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. Andy Nagao

    NAMO AMITABA .NAMO AMITABA. NAMO AMITABA. The Dalai Lama teachings should be used as a vehicle to help oneself to enlightenment absolutely NOT to get 15 minutes of fame . The Truth can't never be explained but only be experienced individually through meditation . Finding Right and Wrong will not take you there . Be compassionated and learn more about ZEN BUDDHISM then you will find that there is nothing WRONG to see let alone to write about . Best wishes .

    May 27, 2010 at 7:37 am |
  2. Chance

    ...Do not like this article -_-. I could be wrong; but I think Dalai Lama's message is that the religions have different paths but all lead to one thing. "The source" "God" "The Greatness" "The Universal Truth". This article has no constructive purpose. I actually find it offensive. Like your trying to point out fault. Its an Opinion...but I feel like he went out of his way. I'm not a fan of the Dalai Lama. I mean hes just another person to me; but doesn't he go out of his way to promote all religions through finding there common grounds. He never pushes his own. I mean imo; he's done far more then most do. And in this day and age; someone must attempt to bring peace without claiming war on someone because gods on there side to do so...

    May 27, 2010 at 7:37 am |
  3. Bob

    While compassion is, or should be, a component of all religions, at their core they must answer the following questions:
    Who am I?
    Where did I come from?
    Where am I going?
    Is it important?
    While compassion is important, our lives are not just about how I treat others, but rather what is my relationship with God? So what/who is at the top of the mountain and how do I approach Him is critical. Why is that so important? Beacause eternity is at stake.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:36 am |
  4. Quest

    He missed the point, What is on top of the proverbial mountain isnt some mythical figure waiting to reward you with riches, the journey up the mountain is what shapes you into who you are when you get there. What is really at the end of your journey is yourself only humbled and enlightened, free of the baggage that holds us back from being who we truly are.
    My take on religion anyway. I could be wrong but I truly believe that religion is just our way of coming to terms with things we dont understand, an attempt to demystify things we cant solve with science.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:34 am |
  5. Soham

    Mr. Prothero definitely missed the point here, and by a long shot, we all do at one point or another! Eastern philosophers often modify how they address westerners in order for a point to be better understood. When they talk about religion, not just the Dalai Lama, it is emphasized that if a religion claims or even suggests to be “better than the others”, it is a thought of the mind and therefore, not of or from consciousness, consequently an ego influenced view which in its distorted outlook proclaims to be exclusive in nature and thus, those not within this group are not as good as “us”. This clarification of what ego induced thinking can do (to make other feel less), is central to what the Dalai Lama is commenting on and shows that as humans we are not different in nature from all sentient beings; therefore, what is “at the top of the mountain” IS the same for all! Attempting to place a label to It, is limiting in nature, and that is not realistic!

    May 27, 2010 at 7:30 am |
  6. Jonathan

    I'm not impressed with this article at all. I think he's misinterpreting the DL, and his one-line nonsensical argument is blown up into a 1500 word or so essay that seems written solely for the reason of writing an essay (and being published on CNN). The whole thing is incredibly useless.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:29 am |
  7. Universalist

    This article really misses the mark and doesn't even try very hard to hit it in the first place. It distorts the Dalai Lama's position and offers a few superficial criticisms of that position while pretending to critique his essential point. The summing up of what Jesus and Buddha were "really" all about is likewise superficial and misleading. This could have made for a thought-provoking discussion; alas, it did not. I have to agree with those pointing out that Mr Prothero seems to want to plug his book more than have a thoughtful, substantive exchange of ideas. A missed opportunity.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:27 am |
  8. MarkPDX

    Nice way to plug your book... write a long, ultimately meaningless diatribe and at the end tell us that we can read more if we plunk down $$$. So very Christian.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:24 am |
  9. tcsmythe

    I think Mr. Prothero is earning a a living by doing what all religions do best: Sell books.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:23 am |
  10. Christer

    I see many comments that are unsupported. We all hold the right to an opinion. However, when you fail to support, defend and explain your opinions they're just "empty" words on a page.

    There are somethings that will forever be fraught with differences of opinions. Most notably religion and politics. Did anyone really think there would be total agreement with this article? It is one's mans opinion. Agree or Disagree. But to insult the author as being stupid, naive, etc... doesn't make the commenter look any better.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:22 am |
  11. tom

    I am not a great religious thinker but I would think In the Dalai Lana's defence, a simple message is a step forward, a single step. Maybe thats thought behind the message, to make progress, to push us all to a simple goal, what we all would see achiveable. Period, God bless the larger picture, but start, us simple folk with a small goal, on the way to anyform of enlightenment.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:19 am |
  12. Jack

    The author shows complete lack of understanding.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:17 am |
  13. Paul

    John 14:6, "Jesus answered, 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." Jesus Christ is the only answer.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:17 am |
  14. jer

    poor little stephen.. look into his eyes.. how clear it is to see the upset child there.. as he "trots out" the bitterness inside him.. yes little stephen.. kudos to you for not bowing to any man.. but to find God as you clearly want to.. Compassion is one of the things you will have to find along the way... and no, you can't think your way there.. I suggest you begin by addressing the source of your bitterness.....

    May 27, 2010 at 7:12 am |
  15. MM

    The only point this author had was to get published.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:09 am |
  16. Christian

    The author has no being and the entire article reflects that. Religions including Christianity lead to inner transformation not to worship of outer beings. The author fails to comprehend that there is an inner kingdom within not up in the clouds. Anyone who has found this inner kingdom knows for themselves that all religions lead there. We can see this man has never been there and remains in his external self.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:07 am |
  17. Dianne Foster

    I don't know what the purpose of this article might be. In my opinion, religious teachers are often those who try and wake people up to the otherwise dead truths of their own traditions. Sometimes their followers, more driven by organizational zeal, take things in a new direction, one which the teacher (often no longer among the living) would never have anticipated.

    I suppose the author is confusing the teacher with his "apostles". I think he is also implicitly criticizing one or two religions in which he himself was not baptized.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:07 am |
  18. Kevin

    To say that the root of all religion is compassion, is not merely a descriptive phrase, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a prescriptive one. The Dalai Lama is asking us to interpret our faiths from a compassionate and humanistic perspective. Some Buddhists believe that their practice should focus on enlightenment or a realization of the emptiness/interdependence/impermanent of all phenomena. This can lead to a dangerously self-centered religion. But when interpreted from a humanistic perspective, Many Buddhists see that (human) beings suffer because they hold on to transient phenomena as if they were real and permanent and believe in the importance of showing compassion to those who suffer.
    Many Christians believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins. Furthermore, they believe that having faith in Christ is sufficient for salvation. Again this can lead to a selfish and overly other-worldly view. Others with a more ethical orientation are drawn to Jesus' ministry which included caring for the poor, weak and suffering, and really, becoming one of them.
    Compassion is action not belief. Seeing compassion as the common link between religions, challenges us to go beyond beliefs and biases and toward action that speaks of spiritual understanding and compassion.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:07 am |
  19. the one

    Prothero is missing the point. If all faiths, individuals have compassion for each other they will have understanding and patience with each other and that will stop a lot of the killing and violence. That's all. The Dali Lama is just a man giving his advice. We as individuals still have to make up our own minds and determine what's right for us. And, Prothero is just a man with an opinion too, so readers should make sure not to listen to closely to him either. Peace

    May 27, 2010 at 7:06 am |
  20. Gregor

    Attacking the Dalai Lama to plug your book may have seemed like a good idea when your publicist suggested it, but it was not. Your tone is so condescending-you're a scholar? Really? Look at it this way, to simplify it to your level: it does not matter if our beliefs differ when we reach the top of the mountain, what is important is how we treat each other on our walk up the mountain.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:04 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.