Publication Date

Spring 2018

Program Name

China: Health, Environment, and Traditional Chinese Medicine


Karma is the Buddhist idea that our actions from current and previous lives affect our fortune in this life. In particular, if we suffer in the current life, it is due to negative action in the past. Likewise, if we prosper, it is due to past positive acts, such as compassion. The idea of karma extends to illness; in simplification, sickness is attributed to negative past action.

The purpose of this study was to investigate the belief of karmic disease in the Tibetan Buddhist community of Shangri-La. Although disease is often used as an example of karmic suffering, and there is extensive literature on this concept, there is significantly less literature on karmic disease. To my knowledge, there are no published studies (in English) exploring karmic disease through the voices of Tibetan peoples.

In this study, twelve people in Shangri-La and the surrounding villages were interviewed about their perspectives on karmic disease. Interviewees included eleven Tibetans, two of whom were doctors, and one American doctor. The series of in-person interviews were conducted over the period of two weeks with the assistance of a translator when necessary.

Findings show that it is generally the most insidious and inexplicable diseases that are attributed to karma. Small illnesses are more likely to be explained through bad luck, poor hygiene or imbalance of the three humors characteristic of Tibetan medicine. The advice of a lama as well as accruing good karma through compassionate acts are essential for healing karmic disease. To conclude this paper analyzes the efficacy of healing karmic disease through Tibetan practice via a western lens, including an evaluation of the science of Buddhist healing.


Asian Studies | Buddhist Studies | Community-Based Research | Sociology of Religion


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