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. mike angels


    You take far too many words to miss the point altogether.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:04 am |
  2. kyuwonee

    Jesus did not teach; "compassion" is to salvation. Although He did say 7Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy, compassion comes AFTER 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

    Righteousness, is Jesus and whoever believes in him, shall be called the righteous. Only righteous gets into heaven, and Jesus is the only way.

    According to bible.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:01 am |
    • Gracie

      Thank you for the Christian perspective. Rather than being from the dark ages, Christians understand that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. God does not change, He is perfect and holy already. Those who think we need to progress or change our way of thinking merely show that they do not understand that God doesn't change. Only people change. There is only one true God and He has not been reincarnated or changed or molded to suit what you think makes sense.

      May 27, 2010 at 9:12 am |
  3. Skeletor

    Let us all hope and pray that someday all peoples of the world will come together under the mutual understanding that religion is fundamentally ridiculuous.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:59 am |
    • kyuwonee

      who will u pray to? Dude, you may pray at the dinner time, saying Lord or whoever, you are not praying to God. You are just murmuring. that's what you are doing. i'm sorry man.

      May 27, 2010 at 1:02 am |
  4. gleslie

    This guy is a scholar? Too many books, not enough of that personal impulse that informs us that surpasses "religion" and dogma. Religious preference is a product of education, cultural and societal preferences. Faith is what the Dalai Lama and all great spiritual guides speak of and point to. You hear the messenger you can most identify with, but in the end they are all saying exactly the same thing. Religious dogma is merely ego disrupting the impulse to be whole and a part of the whole. I "prefer" the Dalai Lama, all else is incidental to truth. Seriously, this is not a very interesting discourse because the writer is plagued by his own limitations, and frankly, appears eager to dismiss what he doesn't fathom yet.

    However, I would very much like to know what the Dalai Lama thought of the finale of "Lost."

    May 27, 2010 at 12:56 am |
    • kyuwonee

      In the end, they do NOT say samething. They say similar thing before the end, but at the end, it is different. At least Christianity is. It declares only Jesus is the way. Only HIS name was given to us for salvation. no other name.

      May 27, 2010 at 1:04 am |
  5. boom

    What is so sad is that Prothero's book will probably sell like a supermarket tabloid ... Wouldn't it be great if we could send all profits to supporting the Dalai Lama's work?

    May 27, 2010 at 12:51 am |
  6. ghost geezer

    I could be wrong, but I suspect that the Dalai Lama is thinking at a higher level than one that underscores
    naivete alleged by this writer. Huston Smith annoys me with his own facile glosses, and if he impresses
    here, I am less impressed.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:48 am |
  7. MaDw0rLd

    I agree! I happen to think the Dalai Lama is correct in saying that all the major religions have compassion as one of their leading tenets. As far as I know, they do. So, I don't know where the author of the article says they don't because he does not name an example.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:44 am |
  8. Harold

    It all depends, compassion and many other things; compassion to see loopholes in logic, for instance; or as a step in a progression; or a definitional exercise in what compassion means; or maybe the Dalai Lama is getting his Andy Warhol fifteen minutes

    May 27, 2010 at 12:39 am |
  9. Guy Montag

    "you make a good point, but missing a little info on how the universe supports us and does manifest into reality our true needs but only when we use one of the universal laws, the law of allowance."

    This is easily explained by The Theory of Evolution. If you get curious, read up on it sometime.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:36 am |
  10. Phira

    I actually agree with this article. I respect the Dalai Lama very much, but as an agnostic Jew, I'm not sure what will possibly come out of trying to unite various religions, especially since there are many of us who do not believe in any god or afterlife. I think the author's point is this: that many religions have an end point, something to be achieved, and that something is not necessarily goodwill towards everyone. That's the whole thing with the "mountain" metaphor. For a lot of people of faith, helping the elderly is a means to an end, a way to reach the top of the mountain, where you will find peace and happiness. And there are PLENTY of people who are trying to reach that place, but their means are not compassionate or accepting. After all, how many times have I been ambushed on the street by someone claiming to want to help me? How many times has someone expressed sorrow that I won't be saved? How many times has my personal autonomy been ignored through laws and regulations based on someone else's faith? The problem here is that there's no way to unite all of the world's people of faith to have MEANS of compassion. Even if you can get them to agree that there are multiple paths (and good luck with that), it's obvious that people are going to engage in practices not consistent with the actual path they're supposedly on.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:34 am |
  11. Joe

    This article reads like a lawyers words. A basic attempt at impeachment of the Dali Lama. Although I agree that there is much difference in religions, and also agree that the belief that we are all praying up the same tree, is in and of itself its own belief and not a given/intrinsic component to all religions – I do feel that the most productive aspects of religion in terms of constructively dealing with each other are those of inclusion, not exclusion, unity, not divisiveness. Yet time after time, people need that narcissistic buzz from ego identification with the "right religion" and must attack those who promote a stance that we are all in this together. taking jabs at the dali lama in ways that don't really pack a punch tend to only impeach the author of the article.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:33 am |
  12. Sreekanth

    I believe you do not have enough experience to comment on the preachings of dalai lama. Pursuing something academically and writing and speaking about stuff you just know and do not understand is super naive. If you would have at least practiced more than a few and write about them, then may be I would give some credibility to your jabber on cnn. I simply fail to understand how CNN published an article as dumb as yours. Good luck with your dumbness – moron

    May 27, 2010 at 12:31 am |
  13. Luke

    This is a shameless attempt to sell more books. Prothero is paid to be an intellectual and most likely bound by his university to publish. He profits from his own BS, and like so many the liberal arts (aka social "sciences") are never held to any standard of scientific inquiry and often stray from simple logic. Prothero's argument is week at best, and provides no tangible counterpoints. As a religious leader, engaged in constant contemplation, celibacy, and poverty, I will go with the Dalai Lama on this one. Religion is about the search for truth, humanity, and the divine. As man kind advances we inevitably will begin to converge by continually eliminating untruth, inhumanity, and ignorance.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:31 am |
  14. nanyar

    ..thought is the common factor of mankind,, we are joined by thought but oddly separated by belief. as this forum clearly demonstrates.
    Man has been chanting and praying for thousands of years.... he has countless rituals and holy books and yet the world does not seem a better place. thought and the ,"self" has made the world what we see today. The greed, the violence, the lack of compassion. When you are compassionate true intelligence arises and the self dies..... that is what Tenzin Gyatso is talking about and what the author does not fully comprehend.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:30 am |
  15. Dave

    The Dali Lama, is sharp and he knows the same mountain top is to bring a common oneness that can be unity, love peace, you name it.

    Certainly there are many differences between the major religions yet it is a common ground that we must communicate on with the progressive members of each religion in order to make slow change to the majority that is in disaray.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:29 am |
  16. Thomas

    "though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not LOVE, I am nothing."

    May 27, 2010 at 12:29 am |
  17. Thomas

    Uh, for God so LOVED THE WORLD that he gave.....

    Indeed, if it were not for love, their would be no gift of the Son. Every major religion has the rule of love... and EVERY RELIGION holds that If it were not for the love of God there would be no revelation from God.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:26 am |
  18. Su

    One guy's desperate attempt at selling his books by raking up a controversy. What better target than humble Dalai Lama.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:26 am |
  19. Madhab Gurung

    You couldn't understand that what is compassion? Also you couldn't understand what is Dalai Lama meant? I would like to say before you release your book "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter," you should understand compassion, otherwise nobody will buy your book.

    May 27, 2010 at 12:25 am |
  20. Stephen Kopels

    If the first comment by JM wants to be taken seriously then why name call... Man you are way to compassionate...!!!!!

    May 27, 2010 at 12:23 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.