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Does kappa appear in the Suttas in the sense of “mental constructions”?

The Pali word kappa or Sanskrit kalpa is one of those somewhat frustrating terms that appears in a wide variety of senses. The most common sense of kappa in Pali, however, is as an “aeon”, i.e. an unfathomable stretch of time in transmigration.

It’s also used in a psychological sense, usually with a prefix as saṅkappa “thought, intention”, or less commonly parikappa, “plan, proposal”, and so on. The use of the unprefixed form in a psychological sense seems to be restricted to a few verses in the Sutta Nipāta. Ven Bodhi has a nice discussion of this in the introduction to his translation.

As to the exact sense of the psychological meaning, the Niddesa on Snp 5.10:3.2 (verse 1090) gives a good idea of the sense that it means. The question is asked:

Paññāṇavā so uda paññakappī
Is he wise, or does he merely appear wise?

Here kappa as suffix takes the sense of “form, seeming, shape”. The gloss is:

taṇhākappaṁ vā diṭṭhikappaṁ vā kappeti janeti sañjaneti nibbatteti abhinibbattetīti
They construct, generate, produce, give birth to, create craving-construction and view-construction.

So here the sense is clearly of an active process that generates mental processes due to craving and views, and thus is similar or identical to kamma or saṅkhāra. It doesn’t really support the common understanding that kappa here means “thought, notion, figment”: it’s more active than than. Ven Bodhi’s “mental construct” is halfway there; but in psychology a mental construct is a long-term constellation of ideas and beliefs, which—as ven Bodhi acknowledges—is not really captured in his term.

The problem with this passage is that it doesn’t really favor that reading. Norman goes along with the “active” sense, rendering as “is he still acquiring wisdom”. But the commentary and Niddesa, upon which the active reading depend, treat kappa in a purely negative sense; not as the acquiring of wisdom, but as the distorting of it with wrong view and craving. Ven Bodhi rejects the Niddesa and renders according to the more natural sense, “does he have wisdom, or just a wise manner”.

The Niddesa applies the same exegesis to the appearance of kappa elsewhere in the Sutta Nipāta, even though there the word is not a suffix and clearly doesn’t have the sense of “seeming, manner”. So it appears the Niddesa is being overly systematic in its application, treating the word the same way regardless of context. This should give us pause before accepting its readings.

Let us proceed to other contexts and see what we find. There are a few verses in the Sutta Nipāta where the unprefixed form of kappa appears and it has traditionally been understood as “mental construction, ideation, excogitation”. It is explained as being of two types, “excogitations of craving”, and “excogitations of views”. As we have seen, this explanation goes back all the way to the Niddesa, a commentarial commentary. So I’m reluctant to disagree with it. On the other hand, not all contexts it appears in support this reading.

Good method should proceed from the relatively more knowable to the less knowable. In this case, there are a number of mentions where the context is unclear and may be corrupt. So let us start with a more meaningful context.

These are all really rough translations, as I am still figuring out what to do.

In the Sabhiya Sutta at Snp 3.6:15 (verse 517) we have:

Nibbijjha imaṁ parañca lokaṁ,
Having pierced through this world and the next,
Kālaṁ kaṅkhati bhāvito sa danto.
tamed, they bide their time.
Kappāni viceyya kevalāni,
They have examined the kappas (aeons? ideations?) in their entirety,
Saṁsāraṁ dubhayaṁ cutūpapātaṁ;
and both sides of transmigration—passing away and rebirth.

In this verse, the sense of samsara is very strong. “This world and the next” obviously refers to rebirth; “biding their time” is a reference to the arahant awaiting physical death; and the last line needs no explanation.

Here, though the commentary allows kappa in both the sense of “excogitation” and “aeon”, both Bodhi and Norman have favored the psychological reading: “mental constructs” for Bodhi, “figments” for Norman.

Surely, however, the context reads more naturally here as “aeons”. It’s not talking psychologically at all.

Let’s look at another occurrence in Snp 3.6:38 (verse 535):

Chetvā āsavāni ālayāni,
Having cut off defilements and abodes,
Vidvā so na upeti gabbhaseyyaṁ;
Having understood, they do not proceed to another womb;
Saññaṁ tividhaṁ panujja paṅkaṁ,
Having dispelled the three perceptions and the mire,
Kappaṁ neti tamāhu ariyoti.
They do not enter a kappa (cogitation? aeon?): they call that one a “noble one”.

Here the commentary and modern translators all favor the psychological reading. However the context once more invokes rebirth, although here the mention of perception introduces a psychological element as well.

Which is most relevant? Well, notice the syntax:

na upeti gabbhaseyyaṁ
kappaṁ neti

These are virtually identical: “does not enter into/go to a womb/a kappa”. The psychological translations here are strained: Bodhi has “does not enter upon mental constructs”, while Norman has “he does not come to figments”. It’s an odd idiom; why would you “go into” a mental cogitation?

Here too, then, I think the sense of “aeon” is preferable. Now the meaning is straightforward: they do not go to another aeon, i.e. they do not continue in samsara.

A few verses up at Snp 3.16:21 (verse 521) we find another mention, this one still less clear. Here we find again the identical phrase kappaṁ neti so it would seem that the term is used in the same sense, whatever that is.

Ninhāya sabbapāpakāni,
Having washed off all bad things
Ajjhattaṁ bahiddhā ca sabbaloke;
internally and externally regarding the whole world,
Devamanussesu kappiyesu,
among gods and humans (given to cogitating? trapped in aeons of samsara?),
Kappaṁ neti tamāhu nhātakoti.
the one they call ‘washed’ (does not get involved with cogitating? does not enter another aeon?).

Here Ven Bodhi notes that, while one would expect some connection with the theme of “washing” we don’t seem to find it. So it’s possible that the verse is corrupt. Again, both Bodhji and Norman translate it psychologically (as above), and the commentary only gives the psychological reading.

However if we do a quick search for passages where deva and kappa appear together, we find such phrases as devānaṁ vīsati kappasahassāni āyuppamāṇaṁ “the lifespan of those gods is 20,000 aeons”. While the context itself is not very helpful, surely the same sense can be read here:

Devamanussesu kappiyesu,
among gods and humans trapped in the aeons of samsara,
Kappaṁ neti tamāhu nhātakoti.
the one they call ‘washed’ does not enter another aeon.

Finally, we have one other mention, in Snp 4.10:13 (verse 860), where we once again find kappaṁ neti.

Vītagedho amaccharī,
Free of greed and stinginess,
Na ussesu vadate muni;
The sage speaks not of superior,
Na samesu na omesu,
equal, or lesser;
Kappaṁ neti akappiyo.
Not given to cogitations, they do not enter upon cogitation

Here the context is the three kinds of conceit, and a psychological reading seems preferred. The discourse, “Before the Breakup” is about the realization of a sage before the end of life.

Of course implicit in this is that they have no craving for rebirth, which is made explicit in, for example, verse 856 which speaks of having no craving for existence or non-existence. So it’s certainly not impossible that a cosmological sense is intended.

So it’s all a bit unsatisfactory. Despite the existence of ancient commentaries, the exact sense is hard to pin down. Perhaps the ambiguity in the term confused the ancients as well—it happens! I’m kind of leaning to a cosmological rendering throughout, but I’m really not sure. The fact that the identical phrase kappaṁ neti appears three times does rather strongly suggest that, whatever rendering we choose, it should be consistent across these three cases at least. The first case discussed above is the most clearly cosmological, and there kappaṁ neti does not appear; so perhaps that has a different sense.

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Bhante, there’s also the following gāthā in Snp 4.13, which may be interesting to compare with Snp 4.10:13:

Na brāhmaṇo kappamupeti saṅkhā,
Na diṭṭhisārī napi ñāṇabandhu;
Ñatvā ca so sammutiyo puthujjā,
Upekkhatī uggahaṇanti maññe.

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Maybe the original meaning was a wordplay with a double meaning? It could be that the ancient commentators decided to pick one meaning for whatever reason.

If ‘kappa’ = ‘an unfathomable stretch of time’, why should it necessarily mean an unfathomably long period of time such an aeon? It could also be taken to mean an unfathomably short period of time… an instant of existence, perhaps?

(From my rusty high school memory of Sanskrit, a kalpa would be a single cycle of existence. For a Universe, such a cycle would be an aeon. But for a human mind, a kalpa would be a single mind moment of existence - perhaps that is the word play intended?)

This is one of those cases that Chinese parallels are really helpful - translators tell us how they understand words in ambiguous passages.

The Chinese parallel listed for Snp 3.6 in SC is found in a collection of avadanas (T190.831b10-835b25). It’s much more elaborate than the Snp version, but the Q&A in verse is a close parallel.

The verse that matches verse 535 reads:

截割邪見羅網斷,
彼智不復受有胎,
三種相想埿已除,
不作分別是名聖。(834c23-24)

Having chopped off wrong views, the snare is ended;
That wise (person) experiences the womb no more.
Having eliminated the mire of three types of perception,
Not making discriminations is called ‘Noble’.

So, the 6th c. CE translator, Jñānagupta, agrees with the Pali commentaries here that kalpa is psychological in this passage. The Chinese verb 分別 literally means “separate (into) parts” so it’s usually translated as “to discern, distinguish, discriminate” when used psychologically. It’s analytical thinking in general. Standing in for words like kalpa and parikalpa, it took on other senses found in technical Buddhist texts, but that’s the basic meaning.

The other passage, verse 521, doesn’t appear to have kalpa in its Chinese parallel:

諸有業報悉滅除,
一切世間諸內外,
一切天人不能穢,
如是即名清淨形。(834b12-13)

All the deeds and results being destroyed
Of the whole world, inside and outside,
No god or human can defile them.
Thus, this is called ‘a clean body.’

There is a verse in the Chinese version that does mention aeons. It’s the verse answering the question “what is awakening?”

於諸劫中勤苦修,
生死二邊隨業受,
其間無垢離諸縛,
是名為覺生死窮。(834a29-b1)

"Cultivating asceticism through many aeons,
One experiences the shores of birth and death that follow deeds.
Undefiled and free of bonds in the meantime,
This is called ‘awakening to the end of birth and death.’

The Chinese use an abbreviated transliteration (劫 = M.Ch. “kiap”) when they read kalpa as aeon. Fun fact: The literal meaning of 劫 is “to rob, threaten, menace,” or as a general term for a “disaster.” That last meaning might be part of why the word came to stand for kalpa as an aeon, given the dramatic story of the world’s end associated with the concept.

So, no joy on resolving the ambiguities of kalpa, but it seems the commentaries are an interpretation going back at least to 600 CE.

On a completely different tangent, I’ve been fascinated by the Greek Gnostic use of the word “Aeon” when they describe different aspects of God. It’s a very weird context that seems more psychological that temporal. It seems like the same double-meaning concept, but translated to Greek as literally “aeon.” Those texts go back to 100 CE, I believe.

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Thanks, I’ll add this context! Here we find a phrase kappaṁ (na) upeti which is virtually identical with kappaṁ n(a) eti as seen above. It is odd to me that we have a phrase with such a specific nuance, not found elsewhere, and so commonly expressed with the same syntax.

It’s possible, although in Pali verses, such wordplay is not common; they try to be unambiguous, and wordplay is made clear when it happens.

Underlying all this is the fact that the word kappa has very many meanings, which stems from the fact that it is an old word. Wijesekera in his Buddhist and Vedic Studies has a fascinating chapter about this. He traces the roots back to the sense of “cut” as in the sacrifice, and relates it to the English “scalpel”.

Because it is used in that sense countless times in the Pali, and never to my knowledge in the sense of a short interval.

Good to know!

It seems that’s the etymological sense (see “scalpel”), but it’s interesting that the Niddesa differs, connecting it to the sense of “creating” rather than “discriminating”. So even if they both agree it is psychological, the exact nuance still varies.

My caution with both the commentaries and the Chinese is whether they were influenced by Abhidharmic senses of the word.

Now that is my kind of fun fact! @Akaliko

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Interesting! I hadn’t made that connection. It certainly puts 分別 in context. I’ve never noticed it used for anything other than the psychological meaning. Discrimination as a concept takes on the meaning of creation in later Buddhist works, especially in sunyavada texts that became mainstream, because discriminating supposed real things where nothing ultimately exists is an act of creation. And a negative one because it’s delusional. It becomes a synonym for false imaginings, theories, speculation, etc. All of that blends together as implied meanings.

I’m working from memory, but I believe Asanga and Vasubandhu concluded that the fundamental act of delusion was to divide the mind into the subject-object duality.

In any case, you are right that 600 CE is very late. All of this has unfolded, Asanga was a couple centuries prior, and the Avadana collection Jnanagupta was translating might well have belonged to one of the sunyavada schools of Buddhism like the Mahāsāṃghika or later Dharmaguptakas.

[Edit: Oh, I’m being absent-minded. T190 is the Abhiniṣkramaṇa! So, it’s the Dharmaguptaka version of the Mahavastu.]

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Interesting stuff. I decided to check Max Müller and Max Fausbölli’s translation, available here (albeit badly formatted). It appears they translate Kappa as “time.”

3.6

  1. ‘Whosoever, after having considered all times (kappa), the revolution (sam sâra), both the vanishing and re-appearance (of beings), is free from defilement, free from sin, is pure, and has obtained destruction of birth, him they call enlightened (buddha).’ (517)
  1. 'Whosoever, after having washed away all sins internally and externally in all the world, does
    not enter time (kappa) amongst gods and men who are subject to time, him they call a Nahâtaka (cleansed)[1]. (521)

4.10

  1. 'Free from covetousness, without avarice, the Muni does not reckon himself amongst the distinguished, nor amongst the plain, nor amongst the low, he does not enter time, being delivered from time[

BTW, I’m assuming here you mean Snp 3.6:21, Bhante @sujato ?

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Funny that you mention that, because I am reminded of the Gospel of Mary (interlinear here):

  1. The soul answered and said, What binds me has been slain, and what turns me about has been overcome,
  2. and my desire has been ended, and ignorance has died.
  3. In a aeon I was released from a world, and in a Type from a type, and from the fetter of oblivion which is transient.
  4. From this time on will I attain to the rest [repose] of the time, of the season, of the aeon, in silence.

There also seems to be some ambiguity about the meaning of “Aeon” here, really.

Also the “7 forces of wrath” mentioned earlier in the gospel of Mary remind me of the 8 powers of Mara at Snp 3.2.

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I’ve forgotten most of the (little) Pali I ever knew, so please feel free to ignore the following…

In situations like this, when words are used in different ways, I find myself looking for an underlying metaphor that unites the different meanings.

It seems Indians had a sense of eons being cyclical, and so I find myself thinking about thinking, or cogitation, as a cyclical process. And in fact the word cogitate is from the Latin agitare, which means to stir or churn, which are cyclical movements. That doesn’t mean that the Pali kappa necessarily has the same meaning, but I find some pleasure in thinking about thoughts being like milk churning in, well, a churn.

It seems kappa can also mean a horse’s harness, which at its core is a number of cyclical/circular elements that fasten around various parts of the animal’s body.

So I wonder if “examining a kappa” is a way of talking about examining both the cyclical/cogitative processes of the mind and the cycling through birth and death it gives rise to.

I think most of the passages quoted here would support the understanding of a kappa as being a cyclical process of some kind.

“Not entering a kappa” makes me think more about not being reborn than about stepping out of (unskillful) cogitation, but it could similarly mean both things simultaneously.

While you wouldn’t “go into” a mental construct, you would “go into” an endless cycle of cogitation. The image of a cycle of thinking is more dynamic than Ven. Bodhi’s “mental constructs” that you say only gets halfway there.

The passage that gives me most pause is Paññāṇavā so uda paññakappī, unless perhaps kappa in this context is a more abstract understanding of “thinking” so that it’s that he thinks he’s wise, or perhaps the meaning of kappa here is more like “process,” so that he’s in process of becoming wise. It bothers me that I have to try so hard to make that example fit, while with the others the underlying image of a cycle fits more naturally.

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I personally was beside myself when I first started learning about Gnostic texts recently after spending a few decades reading later Buddhist texts. The parallel world view is striking. The major difference is that salvation comes from realizing the truth about a higher god, a la Brahma vs. Mara. So, it’s like a Buddhistic salvation religion, but with a higher god as the savior. Still, the rest is too parallel to pass off as independent development to me. And it’s contemporaneous with the later Avadana literature and the Mahayana texts that turned traditional Buddhist ideas on their heads in the same way Gnostics flipped many Christian stories upside down.

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Yeah, Buddhism and Gnosticism are similar in sharing the idea that ignorance is the root of the problem (rather than disobedience against God). Gnostics, however, generally emphasize returning to the “fullness” (Greek:Pleroma) where there are these Aeons, or emanations of a godhead, in male-female synergies (this is part of the inspiration behind my name, btw). It’s kinda like going back to the source or absolute, perhaps more Hindu than Buddhist. Or like the higher Brahma/Arupa realms in Buddhism.

@Bodhipaksa your cycling idea reminds of SN 22.99, where someone who has “not seen the noble ones, and is neither skilled nor trained in their teaching” is compared to a dog tethered to a post, running and circling round the post. They are “running and circling around form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness.”

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Thanks for the reference to “circling around.” There are some other interesting uses of that image:

We should never harbor annoyance. /
Having sought out anger, disperse it.

Don’t be drawn in as if in a maelstrom, /
endlessly circling around.
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The ascetics and brahmins who assert the annihilation, eradication, and obliteration of an existing being; from fear and disgust with identity, they just keep running and circling around identity.
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These eight worldly conditions revolve around the world, and the world revolves around these eight worldly conditions.
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