I think we get distracted sometimes when we are talking about the Buddha.
We can have this tendency to give a lot of thought to the messenger that should be given to the message instead. The Buddha called himself a “way finder”. He found a path and described it. It’s not about him, but about the path.
That being said, there are some things about the Buddha that I’d like to highlight.
He was an ordinary person. He didn’t claim to be special. He didn’t say that his teachings came from gods or spirits, nor did he claim to be divine. Really he said anyone could have made the discoveries he did.
People didn’t start venerating him, making beautiful statues and bowing and things, until well after his death. His students asked him to name a successor and he refused. He encouraged them to just follow the path and think for themselves instead of just following another leader.
“Be a lamp unto yourselves.”
Also…he made no distinctions. He taught kings, priests, and generals. But he also taught people that were considered lowly, people society looked down upon. He taught street sweepers, the homeless, lepers, and even a step below them: vagabonds and thieves.
And…maybe even more scandalous…he taught women. (although there are stories of people having to go out of their way to convince him)
He said the teachings were for everyone. We don’t stop to think if someone deserves the dharma. This doesn’t seem unique in the modern world but in that time and place it was almost unheard of.
It makes me think of the quote that’s on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Because yearning to breathe free is what we’re doing in this world.
So, the Buddha’s story is a constant reminder that when we second guess ourselves, when we think we can’t handle the path or we aren’t good enough, that we are, that this is for everyone.
I’d argue the Buddhist path is even more helpful to those of us that feel broken by our suffering and the baggage we carry from our pasts.
I’m also a little reminded of Johnny Cash and his song “Folsom Prison Blues”, from the perspective of a convicted murderer. He felt sympathy for all those men locked in cages. The Buddha was sympathetic toward criminals too.
It’s said that he even gave the teachings to a serial killer.
The Buddha’s path was designed to teach us how to overcome suffering. And there is tremendous suffering at all levels of society. So, the Buddha invited everyone. All are welcome in the sangha and none are to be shunned or sent away.
Buddhism is for everyone.
Daniel Scharpenburg is a meditation instructor and dharma teacher in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world.
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