(Past Master of Benjamin B. French Lodge No. 15 & Fiat Lux Lodge No. 1717)
Brotherly love is our fraternal aspect - the meeting on-the-level, so to speak, by which Masonry conciliates true friendship, etc. Relief and our charitable works are known world-wide and don't need extrapolation.
We are told that Truth is the foundation of every virtue. However, we are left without specific guidance as to what constitutes Truth. So, we how do we know when we’ve found it?
There is a traditional saying that the map is not the territory. There are many ways to draw maps. For example, you can use different symbols to represent features and characteristics of the territory you are mapping. And when you attempt to draw the map, your equipment may be imprecise - it may even be defective. Your map, therefore, may be only partly correct or it may even be completely wrong. But regardless of the accuracy of your map, in fact no matter what, the territory remains unaffected.
Another illustration of this concept is the story of the blind men and the elephant, where several blind men each experience different parts of an elephant only through touch, and their attempts to tell each what they are feeling. One thinks it’s a snake, the other a tree, the other a rope, etc.
The obvious lesson here may be that no blind man had a complete picture of the elephant, and could only draw his conclusions based upon his own experiences. Yet, I would suggest the more powerful lesson, relative to understanding Truth, is that regardless of the experiences and conclusions of these individuals, the fundamental nature of the elephant - of its elephant-ness - remains unaffected. Just because you believe it’s a snake, doesn’t change the Truth that it is an elephant.
Freemasonry has two parallels within the Buddhist example.
The first, and most obvious, is the importance of lineage. All new Lodges and Grand Lodges must be born of existing Lodges or Grand Lodges. These must all exhibit some form of "regularity." Regularity, in this respect, focuses on the general structure and activities of the Masonic Lodge and its adherence to a certain set of standards which are passed down through its several iterations.
The second similarity, is that of transmitting teachings from one practitioner to another (e.g. from Worshipful Master to Entered Apprentice). This transmission is a fundamental purpose of our degree system – it is designed to make a deep and lasting impression upon our candidates and impart wise and serious truths.
A significant difference, however, is that there is no formal method for the receiver of this dharma of proving his proficiency, other than the surface-level memorization of words, signs, grips and obligations. These proficiencies only demonstrate one’s ability to repeat what is presented – they don’t endeavor to determine the Brother’s actual understanding and comprehension of the material.
So, with respect to determining Truth and transmitting Truth, we are missing two significant elements.
The first missing element is determining what constitutes Truth, in a Masonic context. Our symbols and rituals are not completely defined for us. They are presented incompletely, requiring us to reflect on and decipher their meanings for ourselves. This is made even more difficult with the significant variation in ritual across Masonic Grand Jurisdictions. For example, some Grand Lodges have Ancient Landmarks, others don’t. Given this level of variation, it seems that there is no agreed-upon Truth. [Note: It is important to note that there is similar variation between Buddhist lineages, as well.]
Secondly, we have no Masonic Masters in the sense that there are no accepted "gurus" at whose feet one may study. Lodges might have mentorship programs or Lodge Education Officers. Grand Lodges might provide a set of curricula for Masonic education, or have district Orators. However, that is not really the same as the concept of dharma transmission. For instance, we can read Pike’s work but we can’t study with him, and we can’t study with Masters who learned from him. He never passed his teachings on in any formal way. His book, Morals and Dogma, states that no one need accept what he has written – they only need to give it objective consideration; but this instruction leaves a large set of questions in its wake.
For example, without a specific set of ideas that constitute Truth, what would a Masonic Master pass on to his student? Was Albert Pike presenting the fundamental nature of our Craft, or was he merely stating his opinion?
Moreover, in a Lodge context, how would such a Masonic Master, if we had such explicit gurus, help the Brother through the degrees and afterwards? Would he help the student use the Masonic Working Tools, symbols, and principles for the purpose of self-investigation to help him extract the truths or Truth found within? How would we know if the student "gets it" or even what the "it" is that he "gets"? Who would be authorized to make such determinations?
Lastly, by leaving our symbolism so open to individual interpretation, do we leave our degrees devoid of fundamental meaning? This existential question is perhaps the easiest, and the hardest question to answer.
One possible way to tackle this question is not to regard Freemasonry as a school of instruction. Rather, we might be better served to consider it as a school of inquiry. Accordingly, the mentor’s job is to help the candidate down the path of asking himself and others important questions on what it means to be a man and a Mason. This never-ending process of inquiry, study, and contemplation in an unfettered way is perhaps why Freemasonry is celebrating its 300th year this year.