The word kalpa was not coined by Buddhists but rather was a general term to measure time in ancient India. It can signify a long time or a short time, from as long as eternity to as short as an instant.
But in most cases, kalpa refers to an eon in our Universe of Tribulation.
Three categories of kalpas are mentioned in Buddhist scriptures:
1 Small kalpa: The duration of a small kalpa is determined by reference to the lifespan of humans on the earth. The time required for a human lifespan of 84,000 years, which then decreases one year every one hundred years, to reach a lifespan of only ten years is called a kalpa of decrease. Similarly, the time required for a human lifespan of ten years, increasing at an increment of one year every one hundred years, to reach a lifespan of 84,000 years is called a kalpa of increase. One small kalpa equals a kalpa of decrease plus a kalpa of increase.
2 Medium kalpa: A period of twenty small kalpas is called a medium kalpa. According to Buddhist scriptures, the existence of our planet can be divided into the four periods of formation, stasis, dissolution, and nothingness, with each period lasting twenty small kalpas. Only during the stasis period is the planet suitable for human habitation. In the formation period, gases coalesce into liquids, and then some liquids coalesce into solids, so Earth is not suitable for living. In the dissolution period, Earth is destroyed by violent catastrophes, and is likewise unsuitable for human life. It is said that after a great fire [during the dissolution kalpa], our Earth will vanish, and that during other cycles of the universe, the world is sometimes destroyed by water or wind rather than by fire. The kalpa of dissolution is followed by the kalpa of nothingness, during which absolutely nothing exists. After twenty small kalpas of nothingness, another Earth will be formed, and another period of formation will begin. Each of the four stages of formation, stasis, dissolution and nothingness is called a medium kalpa, and they are named the formation kalpa, stasis kalpa, dissolution kalpa, and nothingness kalpa, respectively.
3 Great kalpa: One great kalpa consists of the four medium kalpas of formation, stasis, dissolution, and nothingness. In other words, from the formation of one billion-world universe, through its destruction, until the beginning of the formation of its replacement billion-world universe is a great kalpa. Each of the big fires during a dissolution kalpa will spread from the Hell of Unintermittent Torture through the First Dhyāna Heavens in the realm of form. Each of the big floods will destroy the areas from the Hell of Unintermittent Torture through the Second Dhyāna Heavens. The last windstorm [at the end of a cycle of sixty-four great kalpas] will destroy everything from the Hell of Unintermittent Torture through the Third Dhyāna Heavens. The impacted areas during the dissolution kalpa of a great kalpa therefore can include everything within the three realms, except for the Fourth Dhyāna Heavens of the realm of the form and the four heavens in the realm of formlessness. Every living being will want to escape from such catastrophes. Don’t feel sad, however: before the dissolution kalpa comes, the sentient beings in this world will have been reborn into another universe or into one of the higher, safe dhyāna heavens of this universe. Everyone will have found a safe place.
For more information on topics relevant to this entry, including various kinds of kalpas and the 3,000 Buddhas of the past, present, and future kalpas, please refer to scroll 30 of the Complete Chronicle of the Buddha and Patriarchs, T 2035: 49.297c–302c. Author.
Note that most of Sheng Yen’s information for this entry comes from this scroll, in which some details differ from those of the Treasury of Abhidharma. For readers interested in this topic, the translator recommends Sadakata 1997, which gives a detailed description of Buddhist cosmology, including graphs and diagrams, based on the Treasury of Abhidharma. Trans.
- According to traditional Buddhist accounts, the various events described in this entry apply not only to our planet, but also to the entire billion-world universe we inhabit. Trans.
- According to the method of calculation given here, one small kalpa would equal 16,798,000 years. Trans.