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.