Kamma and Mitosis: Non-Linear Kamma

Sabbe dhamma anatta. This is probably the most radical statement in the entire existence of the world’s religious and philosophical thought. At the same time, it was made by the Buddha in a context that was - and still is - highly, if not exclusively empirical and practical, just as the Dhamma taken as a whole. This means that application of the anatta teachings to theoretical contexts does not carry as much (if any) value, but I think that a theoretical discussion held in the spirit of the Right Speech and Right View can still help us progress on the Path.

So, we have no self. Moreover, we consist of five groups of phenomena called khandha. Of these five, at least half a khadha, namely rupa, is demonstrably composite and consisting of separate organs and crucially, cell. Biologists researching the human perception can also confirm that it is a multi-level process consisting of multiple elements and sub-processes. My intuition is that all other khadhas will also be found to exhibit composite nature. Combined with anatta, the concept of a living being starts reminding an avalanche or rain, a natural processes consisting of numerous elements, intricately connected to each other. Still, the doctrine of kamma is interpreted in a very linear way, as if there was something reminding an existential core of a living being. One being - one set of kamma. You do an unwholesome thing, you to go Hell, you do a wholesome thing, you reap good kammic fruit.

Problems arise if we start to apply this teaching to living beings that are quite unsimilar to us. Take a rainworm: you can cut it in two parts, each of which, as some reasearchers suggest, may retain ‘memories’ of their life prior to the separation. Which of these two halves retains the kamma of the ur-worm (provided worms have kamma)? I think the only meaningful answer is ‘both’. Indeed, if a living being is an impersonal natural process, ontologically not vastly different from rain, why should it be impossible for it to split in two? There was only one worm with only one set of kammic structures, then boom! there are two worms with two initially identical but exceedingly divergent sets of kamma and rebirths. While there is no evidence in support of this theory in the Suttas, there is - as far as I know - nothing contradicting it. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that it was one of the Buddha’s immediate concerns to enlighten us on the nature of kammic transition in rainworms.

This scheme of ‘splitting beings’ may also be applicable to cells. Most of the cells in our organism behave as separate living being with a varying degree of specialization, something quite similar to how a developed (post-)industrialized society is structured today. In fact, our bodies are nothing but a huge colony of huge colonies of monocelular organisms, each having its own ‘body’ and mechanisms interacting with their environment in specific ways, i.e. proto-ayatana. Some of these cell, as leicocytes, are so highly autonomous that they can hardly be perceived as parts of our bodies. If so, why can’t they have their own kamma? Why can’t we as living beings with our kamma consist of other living beings with their own kamma? And finally, what happens to the kamma of a cell during the mitosis?

The latter question is especially important since every single one of us has developed from a single fertilized cell. Whether this ferticilized egg cell right after the moment of conception is already a human being is a debatable question - its being debatable is precisely what emphasizes the conventional nature of the word ‘human’ (cf. to the discussion of the term ‘Tathagata’ in SN 22.85 and the simile of a chariot in Milinda Panha: Where is ‘human’ in a human being? When does a human being starts being human? When does it cease being human?). Of course, one possible interpretation is that it is already human in the sense that it acquires the khamma of the previous birth and serves as the kammic foundation of an entire human organism. If we assume that all living being (and possibly all matter) possesses some extremely, unimaginably primitive sentience, the ‘consciousness’ of this cell could serve as the basis of the further biological development and correspond to the vinnana nidana in the interdependent relationship of vinnana and namarupa as described in DN 15. In the process of mitosis there would emerge a ‘cellular consciousness’ of each cell in the embryo as well as the ‘overall consciousness’ of the whole organism. More importantly, the same is true for the kamma: there would be not only ‘overall kamma’ of an organism but also ‘cellular kamma’. An alternative explanation, found among other sources in works of Ven. Brahmavamso, is that consciousness arises in an embryo at a later stage, while the earlier stages cannot be referred to as ‘human’. The venerable Ajahn did not spell it out for obvious reasons, but this interpretation - just as the one I provided above - can have important consequences for the ethics of abortion, even though I do not find it in any way more convincing than its alternative.

Besides, we should ask ourselves: if living being can get split, can they merge? The most obvious example would again be fertilization of an egg cell by a spermatozoid. Each of these two cells are highly specialized monocelular organisms - may I say living beings? I wouldn’t say their merging means they both die, a more appropriate way to describe it would be two say that they merge as two rain clouds can merge with each other into a single entity. Wouldn’t it mean that their kamma merges as well? This could also explain why the research of reincarnation evidence of Dr. Stephenson et al. reports about people being ‘reborn’ while their previous incarnation is still alive. I see no reason why living beings and importantly their kamma could not ‘split’ or ‘grow out’ of the maternal entity. Surely, the Buddha did not say anything about this in the Suttas, but are these details really so important for the Dhamma practice, especially if all his disciples were certain that the rebirth exists? He also said nothing about the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, organic chemistry, and successful strategies of coaching a baseball team, which doesn’t mean that they are not relevant in their specific contexts.

Finally, everything I wrote above may give us a tiny bit more intellectual insight into what happened under the Bodhi tree during the Night of Enlightenment. I think there are relatively few people who would subscribe to the opinion that it was not only the Buddha but also his colon cells that became enlightened that night. So, an enlightened being literally consisted of myrads of unenlightened ones. Moreover, according to the Yamaka Sutta, it would be an impossible task to pin down what exactly is enlightened about the Buddha, since you can’t find Tathagata in any of teh five khadhas. What did the Enlightenment consist in, then? Dare we say that the Enlightenment happened on the discursive level, where we all exist as ‘human beings’, with the change of the descriptional perspective when the Lord Buddha saw Himself and the world as they really are: “Sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe sankhara dukkha, sabbe dhamma anatta”?

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The [precise working out of the] results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.


You’ve also got quite a few assumptions in play, and this is otherwise quite a lot of exertion for an unclear purpose, it seems to me.

This is also one thing I thought about. Still, I don’t think that whatever I talked about in the post can be classified as describing the precise working out of the kamma. Even if one accepts these points as legit, one’s ideas about kamma will be as vague as my understanding of the theory of the relativity: I know the general principles such as space curvature but have little to no idea about how exactly it all works.

This is also a fair point, but to discuss all of these assumptions would be a task better carried out in the comment section :slight_smile:

I would say the prime purpose was to address the difficulties regarding the kamma doctrine that arise when you start thinking about the biology of more primitive living beings. I came across these arguments every now and then and thought it would be a good idea to sort the things out in my head and possibly share the results with my fellow Dhamma farers - even if they prove to be completely wrong, we may find a more satisfactory answer.

Besides, in my personal practice these musing were a huge help in analyzing the doctrine of anatta. I cannot claim I fully understand it because I don’t, but de-anthropization of the Universe is something that I always found personally helpful.

Finally, it helped me realize how infinitely more complicated the true kammic relations are when compared to many simplified interpretations. If it gets that complicated after barely touching the surface of the problem, you realize why the Buddha gave His advice. It may be foolish, and possibly is to some extent, but it also helped me get rid of this ‘curiosity virus’ nagging at my brain.

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Well, good luck :purple_heart: and here you go for some more material. When does ‘intention’ show up, in the whole process? It is indeed an entertaining question.

Just as the perceptional mechanisms of primitive cells are so much simpler than those of humans, I think their ‘intentional’ structure and potential for ‘volitional’ activity is still there but just infinitesimally more primitive. In fact, so primitive that we cannot really imagine it, just as we can’t even approach to understanding ‘what it is like to be a cell’ or intend as a monocelular organism. Heck, we cannot really imagine what it is like to be a bat.

Correspondingly, the kammic results of such primitive cetana can and in fact should have much weaker ramifications than those of people, dogs or bees. This would explain why one should get ready for a long haul if one is reborn as a cell :slight_smile:

Upd: We also shouldn’t discard a possibility that kamma is not produced but is rather only consumed by living beings of lower orders.

Just to maybe save some worm lives, it actually doesn’t work with earthworms aka rainworms: http://www.livescience.com/38371-two-worms-worm-cut-in-half.html. But, as the article says, there are worms that can be cut into even 300 new worms, so your point is still valid.

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Also, I think somewhere the Buddha said that plants are not concious beings but have the ability to eventually evolve into concious beings…I would put microorganisms and even simpler macroorganisms in that same category.

There are 10 times as many bacteria cells in the human body as there are human cells…if they were of much importance in regard to the Four Noble Truths, I’m sure the Buddha would have mentioned them. You could argue that the Buddha didn’t know about bacteria, but he did know about beings.

Lambert Schnitthausen wrote an entire book about it. On pp. 22-23, while admitting there is no explicit statement neither pro plant sentience nor contra it in the EBTs, he quotes Snp 3.9:

Tiṇarukkhepi jānātha,
na cāpi paṭijānare

First, there’s grasses and the trees,
though of themselves they nothing know

The second line, not quoted by Schnitthausen directly, is especially interesting. The translation of ‘na cāpi paṭijānare’ as referring to self-awareness is probably based on the Commentarial interpretation that you can look up here, which, however, uses more cautious formulations stating merely that plants and trees do not aknowledge their existential status as plants and trees . The more literal translation as provided by Ven. Ānandajoti seems to be ‘they do not acknowledge it’, which is much vaguer than a straightforward negation of any plant sentience whatsoever. I think it would be wise to wait for a verdict of people more knowledgeable in Pali than us, who could try to render the phrase into English while leaving the commentarial interpretation aside for a minute. Still, the inclusion of plant among animal beings (pāṇā), on par with insects, is very peculiar. And don’t forget about asannasatta who are insentient gods, i.e. über-plants in the Classical Theravada interpretation, but scarcely anyone believing in their existence is willing to not regard them as fully fledged living beings.

I think the absence of any meaningful discussion on the status of plants and other ‘borderline-case’ living beings in the EBTs can be explained by how weird things become when you start thinking about it and how difficult it is for us to relate to the condition of these beings. My whole post is about this weirdness. Lacking any knowledge about the cellular structure of the body or microorganisms in general (just think about Ven. Nagasena from Milinda Panha denying there are any small beings ‘writhing in pain’ in boiling water), there was no need for the Ancient Indic people to discuss these things. Just imagine how baffled they were if the Lord Buddha started explaining the mitosis or intentionality in amoebae to them :grinning: That the Buddha didn’t raise the topic Himself means in the ‘religious’ interpretation that it is unimportant for our attaining of the Awakening. Another important reason, pointed out by Schnitthausen, could be that admitting an unambiguous status of plants as living beings, the Buddha could make His less sophisticated lay followers desperate, for how - that would be their reasoning - could you live a life back then without amassing a huge amount of bad karma? However, having this scientific knowledge today, we could and maybe should account for it in the Dhammic context, ‘contextualize’ Dhamma.

Hi @Vstakan
I have read your post with lot of interest.
I have been in the same line of thought in the past.
As David said , kamma is an unconjecturable. So we should not get in to an Analysis paralysis.
Just stay in the present moment.
Having said that this is my grain of salt.
Life and the consciousness are two different things.
Most of your observation are around life process.
Properties of the consciousness are not the same as the properties of life.
Individual consciousness is like a knot of a thread.
You cant split a knot.
Once the knot is undone there is no more knots.
If I take your example of the worm, when you split a worm it is a re-birth of another worm.
The second worm is not the same. This is no different to human cloning.
It also pays to remember Buddha mentioned about five mode of birth.

Video of splitting planaria.


Consciousness, just as any other khandha, has a composite nature. There are six types of consciousness (or better consciousnesses): visual, auditory, olefactory, gustatory and tactile. At least the visual consciousness can be split into further parts. So, some cortically blind people report they are perfectly capable of being aware of motion without perceiving any secondary characteristics of an object, such as colour or shape. To get an imperfect idea of what it feels like just wave your hand in front of your closed eyes. At the same time, cases were reported where people are aware of object but do not perceive any motion. So, consciousness is not a knot, more like a jigsaw puzzle. Moreover, while the human have more or less a single biological locus responsible for interaction with the consciousnesses, i.e. brain, more primitive animals like worms have their ‘brain’ sprerad all over their body, so a even a part of their ganglia is enough to maintain ‘the life process’.

It is very true it is not the same worm, just as me waking up from sleep is not the same me as yesterday. At the same time, comparing it to cloning is an over-simplification. Human beings are highly complex composite processes with fuzzy borders, so when cloning a girl, you do not copy the parent process, you take a single cell of her body, which, as you will surely agree, is not ‘this girl’, and start mitosis. The complex nature of this ‘emulating process’ as well as inevitable mutations will result in a human that if very different from the parent being. More importantly, no important information that is essential for our establishing the continuity between different stages of a process we call ‘human’ is transmitted in this case: memories, knowledge, emotions, phenomenal patterns.

In the case of a worm there is significantly less such continuity factors. The behavioural patterns making out the ‘knowledge’ and ‘memories’ of a worm are retained in the new worms. At no stage in this processes is the life faculty cut, even the ‘knot’ of consciousness is not undone, so we cannot really speak of death. There is simply no moment when one being has ceased to exist and another one sprang up: saying so would entail that there is some essential ‘beingness’, some core to a being, which sounds suspiciously like atta. As a result, the most natural way to describe what happens to the poor creature is that it has split in two new highly similar beings. There are no new worms, both animals are continuations of the old ‘being process’. It is even more evident if one speaks about monocelular organisms as they do not seem to have any memory, so establishing a continuity is even easier.

Could you please dwell upon it a little bit? I’m afraid I don’t quite understand what significance the five mode of birth have in the context of the present discussion :slight_smile: Please don’t regard it as devaluing your point, I just sincerely don’t understand.

It does not mean there are six different consciousness.
It is the same consciousness but give a different name based on it’s nature.
The sole purpose of understanding our existence as an aggregate is to understand Anatta.
I think we should limit our investigation just enough to achieve that objective.
I do not think that you will find the answers to your questions in Buddhism.
Nibbana is some thing beyond Nama, Rupa.
I think we should spend more time to realise the nature of our existence Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta.


The case of planariae has always astonished me.
I see the process depicted in the video shared above as a clear example of how mundane and natural the process of rebirth actually is, and how absurd is the assumption that any sort of individuality/soul is to persist or required for it to happen.
Once split, the thing becomes two.
Each part a material counterpart for the mental aggregates to continue.
Like a river split by a river bank or actually split in two from a point in the terrain it crosses.
The river or rivers is just a nomenclature / convention. It is all about water running on a sloped terrain, just as rebirth and the suffering it entails is all about beginingless avijja and tañña “taking forms and shapes” in the material and imaterial aspects of the conditioned existence.


This is an invaluable realisation.
The question is what are we going to do with this new found wisdom.
We should use this knowledge to eliminate attachment, aversion and ignorance by following the Noble Eightfold Path.


I am afraid I cannot agree with you on that one. look at suttas like MN 148: consciousness is treated pretty much like sensations and feelings, there is not talk of a single consciousness that can be classified according to its nature. Throughout the sutta, the Buddha talks of six viññāṇakāyā that together with six ayatanas produces six types of contact and six types of feeling. Saying that there is a single consciousness is something that is not to be found neither here nor, to my knowledge, in any doctrinally relevant Sutta. Otherwise, it would be unclear why we shouldn’t treat other khadhas in the same way :slight_smile:

You are right, this discussion is hardly relevant for most people’s immediate spiritual practice. I also think we cannot find the answers to my questions in the Buddhism alone, since the Buddha did not proclaim these things because of the time he lived in. However, The Buddhism cum scientific knowledge cum rational investigation can clear things up: the Dhamma is in a source of knowledge among many. Not using the Dhamma in this way means it can be marginalized, relegated to being a wholly separate area of life: ‘So, here’s my science, here’s my everyday life, and here’s my Dhamma’. Instead, we can integrate it with the current knowledge coming from other sources, making our worldview less fragmented. We will hardly ever achieve the Ultimate True Knowledge about the way the things are, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t integrate what we know from the Buddha, Einstein and James Watson to achieve a better approximation of that view. Realizing anatta when knowing about the celular structure of the body will ultimately be no different than 2500 years ago.

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Consciousness is like the fire. It arises and perish with conditions.
For example when you have eye consciousness there is not ear consciousness.

We will not live long enough to investigate all possible knowledge.
There should be a time we move from investigation to practice.
As I said before, I really value your input and raising this topic.
I am just sharing my experience.

As far as I know, this is an Abhidhammic conception not found in the Nikayas. Even if you think it is authoritative it doesn’t prove that the eye consciousness is identical to ear consciousness and differs only in its condition. Mutual exclusivity doesn’t mean identity. If you are male, it means you are not female, which doesn’t mean that being male or female is identical :slight_smile:

I also apperciate your sharing your experience :anjal: If we have differences of opinion on some matters, it doesn’t mean we have less respect or metta for each other and each other’s experience :blush:

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As you are very keen in this subject I suggest that you study split brains surgery experiments.

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Thanks for the video, I will watch it tonight. That was indeed something I contemplated discussing as it is immediately relevant for our topic. Split brain, conjoined twins, neglect, cortical blindness, etc.: all these borderline cases are nice illustrations of anatta.

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