The Three Causes of Kamma
[By Dr.David N. Snyder]
According to the Buddha, we are all born with essentially a good nature. We are not born into or
about sin. In fact there is no ―sin in Buddhism. People engage in devious or immoral behavior
because of one or more of the following:
1. Attachment or greed
2. Aversion or hatred
3. Delusion or ignorance
This is another way of describing the four noble truths; that all wrongdoing or what some people
might call ―sin or what Buddhism would call suffering, is all rooted to either attachment,
aversion, or ignorance. When we have attachment or greed we suffer because of any immorality
that might be with it or because we miss whatever it is we are attached to when it is gone. These
three things are the causes of negative kamma.
Attachment is a very powerful drive and can become like an addiction. Imagine a very
pleasurable experience or belonging. Watch how you feel when you imagine it gone. This can
apply to people too. We can become too attached even to loved ones to the point that we try to
control them in a possessive way. To avoid too much attachment we must be willing to let go
and not to cling to things, places, or people. This does not mean that we can not be in loving
caring relationships, just that we need to be careful to keep them from becoming controlling or
We all have seen the stories in books and movies or maybe we know someone personally who is
quite rich in wealth and income and becomes pretty greedy. Money and the pursuit of money
mean more to that person than anything. They ignore valuable relationships with others
and the community so that they can continue chasing after more money. Not all rich
people act this way. But the ones that do act that way are very miserable people. They are not as
miserable to others as they are to themselves. They sometimes deny themselves basic things out
of a frugalness gone mad and they constantly worry about losing their possessions and money.
In a previous edition to The Guinness Book of Records, it was reported that the greatest miser
(cheap-skate) was this woman who lived in the 1930‘s who had a net worth of about $30 million
(at least a billion in today‘s value of money). She lived in a small run-down house and ate cold
oatmeal cereal everyday. It was cold because she did not want to pay the utilities to heat it. Her
son was very sick and had his leg amputated because of the delays she caused in looking for a
Others who have become successful in wealth and income that do not get caught in the trap of
greed and attachment, know when enough is enough. They take care of their financial affairs by
placing them in the hands of trusted advisors and employees and use their free time to focus on
charities, their family, and their spirituality.
Letting go also does not mean that we need to give up all of our possessions including money.
We simply need to exercise caution so that we do not become too attached to our possessions
and money. We can do this by not making our possessions, our money, and our incomes the
principal aims of our life.
Aversion or hatred stirs up all kinds of mind agitation which causes suffering or leads to
something else which some might call sin. Hatred can lead to all kinds of bad acts or even
criminal acts. Most or perhaps all wars could be said to be rooted to hate. Sometimes wars
break out over a dispute over land, which is a form of attachment and greed. Reasonable
solutions could most likely be met through nonviolent means if there were no attachment or
greed. Often it is the escalating hatred between the leaders of the countries which causes the
outbreak of war. The Buddha was opposed to war and even went to the battlefield on one
occasion to stop a war. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha stated:
―It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. (Dh., chapter 8) In another
famous verse the Buddha said: ―Hate never ceases by hatred, only love dispels hate. This is an
ancient and timeless law. (Dh., chapter 1)
How timeless this teaching really is. Still to this day we see leaders engaging in war when there
could have been more peaceful options. Besides hatred, there is often ego, or the attachment to
ego, as a leading cause for the outbreak of war. Sometimes there is a leader with an attachment
to ego that is so large, that they desire to rule the world. Many times the speech and rhetoric are
just a lot of hot air with no real military might to carry on such an invasion. Inevitably another
leader, fearing that this person may have more clout on the world scene, starts calling the other
leader, ―evil and eventually attacks his country with little justification.
Or some people do all kinds of wrong or bad things simply because they are ignorant, for
example, they make some mistakes because they do not have enough knowledge to do better.
The knowledge does not necessarily come from school, but also could be a lack of knowledge
that should have been taught at home by immediate family and extended family.
No one is inherently ―evil. Even the most hardened criminals are not ―evil. They were born
with a basically good nature like us. Through attachment, aversion, or ignorance mistakes
are sometimes made. We must also remember that people who are determined to be ―criminals
are set by society and its rules. We live according to man‘s law that is the rule of law according
to law books, made by humans, as opposed to nature‘s law. For example, during one period in
history a certain offense may be illegal and during another period the same offense may be
perfectly legal. We must have compassion to all beings including the people under the custody
of justice departments around the world.
During the time of the Buddha there was a murderer by the name of Anguilama who became a
Buddhist and attained enlightenment. As a result of his bad kamma, he still had to suffer the
effects of his actions, but nevertheless, was able to attain complete enlightenment. For this
reason and also because of the first precept against killing, most Buddhists are opposed to the
death penalty, even for the most heinous crimes.
We need to let go so that we will not have too much attachment to things, people, and places, but
also to ideas or ideologies. For example, we need to let go of ideas about ―good and ―evil
and avoid judging people. We do this by realizing that there is good and evil in everything. This
has been illustrated very nicely in the ancient Eastern philosophy of Daoism with the yin-yang
symbol. One side of the ―whole is white and the other side is black, but they flow together and
on each side is a smaller circle or amount of its opposite. This teaches us to move beyond the
dualistic thinking that everything is either black or white, good or bad.
Some people ask, ―does this mean that I can not enjoy certain activities, because that would be
attachment? The answer is no, anyone can still enjoy wholesome activities, the Buddha‘s
teachings are not to make us into all emotion-less zombies, as is sometimes the misconception.
The enlightened person still enjoys many things, including the company of people, the
enlightened person simply does not cry or miss the enjoyment when it is gone. The enlightened
person does not seek pleasure and enjoyment all the time, like that of an addict, the person
simply has mindfulness and awareness of whatever is happening, be it pleasure or
displeasure, all without attachment or aversion.
Love Buddha's dhamma,