One day, as the Buddha and bhikkhus were begging in a village near the banks of the Ganga, the Buddha spotted a man carrying night soil. The man was an untouchable named Sunita.
Sunita had heard about the Buddha and bhikkhus, but this was the first time he had ever seen them. He was alarmed, knowing how dirty his clothes were and how foul he smelled from carrying night soil. He quickly moved off the path and made his way down to the river.
But the Buddha was determined to share the Way with Sunita. When Sunita veered from the path, the Buddha did the same. Understanding the Buddha’s intent, Sariputta and Meghiya, the Buddha’s attendant at the time, followed him. The rows of other bhikkhus came to a halt and they quietly watched. Sunita was panic-stricken. He hastily put the buckets of night soil down and looked for a place to hide. Above him stood the bhikkhus in their saffron robes, while before him approached the Buddha and two other bhikkhus. Not knowing what else to do, Sunita waded up to his knees in water and stood with his palms joined.
Curious villagers came out of their homes and lined the shore to watch what was happening. Sunita had veered off the path because he was afraid he would pollute the bhikkhus. He could not have guessed the Buddha would follow him. Sunita knew that the sangha included many men from noble castes. He was sure that polluting a bhikkhu was an unforgivable act. He hoped the Buddha and bhikkhus would leave him and return to the road. But the Buddha did not leave. He walked right up to the water’s edge and said, “My friend, please come closer so we may talk.”
Sunita, his palms still joined, protested, “Lord, I don’t dare!”
“Why not?” asked the Buddha.
“I am an untouchable. I don’t want to pollute you and your monks.”
The Buddha replied, “On our path, we no longer distinguish between castes. You are a human being like the rest of us. We are not afraid we will be polluted.
Only greed, hatred, and delusion can pollute us. A person as pleasant as yourself brings us nothing but happiness. What is your name?”
“Lord, my name is Sunita.”
“Sunita, I have already explained that on our path there is no caste. In the Way of Awakening, caste no longer exists. It is like the Ganga, Yamuno, Aciravati, Sarabhu, Mahi, and Rohini rivers. Once they empty into the sea, they no longer retain their separate identities. A person who leaves home to follow the Way leaves caste behind whether he was born a brahman, ksatriya, vaisya, sudra, or untouchable. Sunita, if you like, you can become a bhikkhu like the rest of us.”
Sunita could hardly believe his ears. He placed his joined palms before his forehead and said, “No one has ever spoken so kindly to me before. This is the happiest day of my life. If you accept me as your disciple, I vow to devote all my being to practicing your teaching.”
The Buddha handed his bowl to Meghiya and reached his hand out to Sunita. He said, “Sariputta! Help me bathe Sunita. We will ordain him a bhikkhu right here on the bank of the river.”Venerable Sariputta smiled. He placed his own bowl on the ground and came forward to assist the Buddha.
Sunita felt awkward and uncomfortable as Sariputta and the Buddha scrubbed him clean, but he didn’t dare protest. The Buddha asked Meghiya to go up and ask Ananda for an extra robe. After Sunita was ordained, the Buddha assigned him to Sariputta’s care. Sariputta led him back to Jetavana while the Buddha and the rest of the bhikkhus calmly continued their begging.
The local people had witnessed all this take place. News quickly spread that the Buddha had accepted an untouchable into his sangha. This caused a furor among higher castes in the capital. Never in the history of Kosala had an untouchable been accepted into a spiritual community. Many condemned the Buddha for violating sacred tradition. Others went so far as to suggest that the Buddha was plotting to overthrow the existing order and wreak havoc in the country.
The echoes of all these accusations reached the monastery through lay disciples as well as from bhikkhus who heard people saying such things in the city. Senior disciples Sariputta, Mahakassapa, Mahamoggallana, and Anuruddha met to discuss the people’s reactions with the Buddha.
The Buddha said, “Accepting untouchables into the sangha was simply a question of time. Our way is a way of equality. We do not recognize caste. Though we may encounter difficulties over Sunita’s ordination now, we will have opened a door for the first time in history that future generations will thank us for. We must have courage.” King Pasenadi was asked by his ministers to protest and reason for this act of the Buddha. The King visited the monastery, while walking in the monastery he saw a few monks sitting under a tree and one monk sharing the teachings of the Buddha. The King was impressed with the monk who was teaching. The monks face radiated great peace and wisdom. This sight was such that King stopped for a while to listen to the monk.
The King was so impressed with the monk that first question he asked was who was the monk teaching under the tree? The Buddha replied – “Sunita, he was once an untouchable”. King was embarrassed, the Buddha continued – “In the Way of Liberation, there is no caste. To the eyes of an enlightened person, all people are equal. Every person’s blood is red. Every person’s tears are salty. We are all human beings. We must find a way for all people to be able to realize their full dignity and potential. That is why I welcomed Sunita into the sangha of bhikkhus.”
From the book “Old path white clouds” written by Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh