The term training is often used in association with Buddhism. My Zen teacher Houn Jiyu used it a lot but was still never totally happy with it. When one is doing Zen what is one doing? Is one ‘training’? Training for what? Is one a trainee? On the other hand, what other word will do? The more religious words have gone out of fashion - acolyte, devotee, worshipper.
I have noticed, over my lifetime, a trend toward more and more belief in credentials and, with that, in ‘training’ as a pathway to qualification. To say that somebody is not properly trained is nowadays taken as a sin. Such a career path is a normal convention and motivates people to stick at something. For this reason offering Buddhism as ‘a training course’ or a series of short courses ‘works’ in the sense that it gets people to actually do something. However, there is an element of convenient fiction in all this. ‘Course’ means, fundamentally, a duration of activity or a space to be run across - like a horse racing course. However, Buddhism is not a race and it is not a credential. It is a profession only in the very old fashioned sense of being something that one professes.
I was very struck, many years ago, by the research of Robert Carkhuff who investigated the training of counsellors, comparing the skills, qualities and effectiveness of trained and untrained people in counselling roles and concluded both that in general the untrained were better than the trained and that even the same person was more often worse after training than before. This heretical discovery gives one pause and should certainly be seriously thought about. The fact that people are trained certainly does not guarantee anything about their human skills. I had a similar impression myself when I used to recruit social workers.
There are several likely reasons for this. Firstly, training, by imparting techniques, tends to lead the trainee to treat other people somewhat like inanimate objects or mechanisms to be manipulated. Secondly, a training course in human relations often leads trainees to become more rather than less self-preoccupied. Thirdly, training can introduce an element of routine into very human situations: the nurse at the end of her training may have become ‘thicker skinned’ through vicarious exposure to much suffering. This often manifests as a kind of cynicism about patients. Fourthly, training toward a credential involves a concern with status that strengthens investment in self-identity. I was struck, reading some human relations professional magazines a while back how many of the courses on offer were actually about how to protect oneself as a worker rather than how to actually be of real use to the client.
How relevant is all this to Buddhism? I think it is certainly something to be careful about. There is a danger that we import into our practice attitudes that are not grounded in compassion but are to do with protecting ourselves and strengthening our own egos. Such attitudes are not Buddhism. Buddha was open to all and did not count his own life as a priority. We should remember him going to talk to Angulimala or entering the shrine of the sacred python. Buddhism is not about processing people. It is about waking up the heart. Of course, not all professionals are self-protective and many are compassionate, but their is a distinct difference of ethos between professionalism and real religion.
Aspiring & Postulating
So I do use the terms training and trainee occasionally where it is conventional to do so, but I do so with the same reservations that my teacher had and I prefer other terms when possible. In our order we have aspirants and postulants. These are better terms. An aspirant aspires. A postulant is trying something out. This is closer to the mark.
Some say that Buddhism is an education and there is some truth in this, but, again, education is a word whose meaning has degenerated in modern society. Education used to be about character and duty. Nowadays it is more and more indistinguishable from training.
The Old Way
The traditional way in Buddhism is a mixture of devotion and apprenticeship. The transmission is heart to heart and mind to mind. The acolyte gives and receives by being with the teacher. Self-preoccupation gradually dissolves. Many skills, techniques, methods and procedures may be used, but one comes to recognise that they are of secondary importance. Nobody who is concerned about their own status is fit to hold power over others and so finding Buddhism is about rediscovering humanity. One needs the innocence of a babe coupled with the experience of years... and a tender heart with it.
These things tend to take time to develop, and this passage of time is a ‘course’ in the fundamental sense of the word, but it is not a programmatic process of working through a syllabus. It is a matter, more, of engaging with life, with all its unexpected and often unintended vicissitudes, in a courageous and sensitive way equipped with a willingness to do something about oneself when aspects of oneself get in the way. What might be called ‘self’ work in Buddhism is not intended to enhance the ego but to release one from it.
A Different Nuance
Progression in this respect is certainly helped by gradually increasing responsibilities and a sense of duty as well as deepening acceptance and appreciation of the love and benefits that one receives, and it is impeded by a sense of entitlement, and by any of the thousand and one varieties of neurosis that one may be bringing alone that are, in fact, the material that one prays to be liberated from. One can call all this ‘training’ and there is nothing intrinsically wrong about doing so, but it is important to realise that ‘training’ in Buddhism is not the same thing as training has come to mean in society at large.
The other context in which we use the word training is in relation to animals. Here, training means domestication. A certain amount of domestication is certainly a valuable thing. In a Zen monastery people get socialised into very precise ways of doing things. This has a value. Liberation, however, does not lie in attachment to these forms. It lies in the experiential learning that one can do them and, therefore, one can also do without them. Learning that one can do more than one thought possible should release one into a confidence to tackle the unknown. In other words to go into the future full of faith. To take such 'training' as being drilled into a way that things must always be done is a strait jacket, not a liberation. True salvation lies elsewhere.
Proceed with Caution
Faith, confidence, courage, attention to deeper duty, kindness, love, compassion, wonderment, awe, joy - these are the kinds of things that Buddhism is about and they cannot be reduced to routines. Much of what is generally conveyed by the word training, therefore, is a little off the mark. We shall continue to use the word, no doubt, but it is important to understand that in Buddhism it has a distinctive nuance of meaning and not confuse it with some of the other implications that the word tends to be burdened with.