Sanskrit Lesson

Mahakasyapena ca

"and Mahakasyapa,"

(continued from issue #42)                                     by Bhiksuni Heng Hsien

    Mahakasyapa, the next Elder listed in the Amitabha Sutra, received the transmission of the Buddha's mind-to-mind seal Dharma and became the first Buddhist Patriarch. His name is prefaced by the title:

maha, "great," which he deserves for four reasons: (I) he was the son of a great Brahman elder; (2) he renounced a large inheritance when he left home; (3) he cultivated all twelve of the ascetic practices; and (4) he was esteemed by great men.

kasyapa may be explained in two ways. First,
the word kasyapa in Sanskrit, with a short initial a means "tortoise." Lengthening the a gives the meaning "related to/connected with the tortoise." Mahakasyapa came from a long line of Brahman sages in Magadha who used the methods outlined in the pattern on a tortoise's back to cultivate the Way. Hence they were called "those connected with tortoises." The Chinese translated this version of Mahakasyapa's name as "Great Turtle Clan."1


      Second, ancient Sanskrit dictionaries list a word kasya as a kind of spirituous drink. Another Chinese translation of Kasyapa's name was "Light-Drinking Clan."2 The Sanskrit root pa- means "drink," and there is also a root kas- meaning "shine." There is no surviving example of the use of the word kasya to mean light, but the traditional Chinese explanation of Kasyapa's name as related to/of the family of Light-Drinkers suggests the meaning "light" for kasya may once have been current. 
      Mahakasyapa was given the personal name Pippala by his parents, for a pippala-tree had helped them have their son. The pippala-tree spirit is the Indian tree known as the sacred fig (ficus religiosa), and is more commonly called the Peepal tree.

    Mahakasyapa is now waiting in samadhi at Chicken Foot Mountain in China to transmit Sakyamuni Buddha's bowl to Maitreya Bodhisattva when that Bodhisattva becomes this world's next Buddha.

1ta kuei shih.   2 yin kuang shih.