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. Robin Bray

    I have compassion but I will never follow any religion. True compassion comes from ones self and not guidelines set by others.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:16 am |
  2. Mike

    No religion is real, but some teach beneficial values to society. Peace, love, compassion, etc. By connecting these values in various religions, society can make them the main purpose of the religion, rather than which holy book is right, or who's prophet is better. Doing so breaks down the natural barriers that religion creates and brings us all together as one people, one world. When we get to that point, the individual religions will no longer be needed.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:15 am |
  3. MARCK

    This writer is spot on. He is not challenging compassion as an important virtue in all religion. In fact, he is stating that compassion is an obvious positive virtue for all people with or without belief. He is simply saying that it is outrageous to ignore the significant differences in the world's religions because of the commonalities that bind mankind in general. I don't understand why its so difficult for people to understand his view.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:15 am |
  4. doug

    Compassion should not be the common ground from which all religions grow. It should be tolerarance. You can have all the compassion in the world, but if you don't believe another person has the right to profess their faith in their own way then the world will never get along. This is Islam's crime. At its core it is not happy with its own believers, but it believes it has the right and obligation to convert everyone, forcibly if necessary.

    Granted, this is a tenet that many other religions followed, but that was hundreds of years ago. Islam has never left this phase of its growth behind.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:14 am |
  5. 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. "My religion is better." "No mine is." "No my sect is better." Hilarious and pointless.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:14 am |
  6. R

    What is salvation, God...We don't know and we haven't experienced. Also, according to many religions, it is possible only after death. What is the point then ?
    I am from India. I have seen some of the worst riots on earth. I have seen craziness on a level where people value some books, words etc...more then a human life. People always say, ban this, ban that because they are bad us. Well, nothing is more harmful then religions. If you want good start Ban religions first...

    May 27, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  7. SoulCatcher

    No Deposit, No Return.
    In God We Trust.

    A million years from now this message will be found on a bottle and a coin. To some religion is an exclusive club. It is what a religion gives back to all humanity that defines it. To take away future believers from one's own actions in the name of God is one of the greatest afronts to God. This is why terrorism and revenge is wrong.

    Water Sleeps, but God does not.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  8. mahetabel

    Narrow minded people should not comment on or feel they have the right to comment on a subject that by definition requires an open mind. It makes them look quite foolish.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  9. AlanM

    The Dalai Lama's point is that what matters is how you act on a daily basis. No matter if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, or an atheist, you can choose to act compassionately, and these acts can be consistent with your belief system. Nothing else really matters – believe what you want – but act compassionately. Obviously any belief system can be used to justify misbehavior (see World History for examples), but that is generally a flaw in the individuals, not the belief system per se.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:12 am |
  10. Ken

    One of the fundamental things I don't appreciate about Christianity is the notion that we are all born sinners. We aren't born sinners, we learn to sin through lack of compassion. That said, I agree with the Dalai Lama. The common denominator of all societies is our need to perpetuate them and that will only be successful by showing compassion within that society.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  11. Jessica


    May 27, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  12. baruch

    This author is writing for attention, not because he has something to say. I won't be paying any more attention to him.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  13. Julie

    A fair judgment of Christianity would be a judgment of Jesus' life, words, and actions...not the actions of some Crusader somewhere. "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us..." Jesus lived and died as an example of how Christians should live. I personaly think it was a pretty good example. Jesus never asked anyone to kill in his name-just the opposite. Jesus said to love your enemies and turn the other cheek and to forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive. Man creates the need for power and the use of violence in attaining that power. Jesus never did that. He never carried a weapon, never organized a political movement. He never even had a job! As influential as he was, he could have ruled the world, but he chose a simple life of love and service to others.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  14. Jessica

    If Jesus died on the cross to stamp out sin, how did he expect us to do that...if not for the use of compassion? he showed "his people" compassion, he asked his people to have compassion, and he wanted his people to be examples of compassion. I think thats a pretty good path to stamping out sin, wouldnt you say? Apparently as the author, you wouldnt say that...because you disagree. So, how do you think we as individuals are to stamp out sin, if not for compassion? I would have liked to have heard your argument about that...but you completely didnt even address it. You simply just dismissed compassion as the point, without really discussing what the REAL point you think it of each religion. True, I dont think most religious people act with much compassion, and perhaps that might be why most religions are failing – not only themselves, but their gods.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:09 am |
  15. KC

    To the author: First of all, Christians do not believe Jesus died on the cross to "stamp out sin." Jesus died on the cross to rid us of original sin – Adam and Eve's disobedience in the Garden of Eden – which does provide a path to eternal life.

    Also, if you are going to write about religious diversity, you should understand the difference between "tolerance" and "acceptance." When you do, you will never use the word tolerance in a discussion about diversity again. I hate to think that the best job I could do, as a parent, is teach my children to "tolerate" another human being – whether it be their religious beliefs or any other differences. (Be sure to put that in your next book and take credit for it.)

    For others, who misunderstand Judaism, we do not all believe that we will be with our Creator some day and that compassion is the means to that end. Jews believe that when you die, you are dead. Period. Their compassion (Mitzvahs) are inspired by the desire for God to send his son. Further, they do believe that Jesus existed but that he was a Prophet, not the son of God.

    Perhaps the author should have spent more time truly understanding other religions and diversity by participating in some through actual friendships/connections with people from other faiths, rather than reading about them. He should know that no book can compare a real-life experience. He should definitely know that one.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:07 am |
  16. Damien

    "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." I think the author is misunderstanding what "adult experience" actually means. By adult experience, I think of corruption; true, not every adult is corrupted by his or her experiences, but when one reaches a certain age because of certain experiences, he or she becomes aware of the cynical nature of some men and women. Therefore, adult experience cannot dream or think as large as "youthful naivete" because it is stuck on playing politics, regardless of the type of political forum.

    Now understandably, one cannot go through life being naive; the world isn't a safe place for such behavior. Although I think everyone should inject some blind faith, or naivete, into a situation every now and then and see what happens. You don't always have to be "grown-up" and mature to construct a stable foundation of anything; sometimes it takes a child to understand what an adult cannot.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:06 am |
  17. Paul M

    This quote from Robert A Heinlein sums it up quite nicely. "History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it. History has the relation to truth that theology has to religion — i.e., none to speak of."

    May 27, 2010 at 8:02 am |
  18. Alex

    Why does the Dalai Lama consider it naive to believe that one faith is true and all others are false? All major faiths officially believe that their way is the only path to heaven, and this has been the historic norm for centuries (up until, perhaps, very recently). Mr. Prothero uses a line from the apostle Paul in a way that seems to indicate that the apostle would have been very open to the idea of other "paths" being just as good as the path of Christ, and this is simply not the case when reading the scriptures.

    Compassion and charity are and should be a major part of many faiths, and as a follower of Christ, I recognize that the church has often failed to illustrate Christ's love to the world. But a major part of that compassion consists of telling the world what is true and what is not true, and I, as a follower of Christ, believe that Jesus Christ is the only true way. What good is it if a faith preaches compassion, but is not true? It leads to a path of destruction. In reality, it is childish to believe that all paths lead to God. This is like saying mud will work just as well as gas in a gasoline engine.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:01 am |
  19. 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 thus un-realistic!

    May 27, 2010 at 8:01 am |
  20. J.A.

    In 20-30 years from now when Stephen Prothero is lying awake on his death bed, he may realize his own youthful naivete in what he has written and taught when he prays to have compassion shown to him while dying.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:00 am |
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