Kashyapa translates as “drinking up others’ light” in Chinese. In the past, he was a goldsmith who helped a poor woman gild a Buddha image. As a result, both of them had the reward of their bodies emitting golden light, outshining and thereby hiding the light of the sun and moon. Hence, he was called “drinking up others’ light”. He was from a wealthy family and his marriage was arranged by his father. He sensed that the mundane world was full of caprice. He and his wife both then resolved to practice the Way—and each did not interfere with the other’s cultivation. In order to end birth and death, he took refuge with the Buddha and focused on the twelve
dhutangas (ascetic practices): wearing only rag robes, keeping only three robes, going on almsrounds, seeking alms in sequential order, eating only one meal a day at midday, eating in moderation, not drinking juice after noon, dwelling in an
aranya, dwelling beneath a tree, dwelling in the open, dwelling in a graveyard, and always sitting and never lying down. He was foremost in practicing pure conduct.
One day on Vulture Peak, the Buddha twirled a flower in front of the assembly. The whole assembly was silent. However,the Venerable One smiled and thus received the transmission of the Buddha’s “mind-seal” as well as the Buddha’s robe and bowl. He became the first Patriarch in India. He followed the Buddha’s instruction to enter
samadhi at Jizu (Chicken Foot) Mountain to await Maitreya Buddha’s advent into this world so that he can pass on the golden-threaded precept sash. After the Buddha’s Nirvana, he gathered five hundred Arhats at Seven-leaf Tree Cave to compile the Tripitaka—the Sutras, the Shastras and the Vinaya.
The first Patriarch, Venerable Mahakashyapa, was foremost in dhutangas. Even though he was over one hundred years old, he still practiced vigorously and fearlessly without the least bit of laxness or laziness. The Buddha took pity on him and said: “Old as you are, you may rest more.” But he would not rest. Therefore, among all the Buddha’s disciples, he was the foremost in ascetic practices.
Dhutanga, a Sanskrit word, translates as “to shake off [sloth].” Striking up the spirit, one presses on with vigor and does not slack off.
Mahakashyapa is also a Sanskrit word. Translated into Chinese, it means “drinking up others’ light”. Why was he called “drinking up others’ light”? It was because his body emitted golden light, outshining the radiance of the sun and moon. Hence, he got the name of “drinking up others’ light”. It’s attributed to his past as a goldsmith. He met a poor woman who was a beggar. She saw that a gilded image of the Buddha was peeling, and endeavored to re-gild the image by earning some money. [After she had some money,] she still lacked the know-how for gilding. So she found a goldsmith, talked to him and requested him to help with the gilding. This goldsmith was Mahakashyapa in his past life.
In that lifetime, he was a goldsmith who had not yet cultivated the Way. Seeing that this woman was so sincere, taking out all her savings for gilding the Buddha image, he said: “We should share this merit. You contribute your gold and I my labor.” They gilded the image, and that merit brought about the retribution of having bodies that emitted light life after life. That light could outshine and obscure the light of the sun and the moon. He was born into a very well-off family in India. Following the custom which he obeyed, his father arranged his marriage. But afterwards, he found that the world was ever full of impermanence. Hence his wife and he decided to cultivate the Way and not interfere with and bother each other. Since both of them cultivated, they realized that they had to end birth and death. Therefore, they took refuge with the Buddha.
Mahakashyapa cultivated the twelve dhutangas (ascetic practices) to benefit himself and use these as his standard for practice. What are the dhutangas?
1. Wearing rag robes, which are made from the pieces of cloth people discard in the trash can. He would pick them up from the garbage, clean them and patch them together to make a rag robe.
2. Keeping only three robes: He didn’t have anything else but these three robes: the five-piece robe, the seven-piece robe and the host robe, the samghati.
3. Going on almsrounds for offerings.
4. Seeking alms in sequential order. He would take his bowl and go door to door consecutively to receive offerings. This practice limited him to go to seven households only. If there were offerings of food, he got his meal; if no offerings were made, he would not go further. This is called “seeking alms in sequential order.”
5. Eating only one meal a day.
6. Eating in moderation. He ate a fixed and moderate amount of food.
7. Not drinking any juice after noon; all he had was one meal per day.
8. Dwelling in an aranya. He always lived in an aranya—a quiet reclusive place, thus maintaining the purity of mind.
9. Dwelling under a tree. He he lived under a tree.
10. Dwelling in the open, outside under the sky.
11. Dwelling in a graveyard. He dwelt and cultivated there. Since he had to face the diseased, he could practice seeing through the nature of all phenomena.
12. Always sitting and never lying down. His ribs never touched the mat”—he always slept sitting up.
He focused on practicing the dhutangas. “Dhutangas” translates into English as “to strike up one’s spirit”, to shake off all sloth. Even though he was old, he never succumbed to old age, and never said, “I’m getting old. I can’t do these things anymore. You young people should be the ones doing this.” This certainly wasn’t the case here.
Once on Vulture Peak, Shakyamuni Buddha with a smile showed the Dharma assembly a golden lotus flower, and yet remained silent. All the members in the assembly were left speechless and perplexed, except Venerable Mahakashyapa, who broke into a smile. Right then, the Buddha said, “I have the Treasury of the Orthodox Dharma Eye, the Wonderful Mind of Nirvana. The reality is beyond appearances, a special transmission apart from the formal teachings, and not established on the written or spoken word! I have already given it to Mahakasyapa.” The Buddha meant he had transmitted this Dharma to Mahakashyapa, establishing him as the first Patriarch in India. After Shakyamuni Buddha entered Nirvana, Mahakashyapa followed the Buddha’s instruction to compile the Tripitaka: the Sutras, the Shastras and the Vinaya, together with the five hundred Arhats at Seven-leaf Tree Cave.
To be continued