My first thought about the Winter Retreat starting this October is that this is not just 'training'. Many sanghas have adopted the term ‘Dharma training’, but i think that this is a misnomer. There may be elements of training: one might be trained to be bell master, guest master, master of ceremonies, cook, a drummer, a gardener, and so on - in the Dharma life one turns one's hand to many things. These are specific functional roles and, if you live in a spiritual community, any of these roles may be valuable. However, the fundamental aim of the exercise is not training, It is Dharmic Education.
Being One’s Best
The word education literally means 'to draw out' and the purpose of education is to draw out the true nature in people. By doing so one enhances their character. Along the way they may acquire various skills, but that is incidental and an expression of the basic core which is that the person grow and flourish in the Dharma.
Furthermore, the true nature of being human involves relationship. Dharmic Education is not something merely abstract, it is personal and it is inter-personal. It is an initiation and a transmission and it happens heart to heart.
Buddhism cannot be reduced to a set of skills and protocols, each with an appropriate training and certificate. We may use many exercises and procedures, meditations and ceremonies, roles and responsibilities, but they are all expressions of, or means to, or the medium for Dharmic Education - education for Dharmic life. They are subordinate elements, not the prime phenomenon.
All this means that one cannot keep Dharma in an isolated bubble in one's life. If you get involved in Dharma in a real way then it changes everything. It is not like a skill that can be added on or a hobby that is intermittently interesting. It is an affair of heart and mind.
Character & Liberation
We see progress in the Dharma, not so much in how perfectly a person can make a meal for the community - though this may, indeed, express their love and care - but rather more in how they respond when the meal goes wrong; not so much in how well they have mastered the ritual, but in how they cope when it is changed, not in how many hours they can sit still in the lotus position, but in whether they genuinely care for the other people present, not in their ability to impress with learning, but in their real concern that others find growth and liberation.
Learning the practical functional things is important because it is a way of implementing care and love for other members of the community. However, it is the growth of love, compassion, gratitude, concern for others, and ease in adversity that are the true fruits. A person who has these things will be naturally keen to learn relevant skills and will be flexible in his or her use of them. They will not use them as a prop to the ego, but rather as a means to enhancing the community life. By creating such a spirit of acceptance and joy, all are liberated together.
Education has a good deal to do with leadership and authority. Logically, a person can be in four positions in this respect. One can be in authority over others, one can be subordinate, one can be a peer, or one can be alone with nobody to depend upon in any of the other three already mentioned positions.
Generally speaking we find that for the great majority of people, one or more of these positions brings to the surface personal problems of a compulsive and unsettled nature that cause difficulties both for the person concerned and for others around them. A person who is liberated from inner compulsions can handle all of these positions in a relaxed way and move between them with ease and dignity. To bring a person to the point where they can do so is, therefore, an evident goal of education. At the same time, we can see from these observations that there is an important interface between education and therapy.
Accompaniment & Apprenticeship
In the perspective that I am employing here, therapy does not refer to a procedure claiming to be treatment with a quasi-medical aim; it is a process of accompaniment. Taken in this way, education and therapy are very closely related. In a sense they are two ends of one matter. In therapy, one applies general considerations to one's own case whereas in education one starts from one's experience and draws out the universal lesson. Again, both education and therapy are processes in which a person with a particular kind of experience accompanies another who is exploring the arena within which such experiences are to be found. When we think of it this way we can readily see how it was that, in earlier days, education was substantially a matter of apprenticeship. In the spiritual world, this is still the case. The disciple accompanies the master and the master accompanies the disciple. Both are learning. The disciple is not only learning, he or she is learning how to learn. They are learning to apply lessons to their own person, yet, at the same time, they are learning to leave over-personalisation behind.
There may be an end to the relationship of accompaniment in practical terms, but there is a sense in which it is endless. My major teachers are still very much with me, even though they are all dead. Their spirit lives with me. It is this transmission of spirit that is the essence of Dharma education.
Wei Wu Wei
Following on from the remarks I made earlier about authority and leadership, I think we can also see that a truly spiritual person is inevitably a leader of some kind. Even when such a person plays a subordinate role in formal terms, they are still a leader in moral terms. This would be true even if they were confined in prison. Their leadership may sometimes show in the obvious way, namely that they can take initiative, guide and protect others, and handle responsibility, but it also shows in their humility and willingness to follow. From the worldly view point this may seem contradictory, but I think those who have even a small grasp of spirituality will know what i mean. Their leadership is by example. The person who is a great teacher, may well be the student with most rapt attention when another teacher is giving the lesson. In this manner they are a leading student. They are not trying to lead, it is simply a function of how they are, and that is the outcome of education. This is an example of the Taoist principle of wei wu wei, of unselfconscious-action-without-affectation being most naturally efficacious.
To Be Continued
In the some subsequent teachings I am going to say a little about some of the things that we might do on the retreat. However, I think it is important to enter this caveat first, because otherwise it is all too easy to lose perspective and ‘to miss seeing the wood for the trees’.
MORE THOUGHTS ABOUT THE AUTUMN RETREAT