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. Dave Wyman

    "I am convinced, however, that true tolerance and lasting harmony must be built on reality, not fantasy."

    The fantasy, of course, is that there is a god.

    "Jesus did not die on a cross in order to teach us to help old ladies across the street."

    This is true – true because Jesus never existed, and does not exist, except in the minds of gullible humans.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:24 am |
  2. Harold

    Writing about religion is political, whether book or blog. Our blog is a little democracy about Prothero's book, the contents of which seem to be dogmatic - a thesis. Most religions are concerned with dogma. Even compassion can become dogmatic, and thus fair play. Some Buddhists get this point. I gather that Prothero treats this matter too lightly if at all. Both he and the Dalai Lama are concerned with comparisons but diverge thereafter. Both are getting their metaphoric fifteen minutes of fame (and for Prothero a hoped for fortune so I read). As for mountaintops and praxis/practice, if nothing else would work to free-up my mind/ego I would prefer to read Andy Warhol - for fifteen minutes and no more. Time is anxiety, religion and opinion politics, theology a dinosaur. Even if all religions are not primarily concerned with compassion, a valid point, the Dalai Lama seems to mean well given his point of view and attributes. But I labor the obvious. Viva democracy.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:20 am |
  3. RealPhD

    No, no, no to Stephens point of view. It is true that at the core of all religion is compassion, and along with that, the commitment to selflessness and non-violence. This is aligned with the contrat social that all nations agree with, for a harmonious coexistence. If a religion is opposed to this core of love and understanding the other, it is no religion – from latin religio – i.e. no intertwining between the peoples, but a program. All creeds that pave the way to harmonious coexistence, no matter what the other mans creed may be, are true and valuable.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:20 am |
  4. commentarian

    Not all religions preach compassion. Maybe the major religions of current times, but that is a skewed view of religion.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:17 am |
  5. John S.

    I have difficulty believing that if there were many pathways to one God, that this God would permit and endure having His only Son, blameless, be brutally tortured and then killed by the sadistic Roman crucifixion, when a number of other methods/ways would have sufficed for people to find their way to Him. Seems ludicrous, and hence, among other reasons, why the idea of "many pathways all leading to the same God" is equally ludicrous.

    May 27, 2010 at 2:14 am |
  6. billp

    I agree that the Dalai Lama is wrong about compassion being at the root of all religions. The #1 goal of all religions since each of them began has been to provide divine justification/sanction for their followers' hatreds and quest for power over others.

    "It is necessary for salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roiman Pontiff." – Pope Boniface VII

    May 27, 2010 at 2:12 am |
  7. GA

    The author of this text does not seem to realize that all religions are in a state of flux. The god image itself is in transformation. Vhristians look differently on god today than they did 1000 years ago. therefore the Dalai Lam,a is completley correct in paving the way to a more unified way of relating between religions. He´s being somewhat of a pioneer here.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:59 am |
  8. Mom of Three

    "As I argued in my book..."

    And that's all I needed to know about why this article was written. But if the logic in his book is as weak as his connections in this article, then I think his attempt at self-promotion did him more harm than good.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:58 am |
  9. veggiedude

    "compassion... help old ladies across the street"

    The author confuses kindness with compassion. They are not the same. But I can see why he would have his knickers in a twist. Even an atheist knows compassion, and so, it begs the question why have religion in the first place?

    May 27, 2010 at 1:55 am |
  10. Troy

    Sorry but there is no compasion in religion unless you are aligned with the same religion. There is nothing but fear, contempt, insecurity, ignorance and condesension.

    If the religions of the world were all honest, they would admit that Religion is contest, a business, and a family that is bent on being the biggest and the most powerful. Arabs have no time for Christians and Jews and no negotiation or discussion will change that. Baptists and Protestants, have to no time for Catholics. Hindis fight against Missionaries from Christian groups all the time, and also against Muslims trying to convert their people. You see evangelicals traveling the world and on TV trying to recruit. If you don't think this is one big contest you are as ignorant as those that imbrace these religions.

    I will never understand, why people can be so intellegent and full of deductive reasoning in 99% of their life, but then throw all common sense to the wind when it comes to Religion. It is like they are so scared to break with the traditions of their parents and history, that they would deny all the learning and logic aquired in the past three hundred years alone. Some people believe dinosaurs did not exist and or that the world is 5000 years old!

    May 27, 2010 at 1:54 am |
    • Treese

      I agree Troy. I call it the Spiritual Ponzi scheme.

      May 28, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  11. Harold Again

    Writing about religion is political, whether a book or a blog. So our little democracy is undogmatic by definition, and a good thing. Religious practice, however, concerns dogma for the most part. Even compassion can become dogmatic, and so is fair game. Can religion be undogmatic? Some Buddhists seem to get this point. As for mountaintops and praxis, so what. I would prefer to read Andy Warhol if my mind will not be freed-up by any other means - for fifteen minutes and no more. Time is anxiety, and to chatter such as the author's and ours, viva democracy.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:33 am |
  12. returntothedarkages

    There used to be a word for people who post articles for the sake of gathering responses. Troll. This is nothing but an ad for his book. Glenn Beck.... move over!

    May 27, 2010 at 1:28 am |
  13. Augustine

    'Everyone is right' or 'Everyone is wrong' is always the answer you get from people that refuse to do their homework.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:27 am |
    • Nancy

      Forgive me if I quote this on my facebook page! I totally agree!

      May 27, 2010 at 8:37 am |
  14. Paul

    This blog is a tool for promotion- that's all. It ends up being a non-benificial to selling his book/

    May 27, 2010 at 1:27 am |
  15. John

    Good luck moving your book with article, Mr. Smith.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:19 am |
  16. edmundburkeson

    When Steve the blogger grows up ... maybe he'll think a little deeper about God, religion, and the difference between them.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:17 am |
  17. Chris Taylor

    Buddhism Teaches that All Phenomenon Exist interdependent of the mind, that Cause has effect...that all things arise from previous conditions. It teaches that To end suffering you have to Act with compassion to ward others, it teaches that all things are interconnected, to treat all things with love.. What it teaches that we are all interdependent. These are things that we can prove with science

    Just as Christ said ALL AREA CAPABLE OF WHAT I CAN DO AND MORE, THE Buddha will say the same, Christ Buddha Jehovah, they are all word for the same thing. The are different words for the Same thing, and even Jesus warned of us worshiping him. The point is that he wants us to look at how each of the words religions .

    From his point of view His Religion didn't even have a Word for the idea of Enemy. IT is we humans that separate our selves from god By Separating our selves from each-other. IT is we humans that Use the Excuse "well Jesus saves", To treat each other like crap, that is what creates suffering. Jesus Never said I am the way to heaven HE said Christ is the way to heaven, and Christ is not the What he was, IT was the way he live his life.

    The Entire point Of this Visit was to Bring the world Together , because Separation will never bring world peace, There is no separation between each other,

    There is only one organism in this Universe, And it is so vast and infinity expansive that it is able of giving its own though and it own imaginations there own free will. We god looks in the mirror he sees US. Jesus will not save you from begin selfish. Only Christ, Yehova, Buddha, And that is the realization that we are all One Mind individualized for gods benefit of family, Not enemy. IF god is in all things then how would god Have enemies. that like calling your right hand enemy.

    When the Dalai lama Said his religion was the best, at the time he only saw the other religions for what their over all effects on the world were. IT is we who twisted the word of Christ to serve our own selfishness. Jesus never said lob bombs at so called terrorists, He said Forgive and forget. HE said take the path of christ. Jesus never said he was goin to do it for you, you have to walk the path of love your self.

    What the dalai lama said is respect all religions, for they all have the same core. The Dalia lama teaches remove ignorance and intolerance, So does Jesus. Dalia lama not say be Buddhist, he is saying find common ground, and we have the answer to peace

    May 27, 2010 at 1:12 am |

      Long comments, but my friend, you are wrong.
      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 1:18 am |
    • Sam

      For people quoting Christianity and what Jesus "said" be sure to read the scripture that quotes Him before trying to prove whatever point you want to make, simply stated from Jesus himself, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but through me." That is Jesus simple explanation of how to achieve this "nirvana" or whatever else you want to call it. Jesus was rather exclusive in his teachings. He believed He was the answer to the question of salvation. You may not believe it but don't twist His words to say something that he didn't. He was very clear in who He was and He meant it.

      May 27, 2010 at 8:20 am |
  18. Christopher

    To me Stephen Prothero seems like an intellictual with no realization, stuck in his own thoughts. 'Thou shault love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, soul and strength, and thy neithbor as thyself.' Stephen, love = compassion. Both to God directly, as in deepest ecstacy of meditation. And to love others in multifarious ways, animated with that same love experienced in meditation, between meditations. Get past your own restless mind to soul and God awareness. Then you will have fresh insight from which to offer some unique perspective of the limitless nature of God. Until you are there, you are like St. Augistine in the 'before condition', producing 'words that are but straw'. Stephen, follow the inner path of a favorite mystic. You have my prayers for a deeper effort.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:11 am |
  19. Greg

    I seems to me that Prothero wrote this article simply to find something to disagree with. He clearly has a book that he's promoting which talks about the difference of religions. What else should I expect him to write about a man who claims the heart of all religions is the same? I quite sure that what the Dalai Lama intended to convene to the world is quite different from how Prothero interpreted.

    May 27, 2010 at 1:10 am |
  20. annoyed

    To summarize:

    "The Dalai Lama is wrong. I, on the other hand, am right. Buy my book."

    May 27, 2010 at 1:05 am |
    • gleslie


      May 27, 2010 at 4:54 am |
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