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.
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.