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. Marie

    I have to wonder what you learned in the course of researching and writing your book on religions if the best you can come up with to illustrate the Buddhist principle of compassion is "helping little old ladies cross the street". I see why you don't understand the mystics' claim that all religion comes from the same source (and NOT that all religions are the same).

    May 27, 2010 at 5:56 am |
  2. Connie

    The fundamental problem with Prothero's opinion is his lack of respect for his opponent. He is contemptuous and dismissive, and thus hurts his own argument by setting up a straw man. He fails to see any subtlety in the Dalai Lama's argument for compassion as the link among the world's religions, and becomes reductionistic, as if the various religions therefore have no significant differences. I do not hear the Dalai Lama making such an absurd argument. Rather, it is part of reality that we are all part of the human race, and therefore, are likely to have some religious commonality somewhere despite all the obvious differences.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:54 am |
  3. Raven LaBlanc

    it's clear this reporter does not know what he is speaking about or he wouldn't call buddhism a religion. it's a philiosophy. who really cares what you call it....right or wrong. i myself wish to follow anything that believes in peace and the rights of all life on this planet. i'm sad to see all the people killed everyday in the name of a god or a religion.....if this is religion, then i don't want any part of it!

    May 27, 2010 at 5:50 am |
  4. ACE

    Hmmmm ... it sounds to me like the author is trying really, really hard to convince himself that he is right. He's getting tangled up in flatland realities, and missing the universal truths 😉

    May 27, 2010 at 5:49 am |
  5. Sokolov

    ..but for what do you/we need religion ? Do we need it to be "good" people ? NO. ! Is it good to believe in imaginary frinds and a strange parallel universe called "Hell" or "Heaven" or "Paradise". Children are naiv enough to belive but should adults do ??
    There is no right no correct religion, because they are all just the dictatorship of their onw "holy books" and Gods. And NOTHING to be proud about.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:48 am |
  6. Tom

    We **create** gods in our own images! Ever wonder why the gods always acting so human? We **create** religions! Religion is a reflection of our inner selves, our humanity. Religions are relics of our culture.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:48 am |
    • Aesthetic

      you are so right on with this, tom-religion IS a relic of our culture.

      May 27, 2010 at 6:00 am |
  7. Sokolov

    ...but for what do you/we need religion ? Do we need it to be "good" people ? NO. ! Is it good to believe in imaginary frinds and a strange parallel universe called "Hell" or "Heaven" or "Paradise". Children are naiv enough to belive but should adults do ??
    There is no right no correct religion, because they are all just the dictatorship of their onw "holy books" and Gods. And NOTHING to be proud about.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:46 am |
  8. Erica

    "The fact that there are so many gods proves that all of these gods are imaginary. If there actually were an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving "god" in any form, that would be obvious to everyone and we would all align on him. His existence would be undeniable and impossible to hide."

    I see the point you're trying to make, but I think that this paragraph sums up the problem with it. All those billions of people you diligently listed DO agree on 1 point: there is some diety or greater force. So I think humanity has "aligned" on that if you look at numbers.

    Also, the fact that there are so many gods doesn't necessarily prove they don't exist. It also could go to prove the exact opposite... the universalist argument the Lama was pitching wa correct and they're all right. (or the concept that it's the same author, just different books/different stories to talk to the different peoples).

    I'm not advocating one or the other, but you use logic somewhat illogically... but you sound so darned convincing!! 🙂

    May 27, 2010 at 5:45 am |
  9. alefondro aljanso

    another false profet.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:41 am |
  10. WhatsupwithCNN

    I've read all the comments on Stephen Prothero's opinion piece and I have drawn one main conclusion: The people reading this article are a hell of a lot smarter and more insightful than Mr. Prothero. Unfortunately, this article is typical of what CNN runs these days. There's an occasional good one, but most of the writing shallow, poorly conceived, and not edited at all. And always pushing a book. Jesus (not in vain), if you can't write a decent 750 word article or opinion, why the hell would we buy your book??? Comeon CNN, there got to be better writers out there. And hire some freakin' editors!

    May 27, 2010 at 5:40 am |
  11. paul david

    what a stupid article....complelty subjectiive without any basis..cnn, why do you print such garbage?

    May 27, 2010 at 5:37 am |
  12. Hans

    All the major religions ARE the heart vehicle for compassion and other constructive human traits IF you injest the word wholly and with the intention of being holy. Pardon my silly pun but reporters do it ever so much. May the future road of his holiness the dalai lamma be awesome and constructive.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:36 am |
  13. gary johnson

    I think the Dalai Lama is correct in what he says. I think most beliefs at the core of their writtings is the basic statement of care and love for each other. If you take away all the tradition from religions and stories you have a message of caring. Why does it take thousands of pages to bring forward a simple message. Care for each other, have compassion, and understanding. Treat others like you want to be treated. I doubt any god, creator, or what ever force it may be is interested in our petty squabling about who is correct. I think there are bigger issues than my religion is right and yours is wrong. It would make no difference what so ever if we just treated all people with respect and dignity. But that won't happen because people as a whole are screw ups we can't even get a handle on our basic emotions never mind bigger ideas like living at peace with each other etc... We are to busy finding differences and divisions instead of commonality. Does it matter what the next guy believes if he treats you with understanding and compassion?

    May 27, 2010 at 5:34 am |
  14. Dystopiax

    Okay, then, Up Yours CNN, for censorship.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:26 am |
  15. PAUL G

    Luxury Hotels In Dubai? Dalai Lama?

    Folks the way I seet it, Religious dogmas will not solve the problems we have today. Put aside your energy on searching for the "truth". For your rulling god of today is "CAPITALISM". Want next generations including animals and all leaving organims to perpetuate on this planet?
    Understand the laws of supply and demand, change your consumption habits!
    Because either Budha, Jesus, Dalai Lama is going to solve for example the new BP oil spill in the Golf of Mexico.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:25 am |
  16. Methuselah

    Stephen Prothero,
    I'm afraid you misunderstand DL teachings, the core thoughts of Buddhism. There is nothing in Buddhism that would ever encourage you, or i, to tolerate based on "fantasy". In fact, reality is the only thing a Buddhist should want to base their tolerance on. Harmony is only found when one can tolerate reality for what it is.
    I think it is easy to beat up on the Dalai Lama. He's not going to kick you back. But I'd expect more out of your analysis than, "The Dalai Lama is wrong". Seems rather pedestrian, doesn't it?

    May 27, 2010 at 5:23 am |
  17. Professor Prabhakar Vaidya

    I am grateful to the CNN and Professor Prothero for bringing my attention to a wonderful article by the Dalai Lama. It is so well written and timely. As a fellow academic, I sympathize with the need to work out the details and write books and the whole exercise - beyond getting us tenure and other laurels - does have a considerable merit. However, the time to heal the wounds in our hearts by 9 / 11 , and many other atrocities is NOW. There might be more grass at the mountain top but let us seek compassion and love and respect for each other NOW.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:21 am |
  18. awake

    @SV>> The many books that made up the Bible were written by Jewish writers like Moses centuries before Christ. However, the Bible as we know it today was the product of the Council of Nicea, which took place centuries AFTER Christ. This Council was made up of various Christian leaders from different sects who combined some of these books and left out others in an attempt to put forth a Holy Bible that would serve the Roman emperor, Constantine.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:16 am |
  19. Frank Lynn

    What a shameless, self-serving article, that plugs the author's new book no less. Comparing the Dalai Llama's remarks about exclusive ism and the apostle Pauls' "putting away of childish things" (toys), is a puritanical and bombastic - no less completely irrelevant - bit of commentary. Yes, oh my, the author can write "shibboleth" coherently in a sentence, as can any ivy league parrot in love with its own voice. Squawk (his), yawn (mine), squawk (his again). I have never been so underwhelmed in a news article on CNN before. I cannot believe this clown gets paid to get out of the little, tiny red car of his self-adoration with the other, at least qualified entertainers, just because he is dressed in a business suit.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:13 am |
  20. PAUL G


    Prothero: I came to the conlcusiont that while you and the folks here discuss about religious dogmas, we forget that the fact is: the GOD ruling this planet is named "CAPITALISM". And yes compasion is need it, but he who loves has compansion. What is thruth anyways? Nirvana, Paradise, Omega point etc...

    The way I see it: Folks wake up! It only takes to open your eyes to see how we are doing. Will religion dogmas save our planet? will you be saved? Maybe, Maybe not but right now the most important issue at hand is to understand the problems of capitalism and consumption which are eating upp this plannet.

    What if we put religion questions on the side for a moment. Lets question the way we consume. Because as long as we have high cosumption habits, either Budha, Jesus nor the Dalai Lama will solve the problems of today.

    I want next generations (humas and all living animals and organism) to continue enjoying and perpetuate in this wonderful planet.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:13 am |
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About this blog

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.