Martin Aylward: solitude and nature as guides

- through Francois Leclercq

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Martin Aylward grew up in England. At the age of 19, his existential quest took him to India and Thailand, where he stayed for ten years to study and practice Buddhism with different masters. In 1995, he returned to Europe, settled in France to teach this tradition and created with his wife the Tapovan center in the Pyrenees. Eager to expand, they then settled in 2005 in Cubjac, in the Dordogne, in a former Zen monastery (1), the Moulin de Chaves. When he is not teaching abroad, it is there, in a superb and calm environment, that he leads courses and retreats devoted to Buddhism.

How did you discover Buddhism?

My journey with Buddhism began in late 1989, when my friends were in college. Studying did not interest me, I knew that I would not find there answers to the questions that tortured me: what is it to be conscious? What is it to be a human? And that's how I went to India. The land route being at the time forbidden to the British, I took a plane ticket, a one-way ticket, without luggage. I intended to spend a few months there to discover meditation and Buddhism. But from the first teachings and the first sitting in meditation, I had the impression of discovering water in the desert. I had found my way. I immediately understood that I was going to devote my life to it.

On site, how did this first meeting go?

My very first contact took place in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama and some of the Tibetans in exile reside. There I took an introductory course in Buddhism and meditation given by an Indian who had practiced within several Buddhist lineages in monasteries in Japan, Nepal and Sikkim and who had also practiced Vipassana (2). I also spent more than two years in India with a master who lived as a hermit in the Himalayas. I stayed with him practicing in the mountains.

What school are you attached to?

None in particular. All the teachers I followed were themselves quite "iconoclastic", unconventional. This was the case, for example, of Ajahn Buddhadasa (3) in Thailand, who did not claim any particular tradition or lineage and who focused on how to practice the dharma, the Buddha's teaching, in in order to free oneself from suffering and achieve enlightenment right now in this lifetime, leaving everyone free to make their own mistakes and choices. There weren't many rules. In this context, rituals, beliefs, monk's outfits, etc. did not matter. Ahead of his time, he was already transmitting an ecological vision that took root in Buddhism.

In the 90s, I lived in the Himalayas and then in the Pyrenees, without electricity, radio or TV. I had no access to information and to the “world” in the usual sense of the word, but I only had to open the window to have access to the world around me.

My practice is therefore rooted for the most part in the Theravada tradition, but I would not dare say that I represent this tradition. That wouldn't be respectful, because Theravada has ritual and cultural elements that I don't use when I teach. If a Sri Lankan or Thai Theravada Buddhist were among us, he would not recognize his school. When I lead retreats and accompany students in their practice, I first emphasize their ability to awaken to what is happening there, in the immediate future. And, then, on their possibility of developing their understanding and their ways of acting in the world. The term Buddhism comes from bodhi, which means awakening, so for me this path is "awakening", that is to say, waking up to what is, to the reality experienced in the moment. here. I am, like my own masters, loyal to the essence of enlightenment, rather than to any lineage or school.

Is your teaching essentially based on meditation?

The formal, basic practice of Buddhism is meditation. It is then a question of applying it to each moment of life. I often hear, "I practiced this morning." I then answer: “And this afternoon? ". As if the practice was done only in the posture of meditation! The transformation of an existence cannot be accomplished only through morning meditation. It depends on how what has been understood in meditation is then expressed and actualized throughout the day. It is a continuity.

Why did you decide to teach?

My master explained to me that it took three so-called pillars of authority to teach. The first is the authority given by the teacher who sees if his student has the necessary maturity in practice and the ability to teach. The second pillar is inner authority: the disciple examines his experience and knowledge of Buddhism. Did he experience a real transformation thanks to the practice or not? Does he have a deep understanding of dharma, the ability to explain it, and the ability to serve others for their good? Finally, the third is the authority given by those who listen to the teaching given by this student. Are they ready to follow the advice he gives them?

As far as I am concerned, these three pillars were brought together in 1999. My master then invited me to accompany him on a ten-day meditation retreat within his community. At the end of the session, he said to those present, “If you have found Martin's advice and teachings helpful, then invite him to come give teachings in your home.” This is how I started to transmit in my turn, and that I arrived in France where I settled down with my family. When I lived in Asia, I sometimes went to London, I met my wife there, and we had a daughter, born in India. My wife wanted to raise him in Europe. As for me, I liked the isolation of the hermits. So we looked for a place that meets our wishes. And that's how Tapovan was created in 1995 and in this place a community developed for ten years. For lack of space, we then moved here, in the Dordogne.

Does Buddhism alienate you from the world?

It depends on what you mean by the “world”. In the 90s, I lived in the Himalayas and then in the Pyrenees, without electricity, radio or TV. I had no access to information and to the “world” in the usual sense of the word, but I only had to open the window to have access to the world around me. There are different ways of conceiving the world. For me, it is above all that of experience, it is what is perceived by the five senses, but also by the mind. One cannot therefore be completely withdrawn from the world. I had a classic period, in society, the first twenty years of my life. Then I lived fifteen years of a very simple and frugal life. Today, I have a very committed life, I teach all over the world, I welcome people to the Moulin, I teach on the Internet, etc. Buddhism is for me a practice of awakening to what is there, at every moment, "sensorily", emotionally, mentally. It allows such intimacy with experience, that instead of habitually reacting to circumstances, it becomes increasingly free, wise, clear, compassionate and useful to others and to the world.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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