The Great Responsibility
Whenever Buddhism has taken root in a new land there has always been a certain variation in the style in which it is observed. The Buddha himself taught differently according to the place, the occasion, and the situation of those who were listening to him. So, all of us have the great responsibility to take the essence of Buddhism and put it into practice in our own lives.
-- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
What the Dalai Lama calls "the great responsibility" is a Buddhist version of free will in ethics. Most religions have their own version of this ideal, even those which have a reputation or tradition of being rule-based or culturally rigid. Personal responsibility is a fundamental concept with which most will agree. How well various authorities live up to their commitment to empower their people varies widely.
Roman Catholics who attend adult catechism classes may be surprised at the Church's official philosophy on political questions or specific practices and individual, ethical decision making. As children, Catholics are taught to follow the absolute religious and ethical authority of their elders, priest, bishop, and the Church. Most current Catholics were born into the religion, and most Catholics do not attend religious education as adults, so this general ethical guidance for adults is often overlooked or at best, clouded. There is a popular misconception outside Catholicism that affects practicing Catholics, too, that the pope decides what one absolutely must believe on specific questions like birth control or education policy.
Church authorities and activists are often vocal and opinionated, and at many times in history, popes have ruled over the Church in ways contrary to their official ethic of personal responsibility. In a religion with more than one billion members, no matter what the leadership of the pope, inevitably some bishops, priests, religious orders, and other authorities will still rule over Catholic communities in a rigid and philosophically incorrect way. The Vatican and other Church authorities cloud the question by taking strong public and political positions which imply a lack of Catholics' individual responsibility in ethical decision making.
Still, the fundamental, philosophical Church dogma is that personal responsibility is paramount, above Church instruction. Catholics are supposed to consider the Church's positions, its reasons, and attend Mass weekly -- then, fully informed, they must make their own moral decisions, not only on some questions but on all.
Given a lot of self contradiction and misunderstanding, then, Catholics are aligned in their approach to Catholic doctrine with the Dalai Lama's statement on Buddhist doctrine. These philosophical positions are aligned with science and with compassion. Science and compassion are not absolute answers to specific questions, they are principles and methods which even when they draw conclusions, require an open mind. With the scientific method, there are answers -- theories and lessons, policy recommendations, productive results -- but the answers must remain open to improvement.
A scientist claiming to have found an absolute, definite answer has violated the scientific method, something like if the pope makes a statement claiming the absolute authority of a god when Catholicism itself teaches otherwise. Either would be nonsense; all of human experience has shown us that whatever we know now, we are likely to know better in time. Whether it was the Vatican claiming our Earth was the center of the universe or Einstein claiming that a god does not play dice (i.e. that probability is essentially untrue), claims of certainty are almost certain to lead to ultimate embarrassment. Earth is nowhere near the center of it all, and probability is as real as you are.
"The great responsibility" we each have, and all share, is in a word: leadership. In a previous article -- "A New Spirituality" -- CompassionRise concluded:
Compassion does not call us to nod our heads in approval. We are not called to follow, we are called to lead.
A typical religion refers to its members as "followers" and this is where science and compassion diverge from systems of belief. It is the basic understanding of science that we never have the best possible answer to a question. Circumstances will require timely decisions and conclusions and theories may be supported by a mountain of evidence, but even then we should answer with the presumption that more searching and researching, debating and experimenting, could yield better and better answers. Above all, science and compassion are making, doing, and improving -- not receiving, or waiting, or maintaining, and not following. Compassion will take you nowhere unless you lead.