Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2022 Day 5
The Karmapa welcomed everyone to the fifth day of the Mar Ngok Summer teachings. He noted that since he had lost his internet connection at the end of the previous teaching, he had been unable to complete the fourth day. And since he was uncertain what was lost and what got transmitted, he would begin by speaking once more about the leadership of the sangha and the authority of the leadership of the sangha.
The Leadership of the Sangha
The Indian scholar S.R. Goyal maintains that during the Buddha’s lifetime, the Buddha was recognized as the leader of the sangha. Goyal asserted that the Buddha was recognized as the leader because the first condition for being able to enter the sangha was to go for refuge in the Three Jewels. When going for refuge in the Three Jewels, those entering had to go for refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. So those going for refuge had to show they believed the Buddha. The moment they entered the sangha, and from then on, everyone had to accept the Buddha as the teacher, the one who gave guidance, and the one who would lead them on the path, hence the Buddha was recognized as the leader of the sangha.
At that time in India, the leaders of the various religious schools were seen as the supreme leaders of their school or community and received great respect. These leaders had the authority to determine the rules of the community, what they should do and should not do. It was also customary for them to appoint their successor and name the person who would be the lineage holder. Consequently, people asked the Buddha to name his successor.
Also at that time, disharmony arose between the Buddha and Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin, the son of Buddha’s paternal uncle. As a close relative, he hoped he might be appointed as the Buddha’s successor and that the leadership of the sangha would pass to him. He said to the Buddha, “Please give me your students, I will take care of them.” But the Buddha refused. This created conflict between the Buddha and Devadatta and there are many stories describing how Devadatta tried to get his revenge.
According to Professor Goyal, this showed that the sangha at that time was run democratically. The sangha was controlled by the sangha and not by an individual.
“Likewise, even for the Buddha,” the Karmapa said, “We normally call the Buddha the Teacher, he was the one who gave instructions about what the ultimate nature is and what we should do and what we should not do… He was merely a guide who gave instructions, the one who pointed out what one should do and not do. He was not like a king who gives commands to the members of the sangha, and, as he often said, he did not have authority over the sangha.”
The Buddha did not presume that the sangha must respect and listen to his commands. The Buddha’s non-acceptance established more democratic procedures within the sangha.
The Buddha also said to the sangha, “You must be your own protector” and “The one who teaches you and protects you is the true Dharma.” The Karmapa emphasized that when we go for refuge, of the Three Jewels the one that really protects from danger is the true Dharma. The Buddha spoke about how one should not go for refuge to some external successor or to some person. He advised his disciples not to consider the Teacher’s body to be important. Instead, they should value the instructions and teachings he had given.
According to the Theravada tradition, at the time of his parinirvana, the Buddha’s continuum would cease ‘like a fire going out’, all his aggregates would cease without remainder, so he would be unable to do anything for the sangha in the future. The testament that the Buddha left was his encouragement to his disciples to consider the true Dharma as the refuge and to take the “Prātimokṣa Sūtra” as their teacher. This is S.R.Goyal’s view.
After the Buddha had passed into nirvana, the great minister of the kingdom of Magadha, Varṣākāra (Pali: Vassakāra) asked Ananda, “In the future, who will lead the sangha?” Ananda immediately replied, “In the future, the sangha will follow the direction or the instructions of the true Dharma.”
Since the Buddha never said who his successor would be and since he had asked the sangha to follow the true Dharma, when disputes arose within the sangha, they were resolved democratically.
As the Karmapa stated previously, since there were many sanghas, the sangha members dwelling within the same boundary were allowed to appoint their own senior elders (Pali: saṃghathera), and most disputes were resolved by the two sides meeting face-to-face. They would also use counting sticks (Pali: salākā-gāha), a method for voting mentioned in the Vinaya in order to determine the majority opinion in a large sangha through the counting sticks. Likewise, a person (Pali:salākāgāhapaka) was appointed to supervise the counting sticks when votes were cast. If a dispute could not be resolved in the ordinary ways, a group to resolve the conflict (Pali: ubbahikā) was established to decide the matter.
According to the Theravada “Sutra of the Great Parinirvana” (Pali: “Mahāparinibbāna Sutta”), and also in the Tibetan vinaya text, the Buddha taught the people of Vṛji (Pali: Vajji) ‘the seven dharmas that prevent ruin’, so they could turn out well and be prosperous—it seems they were in dispute with Magadha at the time. He also taught the sangha many dharmas that prevented ruin. The main point, the Karmapa said was that the sangha was a democratic institution which held the authority.
The next question becomes what authority did the Buddha himself have within the sangha? Contemporary researchers hold differing positions and contradictory views on this. The Karmapa illustrated the point by noting the positions held by several scholars.
On the one hand, the Japanese scholar Hakuju Ui [University of Tokyo] maintained that the Buddha had no particular authority, the Buddha himself was just an individual member of the sangha. The Japanese scholar Professor Watanabe said that in terms of Buddhist practice, there was no question of whether anyone had authority, there were no such procedures within Buddhism. Sukumar Dutt said that among Buddhists there was no one who had the fundamental power or capacity to exert influence over the entire sangha. The Japanese scholar B. Matsumoto stated that during the Buddha’s lifetime, and for a further 100 years after he had passed into parinirvana, there was no leader of Buddhism who could be considered the successor of the Buddha.
On the other hand, the international Sri Lankan scholar, K.N. Jayatilleke, said that all Buddhist thought takes as its foundation the consideration that only the Buddha’s thought was authoritative, so this demonstrates that the Buddha must have had some authority. The American scholar, Professor Joseph M. Kitigawa, [University of Chicago] argued that when the Buddha was alive, he did have authority—all the sangha’s views, meditations, and conduct were determined according to the Buddha’s thought. When the Buddha was about to pass into parinirvana, he expressed his hope that his students would only go for refuge to the Dharma; his students took the instructions he had given and whatever explanations he had offered as their basis when they practiced the Dharma. This shows that the Buddha was considered an authority and had influence and power.
The Karmapa noted that, if we examined this, even during the Buddha’s own lifetime, he did not accept that he had any authority. If he did, the Karmapa argued, he would not have said, “You need to be your own protector.” The Buddha said that his followers had to stand on their own two feet.
Ananda did not ask the Buddha who would uphold his lineage or who his successor would be, so why did an outsider like Varṣākāra, ask this.
If the Buddha’s disciples recognized the Dharma as the ultimate refuge and authority, wasn’t this the same as recognizing the guidance the Buddha gave in the path as authoritative? When the Dharma first spread, people believed that the Buddha had discovered or revealed the true Dharma. When the Buddha woke to perfect enlightenment, he understood the true nature as it was and then taught the true nature to his students. The Buddha said that whether buddhas appeared or not, the Dharma would endure forever.
The Korean scholar Chai-Shin Yu supported the stance taken by Professor Goyal. Yu said that during the time of Original Buddhism, the Buddha’s followers took what the Buddha said literally and practiced it that way—they did not go beyond the words or distinguish between the guiding meaning and the definitive meaning. Later, however, more and more explanations were given of the Buddha’s words.
According to the sutras in the Kangyur, at the time of his parinirvana, the Buddha said that his successor was the “Prātimokṣa Sūtra.” In the Tibetan Tengyur there is a text by Chökyi Tsongpön called “In Praise of the Vinaya” which says:
The Victor is the Teacher, and his teachings
Are the Sūtras and the Abhidharma.
But the Vinaya is the real teacher and his teachings.
I thus pay homage to that which is both,
Like the Buddha and his Dharma.
The Karmapa explained the meaning. The Buddha’s teachings are contained in the Tripiṭaka or “Three Baskets” of the Sūtra, the Vinaya and the Abhidharma, but of these three, the one that is both the Teacher and the Teachings is the Vinaya. The other two baskets are teachings but they are not the Teacher. Thus, the representative of the Buddha is the Vinaya, and we should understand this to mean the “Prātimokṣa Sūtra” in particular. If these days we absolutely had to appoint a successor to the Buddha, instead of pointing a finger at an individual, we would have to point at a text, and that would be the legal code of the Vinaya, the “Prātimokṣa Sūtra.” The five groups of monastics In the sangha, after the Buddha, followed the Vinaya, and they followed the democratic procedures that the Buddha bequeathed to them.
The Karmapa then explained his reasons for dealing with these different issues when the main topic was meant to be “The Origins of the Secret Mantra.”
It was necessary to speak about the origins of the sangha, the origins of the monasteries, and the Vinaya, as a preliminary, because they are a significant part of history. In particular, when discussing the origins of the Vajrayana, it was very important to speak about the sangha and the Vinaya “because there is a lot of discussion of the mantra.”
The Karmapa proceeded to give examples of the role of mantra in stories from the Vinaya.
The first story concerned an outcaste girl named Bhadrā who fell in love with Ananda and went to an enchanter to cast a spell on him. The enchanter cast a mantra to summon Ananda to be with the girl and Ananda was unable to resist its power, until the Buddha freed him from the danger of mantras and spells.
A second story concerns a dangerous epidemic in Vaiśālī. “Probably like Covid,” the Karmapa commented. The Buddha specifically sent Ananda to Vaiśali with instructions to recite a particular mantra and verses on the way. The mantra was for entering the city of Vaiśālī, and the prayers were the auspicious prayers which are still recited from the Vinaya, “Those who become miserly…” and “Spirits who have come here…” All these verses were taught in the Vinaya.
A third story tells of the Buddha teaching mantras to pacify the danger of poison. Upasena, was bitten by a poisonous snake. It hurt so much he felt his body would burst into pieces. When this happened the Buddha said the verses that begin with, “I greet hatred and delusion which are the three poisons of the world…” These verses also are still recited during rituals.
The Karmapa explained that from reading the Vinaya, we can see how at that time, they would use either medicine or mantras. They would use mantras for certain illnesses, in the same way that we would use medicine. They recognized that mantras and medicine had equal power and mantras were considered very beneficial.
Within the Buddhist sangha there was a practice of reciting both non-Buddhist and Buddhist mantras. In Vajrayana, the word ‘mana’ means ‘mind’, and ‘tra’ means ‘protection.’ When combining the two in the term ‘mantra’ it means ‘mind protection.’ When thinking about the meaning of this word in the Vinaya, we talk about speaking the true words of the noble beings in order to protect the mind. All these true words could be called mantras and could be considered the seeds of ‘secret mantra.’ Even in Original Buddhism there were the seeds of secret mantra.
From another perspective, it is also important to consider the Vinaya when we discuss the origins of Secret Mantra, because those in the Theravada school have voiced concerns about Secret Mantra and the ways in which it seems to contradict the Vinaya. For example, in the Vajrayana, monastics often bow to laypeople, but in the Vinaya, bhikshus are forbidden to bow to laypeople or their juniors within the sangha; bhikshus should only bow to their seniors. This was an issue that needed further research. The Karmapa referred to an excerpt from the “Blaze of Reasoning,” a commentary on the Vinaya attributed to Bhāvaviveka. It says that bodhisattvas such as Chenresig [Avalokiteśvara] wear lay clothes and seem like laypeople but they are not. Though they may have the appearance of a layperson, the bodhisattvas adopt this appearance for the sake of ripening sentient beings. Even the śrāvaka scriptures say that the Buddha emanated himself in the form of blacksmiths, hunters, and so forth, his form, conduct, and the words he spoke were those of ordinary laypeople, but that does not mean he was not the Buddha and, consequently, worthy of veneration.
In the Vinaya, there is the story of Kīrti, one of the ‘near group of five’—the second group of Buddha’s first disciples. When he met the Buddha, he was a layperson. The Buddha gave him the instructions and he immediately attained arhatship. Because Kīrti had reached the level of an arhat, the Buddha said this verse in praise of him:
Though decked in jewelry, those whose conduct
Is peaceful and subdued have vows and chaste conduct.
Those who give up harming all sentient beings
Are brahmins, monastics. They are bhikṣhus.
Although Kīrti wore lay clothes, he had achieved the state of a noble arhat, and because he had achieved that state, the Buddha said that he was an actual monastic, an actual brahmin.
The Karmapa continued his reference to the “Blaze of Reasoning”:
If you say that monastics should not prostrate to laypeople, you need to ask what are you prostrating to? You prostrate to a person because of their qualities, not because of their appearance. You pay homage to the qualities of abandonment and realization within their continuum, qualities which are different than anyone else’s, and not to their clothing.
There are many who have gone forth but have not achieved emancipation;
There are many who wear the brown robes but have not abandoned their mental faults;
There are many who carry alms bowls but are not vessels for qualities.
There are many who wear the robes but are neither lay people nor bhikshus.
The Karmapa commented that because they are wearing robes, these monastics are not laypeople, but they are not true bhikshus either because they have not developed revulsion for samsara. They are “like clouds with no rain and wells with no water…” or “like a drawing of a lamp” which cannot dispel darkness. Merely having the appearance of a monastic by wearing robes is not something to be arrogant about. It is appropriate for monastics who lack qualities to prostrate to a lay person who is rich in qualities.
The scriptures of the eighteen schools, which are the teachings of the Foundation Vehicle, say that one must pay homage to bodhisattvas. For example, in the Mahāsāṃghika school it is said that the members of the fourfold community should prostrate to the regent Maitreya. So it is not true to say that in the teaching of the Foundational Vehicle monastics should not prostrate to laypeople; the distinctions were made in terms of their qualities not their robes.
This is what was said in “The Blaze of Reasoning.”
In Vajrayana the most important texts are “The Fifty Verses of the Guru” and discussions of the “Fourteen Root Downfalls in Unexcelled Tantra.”
During the time of Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje and Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje, colleges were established for studying tantra. We don’t know the detailed curriculum, but in general, at first, they taught “The Fifty Verses of the Guru,” and then the “Fourteen Root Downfalls.”
Here the Karmapa said he hoped in the future he would be able to teach the monks and nuns the Vajrayana texts of “The Fifty Verses of the Guru” and the “Fourteen Root Downfalls.” He also said there were important commentaries on “The Fifty Verses of the Guru.” There was a short commentary by the Seventh Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso, and another short commentary by the Karma Khenchen Rinchen Dargye. The one he considered special was the commentary by the great Tsongkhapa, and another commentary by a great Sakya master.
In any case, “The Fifty Verses of the Guru” said:
To avoid criticism in the world,
Those with discipline
Place the true Dharma and such in front
and mentally pay homage
To laypeople or their juniors.
Service such as preparing seats,
Standing, and doing their work—
Those with discipline do them all,
But avoid doing the unorthodox in public.
‘The unorthodox’ refers to breaking the socially accepted rules of seniority. If the student was a monastic or a senior bhikṣhu and the guru a layperson, or the student a senior bhikshu and the master a junior, if the student prostrated to them, there was a danger they would be criticized in society. The advice given was one should place Dharma texts, a statue of the Buddha, and so forth, in front of the guru, and then prostrate to them with body and speech. But in one’s mind, one should prostrate to the guru. It was also possible to serve the guru and show respect by preparing their seat and standing when they arrived.
The Karmapa next said that when he looked at the Indian texts on secret mantra vows and conduct, he saw two traditions: a strict Vinaya tradition and a more relaxed Vinaya tradition. He paraphrased an excerpt from the Tibetan translation of the commentary on the “Fifty Verses of the Guru”: There are only two people bhikshus should prostrate to, one is the Buddha and the other is a person with seniority in vows. That is true, but that is the way of the śrāvakas of the Foundation Vehicle, and not the way of the bodhisattvas. The more relaxed view that we are speaking about is the way of the bodhisattva and in particular the mantra tradition, in which there is no fault for a monastic to prostrate to a layperson. This says the secret mantra practice is more important than the Vinaya discipline.
The Karmapa gave a further example from the “Stainless Light” (Vimalaprabhā), a commentary on the short Kālacakra tantra, citing the same passage from the “Fifty Verses”:
If a layperson or a junior becomes a bhikshu’s vajra master, what should he do? Avoid performing the lowly service of washing feet and so forth and prostrating with the five limbs. When the guru arrives pay respect, make offerings and so forth. When they are teaching, to avoid worldly criticism, arrange the true Dharma and such in front and prostrate.
The “Stainless Light” also states that of the three categories at an empowerment, laypeople, novices and bhikhus, the bhikṣhu is more important. When there is a bhikshu vajra holder present, it denigrated the sangha for a layperson to be the vajra holder for monastics, to consecrate temples, and so forth, and this weakened the Buddha’s teachings. The “Stainless Light” seems to have more consideration of the Vinaya discipline.
The Karmapa summarized, “In brief, in the practice of the pratimoksha vows, bodhisattva vows, and mantra, avoiding conflicts between them and bringing the practice to the same point, is a major difficulty. This is complicated and not easy at all. In Tibetan we talk about practicing the union of sutra and tantra, and we talk about the secret mantra. We cannot say that this was only in Tibet, but that is the place where it still flourishes, that can be said. It is easy to say impressive things but to put them into practice is not at all easy.”
The Karmapa quoted Milarepa saying, “‘If you do not know the details about what is allowed and prohibited, what use is being learned?’ Just having heard something or understanding it is not enough. It is because of this critical point that Atiśa taught the stages of the path for the three types of individuals, and many Indian and especially Tibetan scholars wrote many treatises on the three vows, particularly Sakya Pandita. When we talk about secret mantra, I have thought that there is a great need to emphasize studying the three vows. One must learn how to bring the outer vows of Pratimoksha, the inner vows of Bodhisattva, and the secret tantric vows in union. We need to learn how to practice them without them coming into conflict. This is very difficult and complicated to put into practice.”
The Importance of the Sangha in Buddhist History
After the break, the Karmapa concluded the first part of the teaching—the origin of the Vinaya and the sangha—by speaking about the importance of the sangha and the positive effects it had had.
According to the Indian scholar, S.R. Goyal, the community of the Buddhist sangha played a particular function in Buddhist history and had a particular benefit in the history of India and other Asian countries. The presence of the sangha community had an extraordinarily strong influence in spreading the true Dharma. The Buddhist sangha spread the Buddha’s teachings throughout all of India, and it also spread the words of the Buddha into all the different Asian countries. Without the help of the sangha, if there had been no community of monastics, it would have been impossible for the Buddhist Dharma to become one of the major world religions. The places where the sangha resided also became great centers of learning.
For many centuries in India, the highest levels as well as the basic foundations of education primarily happened in Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. The sangha’s education was not only in Buddhist subjects. They also studied non-Buddhist schools and different areas of knowledge. That was the procedure in the great monasteries such as Nālanda where students studied all the different areas of knowledge, the different schools and other topics. Similarly, Buddhist monasteries were known as wellsprings for art and learning. Many historically significant statues and paintings were made in monasteries, for example, the caves in Ajantā and Ellorā, and the art from Gandhāra—the most famous statues were primarily from Buddhist monasteries.
Buddhist monasteries directly and indirectly played an important role in spreading the Indian language, knowledge, arts, and so forth, to other regions. The best tool for this spreading was the sangha in the Buddhist monasteries. For example, the paintings in Ajantā had a strong influence on the frescoes in the Dunhuang caves in China and on Sīnhāgiri [Lion Rock] in Sri Lanka, with its lion-shaped entrance gate and frescoes. To add to that, in Tibet, Indian knowledge and religions and the Buddhadharma have exerted tremendous influence. Without the monasteries and the Buddhist community, Indian culture and the teachings of the practice would not have been able to spread.
Having completed the topic, the Karmapa moved on to discuss the First Council.
The First Council: The Origin of the Original Scriptures
According to the Japanese scholar Umada Gyokei “After the Buddha’s parinirvana, one of the most significant events in Buddhist history was the First Council, held in Rājagṛiha, during the first summer after the Buddha had passed into nirvana. The aim for holding the council at that time was to settle the content of the instructions the Buddha gave, and the many Dharma teachings that the Buddha had taught. The most important members of the sangha had to gather to reach a consensus and prevent controversy and internal disputes from occurring in the future.
At that time, Mahākāśyapa presided over the council, and the participants included 500 arhats. During the gathering of the council, the sangha recited the Buddha’s instructions and teachings. Since nothing had been written down, everything was recited from memory. It was called the ‘First Council’ because it was the first time the arhats had gathered together to recite. As it was held in Rājagṛiha, it is also known as the ‘Rājagṛiha Council’. Since the participants were five hundred bhikshus or five hundred arhats, it was also called the “Council of the Five Hundred.” According to the Japanese scholar Akira Hirakawa, an alternative meaning of the Sanskrit word for ‘council’ is ‘reciting together’. The difference between ‘reciting’ and ‘reading’ is ‘reciting’ refers to a text that had been memorized. That is the meaning of the term ‘kha-dön’ in Tibetan. In ancient India there was a great emphasis on memorization, just as with the memorization of all the Vedas.
When speaking about the First Council and the way it was held, whether speaking about Buddhist history, Hindu history, or the history of India, the ways to learn about that history and religion are through archaeology, ancient artefacts, manuscripts and travel records. Many scholars from different fields continue to research it, to look for more evidence, and to make hypotheses. and engage in discussion because the ancient Indians did not write their history down. The research includes unearthing artefacts or manuscripts buried underground in caves, inside stupas, and so forth, evidence from other countries such as Sri Lanka and China, where many old texts exist from ancient India. In the fourth and fifth centuries and the seventh and eighth centuries, there were Chinese monastic travelers to India, like Tang Xuanzang, and the like, whose travel records contributed to documenting Buddhist history.
The First Council was a significant event in Buddhist history and there are many different opinions about, and explanations of the initial reasons why it was held, the location, who the participants were, and what topics were discussed at the council.
The way this Council was held was described in the Theravada scriptures. However, there were a certain number of inconsistencies in the descriptions, and there was no other evidence for it archaeologically or in the descriptions found in the scriptures of other schools.
The Karmapa discussed the Council from two perspectives. The first was to look at what was written about it in the Buddhist canon, and the second, to look at what contemporary authoritative researchers say.
For the first, there are accounts of the First Council in the Buddhist canons, such as the Vinaya scriptures of the Dharmaguptaka tradition, the Vinaya Scriptures of the Mahīśhāsaka school, the Theravada “Vinaya Piṭaka” and the “Ten Volume Vinaya,” the “Vinaya Matṛika Sūtra,” the “Great Commentary on the Hundred Thousand Line Prajñāpāramitā,” said to be written by Nagarjuna, Fa Xian’s accounts of his travels, Tang Xuanzang’s “Records of Travels to the West,” the Mahāsānghika vinaya, the biography of Aśoka, the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Vastu, the “Mahaparinirvana Sutra,” and other texts.
Because of time constraints, the Karmapa focused on two sources: the Vinaya scriptures translated into Chinese and the “Great Commentary on the Hundred Thousand Line Prajñāpāramitā.” His reason for choosing those two texts was that the first of these, the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya scriptures is a reliable source that must have appeared relatively early, translated in the fourth or fifth century. Probably the translators’ names were Buddhayaśas and the great Chinese acharya, Buddhasmṛti. Basically, in ancient India the “Fifty Verses of the Vinaya” was the text primarily studied. These masters based their texts primarily on the “Vinaya Scriptures” themselves. These “Vinaya Scriptures” became the most widely spread and there is still a Vinaya School in China. The “Vinaya Scriptures” describe the events of the First Council with a fair degree of detail. The accounts found in the other texts just mentioned were also very much in accord with them. The Karmapa said there were a few differences, but they were in accord by about eighty percent.
Another reason for choosing the “Vinaya Scriptures” was that this text appeared during the period of Nikāya Buddhism, the time of the eighteen schools. The account found in the “Great Commentary on the Prajñāpāramitā” by Nagārjuna was written after the Mahayana had begun to spread. So these two accounts provide a contrast: the accounts in the Chinese Buddhist tradition present the view at the time of Nikaya Buddhism and Nagarjuna’s text reflects the view at the time of the Mahayana.
Nagārjuna’s account differs significantly from the other texts. It is also written in a different style, as if the author had lived it.
Before speaking about the First Council though, there were two people who were primarily involved: Mahākāśyapa and Ananda. The Karmapa then showed an image of Mahākāśyapa found in the Dunhuang Caves and began to tell the story of Mahākāśyapa.
Mahākāśyapa is known as Ö-sung in Tibetan, meaning ‘Light Protector.’ There are two possible meanings for Kāśyapa, either ‘protecting from harm,’ or ‘protecting light.’ In Chinese, it is translated as ‘drinking light.’ According to a Chinese commentary from the Song Dynasty, Kāśyapa was originally the name of an ancient Indian sage. He was given that name because the light radiating from his body absorbed all surrounding light sources, so he was called ‘Light Protector.’ Later his name became the name of a clan, and Mahākāśyapa was born into that clan, so Kāśyapa was his family name. The Buddha had many disciples named Kāśyapa—Daśabala Kāśyapa, the three Kāśyapa brothers, and so forth. The reason Mahākāśyapa was called ‘mahā’ or ‘great,’ according to the Chinese history written during the Song dynasty, was because he was the eldest.
His given name was Nyagrodhaja. ‘Nyagrodha’ means banyan tree and he was named after the tree, because his parents had prayed and made aspirations to the tree. (This account was from Chinese Buddhism. In the Tibetan translation of the “Bhikshuṇī Vibhaṅga,” Nyagrodha was his father’s name.) According to the Chinese account, his homeland was Rājagṛiha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha. His father was named Kāpila, which would be “Serkya” in Tibetan. However, the Mūlasarvāstivāda “Bhikshuṇī Vibhaṅga,” in both the Tibetan and Chinese translations, says that his birthplace was in a town or village called Nyagrodhikā, [which took its name from a large banyan tree], in Magadha, and that his father’s name was Nyagrodha. Kāpila was his wife’s surname.
Here the Karmapa said it would be too complicated to speak of the differences between the Chinese and Tibetan so he would speak from the Tibetan scriptures. Mainly from this point on, he would speak as described in the “Bhikshuṇī Vibhaṅga.”
In any case, Kāśyapa’s father was extremely rich and had unlimited wealth. He was the richest person in all the sixteen kingdoms of India, like the Elon Musk of ancient India, and no one else rivaled him in wealth. He was said to be multiple times richer than even King Bimbisāra. According to the Song Dynasty Buddhist history, Bimbisāra had one thousand golden plows for tilling the fields, but Kāśyapa’s father only made 990 for himself out of respect toward the king.
Although his father was incredibly rich and married, he was childless. He prayed to all the gods but could not have any children. His mother saw how discouraged and depressed her son was about this, (according to the Tibetan “Bhikshuṇī Vibhaṅga”). She told him she and her husband had experienced similar problems, “Son, in our pleasant grove there is a banyan tree with very wide branches, which is why our town is called Banyan Town. Your father was also unable to have any children, just like you, we had that problem. But no matter how many hundreds or thousands of gods he prayed to. In the end, he prayed to this banyan tree and then you were born. So, you should also pray there.”
Nyagrodha did as his mother said, he offered incense and flowers to the tree, and made all sorts of different offerings, and he prayed, “Please, allow me to have a son. If I have a son, I will make offerings like this to you every year. But if I do not have a son, I’ll have you cut down from your roots, chop you into pieces, have you dried in the air and sun, and burnt in fire. I’ll throw the ashes in a river.”
A tree god lived in that banyan tree; he was quite a weak god, he didn’t have much power, so he was happy when people made offerings and prayers to him. After he heard Nyagrodha’s threats, he became very afraid and thought, “He won’t let me stay in this place. He will destroy my home. And leave me with nothing.” The god didn’t have the ability to give the Brahmin a child, so, he went to see his superiors.
His superiors were the Four Great Kings, so he went to them and explained his situation. He went to each of the Four Great Kings, and said, “I have a problem. I’ve had these difficulties. He says to give him a child. But I don’t have any power to give him a child. If I don’t, he will destroy where I live.” But each of the Four Great Kings gave him the same answer. “Whether or not he has children depends on whether he himself has accumulated the karma. We can’t do anything about it.” But the tree god was insistent. So, the Four Great Kings told him to go to Śakra, Lord of the Gods, but Śakra gave the same answer.
At that time, a great light appeared in the assembly of gods, and Śakra said to the Four Great Kings, “Don’t go just yet. Look at that bright light, Great Brahmā is coming here from the form realm, I’ll ask him.” Great Brahmā appeared in the form of a handsome youth and Śakra explained the tree god’s predicament as before. “You’re Great Brahmā, you have to be able to do something.” Great Brahmā thought to himself, “I also don’t have any power to give a son or daughter, but if I say I don’t have the power, because I’m Great Brahma, it will put a stain on my name.” So he decided to obfuscate and gave an incoherent answer about how, “I was not created by the world. I did not create the world. The world did not make me. I did not make the world…”
Then Śakra said to the tree god, “Go back to your abode, but if you see a god who is about to die, there are gods who pass away to go to another realm, if you see anyone like that, please tell them to take birth in that Brahmin’s home.” Hearing this, Great Brahmā said to Śakra , “If that’s so, why aren’t you looking for one? You’ve got lots of gods.” Śakra replied, “I could send a god, but that Brahmin father is so powerful that the gods around me are too weak and do not dare to take birth. You’re from a higher realm, so just send who you can.”
Great Brahma agreed, and after he returned to his abode, he saw a god who exhibited the five signs of impending death. He explained how he should take birth in the Brahmin’s household, but the god was displeased and refused. Great Brahmā said, “Not so long from now, the Buddha will appear in the world. At that time, you can go forth and achieve result.” But the god protested, “If I’m born in a rich Brahmin’s family, and in addition I am the only son, how will they ever let me go forth? They’ll never let me become a monastic.”
Great Brahmā answered, “Don’t worry about that. Just do as I say. When it’s the right time, I will encourage the parents.” Only then did the god accept and go to take birth in Jambūdvīpa. In brief, the main point was that Mahākāśyapa was a god in the form realm in his previous lifetime.
Not long afterwards, the Brahmin’s wife got pregnant, and since the baby was lying on the right side of her abdomen, she knew the child was probably a boy. The Brahmin was delighted, and had his wife stay on the top floor of the building. He gave her all sorts of beds and cushions, she had things for the cold if it was cold out, things for the heat if it was hot, she had medicines and doctors ready, she had foods at just the right temperature. The Brahmin had his wife stay among many silks and ornaments surrounded by singers and musicians, never letting her descend to the lower floors of the building.
After eight or nine months had passed, a son with fine signs was born. The child had seven of the Buddha’s thirty-two great marks. The Brahmin held a great feast for the birth.He gathered his relatives and said, “I received this child because of praying at the foot of the banyan tree [Skt. nyagrodha], so I shall name him Nyagrodhaja, because he was born from the banyan tree.”
When the child had grown, he was taught reading, all the Brahmanical traditions, the four Vedas, the eighteen areas of knowledge, and so forth, so his intelligence became very sharp. Then one day his father Nyagrodha thought, “I am from a great family lineage and have much wealth. At first it was hard to have a son. In our Brahmin customs, one practices celibacy until the age of 48 and only then one gets married, but it would be better for my son to take a bride.” So, he said to his son, “This is the way of the world, the nature of things, so I am going to find you a bride.”
The son replied, “Why should I take a bride? I am going into the forest to practice austerities. That’s my hope.”
The father said, “It is important that our family line not be broken. You absolutely must get married.”
The son thought, “What can I do so that I don’t need to go against my parents’ commandsbut I also do not wish to live with a woman?” Then he had an idea. He went to his father and said, “Please give me some gold from the River Jambū.” This gold from the River Jambū was a type of reddish gold.
His father summoned his steward and said to give his son as much red gold from the River Jambū as wanted. The son took the gold and, without his father’s knowledge, went to a skilled goldsmith whom he asked to fashion this gold into the image of a beautiful woman, almost life-size. When it was done, he showed it to his father and said, “If you can find a beautiful woman like this, I will take her as my bride. Otherwise, I don’t need a wife.” At the time, Nyagrodhaja thought this would be an impossible task!
The father thought, “My son isn’t thinking about his parents. Where will I ever find a woman so beautiful and the color of this gold?” and his father got very discouraged. His students, the young Brahmin boys, saw he was depressed and asked the reason. When he explained, the Brahmin boys said, “No need for you to worry. If you can make three more gold statues like this, we will definitely find a woman just like this.”
The father did as his students had suggested and had three more statues made. The Brahmin boys took the four statues into the four directions of east, west, south, and north and traveled through many countries, towns, and villages. They would place the statue in the marketplace, arrange offerings of flowers, light, and incense, and play music. Then they would announce to the women, “Whoever makes offerings to this goddess will be reborn in a high caste and be married into a high caste. You will go to a good household and your husband will listen to you.”
When they said this, all the old women and young girls rushed to gather and pray to the statue. They did this for a long time, but still they were unable to find a girl with a red-golden complexion. So, they came back empty-handed—from the east, north, and south— and told the Brahmin that they could not find anyone. The Brahmin Nyagrodha got very depressed, and his worries grew stronger. His last hope was the ones who went to the west…
Then the Karmapa said, “Now—whether they found the girl with the gold complexion or not, I’ll speak about that later. So maybe it’s best to leave it there.”
And the fifth day of teaching concluded with the closing prayers.