Mahakashyapa and the Birth of Zen

Mahakashyapa and the Birth of Zen

Mahakashyapa was a disciple of Gautama Buddha.

One morning, as the monks waited, Buddha was late for his discourse. This was unsettling for the gathering as Buddha was never late. They were worried that something was wrong, but he did turn up, before too long, holding a flower. Buddha proceeded to sit still, gazing silently at the flower. The monks were puzzled.

Finally Makashyapa laughed, and Buddha smiled at him, called him forward and gave him the flower. He spoke to the assembly, saying “What can be spoken I have said to you. What cannot be spoken I have given to Mahakashyapa.”

Apparently this is the only time Mahakashyapa’s name is recorded in the history books. He was not famous in any other way, in his day. Yet the spiritual descendants of Mahakashyapa reached over the centuries to Bodhidharma almost a thousand years later.

Bodhidharma was known in India as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism, meaning that he was 28 generations removed from Gautama, via the line of Mahakashyapa. In China he became known as the 1st Patriarch. He was given the job by his Master to take Buddhism and meditation to China, which had never known an enlightened Buddhist Master, although the country had already adopted Buddhism as its religion.

Bodhidharma clashed with the Emperor Wu and many others in China, criticising the monks and refusing to teach them for years before an earnest disciple persuaded him to change his mind, by chopping off his own hand and throwing it in front of the Master.

From China Buddhism made its way across the sea to Japan where it assumed the style of Zen that we know today. In India the word ‘dhyan’ meant meditation, in China it became ‘chan’ and then the word changed again to ‘zen’. What Bodhidharma brought to China was not an ideology but a technique. The fierce, mystical character of Zen came all the way from Gautama Buddha, through the ‘silent transmission’ to Mahakashyapa, through generations of buddhas to Bodhidharma, then to China, and was finally brought to Japan by Kakua, the first Japanese monk to travel to China to learn meditation.