March 26, 2010

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (ca. 480-400 BCE), taught that the basic feature of life is suffering and this suffering which affects all living things is caused by attachment. He further taught that we can achieve liberation from suffering (nirvana) if we are able to shed physical and mental attachments to the material world. In what is today northern India, the Buddha created an ascetic religious system that diverged drastically from the ritualistic practices of the dominant priestly caste, the Brahmins. Against the idea that religion was the prerogative of a specialized group, the Buddha established religious life as an open community which welcomed all members of society as part of a community, or sangha. Buddhist scriptures center on the monastic life but also outline general precepts of good conduct, including injunctions against murder, theft, lying, sexual misconduct, and consuming intoxicants. Historically, Theravada Buddhism, which is today common in Southeast Asia, has eschewed explicit social and political teachings and remained focused on the monastery. In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism, which is common in East Asia, extols the example of Bodhisattvas who live in the world and set a broader example for society.