Kassapa and Ananda – after the parinibbana

We’re familiar with image of Mahakassapa as a grizzly monk with a dour perspective on women, and his consequent antagonism with Ananda. I’ve just been reviewing a few of the texts that have helped create this image, and as usual a close look reveals a more nuanced perspective. There are two Suttas from the Kassapa Samyutta, SN 16.10 and 16.11, each of which has two Chinese versions as well. You can find English translations here; scroll down to 15.1.10 and 15.1.11. Here’s a little comparative study I’ve been working on.

1 Soon after the Buddha passed away, Ānanda approached Mahākassapa and asked him if he would come to the bhikkhuni monastery to teach the nuns. The two monks were greeted with respect by the bhikkhunis and Mahākassapa gave a lengthy Dhamma teaching, which the bhikkhunis found inspiring. Afterwards, however, one nun complained loudly. She is called Thullatissā in the Pali, but Thullanandā in the Chinese versions. She said that for Mahākassapa to be teaching in front of Ānanda was like a needle-peddlar selling needles to the needle-maker. Mahākassapa didn’t take too kindly to this, and Ānanda said to him to forgive, as she was only being foolish.

2 Mahākassapa responded, according to the Chinese versions, by reminding Ānanda that the Buddha compared Mahākassapa, not Ānanda, to the waxing moon that was always growing in brightness. All versions continue by Mahākassapa recounting the occasion when the Buddha praised Mahākassapa in front of the Sangha for his attainment of the four jhanas and the higher knowledges culminating in arahantship.

3 Such is the story that is more or less common to the three extant versions of this text. But the Pali version adds several details. First, Mahākassapa initially declines the invitation to teach, slightingly remarking that Ānanda is the ‘busy one with many duties’. The commentary explains that since the Buddha passed away the fourfold assembly had been constantly coming to Ānanda for teachings. Only after repeated encouragement – or nagging – by Ānanda does he consent. The Chinese versions of this Sutta mention no reluctance on the part of Mahākassapa, merely saying that they had gone for alms together in Rājagaha, and as the time was too early they visited the nuns’ monastery. The Pali depicts Ānanda as responding to the bhikkhuni’s criticism by saying ‘the woman is foolish’, or perhaps ‘women are foolish’, whereas the Chinese texts don’t introduce gender here at all. After Ānanda’s call for Mahākassapa to show kindness, the Pali depicts him as threatening Ānanda, saying that if he is not careful, the Sangha will investigate him further. This is apparently an allusion to the events of the First Council; but it is not found in the Chinese versions. Finally, the Pali version ends by declaring that Thullatissā ended up by disrobing, while the Chinese versions make no mention of this.

4 In a closely related Sutta, Mahākassapa was staying in Rājagaha shortly after the Buddha’s passing away. Ānanda arrives with a large following of mostly young monks, several of whom disrobe. Mahākassapa criticizes Ānanda, calling him a ‘boy’. When a bhikkhuni heard this, she criticized Mahākassapa, saying that he had formerly been a follower of a different religion. Mahākassapa refutes this, saying that he had gone forth in dedication to the ‘arahants in the world’, and had taken the Buddha as his teacher. He goes on to recount their first meeting, and the exchange of robes. The Pali version again ends by remarking that the bhikkhuni disrobed, which is not mentioned in the Chinese versions.

5 It is hard to ignore this systematic difference in orientation. While essentially the same story appears, the Pali consistently plays up the conflict between Mahākassapa and Ānanda, and emphasizes the failure of the nuns who oppose Mahākassapa. It seems that Mahākassapa was meant to appear tough and uncompromising, but to a modern reader he comes across as arrogant and defensive, especially in his hyper-sensitivity when women are involved.

6 If we were to consider only the Pali Suttas, we would be tempted to interpret these episodes as evidence of Mahākassapa’s misogyny, and would be liable to draw from that conclusions about the nature of the hard core ascetic’s attitude to women. If we take the Chinese versions into account, however, the conflictive aspects of these tales are softened, and the harshness in Mahākassapa’s character is revealed to be largely an illusion created by the redactors.

7 These incidents took place near Rājagaha, where the First Council was held, and it seems plausible that they happened between the parinibbāna and the First Council. They record the Sangha’s concern for the future of Buddhism. Are all the young monks going to disrobe? Sāriputta and Moggallāna have already gone; after the first generation of disciples, such as Mahākassapa, pass away completely, will the younger generation led by Ānanda be up to the task? Will favoritism and jealousies among the nuns divide the monks? In this troubled period the evident tensions between these two monks are more understandable, more human. What family hasn’t argued after the death of a parent?

8 Mahākassapa is in his usual role of the curmudgeonly old monk who jumps sternly on any misdemeanour in the Sangha. In these passages he criticizes the bhikkhunis, but only a little earlier he has been just as critical of a bad monk like Subhadda, who rejoiced at the Buddha’s passing away. In none of these cases did Mahākassapa make any negative or derogatory remarks about bhikkhunis or women in general. He criticized a bad nun on valid grounds. If we interpret these passages as misogynistic, this is our projection onto Mahākassapa, not Mahākassapa’s projection on to the bhikkhunis.

16 thoughts on “Kassapa and Ananda – after the parinibbana

  1. It is useful indeed to have a comparison with the Chinese Agamas. I often wish that my translations of the Pali Canon had notations informing me where the various suttas differ. Such an edition of say,Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations would be quite invaluable. I fear that there aren’t many (if any?) qualified to adequately take on such an endeavor, for you would not only have to be fluent in both Chinese AND Pali, but also have a thorough knowledge of both canons/traditions.

    • The work has been mainly done by Japanese scholars Anesaki and Akanuma, as well as a series of later scholars, including the Taiwanese master Yin Shun. We have corrected and brought these up to date as much as possible for SuttaCentral.net. you can find the various equivalent suttas there for the entire four Nikayas.

      The Chinese canon has printed the corresponding Pali Sutta references since the Taisho edition in the 1920s. However, there is to this day not one single text or translation of the Pali canon that reciprocates this gesture.

      For anyone interested to plunge into it, here‘s a great online tool by Marcus Bingenheimer of Dharma Drum that translates the ‘shorter’ Samyukta Agama and compares with the Pali. There’s only a small number of Suttas translated, unfortunately; when I saw Marcus a couple of years ago he was aiming at one per day, but that has obviously not eventuated. But he has done the whole bhikkhuni-samyukta!

  2. On a side note. I have heard that in the pali sutta where the Buddha predicts the demise of his order in 500 years, the Chinese equivalent says 5000 years. Is this true?

    • There are many equivalent passages, and i am not aware of any direct equivalents that say 5000 years. There is a more general tendency to extend the prophecy in veraious texts, as examined by Jan Nattier in her excellent Once Upon a future Time.

      We will be making many of these passages available in translation soon.

  3. Dear Aj Sujato,

    What I really don’t understand is the qualities of an Arahant. If Mahakassapa was an Arahant, was it possible for him to be a sexist and misogynist (as portrayed by the Pali suttas)?

    I’m truly confused.

    I think when one has become fully enlightened (an Arahant), one will be “wise” and “compassionate”.

    Yours in dhamma,

    • This is why I have embarked on these studies, to see whether the charges of misogyny against Mahakassapa can really stick. At the very least, we must be cautious since all these texts have passed through so many hands before reaching us.

    • Dear Bhante

      Do the Commentaries attempt to explain Ven Mahakassapa’s “personality” as being a function of his habitual past personality? I’m sure the kilesas and anusayas are totally extinguished, but I get the impression that Theravada does make an attempt to account for the diverse personalities of Arahants by reference to their pre-enlightenment predilections.

    • Not that i know of. The commentarial/Abhidhamma theory of vasana is a ‘fix’ that aims to explain why arahants can have some seemingly irrational behaviours; the classic example is Sariputta’s alleged liking for jumping over puddles, as he was a monkey in thousands of past lives. No doubt it’s a plausible enough explanation for Mahakassapa’s personality, but I’ve never seen it explicitly used in this way.

    • Thanks Bhante! I’m sure you’ll keep us on an even keel and stop us from descending into a Byzantine speculation about how many vasanas will manifest in any one Arahant.

      I just checked out the Dharma Drum tool you posted for the Shorter Samyukta Agama. Was it just a coincidence that the 1st sutra concerned your namesake?

    • It’s a bit sad that the commentarial tradition felt the need to ‘fix’ or find excuses for people’s personalities.


    • Maybe it was not a deliberate or conscious decision on the part of the Mahaviharavasins, unless it was a reaction to a rival theory? Sometimes, I get the feeling that the elders may have just been swept along by the irresistible currents of monastic style and they just got caught up in speculation…

      It brought a smile to read how the Commentators laboured over explaining smiles and the Buddha’s smiles in particular. 🙂

  4. Dear Bhante,
    I was pleased to read that the Chinese texts take a softer position. Meanwhile what do you make of Oskar Von Hinueber’s assessment made during the Hamburg Congress (CD- entitled “Bhikkhuni ordination”). I was struck by a tablet that is kept at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto from China dating Tang Dynasty during Xuanzang’s lifetime depicting the Buddha flanked by Ananda, Mahakassapa, Mogallana and Sariputra, and Ananda’s face is clearly missing- it looks as though it was defaced – as it does not stand out any more than any of the other faces. Of course, museums refraining from controversy and occasionally their duty to provide any context whatsoever! no explanation is provided. 🙂 (I make no assumptions, but it struck me nonetheless)

    Oskar Von Hinueber on the Ananda vs. Mahakassapa “factions”

    Oskar Von Hinueber, during the congress presented the possibility that Mahakassapa and Ananda were “not at all on friendly terms” and that “the acceptance of nuns remained controversial enough within the Buddhist community to be mirrored in our texts. Ananda’s stance (using modern vocabulary now) for the pro-Bhikkhuni faction and Mahakassapa for its opponents. Ananda is criticized during the first council, which as we know was presided over by Mahakassapa as the most prominent monk after the Buddha’s death having committed 5 very bad mistakes among them the support for nuns. All this points to a very deeply rooted dissention. This is the result if an attempt is made to convert the information contained in these ancient texts of the Suttapitaka and the slightly later formulated Vinaya Pitaka into historical accounts.

    Even if based on historical memory however strong or faint the events had to be adjusted to the then current literary forms of the Suttanta or Vinaya texts allowing only for certain well-known protagonists to act. In the same way as the formation of the texts and compilation of the canon could be led in the garb of a council, the foundation of the new Buddhist community of aescteics -the order of nuns- had to be connected to the Buddha in one way or another. This was achieved n an ingenious way by introducing Mahaprajapati Gotami and Ananda to win over the Buddha who after having permitted the acceptance of nuns withdraws and is above all quarrel and controversy.

    The prominent monks on the other hand– Ananda who as a favourite of the Buddha and Mahakassapa as the most venerable monk at the time of the Nibbana and heir to the Buddha may be considered as the heads of two conflicting currents within the Sangha. The Ananda faction was strong enough to prevail over their opponents and push through the acceptance of nuns but not strong enough to prevent the Mahakassapa faction from expressing their misgivings in the texts. It would have been perfectly easy to cancel all attacks on Ananda. This however was not done. For the rift in the community was so deep and so well remembered that it was impossible to cover it up by perfectly simple means of redaction. It is well known that the opponents Ananda and Mahakassapa survived the Buddha. Some of the relevant Suttanta texts are even by the tradition taken to describe events after the Buddha and that certainly correctly.

    (Therefore taking all the evidence together and taking into accounts the means of expression available to those who formulated the texts as we read them today it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the introduction of the order of nuns was an event at the end of the very earliest period of Buddhism happening not too long after the death of the Buddha and moreover that the controversy on the admission of nuns might have been – speaking again in modern historical terms- between 2 factions whether or not to accept a group of ascetics -women and their leader- who when they finally joined Buddhism succeeded in preserving part of the language used in the original rules (from Jainism) still visible in the terminology of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha here and there. And finally if all this should be correct that our sources tell us that the very first nuns were ordained by monks only. There is nowhere any shade of an obstacle in sight which might prevent Theravada monks of today to act exactly in the same way again to revive the ordination of nuns from the Theravada without any help from the outside being required or necessary. Just act by the book Cullavaggha book No. 10.) (End of Dr. Von Hinueber’s presentation)


    • While he makes some interesting observations, i was not at all convinced by Von Hinuber’s main thesis, which was that the bhikkhuni order was only established some time after the Buddha’s death. This has been convincingly refuted by Analayo is his ‘Theories on the Foundation of the Nun’s Order’ (JCBSSL VOL. VI).

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