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. Alexandra

    A big compassionate smile and a compassionate pat in the back for Mr.Prothero for his empty words... ^_^

    June 24, 2010 at 9:37 am |
  2. Rob Goerss

    By the way, "helping a lady across the street" is the most ignorant misunderstanding of compassion that I have seen in a long time.

    When the Dalai Lama speaks of compassion, he literally means being able to feel the suffering of other sentient beings and sympathizing with their plight as you would your own. It goes far beyond small acts of kindness and indicates an entire shift in world view. He does not mean acts of fluffy kindness, he means deep understanding of the human condition. The Buddhist concept of bodhicitta is just that: Developing lovingkindness that stems from an understanding of shared struggle and unity.

    June 21, 2010 at 4:52 am |
  3. Rob Goerss

    The Dalai Lama is advocating a global spiritual movement centered around compassion, the most common attribute not just of all religions, but of all life. How can anyone take fault with that?

    The Dalai Lama makes the point beautifully at one of his talks where he describes the mother's innate love for her child. he points out that this biological affection is the first thing we know, and that we have a natural inclination for it.

    The way of the major religions is to take this innate love and extend it to all life as true compassion, unconditional loving kindness. This is done rationally by way of the Holy Spirit, Buddhist Non-Self and Emptiness, Tao, etc. These concepts of the largest religions all underscore the Oneness of the Universe and teach us that we are but many faces of the same Power, that all we encounter is Holy, Blessed and One, that all is deserving of our love.

    Perhaps this aspect of religion is so fundamental that the author simply takes it for granted and then gets caught up in dogmatic differences. The dogma of the religions is unimportant, and perhaps today with the revelations of new physics coupled with a new generation of educated youth we are finally ready to stop fighting over myth and start uniting over Truth.

    June 21, 2010 at 4:43 am |
  4. scarecrowo

    "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."
    – Mr. Prothero seems to be as naive as the Dalai Lama if he is implying only HIS religion is true. Schmuck.

    June 16, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
  5. Jesse

    If the purpose of all religions is to find an explanation for the human condition, they could all be said to at least be on the same path.

    If on the other hand we take the author's point of view to distinguish between them, we could say that all religions have different paths; which I would agree with slightly with the caveat that they still all start with the same purpose.

    Now here's where it gets interesting: Do the different religions because of their different paths, lead to different gods? I would dispute that point with the author because I don't feel that there is an outside anything that could be different, only viewed differently.

    There is only one thing outside of us as beings, whatever it is called or however it is worshiped/acknowledged. Now the different gods that I believe he is referring to do exist, but they exist within people as they create their own inner god. So yes there are different gods for people that assume that they know a god of their own creation. But it is not the same god because it is based off of their internal god that they create/fear, which lives in their head.

    So my point is in agreement with a previous poster, that one could get tied up in an argument as to which god each religion or even individual person is referring to, however it is only a difference of their own internal god that they have created and held onto. The truth of the matter is that if we let go we may experience some of the truth, but many people have built an internal religion and will not be worshiping the same "god" as another.

    June 16, 2010 at 2:44 am |
  6. Nate DeMontigny

    Very divisive article, not becoming of someone who calls himself a religious man and or a scholar.

    It makes me wonder why CNN, a decent news source in my eyes, would allow a post so full of disrespect and distaste.

    June 15, 2010 at 10:53 pm |
  7. T Collet

    Buddha taught that suffering is caused by desire. Seems that the desire to know God causes a lot of suffering for non-believers. Maybe religion should be outlawed until religious people prove that they can behave. Let's put all churches on probation.

    June 15, 2010 at 7:51 pm |
  8. Marinus Vesseur

    I tend to agree. I don't think people came up with religion for reasons of compassion or empathy. Quite to the contrary, in fact. Fear, awe, an explanation for the unexplainable, maybe gratefulness, but also social structure, power, and control are things that come to mind. Compassion had precious little to do with it. Religion is what gave and still gives people licence to kill. Until Jesus that appeared to be the way it worked and as it turned out and despite all his empathy Christians and Muslems continued in the "old ways" for many centuries, only now in his name. Compassion and empathy and peace-seeking may be more deeply ingrained in the Hindu and Buddhist religious ways, but not enough to prevent needless wars from killing millions amongst its followers either. I'm not an atheist, but organized religion appears to have done more harm than good.

    May 31, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  9. WillF

    Shameless "plug" for his own Book!

    May 31, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  10. Prophet

    Hello Dalai! Mr. Prothero's disagreement with the Lama's stance that all religions are basically the same is right on! They are certainly not the same. If they were, we would have a combo of churches, temples, synagogues, etc. all in one place to worship and the train of thought of the combined religions would all be the same. Clearly, that is not so. The Holy Bible with the Second Commandment of God clearly informs us that "Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me." This comes from Almighty God Himself.

    The train of thought that there could be another god (with small 'g') is preposterous. One God, He in the Holy Trinity, created all, including the Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, and others and they had to answer to that ONE God at the time of their Earthly departure. As spiritual leaders, they may have had some high spiritual thoughts but we cannot discount the fact that that would hardly make them akin to a God of which there is only One.

    Therefore, Mr. Prothero is correct in this and while the Lama feels his childhood was a time when his beliefs were different, if not delusional, today he falls short in acknowledging the fact that realistically there is but One God he and others will have to answer to when the time comes to leave this world and that is God in the Holy Trinity. The Lama and others will certainly find out in due time, however. End of story.

    May 31, 2010 at 7:15 am |
  11. Sarah O

    Your article is interesting, but you've missed a crucial point. Man has sculpted religion for his own edification. And man is flawed. It was God's intent that man live with compassion. The way we've tailored religion to meet our needs rather than meet God's is what's really at issue here. Many religions, acting as God truly intended, would meet at the top of the mountain in united purpose. The fact that we've made religion decisive is our problem, not God's.

    May 31, 2010 at 6:47 am |
  12. gisher

    Frankly, while I think Stephen Prothero might have had some of the depth in the Dalai Lama's comments escape him, I also find I could not agree more with his point that "all the religions are at heart vehicles for compassion". I have a very hard time seeing widespread compassion within the flocks of almost all relgions. I see little compassion, even less forgiveness and understanding, and what little of these qualities that does manage to survive usually takes a back seat to misplaced anger.

    May 31, 2010 at 2:59 am |
  13. maria

    Thank you to everyone who has written such thoughtful pieces...much here to take in and ruminate on. Having been a Roman Catholic and a Tibetan Buddhist, I am very acquainted with Christian and the Buddhist philosophy. As I get older, I am mostly impressed with how deep, mysterious and incomprehensible, the spiritual rivers really flow, and how little I really know and understand. In my life, it has always been love and compassion, for myself and others, that has been the key that opens the door to freedom.

    May 31, 2010 at 12:46 am |
  14. Lynn

    Religion without compassion has rained, literally, holy terror on the world by making people think that they are Right and everyone else is a lesser being, someone whose death is no great loss.
    In fact, the Dalai Lama is far wiser than you imagine. Time to stop and think about the importance of compassion. Of course Christ taught compassion. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

    May 30, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
  15. Tim

    I read your insightful article with no feeling whatsoever of illumination after I had finished. I constantly laugh at myself and others who try to more fully define God and religions; by the definition of our asymmetrical relationship with God, we are much like ants at the picnic, trying to grasp humans. The Dalai Lama approaches all of our grasping with humor and humility....the sole productive attributes appropriate to this topic. You simply lack both. I'd be happy if you just grab your crumbs and scuttle off the blanket, to be honest.

    May 30, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
  16. labanese

    What I can see is that majority of the people who cannot get into the deep facts and agree or disagree are just making personal attack against the writer. He has put his views with sufficient arguments. If I use similar tactics I can challenge the guy who says Buddha acheived niravana since he is just telling what nobody has seen. In fact the only person who showed the world compassion is the person who gave love in return for hate, who taught the world to love your enemies even to the extend of death on the cross. I am sure there is no match for that

    May 30, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  17. KarlP

    All religions preach respect and compassion – so long as you are one of those brainwashed by that particular religion. Otherwise, they preach contempt and even hate. Truly compassionate religions, that is, those that place human happiness over spreading their influence and subjugating "infidels", are weeded out by memetic evolution.

    May 30, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  18. Unbiased

    I do agree with the author that not all religions are same and not all religions teach compassion. The main reason is that there is at least one religion known to majority of us which talks about tolerance but is the most intolerating and intolerable. It gets offended by other peoples acts, talks, beliefs, cartoons etc. So that is the proof that Dalai Lama is wrong.

    May 30, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • jack

      Totally agree

      May 30, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  19. Chris M

    Religions don't teach "compassion"! They teach CONTROL!

    May 30, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  20. John

    Sorry, Stephen. Dalai Lama – 1 Stephen Prothero – 0

    The Dalai Lama is right in finding the commonality of religions. When you dwell on the differences (even in "celebrating" the differences) you perpetuate the myth that one religion is more correct than another. To the believers, they are right and others are wrong.

    It is just an aspect of the human condition that we cannot know the unknowable. So we guess. We all try the best we can. It serves no purpose to disagree over something that can never be proven. It creates division, mistrust, and ultimately hatred. We need to give the beliefs of others as much credit as we give our own.

    May 30, 2010 at 10:15 am |
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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.