Why believe in Kalapas?

The Pa Auk system teaches kalapas. So I guess the Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw thinks the Buddha believed in the existence of kalapas?
Yet Wikipedia says that the concept of kalapa is very late:

Kalapas are not mentioned in the earliest Buddhists texts, such as the Tripitaka, but only in the Abhidhammattha-sangaha, an Abhidhamma commentary dated to the 11th or 12th century, and as such not part of common Theravada doctrine.

So why should we believe that the Buddha taught the concept of kalapa? And if he didn’t, why should a Buddhist use this concept in his practice?

Thanks in advance

May all beings be safe


The word kalāpa simply means group - hence group of material phenomena in the case of material phenomena, and in the Visuddhimagga XX, 32-43 there are many details about the Octads (i.e. the mininum number of the rupa in one group of kalapas and the various causes for rupa) and enneads.
and so forth - just as explained in the Abhidhammattha-sangaha

XX32 Cittasamuṭṭhānaṃ nāma tayo arūpino khandhā, "saddanavakaṃ, kāyaviññatti, vacīviññatti,
32.(2) What is originated by consciousness is the three other immaterial aggregates and the seventeenfold materiality, namely, the sound ennead

As I think you know, Buddhaghosa edited the already extant ancient Commentaries. And the Vism was far earlier than the Abhidhammattha-sangaha - yet the ancient Bhikkhus long after Buddhaghosa (those at the time of Anuruddha and later ) greatly respected the Abhidhammattha-sangaha as it faithfully follows the word of the ancients.

Why do we have people doubting kalapas or other aspects of Dhamma these days. This is all predicted. Even we are only 2600 years from the time of the Budddha - just a 100 generations - it is not long, yet the Dhamma is declining so rapidly. The Abhidhamma is still here to be understood for those with the courage to see its truths- and it has the reinforcing of the Commentaries, so helpful in explaining knotty points.

I can recommend NIna Van Gorkom’s book on materiality attached here.
the_buddhas_teaching_on_physical_phenomenon.pdf (261.7 KB)


As far as how the concepts on kalapas assist understanding. I can’t speak for the Pa-Auk system but I can give a few hints from my perspective.

Material phenomena appear to last and have a great deal of mass- without hearing the Dhamma we think the matter that is here now- such as the matter making up say a smartphone -are the same matter as was here an hour ago.
But the Dhamma teaches us that each moment is new, that the material phenomena (and mental of course) pass away instantly. There is absolute suññatā.

And the detailed teachings on kalāpas and the causes for rupa really hammer home this profound aniccam.
It is happening now actually but avijja covers it up.


Ah, according to wikipedia, I thought that according to the Abhidhammattha-sangaha, kalapa meant the smallest possible group of matter. Isn’t that what it means?

And thank you a thousand times over for this information, I’m very grateful.

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Yes kalapas are that (groups of rupas), but the point I was making is that even in the Visuddhimagga there are detailed descriptions of the various groups of materiality - such as saddanavakaṃ, even without using the term kalapa.

So kalapa - as it means group - is simply a word used to descibe the various groups of rupas such as the saddanavakaṃ. These are the groups of the inseparable(avinibhoga) rupas, and each one must be tiny and must have space between them - it couldn’t be any other way.

In brief the inference from wikipedia that kalapas is some later idea that came out the same time as the Abhidhammattha-sangaha is wrong.


as an example from the Commentary, the Atthasalini (the Expositor vol II p.414 )

Among these, this decad, to wit, the
four great essentials as causes of the sentient organ, together
with colour, odour, taste, nutritive essence, life-controlling
faculty, the sentient organ is called the eye-decad by virtue
of its absolutely indivisible pre- determined material qualities


Thank you very much !

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From Milinda panha , translation Horner.



They aren’t strictly speaking small though, since long and short have concepts. They have no form, shape or mass.

Where do you come up with this?
Rūpa is real materiality. Concepts paññatti is what you are talking about. Please be careful what you are saying. We want accurate information here.

Paṭhavi rūpa is hardness, softness, roughness, smoothness, heaviness, lightness
The individual rūpas cannot be separated visually like different flours mixed with water to make a dough cannot be separated. Only color rūpa can be seen by the eyes.

The earth element (paṭhavī-dhātu), in the ultimate sense, is the mere property of hardness. By earth is not meant any substance— not even a hundred-thousandth part of an atom. It lacks shape, mass, form, core, or solidity. Therefore, this element exists in very clear spring water or river water; in all forms of light, including sunlight, moonlight, and even the lustre of gems; in all sounds, including the vibrant sounds of gongs or pagoda bells; in moving air, from the softest breeze to a gale ; and in smells, good or bad, that spread near and far…If you want to contemplate the earth element as an ultimate reality in Mount Meru or in this great earth, you concentrate only on the property of hardness, which lacks substance. As you concentrate only on its function (giving support to all forms of materiality,) it will be seen as a reflection in a mirror on the surface of clear water, without the obstruction of the tiniest substance, not even an atom.

If there remains the faintest idea of substance or form or solid mass, even as much as an atom, your view is not on the ultimate truth of earth. It is not free from the conventionally accepted concept of form. This conventional truth stands in the way of understanding the true characteristics—arising and vanishing—of materiality

As far as I’m aware long, short and shape aren’t ultimate realities in the Abhidhamma. They are concepts. I’ve also been watching a few IIT videos, where they also say that ultimately form has no shape, mass etc.

According to the Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha these aren’t ultimate realities.

It is not good to be over literal otherwise we might end up proving black is white.

Look at this from the Visuddhimagga about rebirth:

“The two together: since any given states are produced without interrupting
the [cause-fruit] continuity of any given combination of conditions, the whole
expression “dependent origination” (paþicca-samuppáda) represents the middle
way, which rejects the doctrines, “He who acts is he who reaps” and “One acts
while another reaps” (S II 20), and which is the proper way described thus, “Not
insisting on local language and not overridding normal usage" (m iii 234)””

“And with a stream of continuity there is neither identity nor otherness.
For if there were absolute identity in a stream of continuity, there would be no
forming of curd from milk. And yet if there were absolute otherness, the curd
would not be derived from the milk. And so too with all causally arisen things.
And if that were so there would be an end to all wordly usage which is hardly desirable ]”"

It can become an obfuscation of Dhamma when Buddhists deliberately or unknowingly try to use ultimate terms in a way that makes it harder to understand Dhamma. The paramattha terms rather than clarify might become an intellectual escape from seeing the vastness of Dhamma and the true dukkha of samsara. The medicine has become the source of their illness.

Now, turning to kalapas:

“the body consists of an enormous number of rūpa-kalāpas—that is, the ultimate or the smallest clusters of rūpa-dhammas. The rūpa-dhammas of each rūpa-kalāpa are not separable, one from another.”

— The Buddhist Analysis of Matter by Y. Karunadasa

the definitions given in the Theravāda to the four great elements of matter (mahābhūta)—namely, earth (paṭhavī), water (āpo), fire (tejo), and air (vāyo). The first represents solidity (kakkhaḷatta) and spatial extension (pattharaṇa), the second fluidity (davatā) and cohesion (bandhanatta), the third temperature of cold and heat (sīta, uṇha), and the fourth distension (chambhitatta) and mobility (samudīraṇa). These four material elements are necessarily coexistent (niyata-sahajāta) and positionally inseparable, one from another (padesato avinibhoga).
They are therefore present in all instances of matter, beginning from the smallest material unit (rūpa-kalāpa) to anything bigger than that. Now the fact that the earth-element that represents solidity and spatial extension is said to be present in every instance of matter is another way of saying that every instance of matter is characterized by solidity (whatever be the degree) and by extension (whatever be the extant). This is another way of saying that every instance of matter has the characteristic of resistance/ impenetrability (pratighāta).

Basic Material Factors
Rūpa-dhammas are the basic irreducible material factors. They are the basic constituents into which the whole of material existence is resolved. Their aggregation and interaction explains the variety and diversity of the physical phenomena of our world of experience. Apart from these material dhammas, no other matter is recognized. What is called “material substance” is explained away as a product of our own imagination. Any given instance of matter is therefore resolvable into these material dhammas without leaving any residue to be interpreted in a substantial sense.”— The Buddhist Analysis of Matter by Y. Karunadasahttps://a.co/iYDPuVv

of course in some Commentaries and tikas the term paramāṇu (paramanu) is used.

Vism XI 89. 3. By particles: in this body the earth element taken as reduced to fine dust
> and powdered to the size of the smallest atom31 might amount to an average dona
> measure full; and that is held together by the water element measuring half as
much. Being maintained by the fire element, and distended by the air element,
it does not get scattered or dissipated. Instead of getting scattered or dissipated,
it arrives at the alternative states of the female and male sex, etc., and manifests
smallness, bigness, length, shortness, toughness, rigidity, and so on.

  1. Paramanu—“the smallest atom” see Vibh-a 343. According to Vibh-a, the size of
    a paramanu works out at 1/581,147,136th part of an aògula (fingerbreadth or inch).
    Vism-mhþ remarks (p. 361): “Therefore … a paramanu as a particle of space is not the
    province of the physical eye, it is the province of the divine eye
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Note in the book you cited by Ledi:

When hundreds of thousands of millions and tens of
thousands of millions in units of earth element in the ultimate
sense, which in reality is a mere characteristic of hardness, are
bonded together in one mass by the element of cohesiveness, called
āpo-dhātu, a thing or object with shape and mass, which is called
> an “atom” (anu-myū) comes into existence. When hundreds of
thousands of millions and tens of thousands of millions in units of
such atoms are again bonded together, a speck of organic matter
called “flea” or “bug” develops.p.106

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Well I’m not looking to obfuscate things. I’m just looking at things from the strictly ultimate POV of the Abhidhamma. You have quoted Karunadasa. In his book on the Abhidhamma he states, on page 186, that although long, short and shape are found in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī the commentary clarifies that this is just a conventional mode of expression and that the commentary goes on to say that long, short and shape are concepts only. So, they aren’t ultimate realities. When it comes to the final limit of matter we have the earth, fire, water and air elements. All of these have no shape, mass or form. Depending on these we have colour, sound, taste etc. All of these have no shape, mass or form. You have pointed out that Ledi Sayadaw talks of the formations of atoms from rūpa-kalāpas, but these atoms are conventions only according to the above analysis. From what I understand of the Abhidhamma, there are no truly small or big things. This is just conventional reality. I don’t see this as being any more confusing than saying houses, cars and people don’t really exist in ultimate terms.

Or is it the case that whilst rūpa-kalāpas are extended, long & short etc whilst not being ultimate realities are like non-concretely produced matter? I’m reading the section on rūpa-kalāpas in his book again, and under the section of rūpa-kalāpas he says that unlike the Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika version of atomism rūpa-kalāpas do have spatial dimensions. I struggle to understand this though. If something has no mass, form or shape how does it have said dimensions? An electron, in modern science, has no mass, form or shape and so is said to have no spatial dimensions.

How do you approach this?

without looking it up I guess that here they are explaining that only color can be seen - not forms . This is true.
A single kalapa can’t be observed at all - even though color is present. Only when masses of kalapas are there can color be known. Still even then the eye consciousness only knows the color, no other thing. So when he was talking about short or long he was meaning something like a stick I would guess, not one kalapa.

these are what is there. Otherwise we become like the Nagajuna type people who convince themselves that there is finally nothing :laughing:

When you say that there is no mass what do you mean? See all kalapas have space between them. I guess you know that? Thus kalapas take up some infinitesimally tiny amount of space .

Every rūpakalāpa is delimited (paricchindate) by the environing ākāsa, space. 648 This ākāsa is so small that the fact of delimitation is described as “as if delimiting” (paricchindantī viya). 649 However, the kalāpas are not touching one another, for each kalāpa is qualified as “not touched” (asamphuṭṭha) by the other kalāpas separated from it. 650 The implication is that the vacuity is a fact, although it is infinitesimally small. Hence the ākāsa is said to manifest itself as “untouchedness” (asamphuṭṭha-paccupaṭṭhāna). 651”
The Buddhist Analysis of Matter by Y. Karunadasa

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I was just going by what Ledi Sayadaw said in the passage I quoted. I think its in Karunadasa’s book too but don’t quote me on that. In physics it can mean different things, such as the measurement of resistance.

I think he is emphasising that any moment of awareness is taking the actual characteristic as object, and not thinking about atoms. Also he may be taking “atom” in the sense of something permanent, albeit tiny - something which is not at all what kalapas are - as they pass away instantly. He wants to show that our ideas of atoms are mixed in with concepts of permanence.