Hereditary illness

Hi all,

Many physical and mental illnesses are genetic or hereditary, whether partially or completely, the contributing factor is genetic, nevertheless.

The question is, if you are born into a family that has genetic illness e.g. anxiety disorder, compulsive disorder, cancer, diabetes, to name a few, the hereditary illness will then pass down to your children.

The question is, if you get married and have children, is it bad kamma for you as parents?

Some illnesses have a genetic component (anxiety, OCD are not examples of this BTW). That might explain how some diseases physically manifest in the body. But in terms of how rebirth and kamma work surrounding it, you could probably drive yourself to confusion by thinking about that too much. If your motivation in getting married is that you love your partner and the motivation to want to have kids is because you want to raise them with love and compassion, then those are good motivations. If your motivation in having kids is an ego-trip, then that’s a bad motivation.

Unless you have a serious deadly disease running in your family which is purely genetic, probably not worth much consideration because you will love your kids no matter what. I say that as someone with an inherited disability, fwiw.


I think intention is the issue here. If you know very well that you have a genetically inherited problem and get married with the intention of transmitting it to your partner and to children, then it is bad kamma.

But, almost all living beings have some kind of health issue or other and no one is one hundred percent healthy. Yet they get married and have children. Since they do not intend causing harm to their children or wives IMO their actions do not amount to bad kamma. If and when children acquire that health problem, it will be considered a ripening of their previous actions.

From a purely Buddhist perspective, sensual pleasures are dangerous due to their potential for lengthening dukkha via successive lives. Which means that the best solution is to reflect on what one has already got as ripening of kamma and practise for release.

With Metta


Interesting. Except for perhaps some short period of time at the beginning of incarnation, we all know we are mortal; our offspring will be mortal; conception is controllable/preventable; suffering is intrinsic to incarnation.

However, did not the Buddha say something to the effect of, an unending debt of respect is owed to one’s parents?

True. He did say it in AN 2.32.
“I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother & father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder & your father on the other shoulder for 100 years, and were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, & rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate & urinate right there [on your shoulders], you would not in that way pay or repay your parents".

It is the gratitude children must have towards their parents for what they have done to bring them up and give them an education and so on.

If I understand your question correctly, you are asking why should children have such gratitude when parents have intentionally made them sick by procreating them.

But do the children know that?. Unless of course parents have told them. Therefore, I would say that as long as one considers them as parents in the proper sense of parenthood, they owe them that gratitude.
With Metta

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I think your point about intention is a very important one, Nimal.

I just wanted to clarify something on one part of your post:

There are several discourses that make it clear that not all unpleasant feeling, misfortune, disease, etc. is the result of past kamma. One example would be SN 36.21:

Some feelings, Sīvaka, arise here originating from bile disorders … originating from phlegm disorders … originating from wind disorders … originating from an imbalance of the three … produced by change of climate … produced by careless behaviour … caused by assault … produced as the result of kamma: that some feelings arise here produced as the result of kamma one can know for oneself, and that is considered to be true in the world. Now when those ascetics and brahmins hold such a doctrine and view as this, ‘Whatever a person experiences, whether it be pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, all that is caused by what was done in the past,’ they overshoot what one knows by oneself and they overshoot what is considered to be true in the world. Therefore I say that this is wrong on the part of those ascetics and brahmins.

AN 10.60 also differentiates between illnesses due to kamma and those due to other causes:

And what, Ānanda, is the perception of danger? Here, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty hut, a bhikkhu reflects thus: ‘This body is the source of much pain and danger; for all sorts of afflictions arise in this body, that is, eye-disease, disease of the inner ear, nose-disease, tongue-disease, body-disease, head-disease, disease of the external ear, mouth-disease, tooth-disease, cough, asthma, catarrh, pyrexia, fever, stomach ache, fainting, dysentery, gripes, cholera, leprosy, boils, eczema, tuberculosis, epilepsy, ringworm, itch, scab, chickenpox, scabies, hemorrhage, diabetes, hemorrhoids, cancer, fistula; illnesses originating from bile, phlegm, wind, or their combination; illnesses produced by change of climate; illnesses produced by careless behavior; illnesses produced by assault; or illnesses produced as the result of kamma; and cold, heat, hunger, thirst, defecation, and urination.

AN 4.87 and AN 5.104 also echo this distinction.

Certainly kamma is the most important factor, though, since it’s the one we can influence through practice.


This is very true. It can be due to any of those reasons of which Kamma is just one, and the last one at that.
With Metta


The larger question is whether the Buddha anticipated Charles Darwin by 2,300 years? Darwin’s theory of evolution holds that beneficial evolutionary adaptations are carried on to successive generations while disadvantageous evolutionary adaptations tend to result in species extinction because they are not passed on to successive generations of offspring.

If one wants to think about Kamma in an evolutionary sense, it’s not so much genetic material that is inherited genetically (although obviously from a factual point of view it is), but how the material body is thought of in terms of Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta. To the extent individuals achieve Nibanna through the relieving of Dukkha and the realization of Anicca and Anatta they are able to cease the transmission of negative Kamma through reincarnation.

In other words, we may inherit genetic material that has a potential deleterious effect on the body, but by realizing that this is impermanent and therefore not-self we can convey to successive generations the means by which to relieve suffering through following the Dhamma. What eventually is removed from the Kamma “gene pool” are the thoughts that lead to suffering, although the genetic material may still be present.

Disclaimer: I am very knew to the study and practice of Buddhism, so I may be simply experimenting with some ideas that occur to me in the course of this discussion. If I am completely off base, I trust someone will let me know :grinning:


IMO this is a very good point. In fact, the Buddha has stated that (I forget the source) if someone achieves stream entry in the present life, suffering left over for him is the size of few pebbles he had picked up in his palm and the suffering relieved is the size of a nearby mountain.

Therefore, we all must work towards achieving stream entry at least, instead of fretting over past kamma.

With Metta


But what if some parents did not bring them up, or give them an education or do other things recognized as meritorious or wholesome? (Perhaps metaphorically equivalent to 100 years of shoulder defecation :slight_smile: while being flawlessly looked after. ) The Buddha did not add, unless somehow it was not remembered, that in that case, there is no debt difficult to repay; therefore even for unpleasant, unwholesome parenting a child still has a difficult debt to repay… No conditions which limit or negate this debt are mentioned as remembered, is this correct?

Human rebirth is considered fortunate; an intentional cooperative event, even if non conscious to a human POV. (Correct? Please, do speak up if i am confused here, it would be of benefit for me, maybe others.)

So… at the worst… unless one is bound by relevant precepts (1-4, as appropriate to monastic or lay)… parenting is mixed kamma, for any parent…?

Thanks all for your prompt reply.

Right, I thought so. I was thinking not having children means not passing the heredity illness down to children, but it won’t work. If the children have the connection with such family and such illness, it’s inevitable. They will be reborn in somebody else’s womb who has similar situation and health condition.

“Inevitable” a tricky/sticky word, imo. Kamma ripens, but as to how it does, … is the future predetermined, predictable, knowable…?

I agree. This however, depends on whether that person will have access to Buddhist teaching or not. Out of the 7 billion world population only 400 million are Buddhists. Out of that 400 million too, only a very few follows the teaching properly. So, even if they were fortunate to be born human, as you can see, only a handful practise Dhamma towards true liberation.

It is hard to say whether it is kamma or what.

As for gratitude to parents, one should be grateful to them regardless. As you have stated, human birth is fortunate and everyone should make an effort to practise Dhamma.

The Buddha stated that issue of Kamma is so vast and hard to fathom.
With Metta


I think we can say that they aren’t necessarily a direct result of past kamma. But I think we can also say that they still depend upon past kamma in a more indirect way.

"Now what, monks, is old kamma? The eye is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. The ear… The nose… The tongue… The body… The intellect is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. This is called old kamma.
-SN 35.145

The body and mind, which the experience of illness depends upon, is (the result of) past kamma. Even if a specific illness is not the direct result of a specific past action (something only an extremely psychically powerful mind could know the truth of), we can still say it absolutely depends on past kamma in the sense that past kamma forms the necessary ground for that illness to manifest.

Please point out if you see any flaws in this line of thought.

It is interesting how that quote SN 36.21 is so carefully worded at the end. The Buddha says it is wrong on the part of those ascetics and brahmins in particular because they overshoot their own knowledge and the world’s truth. He says nothing about what He knows or what is true in a less qualified way…

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I agree with you, James. As I understand it, we’re on a particular field (in our case, the human one) due to ripening of past kamma. Some things that sprout up in that field are due to present or past kamma, and some things that sprout up are not due to kamma. But, as you say, the field itself is due to past kamma.

I was just trying to address a tendency in Theravāda and perhaps other traditions of making kamma monocausal, which I don’t think lines up with the early Buddhist understanding of kamma. In particular, I’m referring to the tendency of some people to ascribe any misfortune someone experiences to their past kamma. As I’m sure you know, it can even go so far as to evolve (or devolve) into “collective kamma”, saying that all the victims of an earthquake, tsunami, genocide, etc. are experiencing the results of past kamma.

And while it may be true that they wouldn’t experience those things if they weren’t born into the human realm, I think the monocausal view of kamma can have a detrimental effect on one’s practice, potentially even leading someone into a view of determinism. (I’m not implying that you hold the monocausal view; I don’t think either you or Nimal does).

We’ve probably both heard people blame those who are suffering for something they must have done in the past or, even worse, refuse to help someone so that the afflicted person can “burn up” their past kamma. It seems to me that this kind of attitude can decrease compassion and increase judgmental habits.

Perhaps the best guideline is to ask ourselves in regard to views (as well as thoughts, intentions, actions, speech, etc.): “Does this lead to unskillful states arising or growing, or does it lead to skillful states arising or growing? Does it seem to lead toward dispassion, cessation, letting go, nibbāna?”

That’s an interesting point. Could you clarify what you mean by “what is true in a less qualified way”?


You are unlikely to be 100% certain that the child is going to get that hereditary illness, so you cannot say if it is a wise thing to have a child or not based on that criteria. But you can play the numbers game I guess and health workers will be able to come up with the probability of the event happening, which could help you decide along with the severity of the disability and knowledge of the capacity of the parents. But even with all that consideration, if the child does go on to develop the disease, you cannot say that it will suffer from it. They are not you, so you cannot know how they will cope; their environment will be different to yours, so you cannot say how much help they might get; and lastly, what was a incurable disease yesterday is a curable one tomorrow.

If I’m to answer that question directly, then: Yes. Absolutely. Taking on a second set of khandhas that needs to be looked after by getting married is an incredibly bad move, especially for those of us who cannot really cope with the five khandhas that we were born with. Then adding a further five khandhas with a child is another dose of bad kamma. Some people go on to add more children and maybe even a dog and a cat! Madness!! :wink: But don’t worry too much about all that bad kamma, you’ll have plenty of time to make some good kamma during the parenting process. :wink: Having said that, “not getting what one want’s” is dukkha, so I guess one would need to weigh all this bad kamma up against how badly one wants a spouse and child.

I think that maybe the bad kamma you take on (do) in the process of having a child (any child) is irrelevant to the eventual presumed condition of the child.

As an aside for reflection, what if we were to compare your question with the idea of having a boy or having a girl? We know that (statistically) women have a worse time in this world than men do, from education, to exploitation, to pay in jobs, to becoming a mendicant. Given that there is (genetically) over a 50% chance of having a girl (who may or may not suffer more in this life due to being a girl, but does have a statistically higher chance of suffering more), would we ask the same question?


The qualification is that it is truth as considered by the world, not truth per se or with a different qualification. For example, with a Noble Truth, “Noble” is the qualification.

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As gender selective abortion (which breaks the 1st precept) or gender selective artificial insemination are now known technologies, i note that the societies which have allowed or failed to suppress this have suffered as a result of gender ratio skewing; not enough women to marry seems to lead to child marriages, and increased societal violence for girls and women, boys and men. Hazardous technology?

How sick can you get?
Comparing birth as a girl to birth with a hereditary disease!

Open your eyes! The world is full of chances to be reborn.
Humans with genetic defects are just such a tiny fraction of all possible kinds of birth.

And yet very strong aversion exists… imo observing the mind by seeing how verbs work with different nouns can be useful, is that making any sense?