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.
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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.
The statement of a man with is own evil to hide.
I like to think that in some say His Holiness is correct in that all religions seek compassion...although lately, it's difficult to see it in the way some have twisted religion to their own purposes...but I am compassionate because I want to be...not because I was told as a child that I would burn in hell if I wasn't. I'm compassionate simply because it makes all the desperate situations in the big, bad world easier to take. I can't stop hurricanes from killing people or oil spills from devastating the gulf coast...but I can send money to provide aid or buy water. I can find ways to help...and in those little ways, show my compassion.
I have complete respect for the Dalai Lama, and at first I was surprised by this article, but after reading it I think he has a point. A little criticism doesn't hurt, and when it comes to religion, you can either be a "the glass is half full" or "the glass is half empty" type of person.
Religion is a creation by man. Religions start as cults or are fabricated by ruling elites as a tool for control – right up there with government and laws. Buddha and Jesus were men – and preached their beliefs to many people who were eager to learn how they should live their lives – because no one wants to live their life without a map. Also, if you share the same belief with other people and have a place to worship together, you will never be alone – you will always have a place where you feel you belong and feel that these people will help you in a time of need. Kind of like a social contract. You give up your freedoms and free thinking in order to join the herd, or you are born into the herd and never had 'an opportunity' to leave. The religions today preach wonderful things, and hold some wisdom. But it is folly to think that there is only one true God and if you don't do as the Bible says you're going to hell. That is brainwashing to the extreme.
Patriarchy and authoritarianism are not what we want for our future. I believe compassion is the way, as long as I'm being optimistic.
Shiraz-born Iranian poet Hafez’s “I Have Learned So Much“, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.
I have learned so much from God
That I can no longer call myself
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew.
The truth has shared so much of itself with me
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel, or even a pure soul.
Love has befriended Hafez so completely, it has turned to ash and freed me…
Of every concept and image, my mind has ever known
The way in which this author has missed the boat is in his lack of understanding of compassion as the Dalai Lama expresses it. It shows again that the disconnect between different religions is not a difference of what lies at the top of that mountain but in the inability or unwillingness to engage the meaning behind language instead of knowingly taking advantage of and manipulating misunderstandings. The Dalai Lama is not talking about helping an old lady to cross the street. Furthermore, regardless how many religions say that they know not to kill, they continue to kill. The difference lies not in the religion but in the way it is taught. Religion is man-made. Truth is truth no matter the filters through which we see it. Those mountain-top teachers have tried again and again to help us clear our vision so that we might see that. People like this author are the misdirectors at the bottom of the mountain throwing stones at those trying to move forward. For him I am thankful. It allows me the opportunity to work again and again to see what is real and what is true instead of fear his volley of stones.
Well the Muslims are murdering Buddhist teachers in Southeast Asia so I'm not surprised by the cowtowing to the human revelationists- fear is quite the motivator- as Muslims learned thousands of years ago and continue to use today.
As for Paul of Tarsus (never met or heard Jesus of Nazareth), he hijacked real Christianity and turned it into what would become Roman Catholicism with a little help of Roman Emperor Constantine.
CNN, why let this narrow minded who tried to sell his book post his article here???????
I completely agree with him, he's not making a stance against religious tolerance but rather saying in order to be tolerant of other religions we need to understand the differences between them and recognize them as being it's own worldview. Most people who have spiritual beliefs would be angered by the thought that people would see there worldview as the same as someone else's beliefs. Isn't the whole point of so called "pluralism" to avoid that? I agree with the idea of being accepting of other beliefs but that in no way entails viewing them just as valid as mine own. On a philosophical level it doesn't make sense either, the idea that two beliefs, which have totally different claims about what is true, cannot both be right. It's like saying that 1=1 but also 1=5, it doesn't make sense.
The author is very naive, uninformed, and narrow minded, not to mention very disrespectful. CNN should be ashamed to allow such ignorance a place in its pages.
I disagree strongly with Prothero. It has always seemed to me that all religions are very much different paths up the same mountain. I certainly agree with the Dalai Lama that there is more common ground than difference. Think about it: what is the actual function of religion in a society? Largely it's to create a sense of community and to provide the very few rules necessary for humans to live together in a group. That basically boils down to "Don't kill each other" and "Don't take each other's stuff." While there certainly are differences among them, they are not insurmountable and need not be seen as mutually exclusive.
This is the most stupist thing I ever heard.. cnn most be running out of topics to write abt.. that they pick this guy to write a garbage..
As an amateur follower Buddhism, I am bold enough to say, Stephen Prothero, you're not really getting it. I mean, I see what you're getting at, but you're missing the point and you're not seeing the perspective of a Buddhist in knowing what Buddhism is all about.
In Buddhism, we look at people like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddha as people to inspire us, it has nothing to do with worship, it's more of a highest respect one human can give to another. We put our trust in their wisdom that we to, simple humans, can reach enlightenment. Buddhism isn't a religion like Christianity is a religion, Buddhism, like the Dalai Lama says, "...is a science of the mind."
13:13 But now abideth faith, hope, charity. These three shall survive. They are eternal. They continue to exist in the church, and shall not fail in its glorified state. As long as the redeemed saint shall have future ages before him, so long will trust in God and hope give them brightness, while love itself is the very atmosphere of the divine life.
The greatest of these is charity. Love is the greatest because it glorifies both faith and hope, sanctifies every faculty and Christian grace, is the very moving impulse of the gospel, and is the one quality that is divine. God is love
flaw in Mr. Prathero's anaylsis of compassion in the Buddhist sense is using the "thought" process. To fully embrace the compassion the Dalai Lama speaks of one must transcend the cognitive processing of what compassion is. It is not meant to be a defined concept such as "helping old ladies to cross the street" or a means to some kind of salvation. It is a way of being in the moment, a state of being which reaches far beyond any cognitive processing one's brain is trained to do in our Western society. We are taught to think, not to be – which is my issue with Mr. Prathero's blog. One cannot confine a state of being within the cages of words or attempt to define a religion – of any kind- by reducing the "spiritual" or "being" to a set of defined terms, actions and goals. The Dalai Lama teaches as many Buddhist teachers before him have done – by living and being. To approach this with a brain taught to analyize and seek understanding as a logical procession of thoughts which lead to a conclusion – is to deny the very essence of the compassion which the Dalai Lama seeks to teach. I am quite amazed that a religious scholar such as Mr. Prothero would even attempt to portray the Dalai Lama, first as some sort of brand for Buddhism (trademark smile) and second to approach compassion as if he had consulted a dictionary. It is this sort of religious packaging that is segmenting the world's people and further defining what makes us different.
Since when is compassion parochial? This author misses the boat completely.
The flaw in Mr. Prathero's anaylsis of compassion in the Buddhist sense is using the "thought" process. To fully embrace the compassion the Dalai Lama speaks of one must transcend the cognitive processing of what compassion is. It is not meant to be a defined concept such as "helping old ladies to cross the street" or a means to some kind of salvation. It is a way of being in the moment, a state of being which reaches far beyond any cognitive processing one's brain is trained to do in our Western society. We are taught to think, not to be – which is my issue with Mr. Prathero's blog. One cannot confine a state of being within the cages of words or attempt to define a religion – of any kind- by reducing the "spiritual" or "being" to a set of defined terms, actions and goals. The Dalai Lama teaches as many Buddhist teachers before him have done – by living and being. To approach this with a brain taught to analyize and seek understanding as a logical procession of thoughts which lead to a conclusion – is to deny the very essence of the compassion which the Dalai Lama seeks to teach. I am quite amazed that a religious scholar such as Mr. Prothero would even attempt to portray the Dalai Lama, first as some sort of brand for Buddhism (trademark smile) and second to approach compassion as if he had consulted a dictionary. It is this sort of religious packaging that is segmenting the world's people and further defining what makes us different.
It is sad to read Stephen explain the Christian objection to compassion. Stephen’s only goal here it seems is to one–up the Dalai Lama. This article is nothing more than an elitist Christian attacking a populist. History has shown that any populist position will eventually dominate over an elitist one because there really is power in numbers. The people around Jesus knew this and Christianity flourished for the better part of 2000 years because it was open to ALL people. Christians should probably get back to their populist roots if they want their religion to survive.
Sorry Richard, You are wrong.
I am a Christian. Many Christians speak out of fear. They are afraid of burning in Hell! I don't beleive in Hell. I could be wrong. But I don't beleive God would send me there for a mistake in belief. If that were true, that means that somewhere there is one church that's getting it right (I don't have a clue which one that would be!) and every one else is gonna burn. Jesus said the most important commandment is to love God above all else and to love all others as yourself. You cant have compassion with out love. Jesus also said we will be one with him and he one will be one with the father, and we will be one, all in all. Is'nt that basically Buddhism? If you can get your mind around that thought, don't we Christians believe that God created everything? He can freely come and go throughout the Universe with out a ship or oxygn mask, he is in effect 'one with it' and we are one with him. I DO believe that all paths up the mountain reach the top, but not everyone chooses to go up the mountain. You can have love without God, but you cannot have God without Love. Jesus came to tell us that if we live our lives for God we will become one with him and have eternal life. He didn't die on the cross to stamp out sin. If that was his mission he failed. We still have sin. He came to die and RISE AGAIN, to show us their is eternal life with God.
I think he is very correct in saying "There is “one truth” behind the “many faiths,” and that core truth is compassion."
Yes Jesus came to stamp out sin. But how did he accomplish this. He did so through compassion and acceptance. He defined himself as the path, as the example, the blue print if u will and he was compassion to all save for rebuking those who should have known better. He said, "He who is without sin cast the first stone". When you take away judgement what are you left with but compassion. and what greater act of compassion than to give your life for the salvation of others, to give your son for the salvation of others.
Buddha came to stamp out suffering. but how else to do that than to be compassionate and empathetic. Would Nirvana not be akin to a better more compassionate world.
The dali lamas words are be interpreted, not taken at face value. Truths are often hidden by your own perceptions. Compassion is not the end game of all these religions, not the core goal. It is more the mountain upon which all 8 paths wind and the foundation on which they are built, and though there is one peak at the top there is many different views...(in-fact 8 different ways in which u can look(bit if metaphoric irony))