Most of us know the story of Mahakshyapa’s smiling when the Buddha held up a flower, but do we know who Mahakashyapa was and how he came to smile? I’d like to explore that here. I’ve long been fascinated by what I’d heard of this determined, stubborn old curmudgeon and I wondered how such a person could smile at flowers. In the midst of this seemingly-unending Iowa winter, I’ve been distracting myself by investigating this man.
The story of Mahakashyapa’s realization is very different in the Pali Canon. In that story, Mahakashyapa, having left home and become a seeker, meets Shakyamuni near Rajagriha and immediately asks for ordination. They travel together and after seven days Mahakashyapa realizes the truth. It’s really mundane.1
Our story about the flower first appears in a Chinese record from 801, and the version that’s most widely read these days is in the Mumonkan (in English, The Gateless Gate), which was compiled in China in the first half of the thirteenth century. Later, Keizan Jokin based his story of Mahakashyapa’s awakening in his Denkōroku on this account.
So this story was probably written by someone in China. Why he or she wanted to change the original is not our concern here. It was probably to emphasize that the transmission was one of person-to-person, a transmission of life rather than philosophy or ideas. The original was that, too – the Buddha and his new disciple are walking along and the disciple gets it. Afterward, Mahakashyapa remarks that for seven days he’s mooched off donors and now he’s no longer a mooch. It’s not as grand and memorable. Hearing a grand, dramatic story, we remember it and its teaching.
While not likely historically correct, the Chinese story can still transmit the dharma, and it’s the one we refer to and learn from, so let’s consider it. The version in the texts is brief but we can supply some context from Pali Canon accounts of the Buddha’s sermons.
It’s perhaps May on Vulture Peak, where Shakyamuni Buddha gives talks when he’s in Rajagriha. The Buddha and Mahakashyapa are perhaps in their forties or fifties. They’ve been together for awhile. Many people – perhaps several thousand – are there waiting for him to speak the dharma. Monks and nuns sit in front on their sitting cloths in their brick-red robes. Lay men and women sit behind them. Some have likely brought food and drink. They spread out cloths and mats and sit down, too. There’s a good deal of talking and laughter and probably kids running about. Hearing serious dharma and having good cheer are not mutually exclusive. There’s less noise and movement among the monks and nuns. They are, after all, supposed to be restrained and dignified.
Somewhere among the monks sits Mahakashyapa. He’s probably at the front because of his rank – he was one of the first to join the sangha – but I’d bet he’s not actually in the front row where his status would put him. He’s likely sitting behind two or three others where he won’t be noticed much. Mahakashyapa isn’t interested in position and respect and being popular. According to legend, he’s rigidly ascetic and serious. Keizan says he has shabby, worn-out robes.2 He’s noted for rigidly observing the austere practice of living in the forest, eating only what he can beg, and wearing robes made from rags. He sits straight with alive, interested eyes, waiting for his teacher, who’s perched on the rock above the people, to begin. He doesn’t engage in quiet conversation like his dharma brothers and sisters.
It’s time to begin. Someone from the assembly – she or he could be ordained or lay, female or male – climbs the short distance from the assembly to Shakyamuni’s rock. This person, observing the usual ritual of respect, circumambulates Shakyamuni three times clockwise, then kneels before him on the right knee and requests a talk. This is how these things usually begin, with a question or just a request for a talk. Then the petitioner returns to his or her seat. The assembly becomes silent in the May sun.
Shakyamuni has a flower. Perhaps someone gave it to him as he walked to his seat. Maybe he picked it on his way. We don’t know. It was there. We don’t know what kind it was, either. I like to think of it as a bright red hibiscus, large enough for everyone to see. Anyway, Shakyamuni has a flower. He holds it up for everyone to see and turns it slightly. He doesn’t say anything. No one says anything.
Mahakasyapa smiles. He gets it.
Shakyamuni sees. He says “I have the treasury of the true dharma eye, the sublime mind of nirvana, which I entrust to Mahakashyapa.”3
Shakyamuni held up reality and the ascetic, shabby monk saw it beyond his ideas and prejudices. How did it happen that someone so rigid and solitary could see reality in a flower? And smile? Maybe this person is not who we thought he was.
Mahakashyapa was a native of Magadha, the kingdom of which Rajagriha was the capital. He was born a Brahmin. As a youth he questioned his luxurious life and vowed to become a spiritual seeker. His family was not enthusiastic about this and pressed him to marry. He did. His wife was of the same mind as he – she wanted to leave home, too. They had no children. When his parents died, the two of them bought robes and bowls, shaved their heads, and left the estate. They parted ways so they wouldn’t arouse people’s suspicions, but they both ended up in the Buddha’s sangha. Bhadda, his wife, became one of the most respected teachers in the nuns’ sangha. 4
After some time, Mahakashyapa came on the Buddha resting under a tree on his way between Nalanda and Rajagriha. He immediately recognized that this was the person who could show him the way, bowed, and asked for ordination. The Buddha gave him the three Pure Precepts and welcomed him. The two continued on together and a bit later in the day they stopped to rest. Seeing that his teacher had nothing to sit on, Mahakashyapa folded his third robe, which is worn when it’s cold, and offered it as a seat. Shakyamuni was taken with its softness – after all, Mahakashyapa had been wealthy when he’d bought it – and asked if he could have it. So Mahakashyapa gave him his soft robe and took Shakyamuni’s old, scratchy, worn-out one. This was the beginning of his austerities.
Mahakashyapa slept in the forest, ate only what came to his begging bowl, and wore robes made of rags, and made do with whatever medicine was at hand. Most monks and nuns made robes of used cloth and begged for food. However they also wore robes of cloth given by the laity and took meals offered by the laity. While they sometimes slept outdoors, they most often slept in cells in the monasteries. So Mahakashyapa wasn’t totally beyond the pale but he was pretty unorthodox.
The Buddha’s teaching was to follow the Middle Way, not being attached either austerity or luxury. It seemed that Mahakashyapa was attached. And he was a bit prickly. He didn’t want to preach when the Buddha asked him to. He said that people wouldn’t want to hear him and he sounded curmudgeonly about it. He also gave Ananda a hard time for visiting the nuns to give dharma talks.
Mahakashyapa became known in later stories as an old, rigid, dour monk. That’s not the whole story, though.
As they both grew older, the Buddha became concerned about Mahakashyapa’s wellbeing and asked that he stop observing the austerities and stay with him in monasteries. Mahakashyapa replied that he’d rather keep his way of life. When asked why, he replied, “For a long time I have been a forest dweller, going on alms round and wearing rag robes; and such a life I have commended to others. I have had few wants, lived contented, secluded, applying strenuous energy; and that, too, I have commended to others.”
Not satisfied, the Buddha asked why he lived this way. He answered, “For two reasons: for my own pleasant abiding here and now and out of compassion for later generations of monks who, when they hear about such a life, might think to emulate it.”
The Buddha replied, “Well-spoken, Kashyapa, well-spoken! You are living for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit and welfare of gods and humans. You may then keep your coarse rag robes, go out for alms, and live in the forest.” 5
It turns out that Mahakashyapa was not following this path with a sense of rigid discipline and a desire to “mortify the flesh.” He was not attached to a self-referential idea of practice. He lived this way because it made the most sense to him, and he lived it as a beacon to others who might find the life of simplicity helpful.
Such a person can see a flower and smile. The plainness and openness with which he lived brought the ability to see a simple gesture and understand.
Living simply – having few commitments and few possessions – means that our lives are less taken up with service to those things. There are fewer phone calls and emails, fewer chores to do, fewer things to fix, fewer supplies to buy. We are less strained by the worry about not finishing our to-do list or not holding up our end of an agreement. We have time and space to be open, to relax enough that we can see and hear reality.
We don’t have to live under a tree like Mahakashyapa, but we can remember his basic spirit of having few wants, living contented, being secluded, and applying strenuous energy. Having few wants allows us to keep our priorities straight, asking ourselves, “Will this bring energy and space or take it?” when we see something we want. We can remind ourselves to be content with what we have when we begin looking around at what others have and wishing we had it, too. Remembering seclusion, we can say “no” to commitments that will stretch us too far and save our energy for those we already have. Applying strenuous energy, we can concentrate wholeheartedly on doing our best, letting go of our ideas and the ideas we’re given by others.
We, like Mahakashyapa, become an encouragement to others. They see our lives and our joy and openness, and they want to live that way, too. Or perhaps, just as we can’t live like Mahakashyapa, they can’t live like us, but they still feel lifted up and encouraged by seeing out lives. We do this without knowing it, without “doing” it.
During my first year at Shōgoji, I was walking through the service hall (hatto) one cold March afternoon, feeling exhausted in both body and spirit from the unremitting chill and gloom. I was just about to turn towards the walkway leading to the kitchen when I heard a noise at the big doors in front. A woman had just reached the top of the steps. She called softly to me, and I went to her. She wanted to bow to me – a woman in robes – me – a nun and an American. This was wonderful and marvelous. We ended up bowing to each other. Later she sent note thanking me for my presence and the encouragement it had brought her. When I think of Mahakashyapa’s hope for future generations, I think of that cold, dark afternoon when two women encouraged each other in the Buddha’s life.
We can all do this. Remembering Mahakashyapa’s spirit, we can live in contentment and realize lives that encourage others.
Bhikku Bodhi (tr.), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2000), pp. 678 – 679.
Foulk, T. Griffith (tr.), Record of the Transmission of the Illumination by the Great Ancestor, Master Keizan. (Tokyo: Sotoshu Shumucho, 2017), p. 10.
A more easily-found translation is that by Francis H. Cook – The Record of Transmitting the Light, published by Center Publications (Zen Center of Los Angeles) in Los Angeles in 1991. It was republished by Wisdom Publications in 2003.
Foulk, T. Griffith (tr.), ibid., p. 10.
Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker (ed. by Bhikku Bodhi), Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003), pp.109 – 116.
Bhikku Bodhi (tr.), ibid., pp.666 – 667.
Zuikō Redding grew up in Texas where she encountered Zen as a university student. She studied in Milwaukee with Tozen Akiyama and in Minneapolis with Dainin Katagiri. In 1992 she was ordained in Japan by Tsugen Narasaki and remained to practice under his direction at Zuiōji and its mountain training center, Shōgoji. After receiving certification as a teacher in the Sōtō tradition from Rev. Narasaki in 1996, she returned to the US in 1997. A member of the American Zen Teachers’ Association and of the Association of Sōtō Zen Buddhists, she is now the resident teacher at Cedar Rapids (IA) Zen Center