Kuppa/akuppa are technical vinaya terms used in conjunction with saṅghakamma, legal procedures of the Sangha. They are used to describe whether such a procedure has been performed correctly or not. A common translation is “challengeable”/”unchallengeable” – that is, whether one may or may not object to the procedure – but on reflection it is not clear whether this is appropriate.
Kuppa is a future passive participle derived from the verb kuppati, which means “is disturbed”. The participle means something like “can be disturbed” or “disturbable”. The meaning of the negative participle akuppa is well established, since it occurs in a common sutta context: akuppa me vimutti, often translated as “my liberation is unshakeable”. In this context akuppa means that the liberation is firm and irreversible. There seems to be no reason why akuppa should not mean the same in the vinaya, that is, an akuppa saṅghakamma is a procedure of the Sangha that cannot be disturbed. In other words, it is valid and irreversible, and therefore “unchallengeable”.
While the meaning of akuppa is straightforward, the same is not true of kuppa. Being the antonym of akuppa, it would seem that “challengeable” would be a suitable rendering. Yet there is a good reason to question this, namely that the general vinaya context suggests otherwise.
According to the vinaya a legal procedure, a saṅghakamma, is either valid or invalid, depending on whether a certain number of technical conditions has been fulfilled. If it is valid, the procedure stands and is therefore “unchallengeable”. If it is invalid, then it is as if the procedure was never done. There is no need to reverse it or undo it, because by definition an invalid procedure is equivalent to a procedure that has not been performed at all. Thus to translate kuppa as “challengeable” is misleading, because the validity or otherwise is already established. When all the facts of a legal procedure are known and undisputed, there can never be any challenge.
So perhaps it would be better to render kuppa as “invalid”, which in fact is suggested in the Dictionary of Pali. This would fit perfectly with how the performance of saṅghakamma is normally evaluated and would leave out the awkward “challengeable”, which does not fit the broader vinaya context.
Yet there are at least two serious problems with this. The first is that there is no evidence that kuppa, or the related verb kuppati, ever means “invalid”. Kuppati means “disturbable” or “shakeable”, for which “challengeable” is a good fit. Unless absolutely demanded by the context, we need to be careful not to foist artificial meanings on words.
The second problem is that although the broader vinaya context does not seem to allow for the meaning “challengeable”, in a narrower context this meaning may in fact be quite apt. In the context of saṅghakamma, kuppa is almost always used together with the synonym aṭṭhānāraha. This latter word means “not worthy of remaining” or “not fit to stand”. Rather than meaning “invalid”, the implication of this word is that the saṅghakamma actually is valid, but that it should be objected to and annulled. Another important synonym for kuppa is adhammika/adhammattā, “illegitimate”. This word, too, is short of saying the saṅghakamma is invalid. Since these are the closest synonyms of kuppa, it seems likely that kuppa should be understood in a similar way.
Given the above, we are have to question whether the prevailing and contemporary understanding of saṅghakamma is correct. Is it really the case that the validity of saṅghakamma depends purely on technical issues, thus making the word “challengeable” ill-suited as a translation of kuppa ? Or could it be that our understanding of saṅghakamma is a product of evolution and that in the earliest stages there actually was such a thing as the challenging of the Sangha’s legal procedures?
The idea that a saṅghakamma that has been improperly performed is inherently invalid is quite likely rooted in the word akamma, which is sometimes used in the canonical vinaya to qualify an improperly performed saṅghakamma. Akamma means “non-action”, implying that the saṅghakamma has not actually been performed at all. Although the word is found a number of times in the vinaya , it is restricted to the highly technical expositions found in the Campeyya-kkhandhaka and the Parivāsa-kkhandhaka (the Chapter on those from Campā and the Chapter on Probation). The more technical and impersonal the exposition, the more likely it is to be relatively late. (Complex ideas emerge from simpler ones.) Moreover, kuppa and aṭṭhānāraha are only found twice in these chapters. Apart from this, it seems that it is only in the commentaries that this technical and absolute distinction between a valid and an invalid saṅghakamma is established once and for all.
It seems reasonable to suppose, then, that the Vinaya Piṭaka may have gone through an evolution in how the validity of saṅghakamma was understood. I am suggesting that in the earliest stages a legal procedure of the Sangha needed to be successfully challenged before it was considered invalid. The implication of this is that even if a saṅghakamma has been improperly performed it stands as valid if no-one is aware of the problem or no-one brings it up for attention.
This view is supported by a passage in the Uposatha-kkhandhaka that seems to say that perception is a factor in deciding whether the uposatha ceremony has been performed correctly or not. Here it is:
Idha pana, bhikkhave, aññatarasmiṃ āvāse tadahuposathe sambahulā āvāsikā bhikkhū sannipatanti cattāro vā atirekā vā. ātim jānanti atthaññe āvāsikā bhikkhū anāgatāti, te dhammasaññino vinayasaññino vaggā samaggasaññino uposathaṃ karonti pātimokkhaṃ uddisanti. Tehi uddiṭṭhamatte ātimokkha, sabbāya vuṭṭhitāya parisāya, athaññe āvāsikā bhikkhū āgacchanti thokatarā. Uddiṭṭhaṃ suuddiṭṭhaṃ, tesaṃ santike pārisuddhi ārocetabbā. Uddesakānaṃ anāpatti.
On the observance day, it may happen that four or more resident monks have assembled in a certain monastery. They donʼt know there are other resident monks who havenʼt arrived. Perceiving that theyʼre acting according to the Teaching and the Monastic Law, perceiving that the assembly is complete although itʼs not, they do the observance-day ceremony by reciting the Monastic Code. When theyʼve just finished, and the entire assembly has left, a smaller number of resident monks arrive.
In such a case, what has been recited is valid, and the late arrivals should declare purity in the presence of the others. And thereʼs no offense for the reciters.
Note the word “valid” in the last sentence. This passage is clear that an improperly performed saṅghakamma – in this case the uposatha ceremony – is valid as long as that is one’s perception.
The benefit of such a reading is that the obsession with purity of lineage, which is common in Theravada countries, is misplaced. It does not matter if an ordination procedure – just to take the most obvious example of saṅghakamma – is wrongly performed. As long as the procedure is not challenged, it remains valid. All those monastics who doubt the validity of their ordination lineage should perhaps stop doubting and just get on with their practice. As so often, it seems the Buddha may have been more pragmatic than later generations of Buddhists.