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. Pepper Potts

    "I believe in Science", Nacho Libre

    mrgetz, I doubt the Dalai Lama watched the last episode of "Lost"? Thanks for the laugh.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:49 pm |
  2. GINNY

    in 100 years you will be dust and probably not remembered by anyone but your family for hacking a book. he will be remembered forever humans exist for trying to bring compassion to the world through his religious medium. so sad you are.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:49 pm |
  3. Barbara T.

    The point of being here on this plane of existence is to WAKE-UP to who we are in awakened consciousness.
    Compassion is one of other aspects of the true Self we need to complete our journey. The Dalai Lama has been living a
    true spiritual practice for several years he does not claim he is a God. One needs to properly listen to what he is communicating.
    There is no right or wrong here concerning the Dalai Lama.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
  4. Namo

    We must spread compassion to promote peace in this world. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is at the forefront.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
  5. Rick

    I'm afraid the author is confused.

    The idea is that there are many paths to enlightenment. Your religion/set of beliefs is irrelevant.

    We are all 'climbing the same mountain' rather we like it or not. There probably isn't a specific 'God' or variety of 'gods' anyway. We are all one with the universe and there is no way to ultimately separate us from each other or anything else for that matter.

    Think of it like this: You want to build a sand castle. Do you pile sand on with a shovel? do you wet the sand? do you use your hands? Will your end product look the same as someone else's? It doesn't matter because in the end they were all made of sand, and you learned something building it.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:44 pm |
  6. Ricky

    The headline "Dalai Lama Is Wrong" certainly got the attention you desired to promote your book, but what a shameful way of book promotion for your financial success.
    The words of the Dalai Lama is correct, you just missed the point entirely. It is nice to read so many post's without any hatred, compassion is a nice thing.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:43 pm |
  7. Niranjan

    I am not sure why it is so difficult to understand such a simple concept. What Gandhi and Huston Smith and The Dalai Lama state is the "Many faith"s, BUT what they ALL believe in is the single "Truth" or divinity.

    Strange that we have professors or scholars of religion and have no clue what they are talking of!!!! In 2010 that too!

    May 26, 2010 at 9:42 pm |
  8. Anne

    I do not disagree with Prometheus, however....
    Perhaps the point is that, to be a decent human being, you need compassion. I have often found that lacking in many who loudly proclaim their "faith" to others. Personally, I look at religion as a set of rules that is supposed to help you lead a "good" life–some organized religions do that better than others; many teach this very poorly indeed. I much prefer a personal ethical canon that reminds me not to judge others, but only to look inward and determine if I am truly the person that I would like to be and to inspire in others. I hope that the Dalai Lama would not disagree.

    Plus, anyone who quotes his own book in the article is just plain selling something....

    May 26, 2010 at 9:42 pm |
  9. Harry

    Look inside yourself. If you understand this, you're on the path to enlightenment. There is no right nor wrong, everthing is subjective to ones perception of good and bad. The Dalai Lama has shed light on the eternal truth.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:40 pm |
  10. Shawn

    By your own thought pattern ... You must see people only by skin color .. not as being humans ... nothing can possibly cross from one religion to the next ... I am so glad you are the expert and that Dali Lama is wrong .. You are talking about faith .. belief ... his belief is wrong ... haha .. you my sir .. exemplify what is wrong with most religious "experts" they are wrong and you are right ... Hope you sell a million copies of your book you are promoting.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:37 pm |
  11. bmack

    The problem is not any one religion. Imagine if all religions were to disappear tomorrow. No one could argue that nothing would improve. The problem is humanity as a whole. We need to study ourselves but only study ourselves with compassion AND courage.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:36 pm |
  12. mrgetz

    Now, what did the Dalai Lama think of the ending of "Lost"?

    May 26, 2010 at 9:34 pm |
  13. Talgrath

    The point that the author misses is the idea that ultimately all major religions have the same earthly goals; be kind to others and help those less fortunate to you. The details aside from the central goals of all religions are important to your belief in salvation, reincarnation etc.; but the beliefs of afterlife and path are less important than what we do here on Earth. Way to miss the point, Prothero, and way to try and sell your book by saying the Dalai Lama is wrong.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:32 pm |
    • charlie

      I am not sure that I accept the premise that all religions have compassion at their basis. Several branches of Christianity, for example, are quite emphatic in their refutation of the idea that 'good works' somehow buy salvation for a person. For them, it does not matter if a person is compassionate or not.
      Moreover, there are a number of religious leaders who from time to time assert that the natural disaster of the day is God's punishment for some perceived sin - for the folks who believe that way, obedience is far more important than compassion. A God who thinks that Haiti needed an earthquake to punish it for supposed Satanism more than it needed clean water for its babies is not a God who values compassion.
      Personally, I think Prothero's point is well-taken. I wish more religious leaders were like the Dalai Lama, and I think that if his holiness errs on the side of seeing compassion where there is none, that is an understandable mistake. But the fact is that too many religious leaders do not see compassion as anything beneficial. And we should remember that when having a discussion about universals in religion.

      May 26, 2010 at 11:07 pm |
  14. Prometheus

    if you need religion in order to be a decent human being, you're not a decent human being, or just a plain stupid

    May 26, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
  15. Dana

    I have to agree – trying to use the headline "Dalai Lama is wrong" is extremely obnoxious. Wow, you call BS on the Dalai Lama – what an edge you have.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:03 pm |
  16. Samantha

    I was raised as Catholic, abandoned that and am now in the process of studying Buddhism and reading the Bible (so I'm studying both). Perhaps Christianity does want compassion but if someone bases their faith on the Bible – I'm sorry, but it's a very violent text – I've read just about half of it and there is more harm than compassion in it.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
    • DeAguaDulce

      You have to understand that the Bible is both a book of Law and of Grace. The Law necessitates punishment for wrong-doing; Grace frees us from the eternal consequences of that wrong-doing. The Bible reflects humanity in all its gory violence and is not shy in showing how the Ancients behaved. It does not mean that God is less compassionate.

      May 26, 2010 at 10:46 pm |
    • David

      "I'm sorry, but it's a very violent text"

      Look at the world today. Or at any point in the last thousands of years. The Bible doesn't – and shouldn't – sugarcoat reality.

      "I've read just about half of it and there is more harm than compassion in it."

      Ah, that makes more sense. You've studied mostly the Old Testament so far. Wait until you get to the New Testament. You'll find that a lot changed thanks to Jesus.

      May 27, 2010 at 2:13 am |
  17. SM

    You appear to have read a different article, or you may not have read the Dalai Lama's editorial properly, but he didn't say most of the things you're critisizing.
    He never said religions were the same, he said we need tolerance between religions and an end to religious hatred. He describes compassion as "a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths." He adds, "And these days we need to highlight what unifies us." He's not saying compassion is only aspect of religion and he's not ignoring the differences between different faiths but he's saying we need to find common ground so we can work together to tackle global issues.
    And frankly I think many nuns, priests and missionaries who've devoted their lives to helping others, especially in the developing world might be surprised that you think compassion isn't at least a very big part of their religion. Though perhaps they, I and the Dalai Lama all have the meaning of compassion wrong, if its no more than occasionally helping old women across the street like you said.

    May 26, 2010 at 7:37 pm |
    • CT

      Perfect... Everything I would have said.

      May 26, 2010 at 10:53 pm |
  18. Don Mallen

    How can one argue with the statement of His Holiness that "My religion is compassion." If one has true compassion they're not going to be blowing away "non-believers", they will be evolving spiritually to become a being of ultimate goodness. Is there anything wrong with this? The real misconception in religion is the idea of "my way or the highway." His Holiness is not a "God" as many mistakenly believe, it's more like "god", or a state of ultimate spiritual evolvement, which in Tibetan Buddhism is the goal of us all. Some of us, including myself, are just taking longer to get there. I pray that you may achieve this post-haste, even before I do. This is the seed of compassion.

    May 26, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  19. johnny

    Mr. Prothero, You are absolutely wrong. Criticize an apostle of peace, may be embrace Bin Laden. You can make good profits out of your book. Great Professor.

    May 26, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  20. chaotician

    In point of fact, if there is such a thing as "God", it would have to be the same thing as pretty much everyone subscribe to the notion of God having such attributes as eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, complete, perfect, one without a second, etc.. What is being fought over is whether such a thing has preferences such as chosen peoples, prescribed methods of worship, whether such a thing would even notice worship, can give a part of its creation to selected peoples, whether Earthlings have some special place in the consciousness of the supreme whatever. It is pretty obvious all of these things are human centric and without any relevance to a thing like God! So, the Dalai Lama is essentially correct; although he would probably not agree with my paraphrase: All religious and "spiritual" practices are pointless beyond the benefits provided to those who do them in this life at this place at this time.

    May 26, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
    • Some'Falco

      "All religious and "spiritual" practices are pointless" sums it all up pretty well to be honest

      May 26, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
    • DeAguaDulce

      It's human-centric, because God has chosen to set His heart on our salvation. We are the apple of His eye and the focus of His attention.

      May 26, 2010 at 10:41 pm |
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