Stephen Prothero and the emptiness of views

Ku: Emptiness
Ku or emptiness, from The Book of Five Rings

Stephen Prothero is a Boston University religious scholar who has been a rather prolific article writer as of late. He has a book he’s promoting and that is probably the reason he has been submitting so many articles. Prothero’s theme is “God is Not One” or “All Religions are Not Alike.” He argues that seeing all religions as teaching the same thing is misleading and dangerous.

I think that’s an important message, however based on Prothero’s most recent article, “The Dalai Lama is Wrong,” I have concerns about the messenger.  Prothero’s article is a response to a piece for the NY Times the Dalai Lama wrote recently entitled “Many Faiths, One Truth,” in which the Buddhist teacher says that one way to counter the rising tide of intolerance is for world religions to find common ground and bridge differences.

I haven’t read much of Prothero’s work, only an article or two, so there might be some nuance that I am unaware of, however in general, I already know the message. I know not all religions are the same. I am reminded of that each day when I switch on the television to hear about the latest terrorist plot or someone’s religious concept that makes no sense to me.

In his piece, the Dalai Lama writes that when he was young he felt that Buddhism was superior to other religions, and now he understands how “naïve” he was. I used to feel the same way. I was a young Buddhist revolutionary out to save the world from “heretical religions.” Nowadays, I am more concerned with trying to get people to understand that Buddhism is not witchcraft and that we are not in league with Satan. I see the threat of religious intolerance, and you cannot find intolerance with more of the same.

So, now I try to be more tolerant. I still recognize the vast differences between the faiths, as does the Dalai Lama. He remarks on these differences often when he gives teachings. He’s not that naïve.

Prothero childes the Dalai Lama for suggesting there is “’one truth’ behind the ‘many faiths,’ and that core truth . . . is compassion.” However, that is not what the Dalai Lama stated, instead he wrote that in his discussions with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, “A main point . . . was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism,” and that “In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion,” and “[The] focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths.”

The Dalai Lama is right when he says that compassion is one truth behind many faiths. That is not the same as saying it is The One Truth, as Prothero implies.

Prothero says that “Jesus did not die on a cross in order to teach us to help old ladies across the street.” Well, no Jesus was not a Scout Master, that is true. But try telling millions of Christians around the world that the central message of Jesus’ teachings was NOT love, and see how they respond. Prothero also says that “Jesus came, according to most Christian thinkers, to stamp out sin and pave the path to salvation.” Well, yeah, sorta.

From my understanding, the prevalent view is that Jesus came so that people could know God. In John 17, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Supposedly, God loves us and sent Jesus so that that we could return His love. Jesus, out of love, in the ultimate compassionate act, took on the sins of humanity to open the door to a relationship of mutual love with God, and thereby, the kingdom of Heaven. But, maybe Prothero is thinking what’s love got to do with it?

Prothero’s real problem is that he does not understand who the Dalai Lama is. At one point, he says, “I know that when it comes to the Dalai Lama we are all supposed to bow and scrape.” Yes, it’s proper etiquette to show the Dalai Lama some respect. But he’s not the Buddhist Pope and he’s not infallible. I’ve heard him say many times that he is not a living Buddha, or the reincarnation of a mythical Bodhisattva, and that “I don’t claim to have any great realizations.” Behind all the pomp and circumstance, he is actually a rather humble man. He’s also complex and paradoxical, and so is the world he inhabits, all of which are subjects for future posts.

I think of the Dalai Lama as a teacher of Madhyamaka philosophy. Madhyamaka or Middle Way is a Buddhist tradition based on the teachings of Nagarjuna, the philosopher who systemized the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness.

In his teachings, Nagarjuna sought to lay bare the basic truth of all philosophies, and all activities of human beings. In Middle Way philosophy, all views are considered to be empty. K. Venkata Ramanan, in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, writes, “The rejection of views which is an essential point in the philosophy of the Middle Way means that no specific view, being specific, is limitless, and no view, being a view, is ultimate. The ultimate view is not any ‘view.’ ‘Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.’” This is a complicated point, and at the risk of over-simplifying it, I will say that it means all views are relative. It does not mean to go to the extreme of literally having no views, but rather understanding that all views can be equally valid from the side of each viewer, and at the same time, all views are ultimately non-substantial or empty. That’s why it is called Middle Way because it is the middle path between extremes.

This must be entirely lost of Mr. Prothero, who, one would think, should be aware that this philosophy constitutes the core of not only the Dalai Lama’s teachings but also his approach to the problem between Tibet and China, which he calls the Middle Way Approach.

Nagarjuna regarded non-contentiousness (anapalambha) as the very heart of the Buddha’s teachings. The tendency to seize, to cling, is the root of conflict and suffering:

The wayfarer that can understand this does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.

In stressing a few of the similarities between religions and calling for mutual understanding, the Dalai Lama is fulfilling his duty as a teacher in the Gelug sect, a Middle Way school. How could anyone expect him to shirk his responsibility? He is only asking us to cease clinging to our views long enough to establish some common ground so that we might make the world a safer place.

Prothero also says “And I cannot agree with the Dalai Lama’s claim that ‘the essential message of all religions is very much the same.’” I have read the Dalai Lama’s article several times and I can’t find that statement.  If Prothero were paraphrasing that might be all right, but to put it in quotes to give the impression that those words in that order is what the Dalai Lama wrote, is either a case of sloppiness or just plain distortion.

Finally, Prothero says that the Dalai Lama makes “the equally fantastic claim that all the religions are at heart vehicles for compassion.” No, he does not. He is merely pointing out that all the religions can be a vehicle for compassion, if we can just get over ourselves, and our dogmas.