Thursday, 8 November 2012

Ajahn Brahm's Five Types of Religion

Washing for gold, Warrandyte
You gotta love Ajahn Brahmavamso Mahathera. He's a forest monk, albeit not of the hermit lineage. In a West dominated by Zen, Vipassana, and Vajrayana, his dharma is Theravada. He's a working class Englishman with a Cambridge degree in theoretical physics, trained as a monk in Thailand, and teaching in outback Australia. He runs a monastery he built himself. (Seriously. With his own hands.) And he's been excommunicated by his lineage. So he must be doing something right. (Ordaining women, as it happens.)

But the best thing about Ajahn Brahm is his teaching. There's precious little piety about this guru. He'll call out hypocrisy so fast it'll make your incense burner spin. Starting with his own.

I particularly esteem Brahm's (in)famous Five Types of Religion. (True fact: the original teaching was Five Types of Buddhism, which is how I first heard it. Only when it was pointed out that all religions suffer from these delusions did he rework it for everyone.)

So here they are. Readers who practice a religion, any religion, should copy and paste this list. Then edit out my commentary, and meditate on the rest. Often.

Everybody strapped in?


1. Conceited Religion: Our religion is better than yours. (And therefore we are better than you.)

This is a Christian stereotype here in the West, but that's only because they're the majority; I assure you I run into identical Buddhists all the time. Despite what some would have you believe, triumphalism (the belief that you have a monopoly on truth) is a sin in every religion. And for the record, I learned both the term and the condemnation as part of my Christian training.

2. Ritual Religion: Venerating the container above the contents.

Did someone say "guru worship"? Let's face it, Zenners: we do the hell out of this one. Obsession with rank and form, bowing, chanting, posture, oryoki, lighting this, ringing that, bop-she-bop, rama-lama-ding-dong. None of it's worth a crock of warm spit, and if you forget that, it's a giant waste of time.

3. Business Religion: We're best because we're biggest: biggest church, largest sangha, highest priest, trendiest author.

This is the "success" model, whereby we declare the biggest seller the best product. Uh, no. Read your scripture, people. God doesn't like "success". Not least because it instantly becomes an altar to Mara. Worldly religion is no religion.

4. Negative Religion: We gotta GET those [insert group here] !!!

As Brahm points out, this is yin to Type 1's yang: where Conceited Religion says "we're the best," Negative Religion says "they're the worst." I call it Varsity Religion: lots of cheerleaders shaking their pompons and urging us to spend our meagre days on earth beating State. Good thing it has nothing to do with salvation; State can't be beat.

5. Real Religion: Doing what your prophet told you to do.

Note that the first four types are not this. Try it. Grab any religion. I like Zoroastrianism. And not just because it has the awesomest name of any religion. (It would be worth it to convert just so you could tell people you're Zoroastrian.)


1. Did Zoroaster teach his followers that they were a superior race, and all others inferior?


2. Did he teach that temporal gestures were the main point of faith?


3. Did he teach that the biggest temples or most acclaimed teachers were the most godly?


4. Did he teach that life is all about opposing some other group?

Almost. He did say that Earth was a battleground between the godly and ungodly, and that salvation was a matter of enlisting in the correct army. But he didn't identify any earthly group as Angra Mainyu's army, nor did he say that just being a Zoroastrian automatically put you in Ahura Mazda's. So…


So there you have it. Grand Master Z agrees: "Walk the line, chump."

If you'd like to see Ajahn Brahm teach this truth himself (and I heartily recommend it, he's very engaging), you'll find it on YouTube. You can also get free mp3s of all his talks at Dhammaloka, or search "Dhammaloka" on iTunes and download them to your brainwire.

And yes, they're all that good.

(Photograph of seeker panning out Oz gold courtesy of WikiMedia and the State Library of Victoria.)
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