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. Mark

    Actually the Buddha's purpose WAS to teach us not to kill our brothers because he taught that you cannot reach Nirvana without first abstaining from harming other life.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:14 pm |
    • Dr DM, MD

      This is a cheap attempt by a nobody to plug a book and stir up controversy. Kind of pathetic.

      May 27, 2010 at 5:59 am |
  2. -1

    "If you ask religious universalists what lies at the top of the mountain, the answers they will give you are not one but many."

    The difference between what You Know, and what you know about.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:13 pm |
  3. davec

    Note to the Dali Lama: Wear sandals and not running shoes.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:12 pm |
  4. Bill

    Did I mention that there is no god/God/Allah and that you better learn how to live with each other here and now because contrary to what your religion tells you, you don't get another chance. BE KIND HERE AND NOW.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:11 pm |
    • PaulR

      Wow, when you close your eyes for the last time, you had better be absolutely positive about your beliefs or lack there of, eternity is a very very very very long time.

      May 27, 2010 at 4:08 am |
  5. Tray Shelley

    Here's the deal:

    Acts 17:29-31 (Amplified Bible)
    29Since then we are God's offspring, we ought not to suppose that Deity (the Godhead) is like gold or silver or stone, [of the nature of] a representation by human art and imagination, or anything constructed or invented.

    30Such [former] ages of ignorance God, it is true, ignored and allowed to pass unnoticed; but now He charges all people everywhere to repent ([a]to change their minds for the better and heartily to amend their ways, with abhorrence of their past sins),

    31Because He has fixed a day when He will judge the world righteously (justly) by a Man Whom He has destined and appointed for that task, and He has made this credible and given conviction and assurance and evidence to everyone by raising Him from the dead.(A)

    Someone else mentioned it .. Jesus is the only way to GOD. That's because there is no other God. Bhudda is not real, Allah is not real and you can go on and on. Yahweh is the only true God. Our previous POTUS said we all worship the same God, we just give him different names .. GWB could not have been more wrong. There is one God. Yahweh is God alone!

    May 26, 2010 at 10:11 pm |
  6. bob minnery

    Please give this man the respect he deserves-none.This schtick is marketing 101.
    Write against the grain to be noticed.
    An argument against religion in general would have merit but this is nonsense a vain attempt to be noticed.
    15 minutes and counting......

    May 26, 2010 at 10:09 pm |
  7. benjamin K

    Writer, your assumptions are wrong.

    Because different people have difference perceptions of what is on top of the mountain proves that our species has yet to fully grasp the basic and most ultimate goal as man: compassion

    Jesus (like Gandhi, Buddha, even Lennon) DID come to teach compassion. He DID come here to teach us to help old ladies cross the street. You assume that all cultures in all times understand true (lasting) concept of compassion. If you recall, Jesus effectively stopped the stoning of an adulteress who was convicted and sentenced to death by stoning. Even our enlightened society justifies war and capital punishment.

    If our species is cognizant of religions goal (compassion) when is the last time you (or anybody else) helped an old lady cross the street or perhaps even visited a prisoner? Is it that hard to imagine that our world still fails in Compassion 101? If we are to move forward as a spiritual species, lets get the basic stuff done first. Love your neighbors as yourselves.

    Everything else in religion is just details that we should allow the eternal thou to sort out.
    Unless you're Muslim.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:08 pm |
    • Alex

      Certainly Jesus taught compassion, but he did not come first and foremost for that reason. Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind". And "Love your neighbor as yourself". He also said "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to God, but through me." Through him we find God, by him we learn love.

      May 27, 2010 at 4:23 am |
      • T.E

        Jesus said compassion is key and everything else falls in place –
        On the last day, Jesus will say to those on His right hand, "Come, enter the Kingdom. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was sick and you visited me." Then Jesus will turn to those on His left hand and say, "Depart from me because I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not give me to drink, I was sick and you did not visit me." These will ask Him, "When did we see You hungry, or thirsty or sick and did not come to Your help?" And Jesus will answer them, "Whatever you neglected to do unto one of these least of these, you neglected to do unto Me!"

        May 27, 2010 at 10:04 am |
  8. DQ

    The Buddha wasn't Buddhist
    Jesus wasn't a Christian

    May 26, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
    • Jix

      Mankind with all its intrinsic flaws will always try to accomodate itself and its flawed, limited interpretations / undestanding of the world. Perhaps the core of what all these prophets, sages and teaches expounded could have been based on compassion. It maybe just us humans who have completely lost the plot.

      May 27, 2010 at 4:55 am |
  9. jerry

    Get rid of all religions , we do not need them to be compassionate , or kind and loving. Religion corrupts , of that there is no doubt. Please grow up and stop using an unknown to explain people being human.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
    • Justanotherbuddha

      Jim, it's sad that you lump "all religions" into the "end them all" category. Buddhism isn't responsible for the deaths of billions of people, whereas the Abrahimic religions cannot claim the same. Buddhism isn't a religion as much as it is a philosophy for there are no commandments, there is no "God", and all Buddhist principles are based on reason. Buddhism is open to criticism, even from the One Well Gone himself, who invited alternative discourse as well as absolute rejection of his teachings. Lumping Buddhism in with the "world's great religions" is like lumping chimpanzees in with children...technically, there's some basis for it (as we share so much DNA), but ultimately it's easy to see that they don't belong together.

      May 27, 2010 at 5:24 am |
  10. Andacar

    OK, so finding commonality between religions is wrong... why exactly? And how does trying to do that ignore the major differences between them? I'm not even sure what you are complaining about.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:02 pm |
    • Alex

      Andacar, he doesn't seem to be saying there is anything wrong with finding commonality between religion. I do think he is saying it is silly to claim all religions are different paths to the same conclusion. That is a common belief hel in our day, but a belief of someone who has not looked into the teachings of different religions. 2 + 2 = 4. But 3 + 2 does not equal 4, nor does 1 + 2. In the same way, all religions do not end at the top of the same mountain.

      May 27, 2010 at 4:07 am |
      • Mark

        Dont look at the peak as the destination. your going to see the view not the peak... 360 degrees. i liked your math true false statements. so here is some physics for you. There is a general focus in all religions. But just like light through a magnifying glass once the u reach the focal point there is an endless expanse in all directions after which the light will never cross again... thus the 360 view. there are endless ways u can look but every one will be different.

        May 27, 2010 at 9:31 am |
  11. makromikro

    I read both articles – this one and the Lama's. All I can say is "what a waste of perfectly good electrons"...

    May 26, 2010 at 10:01 pm |
  12. Jeremy Foster

    It is ok if you feel the Dalai Lama is wrong, but I must say it is clear you do not understand his message. All religions have an agenda this is true, but the core values of most major world religions are exactly the same. The Dalai Lama does not try to promote a universal religious link, but he does try to promote the fact that all religions have a common duty to help the world, and not to harm it. I would also like to point out that the path to Nirvana is paved with compassion. Buddha teaches us that compassion for all sentient beings is the way to Nirvana. I wish the author all the happiness in the world, but I feel he should check his facts before presenting a very opinionated article.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:57 pm |
  13. Seth

    I would consider reading Stephen's book, but this little article seems to reveal a profound missing of the point, and it's too painful to read someone's explanation of why a point they missed is wrong.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:57 pm |
    • Keza

      Seth, what you are saying is very true. Stephen should try to understand the meaning of Compassion.

      May 27, 2010 at 5:47 am |
  14. martin

    What a shamefull way to promote a book !
    And anyway is the Dalai Lama right.
    You missed the point totally

    May 26, 2010 at 9:57 pm |
  15. Jim Bob

    Mr.Prothero is confusing religion with spirituality. Metaphorically, the finger points to the moon. But you don't mistake the finger for the moon. Religion has ethnic differences but the Spirit is one. And the Spirit is compassion. God is Love, and everything else is incidental.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:56 pm |
  16. Rellgions were merely to teach only how to have faith..

    ...such as that the sky would not fall or that there would be another day tomorrow. Religions use simple stories. You have to imagine how scarey it was in the original founding days...when people needed to have beliefs to help them just make it through each wild day. With faith, we can be free to do more than just worry about survival.

    However, religion has also fallen into the hands of those who use the false gods before "God"- i.e., fear, doubt and worry – and created myths that today are more like fallen legends.

    They include things like Karma, punishment, etc...which are again worldly human legends , and have nothing to do with faith. Or teaching faith.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:56 pm |
  17. suteki

    I think I get what you are saying. I was prepared to disagree but you seem to be saying it is just too simplistic to say all religions are at heart the same without taking any time to try to look and and understand the differences. Yes, differences certainly exist. I do think cross-cultural understanding is important and part of that is understanding various religious beliefs.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:56 pm |
  18. Evan

    I wonder if Mr. Prothero will re-read what he wrote in the future after some time has passed and think, "Man was I confused!"

    Enough people on this thread have already pointed out your misunderstanding of what the Dalai Lama was trying to communicate, it reminds me of a heated passionate writings of a teenager.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
  19. Jenny

    Here is the point of this blog: "As I argue in my new book, "God is Not One:"...he's trying to get publicity to sell books, kids. He has also misrepresented. 1. The Dalai Lama does not ask for bowing and scraping, as he describes himself as a simple monk. 2. "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." He has NEVER said only his religion is true for everyone. If he does, I'd like to see where.
    Prothero is trying to sell his book by being controversial. Sad..
    Once more,

    May 26, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
  20. Brad

    Put away religion and just have compassion. Why must you have the one in order to have the other?

    May 26, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
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