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. meadowsjr

    This article is nothing more than an ad for this man's book. I do find it funny that the only "scripture" quoted is the bible and he is, of course, of European descent. I guess that would be his personal bias. Also the comment section is, as usual, awesome. My coworkers and I are loving what the rest of you are posting.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:59 am |
  2. Talon7

    In an interview, Albert Einstein was asked if he beleived in God. He stated that he believed in something like "Spinoza's God". If you Google Baruch Spinoza, I think you'll find that in essence, he was a pantheist of sorts. To me, his philosophy makes much more sense than any of the traditional world religions.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  3. Shelley

    To everyone here, this silly article is just a plug for this guy's book. To the author, you are taking the Dalai Lama's comments out of context and are the naive one here. Dalai Lama is both a religous and a political figure thus he has to build bridges like crazy. These ideas have been debated many times by scholars better than you so you know you are not covering any new ground just using the Dalai Lama to sell your boring books.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:57 am |
  4. Christina

    I think you are missing the point of the NYT editorial, which was in focusing on our differences, we make those the most important aspects of religion. Instead, we can all "learn to get along" by focusing on commonalities between belief systems.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:57 am |
  5. Colin in Florida

    This story is not even really an opinion-it is nothing more than a thinly disguised pitch to sell his book. And who can say that a religious belief is wrong, they are all based on beliefs-with no evidence.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:57 am |
  6. Eric O.

    An Indian saint named Ramakrishna practiced Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity and guess what? He had the same experience of the Bliss of God regardless of the path. Experiencing that bliss leads only to great compassion for all beings regardless of the path taken to get there. Focusing on the differences and thinking them to be so important is what throughout history has led to great religious strife. I agree that on one level differences are important and should be respected but the focus can no longer be on the form of religion but on the universal experience that will be born out of Grace. It is a mistake to be so arrogant to think that there will not be many paths to lead back to the One based upon the superficial differences between us. So, think today of Buddha. It is his birthday and the day of his liberation.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:56 am |
  7. Brooklyn Dave

    Prothero's logic is deeply flawed – he says that the fact that compassion was a component of the precursor religions to Buddhism and Christianity is proof that it is not the defining characteristic of the newer religions. Yet what that actually suggests is that the Dalai Lama's point is correct – compassion is central to all religions – both old and new! The Dalai Lama hasn't argued that compassion is the ONLY thing that is essential to each religion, but that it is the common denominator, and Prothero's point about precursor religions only strengthens that point.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:54 am |
  8. trixen

    They're all wrong. There is no god.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:53 am |
  9. RKT

    People have not killed, oppressed, conquered and tortured in the name of God. They have done this in their own name using God as their excuse and justification.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:52 am |
  10. Gary

    After watching the Larry King interview with the Dali Lama, I could not understand what all the fuss is about. He did not say a single coherent thought in the entire interview – many times not even being able to finish a sentence. He seems more of a symbol of peace with his smile than substance.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:51 am |
  11. agnostic

    All religions, when practiced to the letter of their credos, are ersatz excuses for the individuals' lack of "self." More suffering has been meted to humans in their name, regardless of the "god(s)" espoused. Read: "god Is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:50 am |
  12. spiritual not religious

    Stephen Prothero is a scholar on religion but not on the roots of religion, spirituality which the Dalai Lama refers to. Unfortunately it can not be learnt by reading the books, scripture or doing research. It can only be learned by the path shown by any spiritual gurus, jesus, budha. Then only the author or any of us can realise what is meant by “one truth” behind the “many faith.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:48 am |
  13. Chris

    From one Chris to another thanks for the link. After decades of non belief, and frustrated with debating christians and thier stoneage belief system, I am ready to to go the next step and become a Humanist and a Freethinker, which I find that I have always been.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:48 am |
  14. cosmicsnoop

    I read this twice and I still don't understand this guy's point or what this is even about. If his book is as obtuse it should sell real well......NOT.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:46 am |
  15. Scrapster

    That's what's great about the Dalai Lama. He also says (I paraphrase) "Don't follow any religious leader's ideas blindly, including mine. See if they make sense to you as an individual." Whether I follow him or not, that type of wisdom means I'll always at least listen to what he has to say.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:44 am |
  16. opinions

    I agree with Banta.

    Opinions are like butt holes, everybody has them, but no one wants to hear them.

    Also, I think the author was very narrow minded.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:41 am |
  17. Vinechaser

    Oh, wow, Stephen Prothero, what a misguided perspective you've presented to such a wide audience. If you're trying to stir discussion and debate by offering ignorance, then you've probably succeeded to a degree. If you're giving us your honest truest take on things, then I feel for you and wish you all the best for greater growth and understanding. I won't pretend to be some guru or enlightened being, I know I'm not, but even I see/feel the connection between these faiths, these organizations of the human striving for love and pureness. You think sin and suffering aren't the same thing? You think salvation and nirvana aren't the same thing? You think love and compassion and harmony aren't the same thing? You are lost in the details, and even the details seem to be confusing for you. Don't use your analytical brain to map and chart the specifics of each of these religions, as you're going up against many centuries of lingual/cultural separation. It'll fog your mind. If you become intuitive, you can feel the connection. You'll feel the oneness of the many. I truly hope this comes to you.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:39 am |
  18. SRose

    I can understand the concern people have with the notion of pluralism, that it wipes away the individual beauties of religion in favor of a particularly white-washed view of all religious faiths and paths as one path to the same mountaintop. However, religious pluralism does not tell you to ignore the individual religious beliefs and paint them all in a naive brushstroke of single commonalities. What I believe the Dalai Lama was trying to say was that focusing on our divisions does not play to the strength of humanity: compassion found in commonality.

    I also would heavily criticize any article that tacks on "The Dalai Lama Is Wrong" as a headline, just for sensationalism in a blatant attempt to get people to read and then adds such a badly veiled plug for a book involved. This article has no substance, very little content, and very little leg to stand on as a serious comment. Instead, it's a cheap and badly written shot and book plug. Poorly done.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:39 am |
  19. r

    All religions are the same. They all believe in non-existent people who secretly guide our lives. Religion is for cowards who use it to control and convince people to kill. The true commonalities in religion are violence, oppression and death. Religion has always been used for control. Please read history. The dark and middle ages where all science was condemned, Spanish inquisition, Crusades all the way up to now with the threats from Muslims, honor killings, suicide bombings all in the name of the invisible man. You cannot give out a few blankets and just disregard two thousand years of violence and death over an invisible landlord whose name you call to when you kill.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:37 am |
    • Raj

      You are right

      May 27, 2010 at 8:31 am |
    • J. Amoros

      Here is another one. So same reply as to Eureka: I'm going to copy/paste your statement and use it in my talks and writings as the classical example and statement/dogma of what education has done with an entire generation. Your statement is a religious statement by itself, the best coming from the "religion of cultural relativity". Thanks.

      May 27, 2010 at 8:35 am |
    • J. Amoros

      r One more thing. Your statement "All religions are the same" is not even sociological or historically correct or objective statement, even if you are an atheist, or a contemporary militant fundamentalist atheist.

      May 27, 2010 at 8:39 am |
  20. Keith

    I'm glad to see that there is such an overwhelming response from folks with compassion. The comments on this article should lead the author to realize that a vast majority of the world is compassionate, loving and understanding of others. I believe that the most important thing to remember here is that we need to focus on the positive of what can be done to bring us together and not on the small amount of negative that tries to tear us apart. This is the key to the concept of Right Intentions in buddhism. If we all spent just a little bit more time focusing our own energies on our own intentions and compassion then there would be far less of the negative in the world and we would all have much less negative to deal with.

    May 27, 2010 at 7:37 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.