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. sanjosemom

    Great argument and brilliantly illustrated in your comments. It's so true and yet so many people wont get it.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:21 am |
    • Laura

      Obviously you missed it too

      May 27, 2010 at 10:53 am |
    • Laura

      You don't get it, do you?

      May 27, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  2. Jennifer

    Lame argument. Lame analysis. Lame excuse for an article that is clearly a book advert. I feel like I was reading a piece in which the author was trying to sound intellectual and profoundly insightful, yet he came across as anything but.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:18 am |
    • Jennifer

      Jennifer, I totally agree with you! Plus your name is Jennifer too.....makes it even better!

      May 27, 2010 at 8:26 am |

    Stephen certainly has the right to disagree.
    However he has an obligation to look past the theocentric BS he expouses for a deeper truth.
    Judging from the length of his sideburns his paranoid glair and know-it-all smile he is just another
    jerk with a degree in religion.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:18 am |
  4. Will G

    Some aspects of religion are man-made, in the sense that men have determined "correct" beliefs and forms of worship, observance, etc., and within each major religion, there are sects or denominations that differ in their focus. So, the author is correct that not all religions are the same or even place compassion at the center. But I think what the Dalai Lama is talking about is that the essence, the purest fruit of living a full and faithful life, and the part that every one of the founders of a major religion agree is of primary importance, is love and compassion of others. God may be trying to place compassion at the top of the list, but it can be the believers and the "authorities" in each of the world's religions that place it somewhere else. When love is no longer at the center of a religious life, and other things become a priority, we set the stage for religious and human conflict.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:17 am |
  5. Peter

    Whoa, whoa, Stephen. Slow down, dude. Relax. Listen carefully, let your mind be silent for a moment and you'll hear something very real. Listen for it. Shhhhhhhhh.....

    May 27, 2010 at 12:17 am |
  6. gary davies

    rather insipid article....which, rather than demonstrating the authors argument, begs the question.........has he read huston smith? or huxley.....? if so, it was with very little comprehension........what, i ask with tears in my eyes is the essence of law according to Jesus? is this any different to the opinion of Hillel ? or the opinion of the Buddha to do no harm?

    May 27, 2010 at 12:16 am |
  7. Finnoula

    Your not getting the Dalai Lama's message, dumbo. Please contemplate a little bit more.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:15 am |
  8. Natasha

    Wow, you have got the wrong idea of what the Dalai Llama meant. You are thinking way way way too small-picture and literally.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:14 am |
    • namsaray

      I agree. His Holiness is saying that all roads lead to this vast country called compassion, and you narrowly argue about the top of some mountain there. Here's another quote from the Dalai Lama: "all religions are striving to produce a better heart, a kinder heart".

      May 27, 2010 at 9:05 am |
  9. sanjosemom

    Greg Demmons – you rock and said it so beautifully – thank you.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:13 am |
  10. Jerry

    What same mistakes???Every human being is DIFFERENT in terms of character ,intelligence etc.Everyone learns at a different paste

    May 27, 2010 at 12:12 am |
  11. Ananda Neko

    Wrong and right is a dichotomy which compassion transcends.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:11 am |
  12. Dendo

    I think, Prothero didnot get the concept of religion. The purpose of religion is to bring peace in mind. Now tell me which religion donot serve this purpose. All religion serve the same purpose. Only some bad people misuse the religion and bring chaos in community.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:11 am |
  13. Tom

    Wrong view. Wrong thoughts. Will lead to negative karma. You'll have to come back again and again and again. Are you not tired of repeating the same mistakes over and over again and again. Time to become awaken. You can do it. Don't give up yet.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:09 am |
  14. Jerry

    Compassion???What about ppl who are not able to feel any compassion due to their mental state and not because of their own fault.
    Many serial killers are prime example here .Human mind is very very complex

    May 27, 2010 at 12:04 am |
  15. Tim

    The author is the one who is naive and his argument sounds illogical.
    Since the Universal God (which is the 'Self' of everything that exists) is the same then all religions must have some common ground.
    If the author had done even 0.0000001% of of meditation Dalai Lama has done over his life, his opinions would have been more profound than childish.

    May 26, 2010 at 11:55 pm |
  16. blair

    What a strange article! Bizarre in fact. Almost cannot understand what the man is really saying. A bunch of academic hyperbole intended to gain attention for his book. Brings to mind the old adage: "He who knows doesn't talk and he who talks doesn't know."

    May 26, 2010 at 11:54 pm |
    • M Kumar

      Perhaps the most articulate response to this article !

      May 27, 2010 at 12:43 am |
    • M Kumar

      It is such huge waste of time to argue "for" or "against" what he has written ..

      May 27, 2010 at 12:44 am |
    • Tara

      Actually, what i enjoyed reading the most is not the articles itself but the various interesting comments posted by our fellow blogger. Kudos to you all !

      May 27, 2010 at 3:37 am |
    • Calinfidel

      Tara nailed it; only reason for reading this "editorial" (basically a book commercial) is seeing the responses it provokes. Much more to be learned by observing all these perspectives.

      May 27, 2010 at 8:24 am |
  17. Vane

    Please, we're forgetting Capitalism, the world's most inclusive religion. No hell, no shame, no compassion and paradise on Earth for the most powerful, creative and ruthless.

    May 26, 2010 at 11:53 pm |
  18. bala

    ..well this is the danger of blogs....anyone can just post their opinions and feelings without giving a second thought to it.
    As many pointed out this could be self promotion....but who are we to judge...just like Mr Prothero is juding the Dalai Lama..
    But the good thing is there are so many level headed people around to diffuse such one-sided opinions... shouldn't the administrator be the one not allowing such single-minded opinions be published in the first place?????
    Instead of debates....just contemplate on Him and you will get the answers....One can never reach Him just being intellect..
    You need to connect and how else can one do it if he doesn't have Compassion in himself....
    One has to go beyond religion to understand and know Him.....religion is just the 1st step like kindergarten to a kid...
    God Bless.....

    May 26, 2010 at 11:49 pm |
  19. Ken

    All I could think of as I started reading this bit was "who asked this guy?" A bit later, however, I saw that it was really just an advertisement for the author's new book. Not a very good advertisement, however. As Prothero displays little understanding of religion here, I see no particular reason to buy his book. Why is this, and a front page link to it, even on cnn.com?

    May 26, 2010 at 11:48 pm |
  20. Paul

    Religions have at their core how I can become worthy of God. In Christianity we realize that there is no way to become worthy of God, that he would have to reach out to mankind. I've never heard anyone say, from a 'religious' point of view, how they know they've done enough to be 'worthy' of God's love. Christ's sacrifice on the cross, dying for all sins, lets anyone who asks for His forgiveness, can have it- including the thief on the cross. No time for a baptism or anything else yet Christ tells him that he will be with Him in Heaven....because of his faith in Christ- the same Christ that rose from the dead three days later. Christianity isn't a religion, though many have tried to make it one by putting conditions on salvation but is by faith. IF we accept that relationship, yes, we'll act like it and we'll want to please God but that's NOT salvation.
    Even those that want to act like any 'religion' will do must realize that there are conflicts between them that make incompatible.

    May 26, 2010 at 11:47 pm |
    • Jim

      If religions had at their cores the question "how I can become worthy of God" the "reward" would be the awareness that you ARE worthy of god. What they DO promise is one form or another of eternal life in paradise. Try starting a religion in which the reward for being worthy of god's love is a quiet, peaceful death KNOWING that you are worthy and see how many adherents you gather.

      May 27, 2010 at 6:52 am |
      • J.C.

        That's interesting Jim but I believe it misses the point. You can move away from the point to make your own point but that ability seems to me is not what's at stake. JESUS says: be born again, shed the old, become a new self, believe in me and you will be with me in Heaven. The belief here is that, the soul, is eternal, it belongs to GOD, came from GOD, will go back to GOD. GOD gave us free will to believe or not to believe. In believing I spend a greater amount of my time looking for GOD's face. You chose your point.

        May 27, 2010 at 9:31 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.