The Buddha walked his own path, you could say that he was a rebel of sorts. He was a Hindu when he first started his spiritual journey but along the way he found his own Dharma that conflicted with the Hinduism of the time. These conflicts were both in the way he changed or reinterpreted the Hindu teachings and the actions he took that went against the established traditions.
When the Buddha was training with the ascetics before his Enlightenment he discovered the Middle way. At this time he was in a horrible state due to the rigors of the ascetic training which often included denying the body of basic sustenance such as food and water for long periods of time. When he realized the folly in this path he accepted some food (porridge I believe) from a shepherd girl. When the other ascetics saw him eating and especially that he had taken the food from a female they thought he must have given up the spiritual path and left him. The middle way ended up being one of the core teachings of Buddhism.
Mahapajapati was the Buddha’s aunt and she raised him after his mother died. When the Buddha’s father passed away she asked the Buddha if she could follow him and become a monk. At first the Buddha refused but then his faithful monk Ananda convinced him to allow women to become monks (Bhikkhuni). Of course there is some modern day controversy over this. Some think that it was wrong that Ananda had to convince him. I do not think they understand how different things were then and what a change this represented. The important point is that he decided to allow women to join the Sangha. Mahapajapati became the first woman to be ordained a monk in the Buddhist Sangha. This was huge! Women up to this point in India were not allowed to follow a spiritual life. It was a total departure of the established traditions and a big step toward equality.
My favorite story of the Buddha challenging the established norms was the story of Sunita the nightsoil carrier. India at the time of the Buddha followed a strict caste system. The family that you were born into determined your place in society. This was strictly adhered to and there was no way to change your social status. Whatever class you were born into is where you and all your descendants would stay.
Sunita was a Sudra, a nightsoil carrier. Since there wasn’t any sort of plumbing the higher class would use the equivalent of chamber pots to relive themselves at night (hence, nightsoil). This had to be carried, by someone, outside of town and dumped and then the pots cleaned and brought back. This was the job of a Sudra like Sunita. Sunita did not like this job at all. He wondered what terrible thing he must have done in a past life to get such bad Karma to deserve this fate. At a certain point he gave up and stopped caring for himself. He didn’t bother washing and his hair grew long and was matted. He began to smell very bad like, just like the nightsoil he carried.
Sunita set out on his normal rounds of the houses in Savatthi, the capital of the kingdom of Kosala. Outside of the city was the Jetavanna monastery where the Buddha currently was staying. That morning as he made his rounds he heard people shouting “The Buddha is here” “Let’s go pay him reverence”. Sunita was curious so he followed the crowd to get a closer look. Then he saw a man who everyone was bowing to and showing reverence. It was the Buddha coming into Savatthi to receive alms (to beg for food). One of the bystanders shouted at Sunita “What an awful stench! What are you doing here?” Sunita realized that he still had a full pot strapped on his back. Sunita got scared and tried to get out of there. Just then he looked up and saw that the Buddha was looking directly at him. Then to his terror the Buddha started walking toward him! Oh no, Sunita thought , I have to get away, I am to dirty to be in the Buddha’s presence, but the Buddha was getting closer. As Sunita was backing away he tripped and fell and to his dismay landed on his back with a crash! The pot on his back had shattered and now Sunita was laying in all of the smelly night soil that he had been carrying.
Lying in a pool of excrement unable to breath due to the stench Sunita thought, “I wish I could die and be done with it”! As he cleared off his eyes he looked up he saw the Buddha bending over him with a smile. He heard a voice “Sunita, Sunita” but Sunita could not believe it . How could the Buddha whom even kings and rich men prostrated themselves to be calling his name? Then the Buddha spoke again: “Sunita, it is for your sake that I have come. There is within you a pure, fragrant, and radiant spirit. Do not despise yourself. Come, follow me. Enter my brotherhood, the Sangha, and become a monk.”
“Me? You mean someone like me can become your disciple?” “Sunita, the enlightenment that I have attained is precisely for the poor, for those who suffer, for those who know their own unworthiness and lament it. The Dharma I preach is like a pure river from which all can drink, the rich and the poor, kings and outcasts. Through it, all can attain Nirvana. Believe my words Sunita, and come follow me.” So Sunita exerted himself day after day, living alone in the depths of the forest and practicing in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.
At this time the one class that all people bowed to, even Kings and the rich, were the monks. There was a king called Pasenadi that was very upset that the Buddha was accepting monks into the Sangha that were not from the higher classes. The king understood that even he would have to prostrate himself in the presence of the monks. He did not like the idea of having to prostrate himself to people from these low classes. “The Sangha should be an assembly of the purest, noblest people” he said. So king Pasenadi decide he was going to go talk to the Buddha and convince him to stop this practice.
When the king’s carriage arrived at the Jetttavanna monastery he noticed a monk sitting on a rock mending his robe. There was a host of heavenly beings surrounding the monk, their palms pressed together in reverence. King Pasenadi bowed with great respect and addressed the monk: “I am Pasenadi, the king of this land. Would you be kind enough to tell the Buddha that I seek an audience with him?” The monk brought the king to the Buddhas presence and told the Buddha that the king wanted to speak with him. The king started to tell the Buddha why he had come to speak with him when he stopped and said: “By the way who was the monk that I saw when I entered the monastery and who brought me here to speak with you?” I was very impressed and there was a host of heavenly beings surrounding him”. The Buddha replied “That King Pasenadi was Sunita the nightsoil carrier”! The king realized he was wrong and bowed to the Buddha and to Sunita.
So anyone from any class, caste, race, country, and economic status can be a Buddhist. The Buddha welcomed and accepted all. The other thing that I feel that this story shows us is that following traditions or the conventional thinking blindly is a bad thing. There are times, just like the Buddha, where we have a responsibility to challenge tradition or the conventional to build a better world.