The Dalai Lama and the world religions: a false friend?

by Jane Compson

Religious Studies

Vol.32 No.2

June 1996


Copyright by Cambridge University Press

            His Holiness the Dalai Lama is both the spiritual and temporal 
            leader of Tibet. However, in 1959 he was exiled from his home 
            country following its occupation by the Chinese, and has been 
            tirelessly campaigning for its nonviolent emancipation ever since. 
            One positive thing to arise from this unfortunate state of affairs, 
            however, is that the Dalai Lama has travelled the world more than he 
            might otherwise have done, and made some of the teachings of 
            Buddhism accessible to a wide variety of people of different 
            nations. A theme that inevitably surfaces quite regularly during his 
            various lecture tours is the issue of other faiths. The Dalai Lama 
            has a supremely tolerant view of other religions: he constantly 
            alludes to their value in encouraging love and compassion in 
            humankind, and rather than promoting Buddhism as the 'best' faith he 
            appears to celebrate actively the great diversity that different 
            faiths provide. If one were to use the categories normally 
            associated with Christian inter-faith dialogue, at first sight he 
            appears to be an ardent pluralist, an individual who believes that 
            all religions represent different but equally valid paths to 
            The following paper will begin with an analysis of the Dalai Lama's 
            tolerant position, taken from collections of his lecture tours in 
            various Western countries. It will then be argued that, whilst his 
            tolerance is entirely genuine, it arises from prioritizing Buddhist 
            ideas over those of other faiths, and in this respect the apparent 
            pluralism is deceptive. 
            Although there are many different forms or schools of Buddhism, most 
            share core teachings that one would expect to be thoroughly 
            incompatible with theistic religions. For example the teaching of 
            not-self (anatta), which denies the existence of an enduring or 
            permanent self or soul is normally thought at odds with the 
            Christian idea of the soul that survives death. Similarly the 
            Buddhist teachings of dependent origination and emptiness deny the 
            possibility of one of the key postulates in Christianity, that of a 
            self-caused and self-existent being. Given such fundamental 
            differences, then, it is perhaps surprising that any attempts at 
            dialogue are not immediately halted by a state of radical impasse. 
            How then, does the Dalai Lama manage to support his ecumenism? 
            Many of the Dalai Lama's ecumenical comments are characterized by an 
            emphasis on the prioritizing of practice over doctrines (in this 
            respect, his views appear to show a certain similarity with those of 
            the Christian pluralist theologian, John Hick). Rather than paying 
            much attention to the philosophical peculiarities of different 
            systems, he argues that one should look at the purpose of religious 
            doctrines, namely the promotion of love and compassion for the 
            benefit of human beings. Indeed, the Dalai Lama describes the 
            'essence of religion' as compassion,(2) and sees all religions, 
            without exception, as being concerned with 'making the mind more 
            peaceful, disciplined, moral and ethical'.(3) Thus, for the Dalai 
            Lama, the 'fruits' of love and compassion are the same for all the 
            religions, and the promotion of these qualities is the main purpose 
            of the different teachings. He suggests that 'we must consider the 
            question of religious diversity from this viewpoint ... and when we 
            do, we find no conflict'.(4) Indeed, from this wider, pragmatic 
            viewpoint, his Holiness speaks of a 'universal religion of love', in 
            that love is essential to all religions, regardless of their 
            philosophical differences.(5) He does not deny that there is 
            conflict on a doctrinal level, however, but suggests that it is 
            'unnecessary work' to make too much of these differences: 
            'Philosophical teachings are not the end, not the aim, not what you 
            serve. The aim is to help and benefit others, and philosophical 
            teachings to support those ideas are valuable. If we go into the 
            differences in philosophy and argue with and criticize each other, 
            it is useless. There will be endless argument; the result will be 
            mainly that we irritate each other, accomplishing nothing.'(6) 
            From these comments, it appears that the Dalai Lama sees 
            philosophical teachings as means to pragmatic ends, and he suggests 
            that those ends are likely to be achieved more easily if one 
            recognizes that this is their purpose. However, he does see great 
            value in the existence of such religious diversity, because 
            different people respond better to some religious teachings than 
            others. Using an analogy of illness and medicine, the Dalai Lama 
            describes how not all people have the disposition to find Buddhism 
            helpful, for example: 'Different medicines are prescribed for 
            different diseases, and a medicine which is appropriate in one 
            situation may be inappropriate in another. Thus I cannot say of 
            Buddhism very simply, "This medicine is best".'(7) For his Holiness, 
            then, the existence of other religions is not an awkward problem to 
            be explained away, but something to be celebrated, as long as one 
            bears in mind the primacy of religious aims and practices over 
            theories. Whether or not one believes in God or the Buddha or 
            reincarnation does not matter as long as one 'leads a good life'.(8) 
            Given this prioritizing of values, the Dalai Lama considers it a 
            mistake to try to convert people, for one might only succeed in 
            weakening their faith in their own religion, without managing to 
            convince them of the validity of the new one. He believes that 
            compassionate practice makes both practitioners and those around 
            them more loving and more content, and since all religions can 
            promote this quality he advises other believers to follow their own 
            faiths 'as sincerely and truthfully as possible. For if they do so, 
            they will no doubt reap certain benefit'.(9) 
            To sum up, then, from what we have seen, it appears that the Dalai 
            Lama's tolerance of other religions stems largely from his 
            subordinating philosophy and doctrine to what he regards as the aims 
            of these doctrines - the promotion of human well-being through the 
            practice of love and compassion. He places particular emphasis on 
            the quality of compassion, and because all the world religions can 
            have the effect of promoting compassion, they are all of value, and 
            there is 'no conflict'. Despite these 'symptoms', however, it would 
            be a mistake to understand the Dalai Lama as a pluralist who 
            believes that all religions are equally valid paths to salvation. In 
            the rest of this paper it will be demonstrated how the Dalai Lama's 
            ecumenism is enabled precisely by his strict and almost exclusivist 
            adherence to the teachings found within Buddhism. 
            For followers of other faiths to share a view as pluralistic as the 
            Dalai Lama's would require some concessions on their part. For 
            example, most Christians would surely be reluctant to relinquish the 
            truth claims exclusive to their faith even if they recognized, with 
            the Dalai Lama, the importance of the practical results of their 
            beliefs. We have see how the Dalai Lama appears to regard doctrines 
            as tools, and we see an example of this in his claim that 'the very 
            purpose of faithful belief in God is to accomplish his wishes, the 
            essence of which is to cherish, respect, love and give service to 
            our fellow humans'.(10) This implies that Christians believe in God 
            as a means of achieving these ends, as if belief in God were 
            secondary to its consequences. Surely for most Christians, however, 
            it is belief in God that comes first. Although compassionate 
            practice can of course accompany Christian belief, it is surely more 
            of a consequence than a cause of faith for most Christians. It is 
            precisely the ultimacy of such cognitive beliefs that adherents of 
            other world-religions would have to relinquish in order to share the 
            Dalai Lama's views. 
            In contrast, the Dalai Lama needs to make no such concessions. 
            Rather than being a pluralism of the Christian variety, apparently 
            entailing a certain amnesty in terms of philosophical beliefs,(11) 
            his ecumenism is entirely in accordance with the Buddhist teachings 
            that he follows. Whilst his ecumenical view does indeed require some 
            'letting go' of dogmatic attachment to doctrines, this relinquishing 
            is actually part of his Buddhist philosophy. It is a Buddhist, 
            rather than a pluralist way of looking at the world. Every aspect of 
            the approach that the Dalai Lama advocates can be seen as an example 
            of Buddhist teachings both common to all schools and particular to 
            the Dalai Lama's dGe Lugs school of Buddhism. 
            Buddhism is famed for its pragmatic or non-dogmatic approach. This 
            is nowhere better exemplified than in the parable of the raft: the 
            Buddha describes his teachings as a raft which a man uses to cross 
            from one side of a river where he is in danger to the safety of the 
            other shore. Once there, however, the man should discard the raft, 
            for it has exhausted its usefulness. It would be foolish for him to 
            carry it around with him on the shore for it would just be a 
            hindrance to him. So the Buddha's teachings should not be adhered to 
            for their own sake, but should be seen more as tools that enable one 
            to gain liberation. The pragmatic attitude that this parable 
            suggests is certainly reflected in the Dalai Lama's teachings; we 
            have already seen how he views attachment to doctrines and specific 
            religious teachings as less important than the effects that they 
            promote, because adhering too much to philosophical differences 
            leads only to arguments and 'makes trouble'. From some of the Dalai 
            Lama's ecumenical comments, it is tempting to believe that he takes 
            this pragmatic approach to such an extreme that any religion can act 
            as a raft, and bring ultimate liberation. In fact, the Dalai Lama 
            does not hold this view: he is very open about acknowledging that 
            'liberation in which "a mind that understands the sphere of reality 
            and annihilates all defilements in the sphere of reality" is a 
            reality that only Buddhists can accomplish'.(12) This is an 
            important claim that seems to rest very uneasily with the pluralist 
            tenor of his other statements. Before examining the apparent 
            contradictions between this claim and his ecumenism, however, let us 
            briefly examine those beliefs that the Dalai Lama holds to be 
            According to the Tibetan dGe Lugs tradition, to which the Dalai Lama 
            belongs, there is a teaching - the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata) - 
            that is the ultimate truth, and it is 'only through realizing 
            emptiness that one can achieve liberation'.(13) Emptiness is linked 
            to the idea of dependent origination (paticcasamuppada) - although 
            conventionally things appear to exist in their own right, when they 
            are analysed in depth it becomes clear that they exist only in 
            dependence on other things. Seeing phenomena as fixed and permanent, 
            particularly those elements that constitute the self, encourages us 
            to grasp at them and form those attachments that lie at the root of 
            suffering. When we act under the influence of these unwholesome 
            emotions, we create bad karma which ties us to the realm of rebirth, 
            and prevents us from gaining enlightenment. Once things are 
            understood as being empty, however, the self-view, grasping and 
            consequently suffering cease. Emptiness is true of all phenomena, 
            without exception: 'All, absolutely all, is dependent, relative. 
            Emptiness is the ultimate truth - that is, the ultimate truth is 
            told when we say that all things, no matter how exalted, be they 
            Buddha, nirvana or worms, are empty of ultimate, i.e. independent, 
            existence.'(14) A simple rational or intellectual acknowledgement of 
            the truth of emptiness is not enough, for this realization is still 
            characterized by conceptual thought - prolonged meditation on this 
            knowledge. can culminate in the liberative experience of a 
            non-conceptual awareness of emptiness. Once this has been achieved, 
            one's attachments, ignorance and grasping - the factors that bind 
            one to the realm of dukkha - are abandoned, for one recognizes that 
            there is nothing there to grasp. It is to this experience that the 
            Dalai Lama refers as the 'ultimate liberation' that is attainable 
            only by Buddhists. This ultimate liberation consists of freedom from 
            the realm of suffering and rebirth, and it cannot be achieved 
            without insight into the ultimate truth: 'lacking the correct view 
            of emptiness, we can never be liberated from cyclic existence'.(15) 
            This, then, is an important point - the Dalai Lama is claiming that 
            liberation is dependent on the realization of teachings that are 
            found only in Buddhism. It presents two difficulties - firstly, how 
            can the Dalai Lama's insistence on the ultimate truth of one 
            teaching rest with his apparently pragmatic attitude towards 
            religious teachings; and secondly, how can his claim that liberation 
            is exclusive to Buddhists be combined with his apparent tolerance? 
            In considering the first objection, let us return to the parable of 
            the raft. Whilst the teaching of emptiness is the ultimate teaching, 
            it, too, is empty, and should not become the object of attachment. 
            It is useful to get the practitioner to a certain point, but once 
            there he or she must transcend it. Cabezon discusses this point in 
            his book, Buddhism and Language, where he argues that there is a 
            difference between acceptance of the doctrine of emptiness and 
            insight into its meaning. To recognize the lack of inherent 
            existence in everything - including the teaching of emptiness - is 
            to attain the non-conceptual mind of enlightenment. It is to this, 
            Cabezon argues, that the parable of the raft applies, namely to the 
            relation between words and the experience of realization to which 
            they point. The raft represents 'the linguistic aspect of doctrine' 
            which is 'a pragmatic and provisional entity that has no ultimate 
            value in and of itself'.(16) Whilst the theory of emptiness itself 
            is not to become an object of attachment, this does not negate its 
            truth - to stick with the analogy, just because the raft is 
            ultimately to be abandoned, this does not preclude it from being the 
            only raft sturdy enough to get one to the other shore in the first 
            The fact that, ultimately, the linguistic aspect of the doctrine of 
            emptiness is a pragmatic tool, devoid of inherent value, enables the 
            Dalai Lama to advocate the ultimacy of this view without 
            contradicting his pragmatic and non-dogmatic treatment of religious 
            theories in general. In accordance with the general Buddhist 
            teaching that grasping or clinging is one of the causes of suffering 
            (dukkha), no teachings are to be the object of attachment, even true 
            ones. It is important to recognize, however, that the Dalai Lama's 
            pragmatism clearly stops short of regarding all religions as equally 
            valid in terms of ultimate liberation from samsara - it is certainly 
            not the case that any religion can be an efficient raft. 
            This brings us on to the second objection - how can the Dalai Lama 
            self-consistently refer to the exclusively Buddhist teaching of 
            emptiness as the ultimate truth, and at the same time not only 
            advocate the teachings of other religions, but actively discourage 
            Buddhists from trying to convert adherents of different faiths? 
            This attitude can be explained with reference to many of the 
            teachings of the dGe Lugs tradition. Firstly, it holds that each 
            'individual' has many different rebirths, and thus many 
            opportunities to progress along the spiritual path that leads 
            ultimately to the sort of liberation that the Dalai Lama describes: 
            'From a Buddhist perspective, there is no hurry. The ultimate truth 
            can wait - it is not necessarily of such immediate importance, there 
            are many future lives and very few of us, Buddhists included, will 
            attain enlightenment in this life, or even the next.'(17) 
            Significantly, too, through the accumulation of good actions and 
            positive karma one can be born in a higher cycle of existence, 
            including certain heavenly paradises. His Holiness acknowledges that 
            some other religions see salvation as the attainment of these 
            beautiful paradises, and that such salvation does not require the 
            understanding of emptiness. Thus he is able to accommodate some of 
            the salvific claims of other religions without compromising his 
            Buddhist ideas. 
            Secondly, and particularly important for understanding the Dalai 
            Lama's ecumenism and tolerance, is the key Mahayana doctrine of 
            skilful means. This holds that the Buddha adopted his teachings to 
            suit the level of his hearers. These means need not be consistent 
            with each other, as long as they produce the same ends, and a 
            teaching that may make sense to one individual may be meaningless - 
            and thus spiritually useless, or even harmful - to another person at 
            a different stage of development. This is true not only within 
            Buddhism itself, but also in relation to other religions, as the 
            Dalai Lama explained using the analogy of medicine. In some cases, a 
            dose of Christianity may be better than a dose of emptiness: 
            'Relatively, the highest teachings (i.e. those which teach the 
            ultimate way of things) may be inappropriate and therefore bad and 
            in one sense wrong.'(18) 
            So far, then, we have seen how the Dalai Lama's acceptance of other 
            religious beliefs arises from his Buddhist views. His strong 
            emphasis on compassion and practice can also be seen as arising from 
            the tradition to which he belongs. One of the key features of dGe 
            Lugs Buddhism is the idea of the path of the Bodhisattva. According 
            to the Mahayana traditions, a Bodhisattva is a being who has the aim 
            of 'liberation, not for himself alone ... but for all sentient 
            beings'.(19) The Bodhisattva thus represents the ideal of completely 
            selfless compassion, and indeed the Dalai Lama describes the' main 
            theme' of Buddhism as' altruism based on compassion and love'.(20) 
            The Bodhisattva Path describes stage-by-stage the practices and 
            qualities that one would have to perfect in order to become an 
            enlightened Bodhisattva. Significantly, before one can even embark 
            on the path it is necessary to generate sufficient compassion to 
            produce such an altruistic intention (known as the bodhicitta) and a 
            series of meditations is recommended to engender compassion in the 
            practitioner. All throughout the Bodhisattva path, however, 
            compassion on its own is not enough - it must be accompanied by 
            practice and wisdom, and in each of the first six stages of the 
            path, the aspiring Bodhisattva must strive to cultivate the 
            perfections of giving, morality, patience, striving, meditation and 
            wisdom. (It is important to note, however, that although the 
            Bodhisattva path illustrates the general imperative to practise 
            compassionate actions, actual Bodhisattvas only embark on the first 
            stage of the path once they have understood emptiness - it is the 
            combination of wisdom and practice that is vital.) The Dalai Lama 
            explains that 'without actually practising the teachings, there is 
            no way for good results to be produced'.(21) This is important for 
            understanding the Dalai Lama's attitude towards doctrines and 
            theories, for he believes that one should live and breathe the 
            teachings, so that there is no distinction between them and their 
            practice. To this effect he cites a saying handed down to him 
            through the oral tradition: 'If there is enough space between 
            yourself and the practices for someone else to walk through, then
            you are not implementing them properly.'(22) This emphasis on 
            compassionate practice is clearly evident in the Dalai Lama's 
            attitude to other religions, and combined with the other notions of 
            skilful means and rebirth, explains why he does not advocate 
            Buddhism as the 'best' religion for everyone, even though he 
            believes that ultimate liberation is enabled only by insight into a 
            teaching that is found only in Buddhism. Emptiness is too complex a 
            notion for everybody to understand, and should not be taught until 
            the hearer is ready. In the meantime, it is important to get good 
            rebirths, and progress further along the spiritual path that will 
            culminate ultimately in enlightenment. This can be achieved by the 
            practice of skilful actions, particularly compassion. Therefore, any 
            religious belief that promotes compassionate practice is to be 
            encouraged, and works for, rather than against, the ultimate 
            salvific aims of Buddhism. 
            The Dalai Lama's celebration of different religions to suit 
            different needs and his deprioritizing of the doctrinal truth claims 
            is perhaps best seen in the light of this notion of skilful means. 
            Combined with the idea of emptiness it explains how he can 
            self-consistently hold that ultimate liberation is available only to 
            Buddhists but at the same time see no imperative to convert those 
            from other religions. 
            The Dalai Lama's main motivation is compassion. His aim is to 
            alleviate the suffering of others, and the promotion of compassion 
            is one way to do this. He characterizes the idea of karma in one 
            sentence: 'If you act well, things will be good, and if you act 
            badly, things will be bad.'(23) Compassion is important not only for 
            the benefit of the individual who develops it, but also for all 
            those with whom they come into contact. The reverse is true without 
            compassion, and indeed, the Dalai Lama blames the unhappiness from 
            nation to nation, continent to continent, to this lack of 
            compassionate feelings.(24) It is this desire to promote compassion 
            in others that lies behind His Holiness's view of other religions, 
            not only in his advocacy of the positive 'fruits' from each 
            tradition, but also because he believes strong attachment to 
            doctrines leads only to arguments and stands in the way of the truly 
            beneficial effects of religious ideas. Thus what at first sight 
            might seem like simply a theory of religions can be seen as one 
            facet of the Dalai Lama's compassionate practice, in which he uses 
            skilful means to promote the welfare of others. In this respect, 
            then, the last thing one could describe him as is a 'false friend'. 
            However, it is those members of other religions who might look for a 
            pluralist theory of religions in the Dalai Lama's teachings who will 
            be disappointed. As we have seen, his ecumenism is made possible by 
            faithful adherence to - or rather, practice of - ideas which are 
            exclusive to Buddhism. Owing to the nature of his beliefs such as 
            emptiness, the Dalai Lama is able to maintain with consistency that 
            ultimate liberation is exclusively Buddhist without seeing this as 
            detrimental to the value of other religions. To conclude, then, the 
            Dalai Lama's tolerance and acceptance of other religions lie not in 
            the pluralist tradition, but instead are enabled by a strict 
            adherence to the teachings of one particular Buddhist tradition. In 
            a pluralist approach, tolerance is achieved through relinquishing 
            the exclusivity or ultimacy of the teachings of any one particular 
            religious tradition. In contrast, the Dalai Lama's acceptance of 
            other religions is enabled precisely by his adherence to the 
            teachings of dGe Lugs Buddhism as ultimate. 
            Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Bristol, 
            36 Tyndall's Park Road, Bristol BS8 1PL 
            1 The term 'pluralism' is usually associated with the three-fold 
              typology of exclusivism/inclusivism and pluralism introduced by Alan 
              Race in his book Christians and Religious Pluralism (London, 1983). 
              For a clear example of a pluralist approach, see John Hick's An 
              Interpretation of Religion (Macmillan, 1989). 
            2 'Religious Values and a Human Society', in Kindness, Clarity and 
              Insight (New York, 1984), p. 13. 
            3 'Eight Verses of Training the Mind', ibid. p. 101. 
            4 Extract from The Bodhgaya Interviews (1981), from Christianity 
              Through Non-Christian Eyes, ed. Paul J. Griffiths (Orbis, 1990), p.
            5 'Religious Harmony', from Kindness, Clarity and Insight, p. 49. 
            6 'Religious Harmony', from Griffiths, p. 164. 
            7 'Religious Harmony', from Kindness, Clarity and Insight, p. 49. 
            8 'Religious Values and Human Society', from Kindness, Clarity and 
              Insight, p. 14. 
            9 'The Bodhgaya Interviews', from Griffiths, p. 169. 
            10 'Religious Harmony', in Griffiths, p. 164. 
            11 See Gavin D'Costa's unpublished 'The Impossibility of a Pluralist 
               View of Religions', which contends that any such amnesty is never 
               complete - pluralism always entails prioritizing some truth claims, 
               and in this sense it is logically incoherent. 
            12 Bodhgaya interview, from Griffiths, p. 169. 
            13 'Some Dimensions of the Recent Work of Raimundo Panikkar: A 
               Buddhist Perspective', by Paul Williams in Religious Studies 27, p. 
            14 Paul Williams, 'The Recent Work of Raimundo Panikkar', from 
               Religious Studies 27, pp. 511-21. 
            15 Bodhygaya interview, from Griffiths, p. 169. 
            16 Jose Cabezon, Buddhism and Language (SUNY, 1994), p. 47. 
            17 Williams, Religious Studies 27, p. 520. 
            18 Ibid. p. 518. 
            19 Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations 
               (London, 1989), p. 49. 
            20 'Altruism and the Six Perfections', Kindness, Clarity and 
               Insight, p. 32. 
            21 'The Path to Enlightenment', from Kindness, Clarity and Insight, 
            p. 139. 
            22 'Buddhism East to West', from Kindness, Clarity and Insight, p. 
            23 'Karma', from Kindness, Clarity and Insight, p. 26. 
            24 'Eight Verses of Training the Mind', from Kindness, Clarity and 
               Insight, p. 102.