary man. He saw hundreds of worms being devoured by crows when his fields were harrowed for sowing of paddy. On questioning, he was told by his workers that the adverse kamma of it all would devolve on him due to his ownership of land. It was his watershed in samsara.
His first meeting with the Blessed One seated under a fig tree surrounded by the six coloured splendorous rays aware of the approaching Brahmin, and the first exchange of words between mentor and pupil are two of the most sensational episodes ever captured in scripture.
The poignant instructions he received from the Blessed One at that meeting in meaningful contrast to his impressive lifestyle, was to always maintain a sense of humility when approaching bhikkhus his senior, peer and junior, to listen to Dhamma with undeviating attention and to be acutely conscious of the foul nature of the physical body at all times. The said advice constituted both his initial and higher ordination and he attained Arahanthood along with the four higher powers in a mere seven days.
Avowed conformist that he was, the heavenly veneration he consistently received from devas above, wouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of rigorous upholding of his notions of rectitude and righteousness he treasured as his own life
He was the only sage whom the Blessed One deemed qualified to exchange His own worn out, tattered and darned robe retrieved from a garbage dump and offered to Him by Punna the slave, for one worn by the other. It is recorded that the moment the swap of robes took place, lifeless earth surrounded by the four great oceans rumbled and shuddered unable to bear the sanctity of the unprecedented spectacle. Again, the Maha Thero’s cognition of constituent elements of all corporeal matter was so perfect that he was able to push aside the leper’s finger that dropped in the bowl and continue with his meal in perfect equanimity.
A devout female follower of Mahakashyapa Thero once offered a meal to Buddha on one of His alms rounds. A while later, look alike Mahakashyapa Thero himself turned up with bowl in hand. The woman, realizing her mistake of identity rushed behind Buddha, retrieved the food from His bowl and placed it in the thero’s. The unthinkable incident made the pious monk guiltless to the letter, withdraw from human habitat altogether and lead a solitary life in the forest.
Avowed conformist that he was, the heavenly veneration he consistently received from devas above, wouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of rigorous upholding of his notions of rectitude and righteousness he treasured as his own life. The brief episodes that follow would illustrate.
Rising from a state of deep meditation (samavatha) of seven days, he scanned with his divine eye a suitable location for alms-begging, when a woman making pop corn (vilanda) on a corn field entered his vision. He also saw she was of adequate merit to make an offering to him and thereby gain an enormous fortune by her deed. Elated by the sight of the bhikkhu who arrived on the field, the woman placed pop corn in his bowl, went down on her knees to pay her homage and said “ Venerable Sir, may I too, some day be able to discern the Dhamma you have realised”. “ May it be so”, the noble monk blessed her and left.
Ecstatic over her oblation-like offer of alms, she proceeded in the direction of the monk in halting steps when a venomous snake that emerged from a tree trunk felled her with a deadly strike. Dying with a devotional mind she was born in Thavathimsa heaven surrounded by indescribable splendour, as if woken from sleep. With her super normal powers she saw it was the dana that day that brought all her glory. If a minor act of generosity as that could produce such stupendous results, she thought she ought to be of further assistance to the venerable bhikkhu in order to perpetuate her divinity.
She appeared at the thero’s hut before break of dawn, swept the floor outside with a gold broom and refilled the receptacles of water left near the doorway, before leaving. The thero assumed it was the work of the children from the bordering village. Couldn’t the Arahant have observed with his enormous psychic powers it was the work of the goddess? – only if he enters a particular absorption and directs his mind towards the object, not otherwise.
The third day on hearing the floor being swept and observing her body-glow filtering through gaps in the palmyrah leaves, the thero opened the door and inquired as to who she was.
“ Venerable Sir, l am an attendant of yours , Goddess Laja “
“ l do not recollect an attendant by that name,” he said.
She narrated the sequence of previous day’s events.
“ Goddess, vanish from here. Let your acts of benevolence be, you shouldn’t ever come here again “, he told her sternly.
“ Venerable Sir, may l be allowed to assist you in this manner so that my good fortune would continue forever “
He warned her again,
“ Goddess, disappear l said. Erudite preachers of the future who mount pulpits with vijinipath in their hand should not be heard to say that a certain goddess came down to help Venerable Mahakashyapa with his day to day chores. Now, go away and never come again “.
She pleaded with him not to destroy her.
She does not listen to me, he thought and snapped his fingers saying “Woman, know thy limits”
Unable to remain there any longer, she rose to the sky wailing and weeping, still pleading with him not to destroy her. The Blessed One on hearing her pleas from the fragrant chamber in Jetawanarama projected His image before her through a ray of light and declared “Goddess, it is up to my son Mahakashyapa to conform to his own restraints, and for others to perform meritorious deeds always conscious of the good they generate”. He further narrated a verse stressing the importance of continuity in such benevolent acts as they necessarily ensure one’s well-being both here and hereafter. On conclusion of the homily Goddess Laja attained Sowanhood from a height of forty five yojuns in the sky.
Above is no isolated incident. Rising again from a seven day extinctional spell in mental activity (nirodha samapaththi) while residing at Weluwanarama prior to retreating to the jungle, the noble thero arrived at Rajagaha in search of alms. Five hundred pink footed celestial nymphs from Thauthisa world descended on the city determined to offer the first meal to the reverend bhikkhu.
“You go away right now” he said. “I am here to oblige poor weavers”
When they failed to leave, the thero became stern with them as on the previous occasion with Goddess Laja, whereupon they all disappeared.
King of gods Sakka on being informed of the incident by the heavenly ones, pointed out their mistake of going before the bhikkhu in their natural form.
He was also eager not to lose the arisen opportunity. Assuming the form of a feeble cloth weaver worn out by time, grey in hair with broken teeth and warped body, Sakka appeared with his consort Goddess Suja in similar guise on a house created by Sakka himself at top of the weavers’ lane. The two pretended to unwind a spool of thread to be seen by the Maha Thero who came to the conclusion there can be none poorer than these two and decided to accept even a spoonful of rice that was offered.
When he stood at the doorstep the old man hobbled upto the thero, worshipped him and said “Venerable Sir, pray do not consider if our meal is gross or fine, do accept it with our welfare in mind”. The Maha Thero handed him the bowl whether it be some boiled leaves or broken grain he were to receive. The old man went in the house and turned up with a bowl the aroma of which pervaded the entire city.
The bhikkhu admonished Sakka thus, “ Denying a poor man of his fortune is a serious matter. I came here with the intention of helping one to attain the status of a nobleman or a ruler today “
Sakka: “ Venerable Sir, who could possibly be poorer than I? “
The bhikkhu questioned as to how one who revels in heavenly pleasures as he, can be termed poor. Sakka replied it was not so. The good deeds he performed were prior to Lord Buddha’s birth in a non-Buddha era, whereas gods by the names of Chularatha, Maharatha and Anekawarna who were born in the existing dispensation (of Gautama Buddha ) are mightier than he.
“ When they descend on the streets surrounded by goddesses for various festivities I run away and hide in my palace. Their aura far surpasses mine and overwhelms me, but not mine, theirs. So, Venerable Sir, is there a poorer one than I ?” he asked.
“Nevertheless I tell you, do not deceive me in this manner hereafter”.
“ Did I gain any merit from the concealed dana of mine, Venerable Sir ? “
“ Yes, you did, “ replied the thero.
“ The task then, of performing meritorious deeds is entirely mine “ said the god, perambulated the bhikkhu accompanied by Goddess Suja and disappeared in the sky upon worshipping him. He uttered the following words from edge of the stratosphere. “ A donation to the great thero is indeed a great gift “.
Life of the illustrious Arahant is a veritable treasure trove of episodes that subtly underscores the larger image of a refined philosophy that thrived over two and a half millennia ago. In the latter part of Buddha’s life itself though, the great thero, epitome of uprightness, had occasion to comment on the marked erosion of discipline amongst the novice clergy of the day. Need anything be spoken of the dilemma today?
The ultimate compliment too, on the exemplary bhikkhu was paid by Buddha. “Monks”, He declared, “ I exhort you to follow in the footsteps of Mahakashyapa, if not, of someone who follows in his footsteps “.
Twenty years after Parinibbana the noble monk a few decades Buddha’s senior, appeared on Kukkutagiri rock to breathe his last, with the begging bowl and worn out robe of his Master at his side.
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