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. Michael Schulze

    This guy is a coward. He spoke of only seemingly cute aspects of religion, attacked the most reasonable and least dangerous of them, and took a page to write what could be done in one paragraph. I'm not impressed.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:04 am |
  2. PlayNice

    Aside from pitching a pithy little book, was there any purpose to this article? The writer claims all religions are not based on compassion and...that's it? What are they based on then? If he had asserted that they are based on controlling the masses by telling them that if they do what they're told and respect authority they will probably have a miserable earthly life but they will get milk and roses in heaven when they die, then at least he would be repeating the same stale assertion that all theologians make. But this guy hasn't got the brain power to even get that far. What a waste of time and typing.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:03 am |
  3. mountainman

    Boy, he really missed the point. All religions DO point to the same one thing, GOD. Everything else is religion and yes they are different and unique in many ways. I agree that you DO have to understand the different religions to understand the world, BUT the world has to understand the core of all religion, God, and that God(by any name) is good, and that if you live life under God and good, you have a a simple but fundamental and respectful connectioon with all life. The question is can we focus on that simplicity when we look at other people?

    May 27, 2010 at 7:01 am |
    • Light Seeker

      I think you are right. God made it simple, people made it complicated.

      May 27, 2010 at 8:33 am |
  4. barowner

    I think Mr. Prothero misses the point. The point the Precious Victor was trying to make was that compassion can be the vehicle that reconciles all religous people. As Mr. Prothero admits, all religeons share compassion as a tenet. It is a common thread among all religeous beliefs. What better way to unify all of the worlds religeons than compassion for fellow men.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:59 am |
  5. Kay

    Remember Prothero that you are not talking in the same wavelength as the Dalai Lama. He is talking about Spirituality and you are talking about Religions. Religion and their views are indeed very superficial and cater to a particular society's ego. Therefore, the seeming differences amongst them. But, Dalai Lama is talking about spirituality – the foundation of the many religions. There is only compassion, Love, truth in this foundation. It is like you are stuck on the outer shell and he is talking of what is beyond the outer shell. Personally, I think you wrote this article to promote your own book. If so, shame on you. I believe that it is a great sin to go against great innocent souls such as the Dalai Lama.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:58 am |
  6. Wayne Milligan

    I can only suggest that Mr. Stephen Prothero take the time to read " Autobiography of a Yogi " by Paramahansa Yogananda and time test the beautiful " OM " Meditation\Prayer before passing any judgement as to who might be the child.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:57 am |
  7. no name

    The writer used the Dali Lama to sell his book. What a joke. @ the same time, what he says might be true.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:53 am |
  8. Stephen McConnell

    Religion is God with politics.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:53 am |
  9. BlindedHooo

    Your book, that I'll never read, says 8 major religions yet you only list 2 as a core for this short essay about nothing? You say the Jews and the Hindus already knew about compassion, this is true. Does that mean they didn't need to be told it again? and again? and again? as it is throughout the books of their faiths? Both of them also taught it.

    So compassion still needs to be taught and isn't irrelevant. And it is a very hard thing to aspire to, for example, it is very hard for me to find compassion for the animals that were just recently caught for killing a 4 year old child named Ethan Stacy.

    But yea, good job, pick on an old man who's has his head out there trying to fight for unity and his country. What are you doing? Looking for some children to pick on next?

    May 27, 2010 at 6:49 am |
  10. mysticism writer

    Religions are different because of the people, and their egos, who run them. Take away the egos of those in power in religion, and one finds at the core of each the truth – love.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:48 am |
  11. JV

    lol... it's quite comical to see those responding. Oh so "enlightened." I think not. He may be plugging his book but I can't help but enjoy the ripple effect of criticizing the Dalai Llama's teaching. Not him – his teachings. Not many "enlightened" ones would dare risk their politically correct standing to have an opinion of their own. And to the person who said there's no way people would understand his teachings – pfffft. Arrogance always precedes "enlightenment." I'm with the author above – get real.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:47 am |
  12. Offgrid

    They ALL say the exact same thing. Love your enemy and there is no enemy. If only we could follow their wisdom – it is sooooo simple. Unconditional Love.

    Jesus taught it, Buddha taught it, Mohammed taught it, the Upanishads taught it, Gandhi taught it, Martin Luther King taught it, John Lennon taught it,

    All you need is Love.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:46 am |
  13. N.C.T

    Stephen Prothero, you missed the whole point.

    From this very article there is absolutely no way that I would read your book you so shamelessly plugged from trying to discredit the Dalai Lama; a man who has devoted his life to gaining wisdom.

    The Dalai Lama is not saying that all of the major religions exist for the soul purpose of promoting compassion but that compassion is at the core of all of these religions therefore becoming a major teaching of each.

    In Christianity Jesus Christ died on the cross out of sheer compassion for man.

    CNN, you should be embarrassed to have this man as a contributor.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:40 am |
  14. RS

    I don't usually comment, but this article interested me. As many of the other comments mention, I too was disappointed by the quality of the article. There is a line in eastern holy books (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism), with slight variations, it goes something line this "
    As men approach Me, so I receive them. All paths, lead to Me (God)." To me this simple statement is what people of all faiths should understand, there is no better religion, they are all different paths to the same destination. The concept of non-believer or kaffir has been created by people who claim to be of Christian or Muslim faith in history to do great wrongs – slavery and colonization. The problem in today's world is not religion itself, once you get to the bottom of any faith, the Dalai Lama's statement that compassion is the basis of all religions will hold true. God is supposed to be compasionate. Don't you think he will have compassion for all, whether you call him Jesus, Allah, Buddha (not technically correct) or Krishna? After all there is no good Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Athetist, only a good person. My two cents.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:37 am |
    • RS

      Whoops, I made a big typo, God is not a he or a she.

      May 27, 2010 at 6:39 am |
  15. bluenote

    No surprise that when CNN starts a 'religion blog', the focal religion is Christianity. We get that the author is a Christian... But does HE get that not all of his readers are? There are many, many things I find distasteful about religion, but I find that ALL of them are magnified by Christianity in general, and Christians specifically. How is it that all other religions are theoretical, and 'nice ideas', but yours is factual? You have no way to prove this, which makes you act as if you don't need to. Here's a little 'fact' for you: The only practice in the world that believes that a lack of evidence is a proof of existence is religion, and Christianity is the worst offender of this. Christians are absolutely notorious for not understanding the difference between faith, and Fact. Have a nice day.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:34 am |
  16. Boonrerd Samsavan

    Read & Learn. That's what.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:33 am |
  17. deligoer


    May 27, 2010 at 6:32 am |
  18. Ochiro D.

    I am so disappointed for CNN for posting this garbage. I guess, I don't read CNN anymore. I am serious.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:32 am |
  19. DaLe

    Interestingly, the "devil" doesn't want to be worshipped. He 'just' wants humanity's love, and a harem.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:27 am |
  20. Ochiro D.

    I totally disagree with the writer. He is a Boston University religious scholar; I am just ashamed that if he is such a scholar he should know Buddhism. But, he does not understand the meaning or the essence of this religion. Actually Mr. Prothero needs some education on Buddhism. Instead of calling the Dalai Lama naive, Mr. Prothero is a naive and uneducated person. He wants attention by criticizing the Dalai Lama. In the Tibetan Buddhism, a Dalai Lama is chosen when the previous Dalai Lama pass away and his soul transfer to a newborn baby. And this baby is selected through complicated prayers by other great lamas and chosen as the leader of the Buddhist religion. Believe or not, the baby knows his previous life. I am not going to argue with you why. As you christians say the God works in a magic way; same thing here too. I know you will never say the Pope or the Mohhamed was/is wrong. Please, do not attack the Dalai Lama because it is compassionate and you know that you will not get hurt. It is like attacking every Buddhist believers. YOU need an education before you open your mouth and want some attention like a naive boy.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:26 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.