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. W.G.

    I don´t believe in the pluralism of religion . When I drive home from work I don´t drive around the world to arrive
    at the same place it would take me 15 minutes if I were to drive a certain way on the highway . I don´t believe
    in religion at all . I am a Christian and true Christianity is a way of life . I know many people say well this evil
    has been done in the name of Christianity or this evil has been done in the name of Christianity but the same
    could be said for all religions the difference is those evils were not commited by REAL CHRISTIANS . There
    are people that mix up customs or western culture with Christianity because their customs and way of life
    are a direct result of their religion .

    May 27, 2010 at 3:47 am |
  2. Eye

    When I find myself in times of trouble... I notice that it exists in my perception because I am not allowing my perception to change. And when it shifts, I experience balance again. My goal is to be able to shift WITHOUT the trouble. When I find myself needing to be right, or needing someone else to be wrong, I (if I catch myself in time) go to the observer platform in my consciousness and enjoy the notion that UNIVERSAL TRUTH exists whether or not I concur. I find that infinitely comforting.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:46 am |
  3. Philip

    "Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in rebirth or not, there is nobody who does not appreciate kindness and compassion." –The Dali Lama. I believe (oddly ironic as I am a borderline athiest) that you may be missing the core point. God or no god, reward at the end or not... life is simply better by spreading joy, kindness and compassion. Why climb a mountain when the answer is clearly visible from where we are standing. Perhaps it is difficult to imagine that life can simply be its own reward but if you think about it .. deep down .. you know it should be and most people just need a nudge in the right direction by one god or another.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:45 am |
  4. xin law

    Great article to promote your book, but too bad you made yourself look stupid as hell. First you need to go look up the many definitions of compassion, you will see 'helping a lady across the street' is just a speck of what it means. Second, if you would actually take a look at all the religions compassion is a big part in it, the difference between the religions is to who they share it to. Some embrace everyone under the 'we are all gods children' sharing their compassion to all people, and others are 'kill the non-believers' in which their compassion is limited to ONLY those within their religion. Regardless of the preference, religions are very instrumental in how we treat each other, being able to understand one another, being able to help others, but of course it has been and still is often perverted by the will of vindictive, delusional, or power hungry individuals to fit their needs, but money does the same damn thing.

    Bottom line, don't try to bash something in the hopes to sell more copies of your book, especially when your arguement is easily destroyed just by using the damn dictionary. I am seriously getting tired of tools like you, spining, twisting, or bullshnitting what ever you can think of and spewing it to the public with the hopes and ONLY interest of selling your book.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:45 am |
  5. cbs

    This is sheer blasphemy! There is only one true God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster! If you don't accept him as your savior you will spend eternity suffering! Agree with me or suffer the consequences!

    May 27, 2010 at 3:42 am |
    • ScottK

      Well if the consequences are being slathered in tomato sauce & meatballs and showered with garlic bread, count me in. I hope the Dalai Lama beleives the religous mountain we are all climbing is "Spaghetti" and I hope its covered in cheese, just keep your eyes peeled for wayward meatballs, and try not to sneeze.

      May 27, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
    • jm

      No man, the consequences are spending eternity in a pool of chef Boyardee

      May 27, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
  6. Kate

    My thoughts exactly.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:15 am |
  7. Father John

    Very few of the people on here have an understanding of the complexity and diversity of Christianity, referring mostly to Western Christianity - Roman Catholicism, and the Protestantism that comes from it (including Fundamentalists, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Evangelicals, etc., etc.)

    The Eastern Orthodox Church has taught the same thing for 2000 years....no additions...no subtractions. While we believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, we do not condemn, nor disrespect other religions....though we're not too thrilled with the bad name Western Christianity has given Christians. Eastern Orthodoxy is the second largest body of Christians in the world.

    We do not believe that Jesus came to simply overcome sin and provide a "path to salvation." We believe that Jesus came to, as Ignatius of Antioch said, have us "become as he is." Orthodoxy is an apophatic religion. That means that we can only say what we DON'T know about God, but only can speak of God in metaphor and analogy. This type of religion is not dogmatic. Orthodoxy is far more experiential. If you want 20 different theological opinions, ask 5 Orthodox priests.

    The Dali Lama may be right that all world religions point to compassion, or, as Christians would phrase it, Love. But there are real differences between Christianity and Buddhism that are irreconcilable, although great people like Thomas Merton have built strong bridges. In the end, the Buddhist loses individuality and dissolves into the sea of Nirvana. In the end, the Christian is made more of him/herself, made a god (NOT God, but, god-like), and enters into everlasting joy, power, and Love, growing, as the Anglicans say, "from strength to strength." The end of Buddhism may be compassion. And that is vital. The end of Christianity is everlasting glory, individuality and joy that can be enjoyed while remaining (and becoming) oneself. This is a vital difference. If you would like to see Christianity as it is SUPPOSED to be...in all of its beauty, grace and deep Love, check out your nearest Eastern Orthodox Church this Sunday.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:12 am |
    • gleslie

      If you are a "Father" John, it is interesting to me that you need to see these ideas as irreconcilable. Not all "Christians" do so it is apparently your own limitation, which is your preference and your privilege, but that don't make it so.

      May 27, 2010 at 5:01 am |
    • Boonrerd Samsavan

      .. not condemn or disrespecting others? Where the heck have you been? the Triad of Indifference-Condemnation and Outright Hostility is so freaking' loud one must live in cave not to feel it !!! or totally delusional.

      May 27, 2010 at 8:44 am |
  8. curious steve

    the illogic in this piece is common in most so-called critique:
    1) "christianity is bad, and i have the proof: is my neighbor who goes to church every sunday and then lies at every turn."
    2) "christianity and islam are different and i have the proof: my christian friend and my muslim friend disagree."
    3) "christianity is full of contradiction and the proof is the Bible: it says things that are not consistent or coherent."
    4_ "christianity is personal in that every christian has his or her own version."
    and on and on.

    few people can correctly articulate the meaning through the relationship between the texts, between the text and the reader, between the readers, and between the philosophy (such as a religion) and the text. most look into the physical text, the physical person, etc, though there is no meaning without context.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:11 am |
    • W.G.

      Here is a prime example of what I´m talking about someone who never read the Bible commenting
      on the Bible saying just because his neighbor goes to church he thinks he´s a Christian when by
      his actions he proves that he is not Christian but just someone that goes to church . Curios Steve
      actually read the Bible and don´t start at the beginning but start in the New Testament and don´t
      just pick it up with doubt already on your mind . But first ask Jesus to give you Knowledge first
      and ask him to reveal His word to you , pray that in sincerity and you´ll be AMAZED at what
      happens in the next few days !

      May 27, 2010 at 4:04 am |
  9. E-vt

    After reading this, I will make a point of not buying your book. Please find something else you are actually good at doing! Ha to double check, thought I was on Fox news for a sec.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:09 am |
  10. Michel, Netherlands.

    Buddhism is not a Religion. Buddhists want to achieve " Enlightenment " Which is the waking up out of the mental dream state of thoughts. " No Self – No problems ". Since all other " Religions " are thought forms ( I Believe.....etc ) you can clearly see the difference. So if you compare Buddhism to other Religions – You did not get the point – at all.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:01 am |
    • J. Amoros

      The Lama recently he said that he is a Marxist. If the enlightment it leads too is Marxism, why not just be a Marxist?

      May 27, 2010 at 8:58 am |
  11. ungodly

    whatever god you believe in – youre deluded

    May 27, 2010 at 3:00 am |
  12. D.A.

    Buddhism is not monotheistic. Nor is it polytheistic. Nor is it agnostic given the 4 Noble Truths & the 8 Fold Path.
    So what is left? Care to take a guess? : )

    May 27, 2010 at 2:58 am |
  13. Bryan A.

    Thanks for plugging your book. I wasn't sure why you were writing this article until you did that.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:57 am |
  14. jason

    i think you are limiting yourself to the a specific meaning of the word. you are taking it literally. the word compassion can have many different meanings and may encompass different things. i believe all religions do lead to the same mountain top. i just happen to think the mountain is quite big and can accommodate a great deal more. the dalai lama is starting a conversation, right or wrong he is doing something right if it leads to people think. btw, i am not hawking a book. but i will listen to offers...

    May 27, 2010 at 2:54 am |
  15. CJ

    If you want to start talking about building tolerance based on reality not fantasy, then start with the first item on the list – god is imaginary. The reality is all we have is each other. The gods in the bible, kuran or any other scripture were born from the infancy of our species. We need to grow up and stop playing pretend like there is any 'sky man' watching and approving or disapproving. Its just us, always has been.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:49 am |
    • jason

      CJ, i think you on to something!

      May 27, 2010 at 3:09 am |
    • Kate

      On the surface i agree with you- when it comes to developed nations where the population lives in comfort and security. We are moving past such things. But religion plays an important role in less fortunate nations. When you have no food or shelter and your life is full of uncertainty and hopelessness, religion becomes all that keeps you going. When your life is only suffering and fear, it makes logical sense to me that people would "create" someone who cares for them and a place when they die that is better than where they are now.

      May 27, 2010 at 3:28 am |
  16. Harold

    All in all, the commentary sometimes is concerned with mechanical prescriptives and proscriptives thinly disguised as criticisms of Prothero's argument. Here is another one. Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, another popular Tibetan guru, wrote about what he called "idiot compassion." He was drawing a contrast between the enlightened compassion of Vajrayana Buddhism (Tibet) in an esoteric mode with the Christian concepts of faith, hope and charity in order to make a point during a lecture. No, "tough love" won"t do, but its headed in the right direction. So this becomes a definitional exercise about what compassion means, esoteric, preliminary, or whatever. Prothero must know this.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:47 am |
  17. Mike

    Religions are incurable cancers that are destroying many human beings. Look at all the wars between difference religions and within the same religion in the past and present. Religions are the blocking stones that divided the love among human beings and should be abolished. Check out old civilization's history and you'll noticed that one common cause of their disappearance is religion's (belief's) system.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:45 am |
  18. Annexian

    Some say the Devil's best achievement is to convince many people that he does not exist.
    I disagree.
    I say that it is religion.

    What better way to turn people from love of the Increate than to make up some framework of "Official Beliefs" that when you look through the smoke and mirrors essentially give a social advantage to those that claim to be the eyes, ears...and whatever other body parts of the Increate?

    The Increate is beyond all belief, and all religion.
    And for all of us who seek him, regardless of race,
    of creed, or of 'surface' of doctrine/belief.
    It is as the poet Jelaluddin Rumi said:

    All religions, all this singing,
    one song.
    The differences are just
    illusion and vanity.
    The sun's light looks
    a little different on this wall than
    it does on that wall,
    and a lot different on this other one,
    but it's still one light.

    We have borrowed these clothes,
    these time and place personalities
    from a light,
    and when we praise,
    we're pouring them back in.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:44 am |
  19. Psydan

    I think that, despite this article being mainly an advertisement for Prothero's book, there is plenty to disagree with here. The Dalai Lama is correct that compassion lies at the heart of most religions as they speak to our morality, because that is essentially the goal of any ethical teaching. Jesus certainly said to do good unto the least of people among us; he calls the greatest commandments 'love the Lord, and love your neighbor" and Paul comments that all spiritual gifts are worthless without charity, i.e. compassion. I call this care ethics, but it is at the heart of all morality, and religions have not been blind to it, successful religions embrace it. The Buddha said that compassion was the whole of the practice of Buddhism: "Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed."
    Hinduism has both compassion and charity as part of the three central virtues. Judaism has historically called God the Father of Compassion. Islam calls Allah the merciful, the compassionate one as the first of his attributes. God is not common to all religions or ethical philosophies, but what we can all agree on is that compassion, empathy, altruism, charity, and related means of care are the central virtues that we can all agree on as bringing value to our social interactions.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:39 am |
  20. TheTruth

    it is crazy how all religions in the world even the ones that existed 1000s of years ago, all serve the same purpose to society...to keep individuals in check...so where do religions really come from?...US???

    May 27, 2010 at 2:35 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.