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May 26th, 2010
09:16 AM ET

The Dalai Lama is wrong

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I am a big fan of the Dalai Lama. I love his trademark smile and I hate the fact that I missed his talks this week in New York City. But I cannot say either "Amen" or "Om" to the shopworn clichés that he trots out in the New York Times in “Many Faiths, One Truth.”

Recalling the Apostle Paul—“When I was a child, I spoke like a child”—the Dalai Lama begins by copping to youthful naivete. “When I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best,” he writes, “and that other faiths were somehow inferior.” However, just as Paul, upon becoming a man, “put away childish things,” the Dalai Lama now sees his youthful exclusivism as both naïve and dangerous. There is “one truth” behind the “many faiths,” and that core truth, he argues, is compassion.

Like the Dalai Lama, who writes of how he was influenced by Thomas Merton, I believe we can learn greatly from other religions. I too hope for tolerance and harmony in our interreligious interactions. I am convinced, however, that true tolerance and lasting harmony must be built on reality, not fantasy. Religious exclusivism is dangerous and naïve. But so too is pretend pluralism. The cause of religious harmony is not advanced in the least by the shibboleth that all religions are different paths up the same mountain.

If you ask religious universalists what lies at the top of the mountain, the answers they will give you are not one but many. Gandhi and philosopher of religion Huston Smith say that at the top there is the same universal God. But when others describe this religious mountaintop they invariably give voice to their own particular beliefs and biases.

Followers of the Dalai Lama revere him as a reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. So it should not be surprising that he sees compassion at the heart of all religions. But this is a parochial perspective, not a universal one. And like any form of pretend pluralism it threatens to blind us both to the particular dangers of individual religious traditions and to their unique beauties.

To be sure, all religions preach compassion. But it is false to claim that compassion is the reason for being of the great religions. Jesus did not die on a cross in order to teach us to help old ladies across the street. The Jewish milieu in which he was raised already knew that. And as the Dalai Lama points out, so did the rest of the world’s religions. Jesus came, according to most Christian thinkers, to stamp out sin and pave the path to salvation. Similarly, the Buddha did not sit down under a Bo tree in India in order to teach us not to kill our brothers. The Hindu milieu in which he was raised already knew that too. He came, according to most Buddhist thinkers, to stamp out suffering and pave the path to nirvana.

As I argue in my new book, "God is Not One:  The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter," religion is an immensely powerful force both personally and politically. So if we want to understand the world we must understand the world's religions. This includes reckoning with both similarities and differences, and with the capacity of each of the great religions to do both good and evil.

I know that when it comes to the Dalai Lama we are all supposed to bow and scrape. So I am happy to applaud his project to find “common ground” across the world’s religions. But I also know that the Buddha said to worship no man. And I cannot agree with the Dalai Lama’s claim that “the essential message of all religions is very much the same.”

The Dalai Lama was doubtless naïve when, as a boy, and before learning about other religions, he arrived at the conclusion that only his religion was true. But it is no advance out of innocence to make the equally fantastic claim that all the religions are at heart vehicles for compassion. If we are to build a world of interreligious harmony, or even a world of interreligious détente, it will have to be constructed on a foundation of adult experience rather than youthful naivete.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Buddhism • Christianity • Faith • Leaders • Opinion

soundoff (633 Responses)
  1. Love Love

    What a beautiful mind.... Compassion can unify this world.... only if we can practice it more than talk about it....

    August 12, 2013 at 1:05 am |
  2. settecase

    I appreciate Harold Netland's thoughts on religious pluralism, and how Christians should view other adherents of other religions. For the summary, click here: http://dontforgettothink.blogspot.com/2012/10/how-should-we-think-about-other.html

    April 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
  3. Jeremiah

    This is just using the fame of the Dalai Lama to gain some attention. It sounds like it was only written because the author wanted to say he knew something that an enlightened world leader did not. More thought needs to seriously be given to what compassion really means.

    January 28, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  4. tenzin

    i surprise, why christian missionary dont know about inner knowledge of buddhist.

    December 3, 2012 at 4:03 am |
  5. tenzin

    hello friends, i read each of comments, truely say, please dont mind for christian bro and sisters, you all dont know about main teaching of buddha. you all focus on outward buddhist circle. eventhough may be you dont know that lord buddha already prophecis on jesus. when he alive in this world, buddha say, day will come, one holly man appear in this world. its called maittre, it means jesus. regarding of dalia lama, he is real mestification of avashlokeshvara. i humble request all christian missionary in this world, first study properly in buddhism and than speak out. again i want to say that, conversion is not message of christ. stop conversion. that whole world consider as christian religion is jeleous religion.

    November 20, 2012 at 5:03 am |
  6. Nick S

    As I understand, Jesus did not "come to [merely] stamp out sin." If he did, he failed terribly because the majority of the human race sins. Likewise, if the Buddha came to "stamp out suffering," he also failed as there is still much suffering in the world. It is my understanding that they came to serve as guides, to help illuminate the path to salvation or enlightenment. Essentially, both Jesus' and Buddha's teachings are rooted in compassion, and if it is believed that compassion begins and ends with "helping old ladies cross the street," it may be helpful to reflect more deeply on the concept.

    The Dalai Lama has written about the danger in "accepting all religions in a pluralistic" fashion; he understands the value in religious diversity and the need within various cultural contexts. What he is getting at is not a "pretend pluralism," but a likeness of all religions. There is no naivete in that; it stems from experience over a long life, reflecting, meditating, and talking with respected religious figures from all religions.

    November 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  7. The Deist

    This was a shallow and trite article from an unimportant and far less enlightened author than the Dalai Lama. You'll pardon me if I completely disregard this rubbish.

    May 28, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
  8. David

    Please. I'm no Christian nor a PhD, but the message is simple. Jesus did not come to stamp out sin. Jesus preached to help people understand or believe that we can be forgiven and accept the grace of God to be part of the Kingdom of God. He wasn't a stomper but a deliverer. And I wasn't there, so how would I know. But the Christian message is a lot closer to compassion than sin eradication.

    October 28, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  9. Budianto Hariadi

    I don't accept this author point of view.

    For someone like Dalai Lama, his word is coming out of direct experience with universal truth. If the author is a scholar, he can have fun with the intelectual discussion/entertainment, but not for me. And he is not getting anywhere near to the noble truth.

    September 27, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  10. fubar

    Presumably Dalai Lama's main concern is that religion has imperialistic purposes. So, compassion is proposed by DL as an alternative to the conflict and violence that results from imperailistic religion and culture.

    Does Prothero's book propose an alternative solution to religious rivalry (and religious imperialism)? If so, what is it?

    Does Prothero think that transcendence of cultural limitations is related to compassion?

    Does Prothero find value in Integral Theory as a "meta framework" that sees the cultural limitations and perspectival limitations of specific belief systems from a "holistic" perspective?

    August 20, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  11. fubar

    sin, hell, evil are metaphors for the lack of: beauty, truth and goodness.

    The wiring of the human brain by evolution is what reveals the common psychological archetypes that appear in various cultural forms.

    For instance, Bernie Neville discusses how Hermes was the god of transformation and the god of deception. So much for postmodernism.

    Modernism, science and liberalism supposedly made religion and spirituality irrelevant, but large numbers of people still search for deeper meaning and transcendence, and an escape from the alienation of rationalism and modernism (which "cling" to the their own limited, culturally conditioned, "one truth above all" anti-patterns).

    When science is used to understand how the human brain evolved, it is possible to validate what is common in human consciousness, both rational and non-rational. Emotions have adaptive/evolutionary value. Selflessness, compassion and altruism are necessary for social bonding, for parents to sacrifice their own interests for their offspring, and for there to be respect for the old who pass on wisdom won from a long life.

    August 19, 2010 at 2:08 am |
  12. Gil T

    I concur with Stephen. The Dalai Lama's message is of naivete, fantasy and pop in the order of, "I'm spiritual, not religious." The counter to such speech is often in the form of a charge: Study and learn other religions. I don't buy it. The reason is everyone one we encounter who professes their faith are ambassadors and messengers of their own faith. There's on better way to learn another's faith than one-on-one is interaction.

    July 8, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
    • does it matter

      I must say i disagree. If you are to include adult experience, you are including bias, and that cannot be accepted as the path to interreligious harmony.

      April 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.