What is Buddhist ‘training’? I have written on the dangers of misunderstanding this term before. Here I would like to try to say a little more, since this is an important issue for all of us and especially for those who have made a full time commitment to the Dharma life.
Essentially ‘training’ refers to the transformation that goes on in one through the medium of the relationship that one has with a Dharma teacher. It is the relationship that provides the motive and power. The term ‘training’ seems to imply a series of exercises designed to cultivate a specific talent. Some of that certainly goes on - the teacher wants to see the disciple progress - but technique is not the core of the matter.
Sometimes people choose a sangha in the way that one might (in the West) choose a college or university. In the East one might choose a college because one wanted to study with a particular teacher and it used to be like that here in the West too long ago. Nowadays, however, we think that what matters is the ‘system’ or the ‘method’, and even the facilities, but to act this way in the matter of spiritual training is a mistake. It is rather like the person who wants to go into therapy who wants to know whether Gestalt or person centred or psychodynamic or cognitive is best. If one wants to do anything of any depth, it really matters very little which system you choose, but it matters a lot whether you get a good therapist or not.
The relationship that one has with a teacher is a link with the Buddha. You choose somebody who has long experience and some depth of understanding, somebody who has ‘been through the mill’ and learnt about the Dharma, both the hard way and the easy way. The easy way is by listening to good teachers. The hard way is through life experience.
Training might involve getting up early in the morning, or it might not. It might involve many hours of meditation, or it might not. It might involve living a long time in one place or it might be a matter of travelling great distances. It might mean chanting in Pali or Chinese or English or whatever. Whatever it involves it will extend one. One will grow and mature, become more sane and less pretentious. The ‘sekha’ (person in training) is somebody who takes on whatever is needed and does their best with it in a good spirit. Sometimes what is needed is monotonous - the same day after day. Sometimes it is challenging, requiring one to do things one has never done before.
What is the teacher’s role in all this? The teacher, they say, should have ‘grandmotherly mind’. That is to say, a kindly regard for the needs of each person, a delight in seeing them do well. and sympathy for their struggles. Grandmother also has the benefit of long life experience and she does not make great demands because her days are numbered and her needs are few. The teacher is not generally a sergeant major.
Different teachers have different styles because they are different people, but all real teachers care deeply for their disciples and love to see them blossom. The way that each disciple does so will, however, be special to that person. It is not a matter of processing people in order to make them fit into a mould. In a similar way, the good disciple will come to love the teacher, but each will do so in a different way.
Sometimes we gather together and hold a retreat or a training period. At such a time we have a schedule and a range of activities that facilitate our life and practice together. Of course, we generally choose activities that are drawn from our own religious tradition. This, however, is not fundamentally necessary. We might get up early, do some meditation and then have a service in which we chant Buddhist texts, but we should not think that by doing this we are working some special magic upon ourselves that is somehow inherent in these activities. We could sleep all day and spend the night doing African dancing and still arrive at the same spirit of faith, love and Dharma.
Some historical teachers have strongly advocated particular practices. Dogen advocated zazen. Honen advocated nembutsu. Nichiren advocated chanting the name of the Lotus Sutra. However, Saigyo wrote poetry and practised asceticism. Ippen gave out fuda. Hui Neng pounded rice. In a sense, all of these people were doing zazen, but not necessarily by sitting still in a certain posture. All of them said nembutsu, but not necessarily using particular words. All of them revered the Lotus Sutra, even those who had never read it. The essence of Dharma transcends particular activities.
All of this can be confusing to the beginner who wants to be told something specific to do and wants to believe that there can be some kind of contract such as that if one does a sufficient number of hours of a specified practice then enlightenment will be bestowed upon one. Many people implicitly think in this way. It is called ‘spiritual materialism’ which is not really spiritual at all; it is just a way of faking it.
There are many specific things one can do: the means of training are thousandfold. However, one must go deeper and that going deeper happens in the relationship and in activities that naturally spring from it. Probably more people have been enlightened while moving rocks than while meditating.
Of course, some people will read of the means of training being thousandfold and think that this means that anything goes and they can just please themselves. Those people err on the side of self-indulgence. Some people will read it and bristle because they are strongly attached to one practice and really want to force it upon everybody. Those people err on the sado-masochistic side. Buddha often talked about these two types of error - one too soft and the other too hard. He had tried them himself extensively and found both wanting. That is why he called his approach the middle way.
The arch sado-masochist was Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin, who criticised Shakyamuni for being too soft. Devadatta proposed that Buddha hand over the leadership of the order to himself so that he could lick people into shape. The Buddha refused, saying that if he were going to hand it over to anybody it would be to Shariputra because he was wise, but in fact he was not abdicating. Devadatta was competitive. Some people are like that. Whatever the teacher does, they will find fault with it and think that they could do better.
Devadatta got angry and subsequently tried to have the Buddha assassinated. In the texts Devadatta is comprehensively unsuccessful, but in real life he must have actually had quite a following. When the Chinese pilgrim went to India a thousand years later he found quite a number of monasteries still following Devadatta’s approach. However, it must have died out during the subsequent Moslem invasions.
There is some sense in the idea that religious training should be rigourous, but one is really looking for a deep faith, not just a superficial pose or conformity, and certainly not a kind of passive aggression. When religion decays it can become cruel, or merely mechanical. The genuine teacher cultivates tenderness and benevolence rather than rigid rectitude and that kindness is one of the most precious treasures that the disciple can acquire.