This morning I went to funeral for a woman who died at 103-years-old. It took place in a little, old Episcopal church in a bucolic, horse-country part of Westchester this morning, and the service for her was dignifed but brief and spare. There were no personal stories, and only reading beside the classic offerings, psalm 23, St. Paul, the Gospel. This strikingly impersonal quality had the effect of giving the service a universal quality. Everything that was said could have applied to any one of us. As I watched people I’ve known for a long time mingling on the lawn afterwards, I thought about time passing and I thought about something in that one reading that stayed with me. It had to do with conscience, a special, even sacred kind of intelligence or inner voice that knows the true value of things. To paraphrase it down to what I took to be the essence, it said that conscience requires an ability to hold or suffer opposing things, desire and nondesire, what the body naturally wants and an awareness of the whole of life, of the suffering inherent in creation.
There is a moment in the drama of the Buddha that I think about often. He was near death from being such an extreme ascetic, all his efforts to find liberation now dust and ashes. Split off from his fellow ascetics, he lay near a river, remembering a very special moment from early childhood. His father the chieftan of the Sakyan tribe took him to a planting festival, leaving him under a tree in the care of nannies. It was a fine spring day just like today, and as the baby Buddha pretended to sleep the nannies went a little way off to watch the men plow, leaving little Siddhartha to experience well-being in solitude. He sat up (and spontaneously assumed a meditation posture according to legend). He felt very well. The day was beautiful, the air soft and sweet. Just at this physcially blissful moment, however, he looked at tilled soil and noticed that insects were being destroyed by the plowing, their homes and eggs destroyed. Bliss and the reality of suffering and impermanence could be experienced at the same time, he realized. Serenity and compassion could co-exist. Just as the Buddha had this crucial memory, a young woman came along and spontaneously offered rice porridge, and the Buddha ate. Restored, he sat up under a tree again as he had when he was a little boy, and this time he sat until he reached full enlightenment. Nourished by that impression of another possibility, he sat the chains of desire were broken, the pole beam of selfing little self snapped in two.
I have thought so often of the little Buddha, feeling sublimely alone and self-sufficient and then opening his heart and mind to the world beyond him, realizing the truth of our interconnection. We do influence one another, and we are influenced in turn–and not just by other people but by all kinds of beings and events known and unknown. Yet as often as I’ve thought about of the little Buddha experiencing this attention that could be inside and outside at the same time, I’ve never before connected this with the old-fashioned word “conscience.” In Shakespeare’s day “conscience” meant “consciousness.” ( “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” said Hamlet, meaning that out consciousness of the unknown nature of death keeps us living).
What would it be like to fully inhabit two worlds at once, to be human yet to be aligned with a greater world, not driven by myriad desires related to our own comfort and wellbeing? So many great teachers have spoken of the value of what I’ve heard described as a “voluntary passivity,” allowing everything to be, being so alive in conscience/consciousness that we no longer seek to change the world for our own sake. Buddha faced all the armies and temptations of Mara, the Devil, without moving so much as an eye lash. And since it’s Easter Week, I’ll risk this: when Jesus was on the cross I believe he was taunted to save himself, to use his great powers to come down, to reveal who he really was.
Who or what would that have served?