Kappa

Renderings

kappa: one hundred years

kappa: a universal cycle

kappa: the period of a universal cycle

saṃvaṭṭavivaṭṭakappa: the period of a universal cycle

Introduction

The period of a universal cycle

The period of a universal cycle (kappa) is long (dīgho kho bhikkhu kappo S.2.181). If a square city had sides 10 kilometres long, and walls 10 kilometres high, and was filled with mustard seeds, and a man removed one seed every hundred years, he would have removed all the seeds, but the universal cycle would still be unfinished (S.2.182).

The maths is easily totted. If a mustard seed is a cubic millimetre, then the seeds would be emptied in 10,000 million million years.

Living for a kappa

But perplexingly, the Buddha said that by developing the four paths to psychic power (cattāro iddhipādā), if one wished one could live for a kappa or slightly more than a kappa (kappaṃ vā tiṭṭheyya kappāvasesaṃ vā S.5.259). He said he could do the same himself (D.2.103). But is this the same kappa? Could an arahant live for billions of years?

The problem of co-existing Buddhas

Some, amazingly, say yes, he can. But there are problems with this. Firstly, there can never simultaneously be two Perfectly Enlightened Buddhas in the world (yaṃ ekissā lokadhātuyā dve arahanto sammāsambuddho apubbaṃ acarimaṃ uppajjeyyuṃ netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjatī ti, M.3.65). And if these Perfectly Enlightened Buddhas lived for the period of a universal cycle, their lives would overlap, which would break this law. The births of recent Buddhas are as follows:

• Buddha Vipassī: 91 kappas ago

• Buddha Sikhī and Buddha Vessabhū: 31 kappas ago

• Buddha Kakusandha, Buddha Konāgamana, Buddha Kassapa and Buddha Gotama arose in this present ‘fortunate kappa’ (bhaddakappe), and Buddha Metteyya is expected here, too (D.2.2; BDPPN).

Thus, with up to five Perfectly Enlightened Buddhas in one kappa, with each Buddha capable of living one kappa, but unable to co-exist with other Perfectly Enlightened Buddhas, it would only be possible if kappa had more than one meaning, with one kappa being much shorter, at most a fifth of the other.

Venerable MahāKassapa: less than 220 years old

In more recent times, consider Venerable MahāKassapa. He was 120 years old at the First Council (BDPPN), and some even claim he is still alive today, dwelling in the Kukkutagiri Mountains, wrapt in samādhi, awaiting the arrival of Metteyya Buddha (BDPPN). According to this he is therefore now approximately 2,600 years old. But at the Second Council, 100 years after the First Council, the oldest bhikkhu on earth (paṭhavyā saṅghatthero, Vin.2.303) was Venerable Sabbakāma. Therefore Kassapa must have passed away before his 220th birthday. But 220 is too generous, because by the laws of normal distribution, Sabbakāma must have been marking the end of the bell curve. And as, at the Second Council, he had been in robes for 120 years, and if we can assume he ordained at aged 20 after leaving his wife (Th.v.453), then it would seem that the absolute end of the bell curve would not be many hours or minutes beyond 140, and that 140 is therefore as old as a bhikkhu can possibly get.

Kappa: length is not fixed

The Mahāpadāna Sutta (D.2.3) says human lifespan (āyuppamāṇaṃ) has varied considerably in the times of previous Perfectly Enlightened Buddhas, as follows:

• Buddha Vipassī: 80,000 years.
asīti vassasahassāni āyuppamāṇaṃ ahosi (D.2.53)

• Buddha Sikhī: 70,000 years

• Buddha Vessabhū: 60,000 years

• Buddha Kakusandhu: 40,000 years

• Buddha Konāgamana: 30,000 years

• Buddha Kassapa: 20,000 years

• Buddha Gotama: 100 years.

The Mahāpadāna Sutta (D.2.11) gives further details of Buddha Vipassī:

• He was born of the khattiya race in a khattiya family
Vipassī bhikkhave bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho khattiyo jātiyā ahosi khattiyakule udapādi

• He lived for 80,000 years
Vipassissa bhikkhave bhagavato arahato sammāsambuddhassa asītivassasahassāni āyuppamāṇaṃ ahosi

Thus Buddha Vipassī lived for the lifespan of his era. And because his own lifespan and the human lifespan correspond, and because Buddhas can live for a kappa, it suggests that kappa means the human lifespan, and that all the figures for human lifespans given in the list above can be read as kappas. So the length of this kind of kappa diminishes over time. Therefore kappa in our present era means ‘a century’.

Universal cycle: four incalculable phases

Now we will examine the other meanings of kappa: ‘universal cycle’ and ‘period of a universal cycle.’ We have already explained the timespan of the universal cycle. These cycles have four incalculable phases (cattāri kappassa asaṅkheyyānī):

1) a period when the universal cycle is in its contracting phase
yadā kappo saṃvaṭṭati

2) a period when the universal cycle is in its stationary contracted phase
yadā kappo saṃvaṭṭo tiṭṭhati

3) a period when the universal cycle is in its expanding phase
yadā kappo vivaṭṭati

4) a period when the universal cycle is in its stationary expanded phase
yadā kappo vivaṭṭo tiṭṭhati (A.2.142).

These cycles of expansion and contraction affect the heavenly realms, too, up to and including the world of Brahmā (D.1.15). With the contraction phase, the world of Brahmā disappears, and residents there must move temporarily into the Ābhassarā world.

Universal cycles: incalculable number of sand grains

How many of these universal cycles have there ever been? There have been so many, that the Buddha likened them to the numbers of sand grains between ‘the point where the river Ganges originates and the point where it enters the great ocean’ (S.2.183-4). And if we remember that each sand grain represents billions of centuries, that is a very long time indeed.

Recalling previous lives

When ascetics and Brahmanists recall previous lives, the Brahmajāla Sutta says they fall into three groups:

• those who remember up to several hundred thousand lifetimes
anekāni pi jātisatasahassāni

• those who recall (past lives in the last) 10 universal cycles
dasa pi saṃvaṭṭavivaṭṭāni

• those who recall (past lives in the last) 40 universal cycles
cattārīsampi saṃvaṭṭavivaṭṭāni

These feats of memory are extraordinary, but nothing compared to Venerable Sobhita, called the ‘chief of disciples who could recall past lives’ (A.1.25). In the course of one night he was able to recall (past lives in the last) 500 universal cycles (pañcakappasatānāhaṃ ekarattiṃ anussarinti, Th.v.165-6). Anuruddha could remember further, but may have needed more nights:

• It is because I have developed and cultivated these four bases of mindfulness that I recall (past lives in the last) 1,000 universal cycles.
Imesañca panāhaṃ āvuso catunnaṃ satipaṭṭhānānaṃ bhāvitattā bahulīkatattā kappasahassaṃ anussarāmīti(S.5.303).

But that merely 1,000 sand grains in the 2500 kilometres of the River Ganges. The Buddha’s ability was unlimited. His usual ability during conversations was 91 universal cycles (M.1.483; S.4.325):

• When I recollect the past ninety-one universal cycles, Vaccha, I do not recall any Ājīvaka ascetic who went to heaven.
Ito kho so vaccha ekanavuto kappo yamahaṃ anussarāmi nābhijānāmi kañci ājīvakaṃ saggūpagaṃ (M.1.483).

• When I recollect the past ninety-one universal cycles, headman, I do not recall any family being destroyed merely by giving cooked almsfood.
Ito so gāmaṇi ekanavuto kappo yamahaṃ anussarāmi nābhijānāmi kiñcikulaṃ pakkabhikkhāanuppadānamattena upahatapubbaṃ (S.4.324).

But at full stretch he could recall hundreds of thousands of universal cycles. In fact, as far as he liked (so yāvatakaṃ ākaṅkhati tāvatakaṃ anussarati, D.3.134). Thus he could legitimately proclaim:

• So long is the period of a universal cycle, bhikkhu. And of universal cycles of such length, we have wandered the round of birth and death for the periods of so many universal cycles, so many hundreds of universal cycles, so many thousands of universal cycles, so many hundreds of thousands of universal cycles.
Evaṃ dīgho kho bhikkhu kappo. Evaṃ dīghānaṃ kho bhikkhu kappānaṃ neko kappo saṃsito nekaṃ kappasataṃ saṃsitaṃ nekaṃ kappasahassaṃ saṃsitaṃ nekaṃ kappasatasahassaṃ saṃsitaṃ (S.2.181-2).

Recollecting kappas of contraction and expansion: centuries

When bhikkhus recall their previous lives, they describe it as follows:

• ’I recall my manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two lifetimes, three lifetimes… a hundred lifetimes, a thousand lifetimes, a hundred thousand lifetimes, (past lives in the last) many kappas of contraction, many kappas of expansion, many kappas of contraction and expansion.
aneke pi saṃvaṭṭakappe aneke pi vivaṭṭakappe aneke pi saṃvaṭṭavivaṭṭakappe (S.2.214).

Because kappa is part of the contraction and expansion phases of the universal cycle, in this context it must mean ‘century’:

• ’… many centuries of the universal cycle’s contraction phase, many centuries of the universal cycle’s expansion phase… .’

Illustrations

Illustration: kappaṃ, century

If one develops and cultivates the four paths to psychic power, if one wishes, one could live for a century or for slightly more than a century.
☸ so ākaṅkhamāno kappaṃ vā tiṭṭheyya kappāvasesaṃ vā (S.5.259).

Illustration: kappaṃ, century

Beings have wandered the round of birth and death for many centuries, many hundreds of centuries, many thousands of centuries, many hundreds of thousands of centuries
neko kappo saṃsito nekaṃ kappasataṃ saṃsitaṃ nekaṃ kappasahassaṃ saṃsitaṃ nekaṃ kappasatasahassaṃ saṃsitaṃ (S.2.181).

Illustration: kappe, centuries

Bhikkhus, to whatever extent I wish, I recall my manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two lifetimes… a hundred thousand lifetimes, (past lives in the last) many centuries of the universal cycle’s contraction phase, many centuries of the universal cycle’s expansion phase, many centuries of the universal cycle’s contraction and expansion phases.
aneke pi saṃvaṭṭakappe aneke pi vivaṭṭakappe aneke pi saṃvaṭṭavivaṭṭakappe (S.2.214).

Illustration: kappaṃ, the period of a universal cycle

―‘Bhante, how long is the period of a universal cycle?’
☸ kīvadīgho nu kho bhante kappo ti?

―’The period of a universal cycle is long, bhikkhu. It is not easy to count it and say it is so many years, or so many hundreds of years, or so many thousands of years, or so many hundreds of thousands of years.”
☸ Dīgho kho bhikkhu kappo. So na sukaro saṅkhātuṃ ettakāni vassāni iti vā ettakāni vassasatāni iti vā ettakāni vassasahassāni iti vā ettakāni vassasatasahassāni iti vā ti (S.2.181).

Illustration: kappā, universal cycle

―’Master Gotama, how many universal cycles have elapsed and gone by?’
☸ Kīvabahukā nu kho bho gotama kappā abbhatītā atikkantā ti.

―’Brahman, many universal cycles have elapsed and gone by. It is not easy to count them and say that there have been so many universal cycles, or so many hundreds of universal cycles, or so many thousands of universal cycles, or so many hundreds of thousands of universal cycles.’
☸ Bahukā kho brāhmaṇa kappā abbhatītā atikkantā. Te na sukarā saṅkhātuṃ ettakā kappā iti vā ettakāni kappasatāni iti vā ettakāni kappasahassāni iti vā ettakāni kappasatasahassāni iti vā ti (S.2.183-4).

Illustration: kappe, universal cycle; saṃvaṭṭavivaṭṭakappa, the period of a universal cycle;

Having cultivated a mind of (unlimited) universal love for seven years, then for the periods of seven universal cycles I did not return to this (low) plane of existence.
Satta vassāni mettacittaṃ bhāvetvā satta saṃvaṭṭavivaṭṭakappe nayimaṃ lokaṃ punarāgamāsiṃ.

During the universal cycle’s contraction phase, I went to the Ābhassarā world.
Saṃvaṭṭamāne sudaṃ bhikkhave kappe ābhassarūpago homi. 

During the universal cycle’s expansion phase, I was reborn in an empty Brahmā palace.
Vivaṭṭamāne kappe suññaṃ brahmavimānaṃ upapajjāmi (It.14-16).

Illustration: kappa, period of a universal cycle

Devadatta is bound for (rebirth in) the plane of sub-human existence, bound for hell, and he will remain there for the period of a universal cycle, unredeemable.
āpāyiko devadatto nerayiko kappaṭṭho atekiccho (A.3.402).