The society in which the Buddha lived was marked by rigorous social distinctions. The three major classes – priestly (Brahmans), aristocratic and merchants/craftsmen – were already superimposed on what was to lead to the caste system as it still exists today in India, despite the legislation. In this system, the notion of ritual purity holds an essential place and certain professional activities remain tainted with impurity even for those who no longer practice them, but belong, by birth, to a family whose traditional occupation they once were. .
It is readily said that the Buddha rejected this system. Certainly, but on subtle bases, in accordance with his teaching. In his eyes, like any phenomenon emerging from the conditioned world, this system is without substance, impermanent. It can therefore be ignored. Some accounts of past lives already contain clues to the position later adopted by the Shakyamuni Buddha who did not fail, during his public life, to repeatedly show his disdain for the social order of his time.
Some of the most spectacular examples of this are offered soon after Awakening, when he returns to Kapilavastu, the town where he grew up. The reception he receives there varies according to the sources and an important text, the Mahavastu, tells us that King Shudodhana, having gone to meet his son with the best intentions, suddenly feels his heart seething with rage and shame at the sight of the mendicant monk who has become his heir. He then turns back and the Buddha needs all his force of persuasion and the power of doctrine to convince him that it is no less glorious to be the father of an accomplished Buddha than of a universal sovereign, quite the contrary. Some later accounts, fond of prodigies, resort to a form of compromise and describe the Buddha traveling by air to spare his father the humiliation of having to bow his head to pay homage to the exceptional being that is become his son.
When princes bow down before a barber
On this same occasion, many young nobles of his clan expressed their desire to take on the monastic vestment and embark on the path of renunciation. Were they really ready? What follows allows us to doubt it. The Buddha seizes the opportunity to break the legendary pride of the Shakyas. A certain Upali, former barber to the princes, also came to find the Blessed One to humbly ask him to be admitted into the community. It should be remembered that barbers and hairdressers, who are associated, through their professional activity, with what can be considered as bodily “waste”, belong to a particularly low and impure caste. However, in the community founded by the Buddha, the hierarchy is based on seniority alone. The Buddha therefore admits Upali before the Shakya princes. What is not the anger of the latter when, once ordained, they have to prostrate themselves before their elders in the community and suddenly recognize the "vulgar" feet of the one they always considered their inferior. One can easily imagine the slight smile that must have lit up the Buddha's face then, satisfied with the lesson he had just given.
It takes the Buddha all his force of persuasion and the power of doctrine to convince King Shudodhana that it is no less glorious to be the father of an accomplished Buddha than of a universal sovereign, quite the contrary. .
Throughout his life, the Buddha also received with equal benevolence the gifts made to the community by representatives of the most diverse social backgrounds, from the wealthy merchant Anâthapindada, who bought at an exorbitant price a garden which he intended for the Buddha and to his monks, to the poor kid who only finds a handful of dust to offer him. The Blessed One similarly accepts a bowl of honey presented by a monkey. Surprisingly, the texts evoke, for the last two cases, the retribution which awaits the two humble donors, in the form of a rebirth in a high class. The young boy from a poor family was thus, we are told, to become the powerful king Ashoka in a future life.
Women both envied and despised by society, courtesans also had their place in the life of the Buddha. And if one of them tragically lost her life, a poor victim manipulated by opponents of the Buddha, the most famous is undoubtedly the superb and very generous Ambapâlî. During one of his last journeys, the Buddha directs his steps towards the city of Vaicâlî, where he settles with his monks in a wood of mango trees belonging to the courtesan. The latter visits him, solicits and receives his teaching, and invites him to her home for the next day's meal, the rule of discipline effectively authorizing religious to accept this type of invitation from the lay faithful. On the way back, Ambapâlî meets a group of Licchavi princes who summon her to give way to them. Strengthened by the acceptance of the Buddha, which she proudly shares with them, the courtesan refuses to roll back her chariot. Annoyed, the young aristocrats offered Ambapali a considerable sum of money to redeem the invitation accepted by the Buddha and take back for their benefit the privilege of welcoming him. They are met with a haughty refusal. In desperation, they go to the Blessed One and try to bend him by pointing out the depraved morals of the young woman. In vain. The answer is kindly formulated, but is nonetheless clear and firm: “O Licchavi, for tomorrow, I have already agreed to go for a meal with the courtesan Ambapâlî, with the group of bikkhus”.
The next day, the courtesan donates to the community the mango wood in which she was de facto installed.