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. DF

    I'm afraid you are picking and choosing what you want to embrace, believe and endorse out of scripture in an effort to support your framework of faith. Let's say, for argument's sake, that you come from a Judeo-Christian background and that you hold the Book of Genesis to be divinely inspired, infallible scripture. By extension, you then must accept the story of Noah and the flood as historical fact and not allegory. Therefore, again by extension, you must believe and accept that Noah is the progenitor of post-flood civilization and the father of all post-flood humanity. If Noah is the father of all post-flood humanity, then he is also the originator of all post-flood religion and the source of all currently existent religions. They are the product of Noah's faith and his understanding of God. Could Noah's sons and daughters had faiths of their own? It's possible, but highly improbable. Why would God destroy all of humanity only to let a boatload of idolators survive?
    The fact of the matter is, no one knows for certain what awaits at the top of the mountain you mention. Not me, not you and not His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. That's why they call it faith. I would steer you away from the Apostle Paul, by the way, and gently direct you to Jesus' words in Matthew 7:3-5 which include, "Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?"

    May 27, 2010 at 8:42 am |
  2. GDS

    You say in the same article both that 'all religions prech compassion' and that believing that all religions have compassion at their heart is a 'fantastic claim'. Given your first assertion that compassion is a common thread in all religions, it seems more like a highly plausible claim to me.

    I don't think the Dalai Lama is saying all religions are the same, just that they have key similarities. It sounds like you and he are in agreement more than you admit.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:36 am |
  3. Joe

    Mr. Prothero,
    Your quite simply a JOKE. Your basis for comparison within a modern theological field is obviously one-sided, and your understanding of basic Buddhist principles is only as superficial as your use of "God" as a tool to be thrown around in order to gain leverage on the average person, and try to sell your unscholarly books. All religions have their place in time and history, but Buddhism is different in that requires one to focus on being honest and understanding of the inner-self, and not just moral in the face of society. To explain to a more simpleminded person as yourself, it's more like the virtue of psychotherapy. Let's look at the facts: 1. You, as well as all, cannot perceive God. It is impossible unless your image is a man with white beard sitting on a cloud, or you describe God as "everywhere." In this sense it would be more related to Buddhism experience of enlightenment. 2. You cannot understand when Lao-Tsu, Confucius, Jesus, Mohamed or even Joseph Smith lived and who they really were. 3. You are unprecedented in knowledge and experience when it comes to comparing yourself to the Dali Lama. It is only because of his countless talks, travels and writings of compassion in this world that you would be able to sell even one pitiful book. 4. It is quite clear that you are ignorant in speaking of Buddhism as if it's basis of comparison is on that of your own. (you would make an awful scientist) Buddhism is an Eastern religion that started about 600 years before Christianity existed. It exists in multiple countries with multiple languages and cultures, of which I doubt you speak and/or understand. 5. Buddhism, unlike western religions, is
    Unfortunately your opinions are only taking advantage of people's inability to understand true religious views. It is typical of people like you to exploit such an open and understanding religion in order for you to conveniently express your opinion and say it is fact. (I bet you studied marketing also) Adversely, the way you are portraying Buddhism, in comparison with other religions, is the same as a mother is required to care for her intolerant child, even when it screams or kicks. If I had any advice for you it would be that you step out of you sheltered life and visit places where the people don't constantly elevate your smug ego. But I guess if you did endure such a challenge, you might find out how wrong you are. Lastly, don't just write about religion, try to understand it also. In looking at your background, it seems you've really worked toward writing about religion, but have yet to understand it.

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

    I don't think the guy who wrote this article actually read what the Dalai Lama wrote. I think he is completely in love with the sound of his own voice, and with the goal of promoting his own book in mind, he set about writing an article explaining how the DL is wrong. The DL's words and intent were incidental to that goal.

    The DL is just basically saying we need to focus on the things that we share in common to bring us together, rather than allow the things that differentiate us lead to mistrust, violence and hate. That is a hard sentiment to disagree with, IMO.

    Religious debate is like arguing about the right color for a room.


    May 27, 2010 at 8:32 am |
  5. J. Amoros

    The greatest contradiction coming from the Dalai Lama was his statement that he is a Marxist!

    May 27, 2010 at 8:29 am |
  6. Mark F

    Mr. Prothero, I believe the reason you're having trouble understanding the Dalai Lama is because he's talking about spirit and you're talking about politics. I understand that your main purpose here is to shamelessly hawk your book, "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter" (available soon from Amazon.com, I suspect) but using the Dalai Lama as a prop in your quest for increased book sales is really inexcusable. If you asked him, I'm sure the Dalai Lama could tell you that at the top of everyone's personal mountain is death. What is beyond that is both unknown and unknowable. But it is what we do in the here and now that truly matters. On that point all the major religions agree, even as they state it in different ways.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:29 am |
  7. Felix

    Jesus claimed to be the son of God the only son of God! No one major religion has a prophet, or teacher that made that claim and backed it up! He's coming back soon everyone believe in Him!

    May 27, 2010 at 8:25 am |
  8. MahayanaThrevada

    I was a buddhist monk and a devout buddhist for 22 years and grew up in an environment that promote this belief. Religion as a whole have causes more problem than anything else. Buddhism and as well as many other religion have miss the mark by having it so complex....If there is a truth, it must be like what Jesus sais, you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free...another person ask, what is the truth..the truth is Gods' word. A person have to read God's word, be it Quaran, bible gita,taka and etc, if a person find it hard, then you know it is not the truth. Also, please differentiate hard and tedious.

    You do not need the Dalai, the pope, a religious leader to explain to you the truth, you need to search for it like you search for a treasure...if you find the truth, you found the treasure, and this is both your guiding principle for your life spirtually, morally and emotionally..

    May 27, 2010 at 8:25 am |
  9. Felix

    Jesus Said i am the son of God, He told his disciples that he was to lay down his life for the sins of the world. How many religions have that? He intentionally let people Kill Him and mistreat Him, because he knew where he was from and had no problem sacrificing himself so that others could be with him! If he wasnt the son of God then Jesus was a biggest Liar there ever was. His the son of God so all other claims about him are true as well.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:24 am |
  10. Dan

    Stephen, I agree with you that religions are very different. Some believe in a soul, some do not. Some religiouns believe in a single God, others believe in many Gods or no God at all. However, while the mythologies of various religions may differ greatly as to how the world was created and what happens when we die, the message that is consistent among the many religions is how we are supposed to live our lives, and that is where love and compassion come in. Love/compassion is basically the road to salvation, it can bring enlightenment and break the cycle of Samsara, and it will most definitely get you to heaven.

    You say that Jesus did not come here to teach us to help old ladies across the street, but I think you miss the point. Jesus had one commandment – that is, there is one rule we are supposed to follow – to love each other as he loved us. What does that mean, you ask? The figure of Christ (literal or figurative) is a symbol or example of complete an ultimate love, compassion and selflessness. He sacrifced his life to save the world. And what we are told is that we are supposed to love each other in the same way – to put others before ourselves, etc. In the New Testament (I think it is Corinthians 13, which I also think is where Paul talks of being a child, etc.) there a section on Love. When you bring love into you heart and rid yourself of anger, hate, jeaolousy, selfishness, etc., when you only act out of love, then and only then will you be awakened/enlightened/saved. This is the message of all religions (especially when you shave away the fake rules imposed by so-called religious leaders). As for the rest, I am not sure it matters what came before and what comes after life . . .

    May 27, 2010 at 8:23 am |
  11. May

    Ah yes, the Dalai Lama is incorrect. It is LOVE that binds us. It is Gods LOVE and his extreme MERCY, as we wobble around down here trying to figure things out. Yes, we are called to compassion, but compassion is empty without LOVE.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:22 am |
  12. Michael O

    We have so few living examples of a universally good value system as exemplified by the Dalai Lama that it's tragic to see CNN post the drivel of this author just to capture readers. CNN does itself and the rest of us an enormous disservice. This author is right up there with Nancy Grace – real classy.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:22 am |
  13. Barry

    Oh so typical. Sometimes I suspect that all religion, and Christianity inparticular, are agents of judgement and put-down. Prothero, hiding behind his exalted credentials, seemingly does the same thing. Is it not so much better to exhibit even-handed consideration of all others as the Dalai Lama does?
    And no I'm not a Buddhist. If anything, I'm a Lutheran – not that it matters much.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:21 am |
  14. JAL

    Someone may have already said this, if so I apologize for the repeat.
    Compassion sounds like a wonderful thing doesn't it? Everyone wants it. In an effort to be inclusive everyone seems to be saying that all religions have it. But what is it? What does it mean to "love one's neighbor?"
    While you may find many similarities in how each religion defines these terms you will also find many differences.
    All human beings tell themselves that they are doing what's right and good. Rarely if ever does someone wake up and think to themselves that they are going to do evil that day. Hitler thought he was doing what was compassionate for the German people. There are those who think that allowing abortion on demand is compassionate and those who feel exactly the opposite. Saying all are compassionate is ambiguous.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:21 am |
  15. nemo1976

    I think this was a shameless attempt to get publicity for Mr. Prothero's book.

    I also think he does have a tendency, as most Christians do, to focus in on and misinterpreting the most violent part of the gospels, the crucifixion. He, and others, repeats the phase "Christ Died for our sins" to the point where it has become almost a mission statement. Why not read the actual teachings part of the gospels? no matter what ones religious beliefs are, you have to agree that Jesus was teaching a message of compasion, for everyone including those that are doing harm.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:20 am |
  16. Laura J

    Sincere pseudo intellectualism. Prothero makes no convincing case here and skates into mockery trying to lend heft to his piece. The other word that comes to mind is Huckster.

    On the topic, I would say that the compassionate heart of God is at the center of all religions. Compassion alone is not enough.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:20 am |
  17. Talon7

    Well let's, see. This guy is a "religion scholar". Oooh wow! Guess that makes him an expert. Guess he's right and one of the greatest religious leaders of all time is wrong. Hmmm....yeah right. The arrogance and conceitedness of some people never ceases to amaze me.

    And what's with CNN printing all this religious stuff lately? Did they get bought out by Fox news??? That's the kind of nonsense I would expect from Fox, not CNN.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:19 am |
    • nemo1976

      CNN is running these types of stories based on one of the oldest (and probably mostly shameless!) principles of journalism, it sells papers! I know that was a bit dated but same principle, we ALL read the article, scrolled past the ads, and CNN gets another tick towards ratings based on number of hits to the website.

      May 27, 2010 at 8:31 am |
  18. CRC

    Protherto makes good points about the value of understanding religion in the socio-policital context of the world. However, he apparently lacks the spiritual experience to perceive the fundamental unity grasped by Ghandi, Huston Smith, and the Dalai Lama. Yes, Christianity has become a religion that worships a man, and Buddha did say that we should worship no man; but, Jesus taught that we are all equal to him, all children of the Father, but most of us have failed to accept this inheritance, although many to come after him would do even "greater things." Helping an old lady across the street may be motivated by compassion, but that is not the message of the great spiritual leaders; Compassion is a state of being that pervades one's whole life, in thought, word, and deed. When Jesus can look down from the cross and pray "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do . . .", this is Compassion.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:19 am |
  19. Phil

    All religions are hypocritical and the Dalai Lama is no exception. Compassion eh? Where is your compassion for the millions of Han Chinese you want kicked out of Tibet?

    May 27, 2010 at 8:18 am |
  20. Nancy

    I am a student from Boston University, and I am ashamed that such a biased perspective can come from one of our faculty members. Basically, he is saying that any religion that does not agree with his own is wrong. This is revealed by phrases where he declares his own disdain for certain religions when he talks about "the capacity of each of the great religions to do both good and evil," and the Buddhist belief that we should not worship men (which would obviously disagree with Christianity.) This man is proof that a lot of us hear opposing sides of the same story without really listening. He seems to agree that all of those religions already knew everything about compassion before Jesus or Buddha or the Prophet, but he does not really understand that one thing is to say you know compassion and another is to practice and understand it.

    May 27, 2010 at 8:18 am |
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