Shakyamuni Buddha announced to the assembly, "I have the true Dharma eye treasury, wondrous mind of nirvana, which I bequeath to Mahakasyapa. Spread it through the future, never letting it be cut off." He also entrusted to Mahakasyapa his golden embroidered winter robe. Having thus received transmission of the true Dharma eye treasury, Mahakasyapa became the first Indian patriarch of Zen.
His name is derived from the Sanskrit words "Maha" (Great) and his clan name "Kasyapa" ("Tortoise or Black-Toothed Clan"). Mahakasyapa was famously foremost among the Buddha's disciples in ascetic practice. Throughout his life, he devotedly maintained the twelve ascetic practices so as to control worldly desires and let the Mind of Truth show itself. For those of you keeping score at home, the twelve ascetic practices are:
- To not accept people's invitations, but to go begging for food every day; also to not accept money or even a single meal for a monk.
- To lodge on a mountain, not in some one's house, a populated district, or a village.
- To never beg for clothes from people, and to not accept clothes that people offer, but to instead take the clothes of dead people which have been discarded at gravesides, and to mend these clothes and wear them.
- To lodge under a tree in the countryside.
- To eat only one meal a day.
- To not lie down in the daytime or the nighttime, but only to sit, and when sleepy to walk about. (The Japanese word for walking meditation, kinhin, is derived from the Sanskrit cankrama. The traditional rule for kinhin in Japan is "one breath per half-step.")
- To have three robes and not to have other robes, and not to sleep in bedclothes. (It was the samghati robe, the largest and heaviest of the three robes, used for ceremonial occasions or giving lectures and worn during the cold, that Shakyamuni entrusted to Mahakasyapa. Legend has it that Mahakasyapa is still alive and waiting in a Himalayan cave to transmit Shakyamuni's robe to the future Buddha Maitreya.)
- To stay among graves, not in Buddhist temples, and not in human society. Looking at the skulls and bones of dead people, to sit in zazen and pursue the truth.
- To want to live alone, not to want to meet people, and not to want to sleep with people.
- To first eat fruit and then to eat a meal, but never to eat fruit after finishing a meal.
- To want only to sleep in the open, not sheltering under a tree.
- Not to eat meat or dairy produce, and not to apply herbal oil to the body.
The Buddha himself had engaged in these practices during the six years between his leaving home and sitting under the Bodhi Tree but had rejected them, opting for The "Middle Way" between sensual indulgence and ascetic hardships. Nevertheless, Mahakasyapa stuck with the practices and did not stray from them throughout his life, even after receiving the authentic transmission of the true Dharma eye treasury.
It's noteworthy that even though the Buddha taught The Middle Way and had rejected ascetic practices, he not only allowed the senior member of his order to practice in his own way, but even praised him for his effort. However, one day, the Buddha said to him, "You are already an old man, you should eat a monk's meal." Mahakasyapa replied, ""If I had not met with The World Honored One's appearance in this world, I would have been a solitary pratyekabuddha, living in mountains and forests all my life. Fortunately, I have met with the The World Honored One's appearance in this world, and I have experienced the Dharma's goodness. Nevertheless, I will not eat a monk's meal in the end." The Buddha praised him for his steadfastness.
On another occasion, Mahakasyapa's body had become so emaciated because of his ascetic practice and his robes so coarse and shabby, that many of the other monks looked at him with disdain. But the Buddha warmly summoned him and offered him half of his seat, and on each occasion when the Buddha preached the Dharma, Mahakasyapa shared his teaching seat with him.
When Shakyamuni Buddha achieved his enlightenment upon seeing the morning star, he said, "How marvelous! I, together with the whole of the great earth and all its sentient beings, have simultaneously realized enlightenment." If all sentient beings realized enlightenment simultaneously with the Buddha, what had Mahakasyapa been lacking prior to Vulture Peak? What exactly was transmitted from Shakyamuni to Mahakasyapa?