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. macjones

    The ONE path leads to ........book sales!!! Yippiiii!!!

    May 26, 2010 at 10:34 pm |
  2. nobig deal

    Last time I checked, there was no god. I suppose that might be hard to believe, especially if you have invested your entire understanding of the cosmos in historical fiction. However, I have it on good authority that there is no god. Are you all going to be OK with that?

    May 26, 2010 at 10:32 pm |
    • IaCheNeHe

      yep I'm great with it.

      May 26, 2010 at 10:35 pm |
  3. Britta

    I have decided to definitely not buy Mr. Prothero's book. What an arrogance he shows in the above mis-informed article called: *the Dalai Lama is wrong*. Who does he think he is? Sorry, but my compassion went out of the door on this one.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:31 pm |
    • Kane

      That's too early to throw away compassion. Have you heard about the throwing away the baby with the bath water?

      May 27, 2010 at 4:15 am |
  4. Paul

    "Jesus came, according to most Christian thinkers, to stamp out sin and pave the path to salvation."
    So isn't that a form of outright compassion? Boy, are you a literalist or what?

    P.S. Stephen is that your ugly face shown above? Jeeze...

    May 26, 2010 at 10:31 pm |
  5. coyote123

    There are many Buddhisms and the Tibetan branch is not the oldest. Traditional Buddhism, least changed, is Theravada. We certainly do not recognize him as the reincarnation of a Bodhisatva. Compassion is one of four complimentary and cultivated states taught by the Buddha, loving-kindness, compassion, empathy and equanimity are each aimed at a different aspect of the human mind in training. Since the teaching of the Buddha rests on virtue, concentration and wisdom....well, lets just say the Dalai Lama is a politician as well as a religious leader for the Tibetans. He never says the Buddhism does not believe in a creator god, that there is no such thing as soul..etc... Compare the qualities of the Buddha and god, a Buddha could never demand worship, kill people, be jealous, vengeful, punish, etc... God falls far short of the Buddhist idea of compassion.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:31 pm |
    • sekai

      Finally! Someone tells the truth!!!

      June 17, 2010 at 1:43 am |
  6. Out Own Truths

    The top of the mountain is different to each of us because we create our own Heaven and Hell. I can not imagine God provides one heaven for all of us so those who don't like Barry Manilow, or in my heaven, Galactic, hate it. Just as Hell is our own faults cast against us.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:29 pm |
  7. squarf

    Many try (or claim) to live according to assorted mythologies, some more absurd than others, refusing to acknowledge that a metaphor is not a reality; but every one dies as a Buddhist because that is the truth of life. OM!

    May 26, 2010 at 10:28 pm |
  8. malakai

    From Merriam-Webster.com: "Terrorism" (n) The systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.


    Religion uses people's fear of the unknown to manipulate them into obedience for the purpose of proselytizing and expanding the number of adherents. That is terrorism; using fear to evoke a response that advances a political or religious agenda.

    Organized religion is a concerted group effort to control people for political purposes. We don't see it as 'political' because we've always called it religion–and if I were a religious figure, I'd make certain it stayed that way–but the function is the same: control the people to help those at the top of the organization in their power struggle against competing 'faiths' of the world. Use fear, guilt and shame to make the people feel like they cannot live a happy life without the product you're offering. Then make them feel guilty if they don't donate (joyfully, no less) a percentage of their wealth to continue funding the business. Control the flow of information to the adherents so they stay ignorant, uneducated, and unaware of the ongoing farce.

    But don't think too much about it, it's bad for business...

    May 26, 2010 at 10:27 pm |
  9. Genie

    What an arrogant author. Oh yeh he knows so much more than His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who just happens to be the living EMBODIMENT of Compassion.
    HHDL has said, "My religion is kindness." Isn't that the heart of all true religions?
    Stephen you are a joke and an arrogant one at that.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:25 pm |
  10. cg

    No I don't agree at all. Religion is no answer to the worlds problems, it's the source of many of them. Arguing about similarities and differences is an endless and unfruitful exercise. A focus on compassion, not religious nonsense is what the world does need, and I applaud the Dali Lama

    May 26, 2010 at 10:25 pm |
  11. JohnNYC

    Whoa! Disagreeing with the Dailai Lama! On the PC Scorecard, that's almost as unforgivable as supporting Pope Benedict these days.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:25 pm |
  12. RealPablo

    Wow, and Islam is certain a good exemple of "compassion" and "forgiveness"

    May 26, 2010 at 10:23 pm |
  13. Woody james

    When is the last time a Buddhist showed up at your door and tried to convert you or asked you for money . Religon IS compassion. The author of this article is either misinformed , or just stupid.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:22 pm |
  14. Jack

    Sounds like a soft version of Pat Robertson... they are wrong and my way to thinking the only right way. I would not mind if it was "I have a different view and don't agree with him." Of course, this is just my opinion.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:20 pm |
  15. Ron Ruys

    Stephen, I have not heard so much rubbish from any man as I have from you today. If you studied Religeon it may have under the curriculum set my my Uncle G J Hoekendijk, so i have some family history of knowledge in this. My Uncle was only part of my family's connection to religeon. And any person remotely conneted with knowledge in this can tell you that 90% of all religeons is basic fable. and only 10% points to the message. I can disprove as ridiculous most religeons unless you look at what they are trying to sell. Like the "Oprah" principle, (people will always believe what they would like to hear, she made millions out of telling anything people liked) the majority of the Bible and some other scriptures I am aware off, tell what people want to hear to sell the message.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:20 pm |
  16. stephen S

    It's amazing that Prof. Prothero believes that "tolerance and lasting harmony must be built on reality, not fantasy."

    The last time I took a good look at religion (yesterday, it was) most religions are founded on incredible fantasy–three persons in one God, original sin, celibacy as a way of llfe, changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, excommunication and shunning for merely disagreeing, the superiority of men over women in church hierarchies.

    I wonder how many of those ideas Prof. Prothero subscribes to; my guess is, as a professor of religion at Boston College, quite a few.

    Truth seems to me to be that we ought ot be caring a lot more about loving people, caring for them, respecing their feelings, and not letting religious differences build walls that keep people apart.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:19 pm |
    • Lisa

      Bad news for your theory that Prof. Prothero is Catholic: Boston University ≠ Boston College.

      May 27, 2010 at 4:15 am |
  17. Eric

    I think what the author is trying to say is that while all religions speak to a humanist solidarity and compassion, the true core of the religions is what provides separation from others. To put it another way, the devil is in the details. The details allow for control. Control is what the abbominations we call religion are really about.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:19 pm |
  18. George

    Jesus did come to take away sin and pave the path to salvation. But why? Because of God's love and compassion. The Dalai Lama is absolutely right. Love and compassion are the foundations of Christianity (and all great religions).

    May 26, 2010 at 10:17 pm |
  19. citizen

    With your intellectual power you discern the smallest details and expound upon them, however in so doing it also seems you miss the bigger picture.

    Rationale and logic has power, but also limitations and weaknesses.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:15 pm |
  20. Stewart

    I stopped reading the article at, "In my own book..." Of course he's going to try and disagree with someone so famous, so he can generate interest in his book. This is no surprise.

    The sad part is that CNN published it as an article. Shame on you CNN, I'm getting sick of advertisements loosely veiled as stories.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:15 pm |
    • PaulR

      But you missed the point, CNN did exactly the same. So and So says the Dali Lama is Wrong has drawn all us to read the misguided attempt at gaining tenure.

      May 27, 2010 at 4:10 am |
    • Herb


      May 27, 2010 at 5:21 am |
    • kin

      Stewart is exactly right. Make an inflammatory headline, then sell your book. THIS IS NOT NEWSWORTHY! It's stuff like this that is turning CNN into garbage.

      May 27, 2010 at 5:24 am |
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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.