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. da otter

    This article is simply amazing! in 723 words (well chosen or othewise), the author has inspired hundreds and hundreds of comments by people judging those words as worthy or not.

    The thing i find hilarious is the fact that, regardless of the validity of literary self-indulgence, so many people have found it necessary to sit up, pay attention to, and comment on this guy's work.

    Seems to me that he's pretty successful at getting his "Look at me!" act to work for him.

    At least he's gotten some people to think. And he's gotten some people to write. And, in a few rare instances, he's gotten some people to do both at the same time!

    May 28, 2010 at 4:12 pm |
  2. Stacie

    I heard the Dalai Lama speak two weeks ago. When asked if he thought all religions were basically the same he emphatically answered No! He noted there are common elements, such as a call for compassion, but he went to great lengths to note the differences of all religions and that those differences can positively and negatively affect the world. As Ed noted the Dalai Lama's quote is: "When we contemplate the diversity of spiritual traditions on this planet we can understand that each addresses the specific needs of different human beings, because there is so much diversity in human mentality and spiritual inclination. Yet, fundamentally, all spiritual traditions perform the same function, which is to help us tame our mental state, overcome our negativities and perfect our inner potential."

    May 28, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  3. Antony

    Compassion, huh? (puts on flame resistent suit)
    Hmmm, the Dalai Lama does talk a good game but I wonder where his compassion for the Tibetan people was when he was living in a 1,000 room palace in a feudal society with both serfs and slaves prior to the Chinese take over in the 1950's?
    In pre-China Tibet, torture and mutilation including eye gouging, the pulling out of tongues, hamstringing, and amputation
    were favored punishments inflicted upon thieves, and runaway or resistant serfs.
    Wow, that is some compassion there....slavery and serfdom in the 1950's makes me sick to my stomach.
    The twelfth Samding, Dorje Pakmo, considered to be Tibet's "only female living Buddha," the highest female incarnation in Tibet and the third-highest ranking person in the Lamaist hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama was quoted as saying "Old Tibet was dark and cruel, the serfs lived worse than horses and cattle."
    Feel free to google what the 13th DL did to their army chief Lungshar after he tried to modernize their army to better fend off the Chinese (yes Tibet had an army)....I will save you some time if you want, he had his eyes gouged out. That's from Melvyn Goldstein's book, A History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989- page 819)
    (this should not be taken as being pro chinese btw, Mao was a mass murderer on the scale of Hitler and Stalin but if given the choice between a feudal serf and slave society or a modern communist country i know what i would pick)
    And you can't say you can't blame the 14th Dalai Lama for the actions of the 13th since he is suppose to be the reincarnation of the 13th, unless it's all BS...?
    Also after seeing a picture of him wearing a Patek Philippe watch which costs more than 24,000 Euros i wonder if Mother Tersea or Ghandi would be caught dead wearing one of those..? (btw, I have no horse in this race as a athiest, I just feel he talks the talk but does not walk the walk)

    May 28, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  4. Sean

    Most religions teach, at their very core, compassion and caring for others as a way to achieve the ultimate goal. If I remember correctly, it states in the Christian Bible that I am my brothers keeper. One of the very tenets of the Christian faith is do unto others as you would have done unto you. The Koran states "A Muslim who meets with others and shares their burdens is better than one who lives a life of seclusion and contemplation." That sounds an awful lot like compassion for others to me. And who are you to say that the religions of the world aren't paths up the same mountain? Who's to say that the Great Spirit of the Native Americans isn't the same God we worship? Talk about the arrogance of ignorance...

    May 28, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
  5. dnsmith

    Greg Demmons, "he does not understand that some religions, such as Christianity, do not accept other religions and will not."

    You are so wrong! The world's most populous Christian religion has taught for many years that the "truths" of all religions should be accepted.

    May 28, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  6. Ruben Fowler

    I agree that if you look at the various religion's core texts and the teachings of their founders, they have significant differences. But religions evolve and their followers are free to evolve them in any direction they wish. If followers of the major religions choose to look for common ground and to overlook what early texts–many often essentially mythology–we'll all be better off for it.

    May 28, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
  7. Emmitt Langley

    I'm in agreement with you. To say that the world's religions are essentially the same is like say a basketball is no different that the earth because they're both round. There are many more differences than similarities.

    Let's face it, either there is a God or there is not. If there is, what's he like? Is he even a he? But the idea that we're somehow more enlightened because we accept what can't possibly be true is not wise. The world's religion have many contractions, therefore they can't all be true. And as you said, their differences are VERY significant.

    May 28, 2010 at 11:51 am |
  8. Ed

    Dalai Lama : When we contemplate the diversity of spiritual traditions on this planet we can understand that each addresses the specific needs of different human beings, because there is so much diversity in human mentality and spiritual inclination. Yet, fundamentally, all spiritual traditions perform the same function, which is to help us tame our mental state, overcome our negativities and perfect our inner potential.

    May 28, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  9. fatbuddha

    The question is sort of backwards. Don't worry about false dichotomies in religious discourse, but rather ask how to determine whether one religion is equivalent to another. When you probe that the answers are really not accessible to our languages, so lame metaphor is the refuge of the child.

    May 27, 2010 at 10:01 pm |
  10. Crayon6

    Well, I think this is a very good tease for the author's book. I have read many of the Dalai Llama's books and studied philosophy and religion at a very nice Jesuit college. If all people saw compassion and greater awareness as the purpose of religion, then the world would be a better place. And religion would have have no conflict with secular humanism. That's a good goal.
    The author is presenting one very important line of thinking. He is correct IMHO to say point out the differences between religions, just as a biologist would point out the differences between various species of frogs. This sounds like an important book to me.
    At the same time the Dalai Llama has a different role in this science of advancing human understanding. He is a celebrity of religion in a sense and his audience is therefore wider. Perhaps if we continue to advance this idea of religious commonality a great deal of suffering can be relieved or prevented and greater mutual respect and tolerance can flourish.
    However the author of this article is correct in pointing to the often drastic differences between various traditions. i admire the Dalai Llama greatly, but the Buddha warned against revering anyone or any text more than one's own judgment. neither this man from Tibet nor the love of compassion are harmed by the author's thoughts, which he has shared with us.
    I find the emotional criticisms of the article..well, meaningless, perhaps is the word?

    May 27, 2010 at 9:36 pm |
  11. Tenpa

    I strangely agree with the author on this. It is niave to believe that one's own religion is better than others without having any experience in other religion or having studied other religions and it is equally niave to suggest the basis of all religion is compassion because I have seen some books that I am surprised that it even pass for tolerance and maturity.

    May 27, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
  12. shawn

    According to Wikipedia "Prothero has argued for mandatory public school Bible literacy courses (along the lines of the Bible Literacy Project's The Bible and Its Influence), along with mandatory courses on world religions. Prothero defines himself as a "confused Christian"."
    Does separation of church and state ring a bell?
    The bottom line is that religion is man made. There are no facts only beliefs. Do you pretend Christ was born on Christmas day? "Day of the sun" and that the date of Christ's resurrection changes each in accordance to the moon? I am so glad that you are expert in "faith" and you can call out a monk with your degree in superstition.

    May 27, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  13. KEM

    The author is just being argumentative. Everyone interprets religions and faith differently. You should be more concerned about your own faith and learn to let go of all of the nonsense. Then you wouldn't have to waste time writing silly articles like this.

    May 27, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  14. Jordan

    There is only one universal truth; we just don't know what it is. (Yet.) In the meantime, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, seems like a pretty decent sort. Stephen Prothero also makes important points about reality. His Holiness's views are aspirational; Mr. (or Professor?) Prothero's views are analytical. They each have a problem: instead of incorporating each others views, they exclude them (for the most part). (Of course, it is possible that His Holiness was unaware of Mr. Prothero's views.) They are both correct *in part*, but approach the matter from different directions. His Holiness's article primarily addressed the solution to the problem; Mr. Prothero spent most of his article addressing what he considers the problem to be ... and the two of them, it turns out, are very much in agreement as to what the problem is. Yes, it seems that "The Six Blind Men and the Elephant" is the present universal truth. Perhaps one day we shall all see all of the elephant (the "meta-elephant"?).

    May 27, 2010 at 1:57 pm |
  15. Melissa C

    I clicked on this article thinking it would be an interesting read, and about the only clear message I got was the shallow promotion of your own book. How do you propose the world advance in religious harmony through realism and adult experiences? By being jaded? I think the kids knew how to get along in a harmonious world the best - kindness and compassion are the root of true happiness, and as the Dalai Lama says, will bring the world together on a large scale.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  16. LouAz

    Cnn continues to delete message critical of this religious

    May 27, 2010 at 11:51 am |
  17. Hud

    I could have gotten the same "commercial" about his new book in a pop-up add on this page – instead of wasting my time reading what I thought would be something interesting...My Bad!

    May 27, 2010 at 11:37 am |
  18. Jim

    Unfortunately, I read your article and feel ashamed you are so eager to propagate a wrong message based on your bias. I WILL NEVER BUY YOUR BOOK!

    May 27, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  19. Dillon Burroughs

    Thanks for this post. I appreciate the way you point out world religions involve a high amount of variation when it comes to our belief systems rather than a perspective in which we all believe in the same god (Each religion actually has its own distinct view of deity which is part of what makes it a unique religion.).

    However, one word of caution: you mention, "Religious exclusivism is dangerous and naïve." Yet historic Christianity, which teaches Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, is not dangerous nor naive when practiced as Jesus taught. Rather, His teachings show compassion and teach love, regardless of whether others agree or disagree. A person can hold to an exclusive religious viewpoint and still not be dangerous, as perhaps thought of in the stereotypes or a radical terrorist or extremist group, and can also do so without being naive. There is a difference and it is one I would encourage you to make in future posts.

    May 27, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  20. Brian J.

    What rubbish. The ideas and the language in this article make me think that it is a mediocre undergrad paper; I can't believe this comes from a full professor at Boston University. I looked him up really quick and it looks like he might be some an expert in Christianity who has made a career by using his credentials in philosophy and religious studies to pander to the areas of academia and society in general (book-buyers) that lean Christian. He has written a lot on Benedict.

    He is missing the point; He is really sticking H.H. on a less-than-generous (or just straight-up incorrect) interpretation:
    (1) "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"
    (2) "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... blah blah blah"
    (3) Buddha came to "stamp out suffering and pave the path to nirvana." Christ came to "stamp out sin and pave the path to salvation." etc.
    (C) So this guy's point is basically that the Dalai Lama is correct in saying that compassion is central to all of the major religions BUT compassion is not an ESSENTIAL characteristic of all the major religions.

    Whoa, very impressive claim! P1 is such a simplistic understanding and doesn't explicitly put H.H. on the claim that compassion is the only essential quality of the major religions and that the prophets came with only that message in mind. P2 doesn't even deserve comment. P3 is true but far from enough to tie this argument together.

    The most absurd aspect of this argument is that he implies that he understands the essence of Buddhism (as if it is really one thing) more than H.H. himself despite the fact that he didn't even make it to Radio City. Somehow, H.H. has been immersed in the culture and study of Tibetan Buddhism since he was 2 and (according to this guy) he is biased because this modern type of Buddhism places too much of an emphasis on compassion.

    Seems like two-pronged example of egoism to me. American pomposity and academic self-importance.

    May 27, 2010 at 10:51 am |
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