Death, Rebirth and Karma:
A medical scientific perspective
Meditation is wildely believed to cure cancer - probably based on
the same mechanism and by enhancing the immune system and engulfing
the cancer cells. People who meditate are even less prone to
infections such as common cold, again due to the same reason of
enhanced immunity. The challenge we have in this century is to find
ways and means of enhancing the power of the mind to cure or heal
physical illnesses and meditation certainly seems to be one way.
VIEWS: Karunaratne and Somaratne were two patients of around the same
age who were admitted to hospital on the same day. Both had suffered
heart attacks. Karunaratne died soon after admission. The other went
home a week later having made a full recovery.
Both of them received the same treatment but the outcomes were so
different. Though this type of incidents are not unusual to us as
doctors, they have always puzzled me.
But that doesnâ€™t seem to be the case with Sugathadasa, who is an
uncle of Karunaratne. He had a very simple explanation for his nephewâ€™s
death - it was his Karma or Karumaya in Sugathadasaâ€™s own words as told
I learned about Karma in Sunday Dhamma school when I was a kid, but I
cannot remember my being taught of Karma as a cause of death after a
heart attack, in medical school.
When we see phenomena like this in day to day practice, our habit as
doctors is to offer some explanation compatible with the medical science
we know of. For example in this case one may say a conduction defect
caused a cardiac arrest resulting in death.
As time passed by and I witnessed more and more of such phenomena
where outcomes were different in spite of receiving the same care, I
became intrigued and started to think more seriously about them.
It is with this background that I turned to Dhamma for a possible
explanation to this puzzle as the explanations we have been offering
have never been up to my satisfaction.
If we are to understand this problem as doctors we need to pay
attention to the present Bio Medical health model we follow in western
medicine. This doesnâ€™t recognize an interaction between mind and body
and is based on the seventeenth century thinking that mind and body are
two separate entities with no interaction.
In such a model there is no place for the mind or any other unseen
Karma or karmic force to influence the body or bodily functions. This
belief perpetuated for nearly three centuries simply because there was
no plausible scientific explanation as to how an interaction could exist
between mind and body.
But little did we realise that the modern science can grasp only
those factors or phenomena perceived by five sensory organs. In such a
model we can very well understand and explain how for example,
environmental pollution can cause illness and chemicals such as
antibiotics can cure infections.
However, based on this model, we cannot explain how a force or an
influence such as Karma or spirituality arising in the depth of ones
mind, which can neither be seen or grasped, can influence our health.
But with the advent of Quantum Theory in the twentieth century,
explaining the dual nature of matter, the materialistic view of the
universe too probably changed. This certainly influenced the bio medical
health model as well.
The Quantum theory explains how the same matter can exist
simultaneously in two different forms, for example as solid or energy
form. Initially this was a puzzle even to the best of physicists, but
later they came to accept this reality.
It is with this background, towards the end of twentieth century, the
medical scientists began to speculate a plausible link between mind and
body too. This lead to the recognition of Psycho Neuro Immune Endocrine
(PNIE or PNI) system as the link between mind and body.
PNI is a functional system which can explain how mind can influence
the body or bodily function. It is a well accepted fact that a woman is
more prone to get a breast cancer after her husbandâ€™s death.
This can now be explained based on PNI system as a result of lowered
immunity in bereavement and depression. So we now have a plausible
system to explain the influence of mind on body or physical health.
Meditation is wildely believed to cure cancer - probably based on the
same mechanism and by enhancing the immune system and engulfing the
cancer cells. People who meditate are even less prone to infections such
as common cold, again due to the same reason of enhanced immunity.
The challenge we have in this century is to find ways and means of
enhancing the power of the mind to cure or heal physical illnesses and
meditation certainly seems to be one way.
We now speak of spiritual dimension in health. Health was hitherto
defined as physical, mental and social well being. The fourth dimension
which is spiritual well-being is now being added to this definition of
health, as a result.
This brings to my mind the Buddhist teaching which recognises mind as
foremost to everything else. This I consider to be an instance where
western medical science at last has recognized religion or religious
belief or behavirour as an entity influencing our health.
Acceptance of this truth compels doctors to accommodate patientsâ€™
religious beliefs and wishes in matters related to health and disease.
This is a truth common to any religion as is now recognised.
As doctors we also encounter birth and death. As death, what we see
is only a physical death. When the functional connection between vital
organs ceases to exist, we declare someone as dead.
For this purpose, observation of pulse and breathing is adequate. But
from Buddhist perspective death is cessation of consciousness (Vinnana).
According to modern science, consciousness is said to be in a quantum
An electron would remain within an atom only as long as it is moving
and similarly our Vinnana or consciousness too can stay within us only
as long as our brain cells function. The moment brain cells cease to
function as in the physical death we see, Vinnana cannot exist.
But if consciousness or Vinnana is so closely related to the
functioning or living cells, is it possible for the reverse to happen?
ie. if Vinnana ceases to exist would the brain cells die or a physical
As doctors we have never entertained this as a possible mechanism of
death. This is because what we have been taught is that mind is an
epiphenomenon of biology and not the other way round.
But looking at the fact that Vinnana and functional integrity of the
cell are so closely related to each other, who can challenge if one says
it is Vinnana that ceases first and this is followed by cell death -
after all the two seem so interdependent.
According to Buddhist teaching there is nothing exiting as such, from
our bodies at the time of death and that is why the phrase re-becoming
is used in place of rebirth. One may then question as to what happens to
our consciousness or Vinnana at the time of death.
As much as electronic energy can be transferred or re-manifested in
quantum form between different energy levels in this universe, without
anything travelling as such in conventional form, it is quite reasonable
to assume that our consciousness too could similarly be re-manifested
from one energy level in another level without actually anything in
conventional form travelling in between.
As said before, for Vinnana or consciousness to re-manifest itself
the prerequisite is that there should be functioning or developing
brain. This should be none other than in an embryo developing from a
fertilized ovum with the appropriate potential.
Was then Sugathadasaâ€™s nephewâ€™s heart attack only a physical
manifestation of a more complex process of ceasing of Vinnana as the
initial event in the process leading to death. This seems to be the
mechanism suggested by Sugathadasa by his attributing the cause of
physical death of his nephew to Karma.
His Vinnana or energy potential for life or Karma as understood by
Sugathadasa, was probably being transferred or re-manifested in a more
sustainable or suitable energy level in the universe as it was no more
sustainable in the present life, and this resulted in his physical death
as we doctors see.
If that was the case no amount of effort from us could have sustained
his life. As a doctor caring for heart patients, I have experienced this
type of situations repeatedly in my professional life - same care given
to two patients, yet one dies and the other survives for no obvious
Ironically sometimes the one we think would survive, is not the one
who survives and vice versa. Yet the truth is that the medical teaching
I received would not permit me to consider Karma as a cause of death.
Medical science therefore need to explore the hitherto unexplained
territory of Karma in relation to death and birth if we are to explain
situations like this.
This brings us to a still more complex situation. The birth we see as
doctors is again more a physical one. The cry of the new born is
considered to be the evidence of his life and our responsibility as
doctors in attendance at the delivery of a baby is, to a great extent
relieved when that happens.
Because then we know the functional integrity between the vital
organs is established and the life has started. We would not consider
this birth as a re-becoming of the energy or Karma from a previous life.
We ascertain life of a fetus in uterus only from its reactions to
stimuli and functioning of organs such as heartbeat. Here again, if one
argues that it is Vinnana or Karma that should come first for the life
to begin or both Vinnana and cell function should occur simultaneously,
nobody would be able to challenge.
Again as doctors, we look for physical manifestation to define the
beginning of life as much as we did with death. Therefore as doctors our
approach to both death and life is very mechanistic and superficial
looking at them only as mere biological events. Interestingly however,
one is born with a set of genes or biological material which is unique
to that particular individual.
We know genes are essential for sustaining life as many functions of
life are dependent on genes. With the mapping of the human genome, genes
have come to the forefront in our understanding of diseases and
developing new treatment modalities. A genetic basis is now being
attributed to more and more diseases and biological processes in the
Based on the science we know of, one can understand genes influencing
the bodily functions. For instance, they encode or mediate in the
synthesis of vital hormones or enzymes in the body. But what we fail to
understand is why then no two genomes are alike.
Why should they be different from each other if they are to perform
the same functions in the human body? That seems beyond our
comprehension from scientific viewpoint.
As doctors we know that oneâ€™s genetic makeup determines a lot of
things in life. Not only physical growth, but the behaviour, talents and
sometimes diseases and even the cause of death is decided by our genes.
Some genes called dominant genes when present will invariably have
their influence on life whereas the effect of some other genes can be
masked by the presence of another more influential gene or even
environmental factors. This seems to have some strange similarity to
Karma as I learned in Dhamma school.
Some Karma or actions we do will invariably produce results in the
next birth while some Karma can get cancelled off, I was taught. Is it
these Karma from our previous life that masquerade as genes at birth and
influence our lives thereafter?
This is the question which keeps coming to my mind when ever I
compare the way Karma is supposed to influence a person and the way
genes play their role in life. One difference of course is, that genes
but not Karma can be seen as tiny solid nodules on the chromosomes under
the electron microscope.
If they were the same, can Karma appear as solid matter under a
microscope?. The Quantum Theory can probably explain this based on dual
nature of matter.
Therefore, if one now argues that genes are actually our Karma, there
is very little ground to oppose such a view. What we see as solid
nodules could be condensed forms of energy or Karma, one may say.
If genes are manifestations of Karma from the previous births,
Sugathadasa may well be correct in his explanation of his nephewâ€™s death
as due to Karma - after all it may be his genetic make up that made him
vulnerable to death from the heart attack.
As modern medical science is attributing more and more of the control
of life to oneâ€™s genetic make up who can say with any confidence that
Sugathadasaâ€™s explanation was unscientific.
What are the implications from this story to us as practising
doctors? We need to rethink the mechanistic approach to birth, death and
disease. In the light of spirituality being recognized as influencing
our health we need to develop a newer Medico Spiritual health model.
Such a model would accommodate hitherto unrecognised forces which may
be controlling our destiny. Genes with ever increasing roles being
attributed can be looked upon as manifestations of these unforeseen
forces which I myself would like to call Karma. A Medico Spiritual
health model would pave the way to harness the power of mind for better
health during this life and probably in the life after.