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. Joe

    Essentially, as long as religion exists there will always be strife. Everyone insists that their religion is the correct one and there is very little or no tolerance for any other. It would take some earth-shattering, cataclysmic event for the entire world to come together as one.

    The belief that to "do unto others..." is flawed because so many people in this world will try to take something from you at some point; be it your money, your peace of mind or even your life, so I choose not to follow that philosophy. I treat people fairly and with compassion, giving them the benefit of the doubt until the prove otherwise. I consider this very reasonable and all of it without the moral superiority that religion requires.

    May 30, 2010 at 10:03 am |
  2. Bob

    So basically, you are just shilling for your book?

    May 30, 2010 at 8:22 am |
  3. vp

    I'm a little amazed that he can make a living writing stuff like this.

    His candle went out.

    May 30, 2010 at 8:16 am |
  4. Richard F Weaver

    For all the enlightening answers read my book "We are our ancestors"and the understanding I hope will follow.

    May 30, 2010 at 6:05 am |
  5. dan

    obviously this guy hates compassion

    May 30, 2010 at 5:18 am |
  6. Ed

    I live my life according to one rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
    Basically that means showing love, respect, and compassion to others.
    If there is a heaven or afterlife, and that is not sufficient to gain entry into an it, then so be it.

    May 29, 2010 at 10:48 pm |
  7. Trash

    So, so, so, lame.

    May 29, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
  8. John Holroyd

    The blatant commercialism and contrarian positions you take up to promote your book are disappointing and intellectually dishonest. I, for one, will not be reading your book.

    May 29, 2010 at 8:54 pm |
  9. elo

    This guy is just trying to sell his book; good try – Im still not going to buy it, and no one is going to remember your name Mr. Insignificant Author. May god, bhudda or whoever save your soul. Please do something worthwhile for humanity.

    May 29, 2010 at 6:39 pm |
  10. Bennett Hiew

    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.

    Stephen Prothero has his opinion & View.
    His research is purely Mundane[worldly].
    Moreover he may not truly understand worldly and tanscendental teaching.
    We connot trust our ordinary Mind if you have not purify your six senses and renounce worldly attachment.
    Buddhism teaching focus on things inside you, your thought, false thought, false view, temper, greed, stupidity and so on.
    Initially the Buddha teaches you. If you have Mastery of yourself, you don't need the Buddha but always respectful of someone who taught the way, the Buddha.
    Compassion has no Love. Compassion is basically a very profound concern from selfless point and a sacrifice through the VOW power made by Great Enlightened Beings. We can have small compassion then later we have wisdom then we can make VOW for Great Compassion.

    Religions focus on things outside us most of the time, rely on someone for salvation. Love is the main focus. Love is A kind of Attachment and painfulll expression. if lose what you love it is really hurting.

    Buddhism is not a RELIGION but for the sake of RELIGION it is Accepted as one by the Learned Buddhist [MONKS].
    Buddhism is a Teaching of the MIND in relation to this World and there after, transcendental, spiritual world.
    Without Genuine Wisdom there will not be Compassion, perhaps we use Empathy or Sympathy and mistaken for compassion.

    When a Scholar writes a book, the purpose is to make MONEY and influencing people on Subject that Mislead everybody.

    For Sure, 1000% Dalai Lama knows God is Not one.
    The Scholar would not know eventually everything will return to the one.
    Many also return to the one.
    When everybody in the WORLD have the Same compassion, All will return to the ONE.
    We are always Quarrel and fight, becouse we are not one MIND IN COMPASSION.
    We have a Mind of Discrimation and fighting at different degrees.

    All Gods will return to ONE. Now how many god are there, if all return to same MIND OF COMPASSION.

    WE say there are Many. Many is our Worldly Expression including the Samsara – The Sixth REALMS Cyclical PATH.

    Hope that 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 read this message.

    Buddhism is a religion for the sake of religion.


    May 29, 2010 at 6:24 pm |
  11. Aaron Ross

    I find it interesting that many of those posting opposing viewpoints to the author are themselves are themselves declaring one Truth over a generalized truth. Since the teaching of the religions are often contradictory, they can't all be correct. An exception is of course the teaching of compassion which all great religions do. However, by stating you "accept" all religions as true, you are really saying that you reject most of what every religion is teaching. So a belief in "all religions" is acutally a new religion that by its own inconsitency has to be false.

    May 28, 2010 at 11:10 pm |
  12. Lemnibus

    Thanks, OpKode: religion is actually a crime against humanity, causing all of us to hate each other instead of recognizing that we're all here on this one single Earth together. The Dalai Lama's article missed the fact that religion is intrinsically exclusivist. That's how it was designed - specifically to separate us and keep us from coming together as a powerful race of sentient beings. This article celebrates that exclusivity and even defends it as something of a virtue. Religion at its core is a disease of hate; nothing more. It's high time we outgrew it in all its forms ( including atheism). God isn't religious. God is source.

    May 28, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
  13. Minh Tran

    Mr. Stephen does not understand one thing about Buddhism that is the search for the truth self in every one of us. Once that person can see that truth nature, he/she can see every one the same. The real compassion comes from the actual seeing of every one having the same nature as Buddha. Mr. Stephen is looking for the help from outside and from the objects outside of him, but Buddha and his followers always turns every one back to his/her own self to find the final goal. No one can help Mr. Stephen if he can not understand who is really Mr. Stephen, and Mr. Stephen never understand compassion if he does not know exactly who is the real Mr. Stephen. The question is how? that require more study and practice and practice but not talking or analyzing.

    May 28, 2010 at 9:40 pm |
  14. Rita

    So glad I'm an atheist. And no one needs to pray for me, in case you think that might make a difference. It will not! Grew up in religion, but I realized it is all a crock. Just a crutch for those who can't do without it. Well, I can. I am happy, prosperous, and kind.

    May 28, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
  15. OpKode

    Actually they both miss the point. All religions are actually the root of all evil. You can't have one without the other. I vote for having neither.

    May 28, 2010 at 8:41 pm |
  16. Tracybird

    Why am I left feeling that this is a back handed complement of the Dalai Lama at best and a thinly veiled my (Christian) religion is too so better than yours rant. It makes me sad, when I see howfar we still have to come to be truly tolerant of each other's beleifs.

    May 28, 2010 at 7:08 pm |
  17. Milte

    The same God is at the top of the mountain. The different "paths" are defined by the dogmas of the different religions. Some paths may lead to the true God-the definition of which is left to our best guess-others may not. Our "best guess" portrays a God who has built this reality on harmony and equilibrium. This we see in all dimensions of our science. If a religion focuses on harmony and equilibrium, then one can only assume that that pathway approaches God as best we can.

    May 28, 2010 at 6:49 pm |
  18. Karen

    I heard the Dalai Lama speak earlier this month at the University of Northern Iowa, and he addressed exactly this problem, of the common ground of religions and yet their undeniable multiplicity. As I understood him, he would have agreed exactly with Mr. Prothero. He stressed that all religions have the capacity to teach compassion. But someone asked him outright if he believed all religion was the same at heart, and he answered: "No." They are very different, he stressed, and you would not be able to make them agree on even the most basic of beliefs. About God, for example. He noted that Islam has one God, Allah, while Christians have a triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even about God, he said, the world religions do not agree.

    May 28, 2010 at 6:35 pm |
  19. Momentis

    Stephen– I have read two of your books (Religious Literacy and American Jesus), in addition to countless other works by theologians current and past. I read and study the Bible (being a Christian myself). While I value your voice and generally enjoy your work, I must respectfully disagree with you. My primary objection is to your assertion that Jesus came, "to stamp out sin and pave the path to salvation." Even if this is the common belief, I do not believe it to be the true meaning behind Jesus or his mission. Jesus taught compassion at nearly every point in his short ministry. There are more examples of Jesus' compassion in the Gospels (in has actions and teachings) than you will find about sin. And I stick primarily here to the Synoptics, as John is wildly different and certainly a different type of literature. Jesus WAS compassion, embodied and presented to us all. As for other world religions – I'll have to stick to more intelligent minds!!!

    May 28, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
  20. Bubba

    I don't have a book to promote, but most major religions agree that God likes good people better than evil ones, and so a good first step to approaching God is to be a better person. Good works might not be enough, but they are better than crimes. Hmmm. Maybe I should be writing a book.

    Tong, turn off the CAPS LOCK. I told you twenty times.

    May 28, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23
About this blog

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.