Recently on our Facebook page we pointed you to a CNN Belief blog post called “The Dalai Lama is Wrong.” Written by BU religion scholar Stephen Prothero and seemingly tied to his new book, God Is Not One, the post left many of our commenting readers wondering if it’s not the Dalai Lama who is “wrong” here, but Prothero himself.
After an appearance last night on The Colbert Report, more are likely to question the author’s line of reasoning. Is his approach to Buddhism — and all the world’s major religions, which he characterizes as “rival” to each other — helpful, or not?
Some excerpts from the piece in question:
I cannot say either “Amen” or “Om” to the shopworn clichés that [the Dalai Lama] 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 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.
As I said above, our Facebook readers had plenty to say in response. Here are five examples, culled from the thirty that seemed to pop up immediately (you can see them all, via Facebook, here):
- I have to disagree with Mr. Prothero. He is certainly entitled to his view, however, true Buddhism is being able to see the beauty in all things. To be able to draw good from all practices. To bring peace to all groups. Fundamentally, Buddhism differs from other religions but those who know Buddhism know that monks from our different sects … See Moreregularly spend time with monks from Christian, Catholic and many other religions. Its not about devoting oneself to other religions, its about seeing the goodness in other religions. If we cannot we aren’t true Buddhists!
- S. Prothero calls himself a “confused Christian,” and his confusion may not end there. It seems to me that he’s intelligent enough, but saw an opportunity, with his new book coming out, to raise his profile and sell books. I examined some of his other writings about world religions, and Buddhism, and found the statements and opinions lacking. Some comments in articles seemed misinformed and even snotty, as though he is feels a need to “Glen Beck” parts of his commentary. I would have expected more scholarship from someone who claims to be a scholar. He falls short of that mark, IMHO.
- I think Stephen missed the point and has gotten mired in the details of these other religions. Open your mind, Stephen. See the big picture. I think the Dalai Lama is completely correct.
Who says “we are all supposed to bow and scrape” to the Dalai Lama?
- I feel sorry for a man who would rather focus his attentions to our religious differences then our similarities. Although, there is probably some importance in it. It does seem more like a shameless plug for his book then anything worthwhile.
- Patronize much, Mr. Prothero?
So…: is Prothero wrong?
Timothy J. McNeill, for one, says Yes. And one would think that he might know. McNeill is the president of the Buddhism-dedicated Wisdom Publications, which has published some 14 books by the Dalai Lama. Based on that alone, I think it’s safe to surmise that McNeill’s understanding of the Dalai Lama’s teachings and thinking has got to be admirable and accurate; otherwise, why would he be trusted with them so? (McNeill is a longtime practitioner, and has even had His Holiness as an overnight house-guest — so there’s a “familial” connection there as well.) He points to writings by the Dalai Lama himself, saying:
Stephen is seriously misrepresenting the position of the Dalai Lama on inter-religious dialogue. In numerous times and places including the The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Wisdom Publications 1996) the Dalai Lama demonstrates respect, and calls for harmony among religions but in no way glosses over the “top of the mountain” differences. He repeatedly emphasizes that “in order to develop a genuine spirit of harmony from a sound foundation of knowledge, I believe it is very important to know the fundamental differences between religious traditions.” He specifically refutes and dismisses any notion of universal unity of religions. Professor Prothero would do well to read and research more deeply into the sources he would use in defense of his thesis.
Here then is one bit from The Good Heart that McNeill would have us notice:
In order to develop a genuine spirit of harmony from a sound foundation of knowledge, I believe it is very important to know the fundamental differences between religious traditions. And it is possible to understand the fundamental differences, but at the same time recognize the value and potential of each religious tradition. In this way, a person may develop a balanced and harmonious perception. Some people believe that the most reasonable way to attain harmony and solve problems relating to religious intolerance is to establish one universal religion for everyone. […] I have always felt that we should have different religious traditions because human beings possess so many different mental dispositions: one religion simply cannot satisfy the needs of such a variety of people. If we try to unify the faiths of the world into one religion, we will also lose many of the qualities and richnesses of each particular tradition. […] People of every religious tradition must make an extra effort to try to transcend intolerance and misunderstanding and seek harmony.
McNeill also supplies the following quote from His Holiness’s new Doubleday book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths:
“The establishment of genuine inter-religious harmony, based on understanding, is not dependent upon accepting that all religions are fundamentally the same or that they lead to the same place. I do maintain, however, that their very different metaphysical teachings give, in each case, a truly inspiring foundation for a beautiful ethical system rooted in compassion.”
This does indeed seems to be quite different from the message Prothero is attributing to His Holiness. And yet, there he was last night on The Colbert Report. Responding to a Colbert joke that, rather than “going up the mountain” some religions are “going down the crevasse,” Prothero momentarily stumbled: “That’s right.” But is his view actually divisive? Colbert playfully goaded Prothero, asking him if all religions were equal – and again, the author appeared to stumble: “No!”
Well, let’s hope it was a stumble. Prothero was, it would seem, eager to point various religions’ problems, saying that Islam is not about peace but submission. On one hand it could just be that he was merely talking about the unique challenge and worldview of each religion. On the other hand, he responded to Colbert’s next facetious query — as to which religion is “winning” — by saying “I think Islam is winning, I hate to say.” [Emphasis added.]
What do you think?