In Buddhist scriptures the word kalpa generally refers to a great kalpa unless it is labeled a small or a medium kalpa. The lifespan of a sentient being can be as short as a moment, such that the being dies immediately after birth, or as long as that of a sentient being who practices the four formless concentrations and is reborn into the realm of formlessness. The longest life expectancy, for beings reborn into the Heaven of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception, is 84,000 great kalpas. The length of their lives therefore equals the duration of 84,000 cycles of the formation and destruction of the earth. Such beings may think they have already reached the state of deathlessness, but in reality, they will be subject to death and rebirth again after 84,000 great kalpas. From the vantage point of a Buddha, 84,000 great kalpas is but an instant. Only by cultivating the path of liberation and seeing the emptiness of self can one enter nirvān.a—the state of no birth and no death. And only by going one step further and dissolving one’s attachment to dharmas can one become a bodhisattva, liberated from birth and death and yet not abiding in nirvāṇa, manifesting in different guises according to the needs of other beings as he or she walks along the path to Buddhahood.
Some of you may ask, “How many years remain before our Earth is destroyed?” For this question, I will answer with an analogy. If we were to regard the stasis kalpa as lasting one hundred years, then today our Earth is about forty-five years old. The stasis kalpa contains twenty small kalpas, and at the moment we are in the kalpa of decrease in the ninth small kalpa. So everyone should feel at ease, and not be scared by the Christians’ claim that “the end of the world is fast approaching.” But in the decreasing kalpa of every small kalpa, as the human life expectancy approaches ten years of age, pestilence, famine, and war will break out due to the increasing decadence of the human mind. These three catastrophes are, however, temporary and limited in scope, so many will die but the human race will survive. On the positive side, there is good news to share with everyone: a total of 996 bodhisattvas will come to our Earth and achieve Buddhahood here during the remaining ten and one-half small kalpas. The first one to come will be Maitreya Buddha, which is why he is called “the coming, revered Buddha Maitreya.” Maitreya will be reborn on Earth to attain Buddhahood in the kalpa of decrease during the tenth small kalpa when the human lifespan is 80,000 years, about 8.8 million years from now.
Regarding the truth of increasing (and decreasing) human life expectancies, as high as 84,000 years in the kalpa of increase, we might as well accept it as true, because both Mahāyāna and Nikāya scriptures record such claims. A sūtra states: “People’s life expectancy will gradually decrease to ten years. When people live only ten years, a girl will be marriageable when she reaches five months of age; no sweet things such as ghee, ground sugar, or molasses will be heard of in that era.” It also states: “When the human lifespan is 80,000 years, a female will be marriageable when she reaches 500 years of age; at that time, the earth will be even and flat, without ditches, pits, hills, mounds, brambles, or thorns. Nor will there be mosquitoes, gadflies, snakes, lizards, or poisonous vermin. Tiles, stones, and grains of sand will become lapis lazuli. The people will be strong and healthy; the five grains abundant and inexpensive; and the world happy and rich without limit.”
Note that the Complete Chronicle of the Buddha and Patriarchs records different accounts of when Maitreya will come. It mentions that various sūtras and treatises say Maitreya will come in 5.67 billion years, 5.0706 billion years, 5.6 billion years, or 8,809,200 years after the Buddha Śākyamuni’s passing away (T 2035: 49.301a5–7). This fourth figure agrees with the method of calculating the length of a small kalpa that Sheng Yen describes at the beginning of this entry. In entry 5.11, Sheng Yen relies on the account that claims Maitreya will come in 5.6 billion years.
How did Zhìpán 志磐, the compiler of the thirteenth-century Complete Chronicle of the Buddha and Patriarchs upon which Sheng Yen draws, confront these differing accounts? In a similar context in which he sees numerous discrepancies, Zhìpán gives us his understanding on why there are so many discrepancies between various sūtras and treatises: “First, Buddhas say different things according to [the needs of sentient beings in] different situations; second, the various compilations [of scriptures] differ; third, earlier and later translations [into Chinese] differ. Therefore it is difficult to bring [the contents of the various scriptures] into agreement. (There are a great many cases like this.)” (T 2035: 49.301c4–6). Trans.
- Chang ahan sūtras, T 1: 1.41a12–14. Author.
- Chang ahan sūtras, scroll 6, T 1: 1.41c22–28. This and the preceding quotation come from a sūtra that corresponds to the Pali Cakkavatti-sīhanāda sutta, Dīgha Nikāya no. 26. Regarding the passages cited above, the Pali version differs from the Chinese in one detail: it states that when people have a lifespan of ten years, girls will be marriageable at the age of five years, not five months. Trans.