Even in my limited knowledge on Buddhism, it makes sense to see a connection between a terminal illness (like cancer) and previous negative karma. Is there a Sutta where Buddha talks about this connection? Is it true that a terminal illness can be seen in a "positive" way, like purifying past karma? From a Buddhist prospective, are there specific ways (like rituals, prayers) for curing (or helping with) a terminal illness?

Thank you all for your answers! Be well!

9 Answers 9


Even in my limited knowledge on Buddhism, it makes sense to see a connection between a terminal illness (like cancer) and previous negative karma.

Everyone who is born dies; and maybe 30% of all deaths are from cancer (other statistically likely terminal illnesses in developed countries include heart attack, stroke, and respiratory diseases).

I think that Buddhists see a connection between dying and being born.

The proposed cure for that (i.e. to prevent it happening again) is to be enlightened (e.g. to attain nirvana, which is also known as a "deathless" state) -- to avoid being born again in future, and avoid or minimize "suffering" in this life.

Note that if a person attains nirvana in this life, their body will (like the Buddha's did) still die eventually.

I think that seeing the effects of kamma (e.g. being able to say "your current life is like this because you did such-and-such in a previous life") is a supernatural (miraculous) power, attributed to the Buddha -- and (I think that) because it's a miraculous power it's not necessarily a sensible thing for an ordinary/unenlightened person to attempt.

If or when someone does have a terminal illness it might be tempting to ask "why me?" and "why now?" and so on, but I don't think I like to attribute it to negative karma -- that seems to me like blaming the victim: "Oh you have cancer? Well that's your fault." I prefer to attribute it to having been born.

Is there a Sutta where Buddha talks about this connection?

I think there are too many to name -- it (the cycle of birth and death) is kind of recurring theme of the Pali canon.

For example in the beginning of the first sutta, where it talks about the first noble truth:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

Is it true that a terminal illness can be seen in a "positive" way, like purifying past karma?

Yes I think there's opportunity for "spiritual advancement" or whatever you want to call it, opportunities to become a different, better, more enlightened, wiser person.

There's a verse early in the Dhammapada for example,

People, other than the wise, do not realize,
"We in this world must all die,"
(and, not realizing it, continue their quarrels).
The wise realize it
and thereby their quarrels cease.

If someone has terminal illness they might make peace with those around them, even if they hadn't previously.

Illness might furthermore be an opportunity for full-time practice.

To pick another example more or less at random, at time 13:55 of this video Yuttadhammo Bikkhu says that dying of cancer would be an opportunity (a chance) for us to understand the nature of reality.

From a Buddhist prospective, are there specific ways (like rituals, prayers) for curing (or helping with) a terminal illness?

There are many other references at A Buddhist Guide to Death, Dying and Suffering (the author is or was a chaplain at a medical centre).

And What nurses need to know about Buddhist perspectives of end-of-life care and dying (registration required) might be helpful.

Also page 82 of this commentary on the Vinaya describes the words a bikkhu might say during the dying process to inspire a patient.

Another quote I remember isn't from a Buddhist source, but it might be informative if or when you relate with a patient. From Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture,

So, you know, in case there’s anybody who wandered in and doesn’t know the back story, my dad always taught me that when there’s an elephant in the room, introduce them. If you look at my CAT scans, there are approximately 10 tumors in my liver, and the doctors told me 3-6 months of good health left. That was a month ago, so you can do the math. I have some of the best doctors in the world. Microphone’s not working? Then I’ll just have to talk louder. [Adjusts mic] Is that good? All right. So that is what it is. We can’t change it, and we just have to decide how we’re going to respond to that. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you. [laughter] And I assure you I am not in denial. It’s not like I’m not aware of what’s going on. My family, my three kids, my wife, we just decamped. We bought a lovely house in Virginia, and we’re doing that because that’s a better place for the family to be, down the road. And the other thing is I am in phenomenally good health right now. I mean it’s the greatest thing of cognitive dissonance you will ever see is the fact that I am in really good shape. In fact, I am in better shape than most of you. [Randy gets on the ground and starts doing pushups] [Applause] So anybody who wants to cry or pity me can down and do a few of those, and then you may pity me. [laughter]

All right, so what we’re not talking about today, we are not talking about cancer, because I spent a lot of time talking about that and I’m really not interested. If you have any herbal supplements or remedies, please stay away from me. [laughter]

I fear it's too easy/tempting to say to a patient, "maybe you'll get better" or "you have to really fight this cancer, you can beat it if you want to" or "try this new diet" or something like that. Whereas it might (I don't know, ask an actual expert rather than me) be more helpful for the patient to accept/see reality rather than try to "fight" it and it might help them if you would do that too.


According to the Cula-kammavibhanga Sutta, certain types of karma leads to short lifespans and sickliness.

The Blessed One said: "There is the case, student, where a woman or man is a killer of living beings, brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell. If, on the break-up of the body, after death — instead of reappearing in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell — he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is short-lived wherever reborn.

"There is the case where a woman or man is one who harms beings with his/her fists, with clods, with sticks, or with knives. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation... If instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is sickly wherever reborn.

On the other hand, according to the Acintita Sutta, the precise working of karma cannot be clearly understood.

"There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?

"The [precise working out of the] results of kamma...

Also, according to the Sivaka Sutta, not everything that happens to a person is caused by their previous karma. Rather, it is also caused by other factors such as environmental factors.

"There are, revered Gotama, some ascetics and brahmans who have this doctrine and view: 'Whatever a person experiences, be it pleasure, pain or neither-pain-nor-pleasure, all that is caused by previous action.' Now, what does the revered Gotama say about this?"

"Produced by (disorders of the) bile, there arise, Sivaka, certain kinds of feelings. That this happens, can be known by oneself; also in the world it is accepted as true. Produced by (disorders of the) phlegm... of wind... of (the three) combined... by change of climate... by adverse behavior... by injuries... by the results of Kamma — (through all that), Sivaka, there arise certain kinds of feelings. That this happens can be known by oneself; also in the world it is accepted as true.

"Now when these ascetics and brahmans have such a doctrine and view that 'whatever a person experiences, be it pleasure, pain or neither-pain-nor-pleasure, all that is caused by previous action,' then they go beyond what they know by themselves and what is accepted as true by the world. Therefore, I say that this is wrong on the part of these ascetics and brahmans."

In the Kucchivikara-vatthu of the Vinaya, the Buddha describes how a good patient and a good nurse or caretaker is like:

"A sick person endowed with five qualities is easy to tend to: he does what is amenable to his cure; he knows the proper amount in things amenable to his cure; he takes his medicine; he tells his symptoms, as they actually are present, to the nurse desiring his welfare, saying that they are worse when they are worse, improving when they are improving, or remaining the same when they are remaining the same; and he is the type who can endure bodily feelings that are painful, fierce, sharp, wracking, repellent, disagreeable, life-threatening. A sick person endowed with these five qualities is easy to tend to.

"A nurse endowed with five qualities is fit to tend to the sick: He is competent at mixing medicine; he knows what is amenable or unamenable to the patient's cure, taking away things that are unamenable and bringing things that are amenable; he is motivated by thoughts of good will, not by material gain; he does not get disgusted at cleaning up excrement, urine, saliva, or vomit; and he is competent at instructing, urging, rousing, & encouraging the sick person at the proper occasions with a talk on Dhamma. A nurse endowed with these five qualities is fit to tend to the sick."

According to the Girimananda Sutta, the Buddha teaches the ill monk Girimananda ten contemplations, through Ananda, which healed him of his disease. I take it here, that the Buddha wants to get the monk to contemplate on these things that helps him to overcome cravings.

(Thereupon the Buddha said): "Should you, Ananda, visit the monk Girimananda and recite to him the ten contemplations, then that monk Girimananda having heard them, will be immediately cured of his disease.

"What are the ten?

Contemplation of impermanence. Contemplation of anatta (absence of a permanent self or soul). Contemplation of foulness (asubha). Contemplation of disadvantage (danger). Contemplation of abandonment. Contemplation of detachment. Contemplation of cessation. Contemplation of distaste for the whole world. Contemplation of impermanence of all component things. Mindfulness of in-breathing and out-breathing.

(for details, please read full Sutta)

Thereupon the Venerable Ananda, having learned these ten contemplations from the Blessed One, visited the Venerable Girimananda, and recited to him the ten contemplations. When the Venerable Girimananda had heard them, his affliction was immediately cured. He recovered from that affliction, and thus disappeared the affliction of the Venerable Girimananda.


An adverse diagnosis can certainly be seen as the ripening of past karma. But it's not a cause to beat yourself up: we have all done countless good and bad acts during innumerable past lives, according to Buddhist doctrine. I've certainly read texts which encourage people to put a positive spin on difficult experiences by viewing them as a chance to work through some negative karma.

It can also give rise to compassion, realising that one's own suffering is mirrored in that of countless other beings. Indeed the Lojong or Mind Training teachings include specific techniques for turning one's own suffering round, for instance by thinking "May this bit of suffering I'm experiencing stand for the suffering of all other beings... May I take on their suffering."

In my own experience a diagnosis is encouraging me to focus on Buddhist practice and to appreciate the present moment, rather than frittering my life away.

The specific Tibetan Buddhist practice most associated with relief of illness is Medicine Buddha (Menla) puja. It involves a mantra, ideally accompanied by visualisations, and is most likely to be effective if you get the transmission and empowerment for the practice from an authentic lama.

Sarve mangalem!


It is true that a terminal illness can be seen in a "positive" way, like purifying past karma.

From a Buddhist prospective, there are specific ways (like rituals, prayers) for helping with a terminal disease.

Also from a Buddhist perspective, one prays that if the disease can be cured, then let one's body be the vehicle to help many many other living beings.

Also from a Buddhist's perspective, one prays that if the disease cannot be cured, then let one die quickly and easily (to pureland).


First, from Tsongkhapa's viewpoint, there are three types of karmic results. One of them is the result similar to the cause. It is often thought that cancer or other deadly ones result from having taken life/lives in past life. A reason for thinking this way is that it may help the meditator to lessen anger (that would come from feeling that it's unfair or underserved). Thinking "cancer comes from such a negative action" is meant to generate regret (not incredible guilt or remorse that will have you paralyzed), and apply antidotes so as to stop engaging in negativities. One has to be careful with this way of thinking. For instance, telling a third person "it's just karma" or "it's because you killed in the past" might not be the best thing to do. It is first and foremost something to take for oneself, to improve one's own practice. To be taken and given carefully. These considerations are not so much to be taken as descriptive than instructive, so as to meditate, dwell on them, and generate within one's own continuum, antidotes to anger and so forth. Dwelling on the notion that "one created the causes of whatever awful turn of event occur" would otherwise be sterile or even possibly dangerous.

Also, a ripening of a karmic imprint is always "karma getting exhausted" but is not necessarily a sign of purification.

As to prayers, in Tibetan monasteries, we perform pujas ("ceremonies, rituals, prayers") on a regular basis, dedicating to specific people who requested (some giving donation, some not). The most common in this setting are Medicine Buddha Puja and Cittamani Tara Puja. This said, the practice we consider the best in these cases is animal liberation (i.e. saving life, as directly opposed to the cause that was taking lives).


What we experience now is not purely a result of past karma. It's both past and present actions combined. So this means that we can control our current karma to an extent depending on how we behave in the present moment. It's explained in the Devadaha Sutta. https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN101.html


My first teacher, who could "see" people's karmic roots of their present conditions (including diseases), often explained cancer-type diseases. While he never gave one summary "rule" to map diseases to karmic roots - and was actually offended when I proposed that to him - I can try and summarize some of the main points here, and hope that they can be of more help than harm due to overgeneralization.

In case of this answer, unlike with some other answers I give, I don't claim to see these things directly by myself - so this is only my attempt to explain main points of what I received as conceptual teaching:

  • In general, physical diseases - just like most other types of troubles according to Buddhism - come from attachments. More often than not these attachments are subtle ones, like attachments to certain principle or a view system - not obvious/superficial attachments to a person or thing.
  • Many times (but not always) I heard cancer-types diseases explained through attachment to spirituality. In this context "spirituality" should be understood in general as orientation towards the high ideals of outworldliness and away from the lowly values of this world. My teacher emphasized that spirituality, intellect, principles, etc. should not be placed above the genuine nondual love (as a first approximation of bodhicitta).
  • As I understand, the person in this condition (again, I don't want to overgeneralize, but this seemed to be the gist of many of those cases) may actually be very selfless and noble - while at the same time projecting very strong contrast between him/her and the world or the corrupt society, which colored their attitude to life as a whole - not necessarily in a negative way but certainly in a way that made them somewhat isolated mentally or emotionally.
  • This coloration of experience / the feeling of isolation then supposedly creates certain hormonal dis-balance that could lead to certain diseases, cancer-type ones being one of them.

In theory, if above is indeed the case, the healing is always possible through a deep change of one's perspective on life. However, because karma is very inertial it may work better on early stages - and on the later stages the person may simply not have enough time left to transform themselves.

I apologize if this offends anyone by putting the responsibility for the disease on the bearer of it, and I don't want this to seem like the only possible explanation - there are many types of and many objective causes of cancer. But this is what I was told, as much as I can remember it in a very simplified form, so I'm sharing it in the hope that it will help someone to prevent cancer, if not to heal it.


Terminal illness like cancer takes birth like any other being. First there was ignorance; with ignorance as precondition came volitional formations; with volitional formations as precondition came consciousness; with consciousness as precondition came name and form ; with name and form as a precondition came six senses; with six senses as precondition came contact; with contact as a precondition came feelings ; with feelings as a precondition came cravings ; with cravings as precondition came clinging ; with clinging as a precondition came attachment; with attachments as a precondition came becoming ;with becoming as a precondition came birth , ageing and death of diseases like cancer , AIDs , corona etc etc..

Doing the right karma and rectifying past mistakes can mitigate and eradicate a disease. But diseases due to ageing can not be eradicated. Ageing is inevitable. Such diseases are natural consequence of the fact that all sanskaras are impermanent. That is why where there is birth there is death.



Going forth through conviction
from home into homelessness,
I wandered this place & that,
greedy for gain & offerings.
Missing out on the foremost goal,
I pursued a lowly one.
Under the sway of defilements
I surrendered the goal
of the contemplative life.

Then, sitting in my dwelling,
I suddenly came to my senses:
I'm following a miserable path.
I'm under the sway of
Next to nothing, my life —
by aging & illness.
Before the body breaks apart,
I have no time
for heedlessness.

After watching, as it actually was,
the rising & falling of aggregates,
I stood up with mind released,
the Awakened One's bidding

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .