Imagine following situation: A person who thinks of themself as a good person, meaning they are mostly nice to people and act and think almost always morally. Said person is diagnosed with an illness that has no cure and is inevitably going to kill them in, say, a year. How would a Buddhist explain this?

I already know about the four noble truths as well as the noble eightfold path. Also I know that one could explain it with the concept of rebirth. But I'd like a more in-depth explanation and I'm interested if there are other ways of explaining it or if I am wrong with the information I already have.

6 Answers 6


As used here, the question "Why?" has a bit of a foundation in Identity View. There is an implied question of "Why am I suffering this kamma?". A key assumption of identity view is that there is an essential self that exists in our body. It would be this "self" that generates kamma through contact, feeling, craving, rebirth and suffering. It would be this "self" that would travel between this life and that life intact like a passenger transferring to a new bus.

And yet that very body has DNA inherited from our ancestors, who in their lives adapted to conditions at that time. There have been studies that some adaptations for a resistance to a certain disease such as cholera may make one susceptible to cystic fybrosis. In other words, our ancestral selves sometimes survive at our expense. In this case our current "selves" actually span generations of separate lives. The illusion of a well-defined self starts to break down and not work so well.

And just as DNA passes from one generation to another, so do behaviors. There are good and bad patterns of behavior passed down through generations. Parent hits child and child grows up to be an abusive parent. If one murders, one believes in murdering and that echoes forward into shorter lives for all (your example MN135). Here, too, one needs to consider where exactly the "self" boundary is. In this way, asking "why?" spins off into more and more tangled considerations, the so-called "thicket of views".

Instead of chasing the "why?", it is more productive and effective to simply observe that:

This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self. --MN62

For example, instead of "why?", we might choose to say:

"This body suffers from cystic fybrosis, but this cystic fybrosis is not mine..."


"My father hit me and yet this hitting is not mine,..."


The way my teacher taught me, he said most (but not all) illnesses are karmic results of attachments. In his explanations, these attachments are often tendencies that are passed from generation to generation - from parents to children. So most diseases have roots in attachments that ran strong in previous generations of the family.

In my teacher's explanation, a disease is always a way to get rid of attachment, either voluntarily - through spiritual growths, or forcefully - through loss and death.

If a given member of the family has a problem with attachments that were passed on, and this time can spiritually evolve enough to abandon the attachments and grow beyond them, then the karmic disease can be circumvented or quickly healed.

  • Really interesting explanation, sadly I can only accept one answer. But what do you mean with "voluntary spiritual growths" in terms of a disease? Is disease not necessarily connoted bad in this context or is it only related to the riddance of attachment?
    – palkonimo
    Commented Jan 10, 2019 at 21:05

How would a Buddhist explain this?

There're different ways and different explanations, depending on who you ask. Asking a doctor and s/he'll probably gives an explanation based the patient's history of smoking, alcohol usage, maybe some genetic/environmental factors, etc. Asking a fitness instructor, maybe the explanation would be something related to the patient's exercise habits, etc. Asking a Buddhist and the answer would appropriately be a combination of rebirth and kamma:

"Here, student, some man or woman kills living beings and is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings. Because of performing and undertaking such action, on the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. But if on the dissolution of the body, after death, he does not reappear in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell, but instead comes back to the human state, then wherever he is reborn he is short-lived. This is the way, student, that leads to short life, namely, one kills living beings and is murderous, bloody-handed, given to blows and violence, merciless to living beings." ~ MN 135 ~


The past lives effects continues in many ways. People have countless of life-times before they born to their last incarnation. Just because they have complete memory loss that makes them impossible to remember the past lives without using some special methods doesn't make them free from the karmic effects of the past lifes. Karmic effects of the past lifes can manifest in many ways. And illness is one of them.


Someone has an illness which is inevitably going to kill them. Why?

Because we all have to die of something. Be it illness or accident or organ failure. There is not problem here. There is nothing wrong with dying or death.

Everything that arises ceases. That's how nature works. The body breaks apart and then a new mind-body-combo get's created due to clinging.

Or was your point the disease bit? (It's possible I don't really understand your question.) In that case, I'm not sure what good speculating about the causes for a certain disease would do. I doubt anyone of us will ever know for sure.

Also, what does the cause of ones dying/death matter? It's all just a process.

But, again. I might completely miss the point of your question.


Every life is important, but human life is more important because as humans, we can change our future lives or uncover the road to Nirvana. So, those rare human lives are more important.

Buddha said not to kill anyone because “you don’t like death, just as no one wishes for death.”

So, what about situations where there is no intention to hurt and that person also wishes for death, with no opportunity to do good karma or uncover the path to Nirvana? Yes, it’s a different situation.

But I think human life is very rare and we have to utilize it to the maximum (good karma, uncover the path of Nirvana)

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