Having given a teaching on the pitfalls of the idea of training, I would now like to give one on its excellencies. The Buddhas accept all who turn to them in faith whether they have progressed in this life or not; however, it is also a universal Buddhist teaching that this human life is the best opportunity one is going to get to improve one’s character and understanding and to not take that opportunity would be rash indeed. Therefore, Buddhist communities universally include opportunities and encouragement to do so.
Before going into the main points, a caveat. Do not see this as being ‘the path to enlightenment’. It is always possible that illumination may strike as one goes along, but it might do if one were on a completely different track too. I say this because the idea that one can personally get hold of the process of becoming enlightened is one of the biggest obstacles to it actually happening. OK, enough of that.
There are innumerable different modes of training in Buddhism just as Shakyamuni is said to have given 84,000 teachings. However we can broadly distinguish a number of styles.
1. One's Own Petard. There is an English expression ‘hoist by his own petard’ which refers back to a rather gruesome historical habit in which failed admirals were executed by being hanged on their own ship using a piece of the rigging called a ‘petard’. The expression means that one learns from the unfortunate effects of one’s own actions. It is somewhat akin to the American expression ‘what goes around comes around’. Another saying of the same ilk is ‘if you give a person enough rope he will hang himself’. In relation to training this means that if you give a person freedom to follow their favourite ideas in a context in which nobody else has told them what to do, they may come to face the fact that their preferred way of doing things does not work. When a person first comes to a Buddhist community this may well be the starting point. Until a person has some motive to learn, nothing much is going to happen except by accident or natural consequence. However, natural consequence is not to be under-estimated. In the final analysis it is reality that is the true teacher. We live in the midst of myriad Dharmas of myriad Buddhas - just we do not see it yet.
2. The Pebble Mill. Living in a community one rubs up against other people. One’s rougher corners are bound to get dented and sometimes even knocked off. It you start with a square piece of wood with four corners and knock off the corners, there are then eight corners, though each is less sharp. If you knock those off there are sixteen. Eventually you have a circular column. The same principle works in a pebble mill. Stones churned together eventually all become smooth and round. In a similar way, living with other people forces one to moderate one’s awkwardness. One may have been very square on arrival but one gradually gets worn down into a more pleasing smoothness. This is the effect of living in sangha. This process is greatly assisted if each person has a habit of self-reflection. This is the meaning of ‘to study the self is to forget the self’ - self-reflection leads us to the view that the self’s view is less important than we thought it was. It is revealed to have been a protection, like a suit of armour. It is much easier to move about fluidly when wearing less armour. However, in order to take armour off one has to believe that it is at least moderately safe to do so. The pebble mill, therefore, should not spin too fast. A certain tolerance and gentleness should be the hallmark of true spiritual community.
3. The Smallest Detail. Some Buddhist centres, especially the Zen ones, are sticklers for detail. How one folds one’s robe, how one holds one’s spoon, which way round you put it in the drawer, how straight the edges of the cushions are in the meditation hall - all these and a million other details are prescribed. One is told that ‘every moment is meditation’ and there is a great emphasis on mindfulness both in the sense of awareness and of remembering how each little thing should be done. Life is a series of details. A perfect life is a life of perfected detail. This sort of behavioural training can be immensely valuable if done with a genuinely kind mind. The danger is that if those who impose such a system are not kindly minded it rapidly becomes an intolerable form of oppression. The medium is the message, so although the trainee might learn the content of the instruction, he or she will certainly learn the manner of it. If well done, therefore, this type of training can be invaluable in demonstrating how it is possible to give instruction and hold authority from a position of great love. People who can do this are not common, but, then, that is the point.
4. Reparenting. What many people need in addition to or even more than training in right behaviour or socialisation in community living is some kind of additional parenting. We have all had parents of some sort and those parents have done their best for us and deserve our gratitude, but they are or were human beset with all the difficulties of samsara, products of long karma, and we are the heirs thereof. A Buddhist teacher therefore needs ‘parental mind’ and the ideal teacher is Buddha. It is for this reason that in Japan Buddha is often called ‘oyasama’ which means, more or less, ‘most honourable parent’. In the Tibetan traditions a nun is called 'ani' which means aunt. Sometimes one needs a good aunt to fill in the gaps that mother left. The good parent is infinitely loving and compassionate, accepting everything, but, at the same time, chivvies in small ways, nudging the infant in the right direction. This may take the form of a kind of camaraderie. The parent gives a good example, but, of course, does not do exactly the same as the child. When the relationship is a good one the child want to ‘help’ the parent and through this activity learns many things. The child hangs around, not going too far away, but from time to time making a foray on their own. The parent appreciates all this. The good parent showers praise upon whatever the infant brings home from school class even if it is an indecipherable scribble. Thus, a Buddhist teacher only rarely gives direct orders. More often he or she drops hints or suggestions, often in an oblique way that leaves room for them to be picked up or not. At the end of the day the disciple grows at a pace determined by capacity.
I have described these four as distinct styles, but in reality there is a smooth gradient between them and what the teacher does is a reflection of the need and robustness of the disciple. This is a very ‘person centred’ process, but it is not guided by the disciple's own self-assessment. The teacher has to make a judgement.
Of course, perhaps in lesser degree, this applies to all of us both ways round. In our dealings with other people we all have to make assessments of what they can take, what will help and what will not, and it is not the same in all cases. If you tell one person the best way to make pancakes they will be delighted. If you tell another they may be offended.
Similarly, when we are in the disciple position, some criticism can be really helpful and some just throws us into resistance and pain, and, again, some tolerance enables us to grow and some just leads us to languish. No two situations are the same. Thus there cannot really be a protocol, but it is possible, in a broad way, to distinguish these types.
The Indian word for ‘training’ is sekha. The person who is accomplished in the spiritual life is said to be asekha, which means that they are 'beyond training'. Such a person left to their own devices, serves the needs of all sentient beings, which, locally, often means the good of the community, and the results that they see confirm their good intention in the long run; living in community they see what needs doing and get on without fuss, taking care not to offend others unnecessarily and attending to needs as they arise, gradually evolving a more and more deep sense of what the true needs of the collective may be; they are naturally attentive to detail and avoid waste, seeing the potential in things and keeping good order so as to create a pleasing environment for all; and they are truly filial to their elders in the Dharma, seeking to advance their work and making their life easier while being solicitous of those junior to themselves cherishing them with a warm regard, like younger brothers and sisters. They themselves draw great strength from the merit of all the Buddhas which facilitates equanimity, and, being humble in a genuine way, they have a deep sense of humour.