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The "Four Kalpas"

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Posted by Glenn on December 19, 2003 12:00:17 UTC

Buddhism explains the process by which the universe is formed in terms of the four Ko, four Kalpas or vast eras of time. It is a theory based upon a keenly intuitive understanding of the nature of the universe and one, which I am convinced, will in time be verified by the findings of science.

This theory envisions the universe as going through an endlessly repeated cycle of four kalpas or eras, the Joko or Kalpa Of Formation, the Juko or Kalpa Of Continuance, the Eko or Kalpa Of Destruction and the Kuko or Kalpa Of Emptiness. The universe is thus seen as a single entity, all of its parts being subject to the same four stages of transformation. The period during which this world is taking shape is the Kalpa Of Formation. When this process is completed the universe enters the Kalpa Of Continuance, which is marked by a continuation or sustaining of the conditions prevalent at the time of its origin and the appearance of plant and animal life. We today are living in the Kalpa Of Continuance. This in time gives way to the Kalpa of Destruction, when the form of the universe is gradually destroyed, and is followed by the Kalpa of Emptiness, during which nothing exists at all. Each kalpa lasts for and indescribably long period of time, and once the entire process has been completed it begins again, the Kalpa of Emptiness being followed by a new Kalpa of Formation.

This remarkable view of the universe seems to have been propounded as early as three thousand years ago, and would appear to be related to the concept of transmigration. In this view, the life of the individual, his physical being, represents no more than one single event or entity existing within this eternal process of transformation. Once a man has grasped this fact, he cannot but turn his thoughts to the eternal recurrence of the life force within him as it manifests itself over the periods of past, present, and future. Thus it comes about that in Buddhism, a view of human life has evolved which sees it as basically an inseparable part of the universe as a whole.

The life of a single individual may therefore be seen in the same terms as the life of the universe. From the time when the embryo is first formed in the womb, through the period of birth and adolescent growth, may be likened to the kalpa of formation. The period of vigorous adult activity that occurs upon the completion of growth corresponds to the Kalpa of Continuance. Old age follows, comparable to the Kalpa of Destruction and ending in the death of the Individual. After Death, the Life Force melts into the universe, entering the state of the Kalpa of Emptiness, in time to undergo transmigration and enter once again upon the Kalpa of Formation. Thus it seems clear to me that, although the life of the individual and that of the universe differ astronomically in terms of the number of years required to complete one cycle, the basic principles governing the four stage life of the universe and the four stage life of the individual human being are precisely the same.

This Buddhist view in time led to an overall philosophy of life, which had as its basic premise the identity of the individual and the universe. But this fundamental principle has remained, over the several thousand years since its inception, as no more than an intuitive insight lacking scientific proof of its validity.

Since the beginning of the Twentieth century, however, the findings of science have step by step moved toward a picture of the universe that comes remarkably close to the traditional one expounded in Buddhism. The first thirty years or more of the century were ones of dramatic discovery and change, particularly in the field of physics. First, Einstein’s theory of relativity completely revolutionized the concepts of time and space derived from the old system of the Newtonian laws of motion and gravity, and in doing so necessarily altered our conception of the universe as well. Later came the quantum theory, which cast new light on numerous areas, from the structure of the atom and its nucleus to the motions and process of formation of heavenly bodies.

These rapid developments in the area of theoretical physics in the present century have had a staggering effect on the field of astronomy. The theory of evolution of the fixed stars has been put forward, a theory which in effect offers proof to support the concept of the four kalpas. And now we have the Gamov theory of the evolution of the universe, which proposes to explain how primal matter exploded, expanded, and through the force of gravity was shaped into the form of nebulae. It no longer seems possible to view the universe as the creation of a deity or deities. Such theological explanations have now quite lost their luster. In their place another intuitive view of the origin and nature of the universe, one founded upon the concept of the life force, has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the past to command the attention of men of the twenty first century. Modern science, though certainly without any conscious attempt to do so, seems to be moving closer and closer to the traditional Buddhist philosophy of life. Thus the twenty first century, as its civilization progresses and unfolds, may come to be noted not only as an era of great scientific advancement, but as the century of the life force.

Beginning my remarks with the tale of the rabbit pounding rice in the moon, I have contrived by some means or other to arrive at this rather unexpected and far removed point. What I really wish to emphasize is the fact that these changes in the way which we view the universe are, in my opinion, also bound to exercise an enormous influence upon our view of human life. If we are in fact about to enter upon a new age in which travel through space is accepted as an everyday matter, then it would seem only natural to suppose that the cruel wars and conflicts that continue to rage on earth will before long come to appear as stupid and petty as a boundary dispute with the house next door. And perhaps we will also come to our senses and realize that, since the Kalpa of Destruction in any event lies in wait for us in the future, hastening things along by attempting to blow the world apart with nuclear weapons is worse than senseless.

The view of the universe held by modern science has advanced, one might say, to the very threshold of the four kalpa theory, but it has yet to attain a view of the universe which, like the four kalpa theory, sees it as a process of repetition, beginningless, endless, and eternal.

note: Kalpa: (Sanskrit) Also called aeon is an extremely long period of time deriving from ancient Indian tradition. The length of a kalpa is described in various ways. According to the Daichido Ron, a kalpa is longer than the time required to wear away a cube of stone 40 ri (one ri is about 600 meters) on each side, if a heavenly nymph alights on it and brushes it with a piece of cloth once every hundred years. The Daichido Ron also defines a kalpa as being longer than the time needed to remove all the poppy seeds stored in a castle the same size as the above stone, if one takes away one seed every hundred years. Nearly identical explanations appear in the Zo-agon Sutra, where the length of each side of the stone or castle is given as one yojana (9.6, 18 or 24 kilometers, among other explanations).
The word kalpa is also used in discussing the formation and disintegration of the world. According to Buddhist cosmology, a world perpetually repeats a four-stage cycle of formation, continuance, decline and disintegration. The time required for the entire process to elapse is called a major kalpa, and the periods of time corresponding to each of these four stages are called the four kalpas. (These smaller kalpas are called medium kalpas in the Kusha Ron and small kalpas in the Daichido Ron.) This division of each of the four kalpas into twenty medium kalpas is derived from cyclical changes said to occur in the human life span during the Kalpa of Continuance. According to the Kusha Ron, in the first medium kalpa of the Kalpa of Continuance, the human life span is immeasurably long, and steadily decreases until it reaches ten years. This first medium kalpa is called a kalpa of decrease. In the second medium kalpa, man's life span increases from ten years to eighty thousand years, and then again diminishes to ten. This second medium kalpa is called a kalpa of increase and decrease. From the third through the nineteenth medium kalpas, the increase and decrease of life span repeats itself in the same way as in the second medium kalpa. In the twentieth medium kalpa, man's life span increases from ten years to eighty thousand years. This last kalpa is called a kalpa of increase. The first kalpa or kalpa of decrease and the twentieth kalpa or kalpa of increase are equal in length to any of the eighteen intervening kalpas of increase and decrease. According to later interpretations, the increase and decrease of life span in these eighteen kalpas occur at the rate of one year every hundred years, which means that a medium kalpa would equal 15,998,000 years. There are several varying explanations of this concept.

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