It seems the Buddha could live only for the lifespan after all

Shortly before passing away (in DN 16), the Buddha said that due to his development of the four iddhipadas, he could choose to live for the kappa or what remains of the kappa. Normally as a period of time, kappa means “eon”, which suggests that the Buddha could still be alive, and would stay so until the end of the universe. It’s an extreme claim!

The commentary moderates this by saying that here, kappa means the “full normal human lifespan”, which in the time of “our” Buddha was 100 years. This is a tempting interpretation, as the claim suddenly becomes quite reasonable. Indeed, it is still a common technique to encourage people to live on by giving them something they “want”, a desire to keep going; and this is the first of the iddhipadas, chanda. So the idea that practicing these can extend the lifespan by some years is plausible. As a rule, it is better to favor the lesser miracle, and especially when this has the support of the commentary, which almost always inflates miracles.

The problem is that the word kappa is used plenty of times in the sense “eon” and never in the sense “full human lifespan”. Thus the commentary records the dissenting opinion of a certain Mahāsīva, who says the Buddha could indeed live for the remainder of the eon.

Modern translators are divided, with Bhikkhu Bodhi using “eon” while Anandajoti has “lifespan”. Up until now I have also favored “eon”, simply because I couldn’t figure out how kappa could mean a lifespan. I don’t like that meaning, but as a translator I have to translate what I think the text says, not what I want it to say.

Looking further, it turns out there is canonical support for the interpretation “lifespan”. This problem is first discussed in the Kathavatthu, an Abhidhamma work of the post-Ashokan period. Already at this time, the Theravadin argues, with reason, in favor of the “lifespan”.

This is very significant, as the Kathavatthu was composed by people speaking Pali in the same linguistic and cultural context. While we may not be bound by their doctrinal interpretations, it is unlikely that they would propose an impossible meaning for a common word like kappa. Their linguistic context was vastly greater than our own.

It’s not just the Kathavatthu, as the Milindapañha (Mil 5.1.10) also has a discussion and comes to the same conclusion.

Moreover, we can find indirect support in the suttas themselves. Many of you will be familiar with Dhp 109, which is commonly chanted as an anumodana at the meal offering.

niccaṁ vuḍḍhāpacāyino;
Cattāro dhammā vaḍḍhanti,
āyu vaṇṇo sukhaṁ balaṁ.

For one who is virtuous, respectful,
and always reverential towards the elderly,
four things increase:
lifespan, beauty, pleasure, and strength.

The word I’ve translated as “lifespan” is āyu. A very similar teaching is found in DN 26, where āyu for a bhikkhu is defined as developing the four iddhipadas, as a result of which they may live on for a kappa.

Surely this is our missing link? Here āyu cannot mean anything other than a “lifespan”, and it is explicitly linked with the kappa of the four iddhipadas.

How, though, does this mesh with the fact that kappa as a period of time always means “eon”?

Maybe we have been looking at it all wrong. Kappa has many meanings: what it it doesn’t directly refer to a span of time at all?

One common meaning of kappa is “fitting, suitable, proper”. What if the Buddha is saying, “I can live for as long as is fitting, or for the remainder of the fitting time?” What is “fitting” is of course the full lifespan. Thus the interpretation of the commentary is correct, but we’ve been mistakenly thinking it referred directly to a period of time, when in fact it is an indirect reference.


There are a few other issues this reminds me of. One is that in treating the bases of psychic powers, the Buddha says that not only can he manifest his mind-made body in other realms, but that he can also manifest his physical body in those realms. In the former case, people could say that it refers to an out-of-body experience, or some other more mental phenomenon. But it’s not as easy to make a similar claim about manifesting the physical body in other realms. There are some matters like this that are harder to reconcile without some supernormal explanation.

Another thing I’m reminded of is that in later Buddhist texts like Mahayana sutras, there is a tendency to use very long spans of time, like 84,000 kotis of nayutas of asamkhyeya kalpas (and it is often “translated” that way in English). This also is relevant in descriptions of the bodhisattva path, because canonically it was said to require three limitless eons of practicing the perfections. This became awkward for Mahayana texts. So later basically a lot of the time requirements were hand-waved.

As far as ayu is concerned, is that always translated as lifespan? Is there some close relationship between that and vital breath, as though developing the bases of psychic powers enhances the vital breath within the body? As in life, heat, and consciousness? Beauty, pleasure, and strength are all things related to the strength and health of the mind and body here and now, whereas a lifespan is a more abstract concept arguably more related to some event of death in the future.

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It depends on context. It can mean “life”, “vitality”, in fact I had 'vitality" in an earlier context. But here it means “lifespan”, for which the full term is āyuppamāṇa.

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Thank you venerable! :pray:

But it’s not really an extreme claim.

DN 33 comes to mind:

……lost opportunities for spiritual practice.

Firstly, a Realized One has arisen in the world.
He teaches the Dhamma leading to peace, extinguishment, awakening, as proclaimed by the Holy One.

But a person has been reborn in hell. This is the first lost opportunity for spiritual practice.

Furthermore, a Realized One has arisen in the world. But a person has been reborn in the animal realm. This is the second lost opportunity for spiritual practice.

Furthermore, a Realized One has arisen in the world. But a person has been reborn in the ghost realm. This is the third lost opportunity for spiritual practice.

Furthermore, a Realized One has arisen in the world. But a person has been reborn among the demons. This is the fourth lost opportunity for spiritual practice.

Furthermore, a Realized One has arisen in the world. But a person has been reborn in one of the long-lived orders of gods. This is the fifth lost opportunity for spiritual practice.


This seems questionable to me because did not the Buddha scold Ananda for not requesting the Buddha live longer when Ananda could have done so? In other words, the above novel interpretation may give the impression the Buddha did not live for the “proper” time period. However, what actually occurred in DN 16 is the Buddha said he had performed all of his proper duties as a Teacher therefore it was a proper/fitting time for him to depart.

The term kappa is not an exact measure of time. Kappa is the time that indicates the lifecycle of a cluster in the universe. Does not show the time of the lifecycle universe.

Many say that the age of Maha Brahma is one kappa. Meanwhile, the age of Maha Brahma itself is the same as the age of the world in which he lives. It is also said that a Maha Brahma can have power over 1000 living systems, 2000… 5000… 100,000 living systems. The life system in question is the Maha Brahma realm itself plus the sensory realm (gods, humans, animals, ghosts, hell). If we say that the small (sensory) plane of existence is as wide as the solar system (it is said where there is sun and moon), then a Maha Brahma can have a domain of 1000 solar systems… 5000… 100,000 solar systems. This realm of Maha Brahma has one kappa of existence. Also one kappa for 1000 life systemx can have different timespan with 20000 life system where a Maha Brahma has power. But those different lifespan called as one kappa.

When it is said that the Buddha’s age can reach one kappa, he means that the Buddha’s age can be maintained until the solar system (to be precise, the solar system cluster, can be 1000 solar systems under the power of Maha Brahma) in which he lives is finally destroyed.

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I think of kalpa as abstractly like a cycle, whether that is a cycling of thoughts, or a cycling of the universe. Maybe it is also occasionally used in the sense of an entire cycle of one’s life? And if the underlying concept is an abstract cycle, are these really entirely different meanings, or just an abstract idea applied in various contexts? Some religious texts do have a bit of play, or shifting between a macrocosm of the physical universe, and a microcosm of the individual body or mind.

I’m reminded of this post from a while back, which seemed to be a bit along the same lines:

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There is just no attestation of this, whereas the sense of “fitting” is extremely common and well-attested.

(The root sense, incidentally, is not “cycle” but “scalpel”, as in the knife that cuts or “prepares” the sacrifice so that it is “fit” to eat.)

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Dear Bhante @sujato,

According Ven Pategama Gnanarama’s Mission Accomplished: A Historical Analysis of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya of the Pali Canon chapter 8, the episode which the Buddha said he can live a kappa based on his development of four iddhapadas is a sign of docetic element [superhuman conception of the Buddha] entered into the canon of Sthaviravada before their breaking away from Mahasanghika in the first schism.

In the paper chapter, the author argues there are ten contradictive points of this episode, including Ananda’s negligence to ask the Buddha live for a kappa, which contradicts indication in the passage that the Buddha can live a kappa if he wishes because he has developed the four iddhipadas (if the Buddha wishes so, why bother Ananda request?). He also shows that the commentary of Buddhaghosa on the DN 16 passage that the kappa here means “span of life, the completion of the lifespan of men in whatever period of time” contradicts with Katthavatthu (Kv 11.5 as given in the above link in OP) where the Theravadins refute the proposition that one who has developed the four iddhipadas could live for an kappa and deny the validity of the statement found in this episode of Mahaparinibbana Sutta proposed by the Mahasanghika as proof of the notion. This is specifically denied by the Theravadins which quote an Anguttara Nikaya passage to assert that there is neither a recluse, nor a brahmin, nor a deity, nor an Evil One, nor a Brahma who can transcend old age, disease, death and retributive effects of actions.

According to the paper, the word ‘kappa’ has never been used in the Pali canon, in any context to indicate the lifespan of an individual. Your attempt to quote a Dhammapada passage with connecting it to “ayu” is unconvincing for me. The interpretation of “kappa” here as lifespan, accordingly, is a conscious attempt on the part of the ancient Theravada teachers to maintain their specific train of Buddhist thought on this difficult-to-accept passage in contrast to numerous sectarian views. Finally the chapter concludes:

After the demise of the Buddha, the disciples did not like to accept the fact that He underwent a natural death. They were so moved by the loss of their beloved Teacher who was then no more. So they began to refuse to accept that the Buddha had passed away. The necessity of an alternative to satisfy their psychological need must have been strongly felt. Here is a personality who preached from village to village against the prevailing superstitious beliefs and the tyranny of Brahmanism. He denounced theism outright, but the followers who were born and bred in a theistic environment looked at Him in the long cherished theistic perspective which was an integral part of India’s cultural setting. […]

There is no doubt that the concept of living for an aeon must have been conceived in regard to the Buddha in the minds of early disciples who looked at the Buddha in esteem and veneration. The Teacher who was full of compassion and wisdom and who had worked for the good and well-being of all, irrespective of caste and social position, was no more. Three months before the demise, the Buddha Himself had pronounced that His age was full and ripe and that His earthly career had come to an end.

The verses said to have been uttered by Brahma Sahampati, Sakka and Anuruddha who are said to have witnessed the Buddha’s demise are devoid of emotion and this is quite befitting. They reveal the inherent nature of compounded things. […]

The Buddha was no ordinary man. His life and deeds reveal His super-human qualities. He is extraordinary and unique. He diverted the course of human history to a different direction, but He also died as anyone else. The difference lies in the way He faced death. He bore the pain of death and calmly attained emancipation of His heart just as a flickering flame is blown out. Nevertheless, many of the devoted disciples who survived the Buddha’s demise did not like to observe this event in such a simple way. The thought that it was a result of the negligence on the part of the disciple who was always with Him as His shadow, was a consolation for them. In other words, if not for Ananda’s slackness, they imagined, the Buddha would have lived for an aeon. Furthermore, the Buddha had not appointed anyone but the doctrine to succeed Him. This fact too might have motivated the disciples to look at the Buddha from a docetic angle.

So, pardon me if I disagree with you, Bhante, on translating the word “kappa” in this episode of Mahaparinibbana Sutta as “lifespan”. I think this is violating your own translation style to leave the difficulft word or passage as it is, without bias of the translator’s interpretation. It’s better to translate the “kappa” as “aeon” or something like that to reflect the historical development of this passage as described in the paper above.

Thank you :pray:

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Thank you for your post Bhante. It is a good question to consider what is meant by this.

The two texts of the Kathavatthu and Milindapanha seem unconvincing to me either way.

The Kathavatthu’s questioning seems like verbal gymnastics for the sake of being clever (i.e., could the buddha live on if he was dead?). The way the questioning ends isn’t convincing for me either - the reference to “recluse or brahmin, be he deva, or Māra, or Brahma, or anyone whatever in the world” arguably doesn’t encompass the Buddha or an arahant, who has reached the deathless and is beyond the world.

The supposed conflict posed in the Milindapanha between the Buddha’s ability to live to the end of the aeon, and the Buddha’s statement that he will pass away in 3 months, seems to miss the point that this is an election on the part of the arahant. If a being does not choose this, then their life will presumably follow their allotted karmic span. Just because you can life for the aeon, there needs to be some impetus to do so … (like Freddie Mercury said: “Who wants to live forever?” …)

Just looking at the Buddha’s statement in its own right, the comment that with the development of the four bases of psychic power, one can live up to the end of the aeon is remarkable. It seems less remarkable to say that with these four bases of power, one can live a normal human lifespan. It seems like a pretty unremarkable outcome of arahantship and the mastery of psychic powers, especially compared to the other powers the buddha attributes to arahants:

DN11: With Kevaḍḍha “multiplying themselves and becoming one again; going unimpeded through a wall, a rampart, or a mountain as if through space; diving in and out of the earth as if it were water; walking on water as if it were earth; flying cross-legged through the sky like a bird; touching and stroking with the hand the sun and moon, so mighty and powerful; controlling the body as far as the Brahmā realm.”

My feeling is that if living up to the end of a kappa is remarkable, then it must refer to an aeon. If we consider that mastery of the jhanas results in lifespans that are multiple aeons long, then this attribution to an arahant, who does not have a further birth, doesn’t seem that unremarkable to me.

This idea that an arahant can live to the end of the aeon has been a curiousity for me. There are the traditional stories that Maha Kassapa, foremost in ascetic practice, is still alive. I believe that these are in Mahayana traditions, but it occurs to me that if anyone was to do this, it would be him - only someone with the highest degree of asceticism could master the inherent suffering of the body to live that long. To me, this makes the symbolism of the Buddha passing Maha Kassapa his robe even more meaningful, and coupled with his reported physical similarity to the Buddha and his role as the ‘Father of the Sangha’. Speculation, but interesting :slight_smile: Regardless of the truth though, I must say I find this thought somewhat inspiring and comforting …

Thank you for the post Bhante :slight_smile:

Once again, I am translating kappa in its very common, ordinary, everyday sense of “proper”, “fit”, which in this context means a proper span of life. I am not translating kappa as “lifespan”. That’s literally the whole point of the article. Given that the Venerable didn’t consider this argument, I’m not sure how any of these considerations are relevant.

Of course it’s quite possible that the passage was added late. I don’t have any particular view on that, as in any case DN 16 is a composite text.

There are plenty of similar stories in Theravada, too. It seems that, regardless of how the scholars understood this point, the people believed in long-lived arahants. (I know someone who met one of the monks from the Ashokan missions, or so it seems.)

Hmmm I see, Bhante. But if the “kappa” here means “proper lifespan”, then why in Katthavatthu the Theravadins respond the opponent’s proposal quoting this passage with another quote from AN that there is none can trancend old age, disease, death, and effects of kamma? Why didn’t they just respond their opponent with explaining that the “kappa” here means “proper lifespan” and not refers to usual kappa (aeon)? :thinking:

Could you cite this passage? I’d like to read it.

@kaccayanagotta, it has been posted in the OP above


I have no idea. I’m really just interested in figuring out what the suttas mean, rather than closely studying the means of argumentation in the Kathavatthu.

My point in citing was simply to observe that the passage has been taken in the sense of the proper human lifespan since shortly after the Buddha. Bear in mind that the period of composition of the Mahaparinibbana cycle extended quite a long time after the Buddha, and the Kathavatthu was at least started in Ashoka’s time. They’re from the same linguistic community. Like I said this doesn’t mean that it is right, but it does mean that the reading “proper human lifespan” (regardless of how the language is construed) has existed as long as our tradition goes, and is maintained consistently in the Theravada tradition.

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Thank you for your reply Bhante.

Just so that I’m not misunderstanding … someone you met said they have met an arahant who would be over 2000 years? If that understanding is correct, are you able to comment on their background / credibility?

Yes. That didn’t say it was them, but they were told it was them. I was told the story by them long ago, but this is what I recall.

The story goes that, due to extraordinary but somewhat irrelevant events, this monk was required to meet with the teacher of one of the monks in his monastery. That teacher was said to be Luang Pu Thep Lok Udon (Devalokuttara), who, legend has it, is actually Uttara, one of the missionaries sent to Thailand under King Ashoka.

The monk was flown to Bangkok, where he was greeted at the airplane steps by a driver with a large limo with blacked-out windows. The windows in the rear were blacked out from the inside too, so he couldn’t see out. The limo drove for maybe an hour or so (Bangkok traffic!) before pulling in to what turned out to be a huge but largely empty underground carpark. They went up the lift to the top of a large building, where there was a huge empty Dhamma hall. Next to the Buddha was sitting a monk, Luang Pu Thep Lok Udon.

They discussed the issue that had brought the monk there. The Luang Pu gave the monk a Dhamma talk, which he said was the most powerful talk he ever heard in his life. The monk was a direct student of Ajahn Chah, so that’s saying something.

Then he left.

The monk who visited “Luang Pu Tep Lok Udon” and told me the story is one of the most honest, level-headed, and intelligent people I know.

Once again, I translate this text as I translate every text, in accordance with my best understanding of what it means. In order to help me understand what it means, I learn from any informed sources, including what the tradition says, and sometimes I agree with the tradition. I really do not understand what is hard to understand about any of this.

Dear Bhante, I apologize if my remarks is offended you, I didn’t mean so :pray:

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Bhante, to clarify:

That monk was said by whom to be Luang Pu Thep Lok Udon? And according to whose legend is this Luang Pu the same as Uttara?

I’m confused on if someone went to see a monk who was a very powerful spiritual figure, and who also happened to be considered by others to be this famous monk equivalent to Uttara. Or if the monk himself introduced himself as Luang Pu Thep Lok Udon, and if others close to him (like students?) said he was Uttara? Etc.


Thank you Bhante - wow! That is interesting! I had thought that if such beings existed then they might perhaps be living in the forests somewhere but this was unexpected. It sounds almost governmental / secret service kind of level. Thank you for taking the time to share