Conversations on the Convergence of Buddhism, Technology, and Global Culture

BG 147: Freestyle Awakening


Episode Description:

The theme of distinguishing between the Buddhist teachings and forms which lead to awakening, and those forms that are culturally inherited and perhaps unsuited for our current Western context, is an ongoing one on Buddhist Geeks. This week, we continue this exploration with Dharma teacher, Martin Aylward.

Martin, who lives in southern France, where he runs and teaches as Le Moulin Meditation Centre, has been actively exploring what it means to translate Dharma to the West. He recognizes that we’re still quite early in that process, but is a pioneer when it comes to adapting the forms of Buddhism to the West. His use of technology and emphasis on relational dharma, as well as what calls “Freestyle” or “DIY Awakening” is a striking attempt at making Dharma more relevant for the lives of Western, engaged, lay practitioners.

This is part 1 of a two part series. Listen to part 2, Work, Sex, Money, Dharma.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello Buddhist geeks, this is Vince Horn and I am joined today, it is kind of a rare treat, but I am joined today over Skype video. We are recording just the audio portion but I am joined today by Martin Aylward. Thank Martin for taking the time to speak to me. It is afternoon my time, but morning your time, but thanks for joining me.

Martin: Yeah, it’s nice to see you Vince.

Vince: Yeah, it’s nice to see you to, and just a little bit of background so that people know where you are coming from. You live in southwest France.

Martin: Yeah.

Vince: Are you a French native?

Martin: No, no. I am British originally.

Vince: You are British, well it sounds like it.

Martin: Yeah. It is about fifteen years though that we have lived in southwest France.

Vince: Nice, and you live with your wife and two kids, and interestingly you live at a dharma center that you helped found that is called The Moulin Center. It is in the rural area of France so it is kind of away from the hustle bustle of city life and it’s beautiful. I have looked on the website, just amazing gorgeous pictures of this old mill and the river. It is just gorgeous.

Martin: Yeah, yeah. It was Zen center actually a monastery for fifteen years before we came here about five years ago when we moved from our previous place. So we arrived at a place that already had a Japanese style meditation hole and bamboo grows and it has been fantastic to come here.

Vince: Oh, that’s perfect. That’s perfect. So you do a lot of teaching there year round, various programs, and you also have a really interesting summer program which we might get into as part of this conversation where lots of different programs happening in a little different style. You open it up so that it’s not just silent but there are also periods of talking and communication that happen.

Martin: Yeah.

Vince: That’s all I think going to feed into our conversation, which is mostly about how the dharma is expressed in the contemporary culture that we live in, in the contemporary world, in the modern world. There are lots of things that I wanted to explore with you, because you are doing a lot of interesting things including the use of technology or using Skype video here that you also use a lot in your own teachings.

But, first before we get into the specifics, I wanted to look at the big picture with you, because one of your main interests in translating the dharma so that its relevant for people so that its current to our time and place, and I guess the first kind of obvious question that comes up in response to that is why does it need translating, are the ancient and Asian forms not sufficient?

Martin: Right, well that’s a good question. I think it’s important to separate that kind of timeless, universal, deep features of awakening from the way that awakening gets expressed, explored, and transmitted and so those are two different things. When one reads the text two and a half thousand years ago and the Buddha were talking about the nature of mind, it is kind of shockingly beautiful how the way he is speaking about the way our minds get caught is just as relevant to me now, two and a half thousand years later in a completely different social and historical and cultural context, as it was then. Yet, our culture expressions have changed and the way genders relate to each other and they way money functions in our society and all that stuff has kind of moved on.

So that’s the bit that needs translating is how our deepening understanding of our life and of life itself gets expressed in culture, gets expressed in our relationships, gets expressed in our working lives, in our parenting, or whatever it might be that we are involved in. Otherwise, we end up with kind of this exploration of mind and awakening as something somehow apart from the rest of our life. If we can’t find the translation into our current lay, engaged, modern, twenty-first century technological lives, then how is awakening to really liberate all of this, you know the whole context?

Vince: Before we had this interview, we were talking about how the Asian forms of Buddhism, given that they were taking place in cultures that were so different from ours, really preindustrial revolution, before a lot of different things had developed here in the West. Given that, you were talking about the need to really change the forms because the ancient Asian forms really were not appropriate for our time and place. I was wondering if you could say maybe expand on that as part of this larger question of what is the appropriate translation of the dharma?

Martin: Yeah. Well, even if you look at the movement of what is practice within Asian, there is very very different cultural expressions of that, so as the dharma moved historically to different countries, you get the marriage of the kind of essential practice of freedom and awakening, with whatever cultural form supports that. That’s why Japanese Buddhism looks very different from Tibetan Buddhism, from Burmese Buddhism, etc. Over time, it is hard to separate the practice from the cultural form out of which it emerges. So it’s very young.

We are only one or two generations into really the beginning of embedding dharma practice in our culture. So initially, we tend to look very much to the culture where it comes from. I would guess that just one or two generations into Japanese Buddhism, there is a lot of reference still being made to Chinese Buddhism and to kind of Chinese culture expression. It takes time I think, but that is really what is needed now, is to start to find… well, what are our culture expressions of that practice. I think that’s happening very much as well but there is a certain degree of nourish around it and like we were exploring before a little, we defer to our teachers, now there is an appropriateness around that.

We defer to our teacher’s wisdom but our teachers tend to be the old ones who do things their way, who defer to their teachers who did things their way. So you know only one or two generations for most practice lineages from the west were already back in Asian one or two generations ago. That’s not just the kind of essential practices that we have inherited. We have also, within living memory, inherited a bunch of those culture forms. At least within the kind of Theravadan world, which is where my main background is, forms a very predominately, late monastic, renunciate, celibate and where most of practicing those in lifestyles which none of those things, they are engaged with intimate relationships, with a working life.

So we need to kind of really bring those things into our practice. How we relate to money has to be part of our practice. What happens around our kind of sexuality, sexual relationships, sexual energy, that has to be part of our practice, and looking to renunciate traditions isn’t going to do it the way they dealt with that in the Theravadan tradition. How do you deal with money, you don’t have anything to do with it. You take a vow to not touch it, not use it, not get involved with it. Well that’s beautiful for a renunciate practice but its not much help to us in a twenty-first century lay practice.

Vince: Yeah absolutely, and it seems that as you are describing this, I am just thinking that as I look around the Western Buddhist landscape, I can see almost the spectrum, similar to maybe the political spectrum of conservative and liberal. I see this kind of spectrum of more initiative, more liberal, more kind of pushing the edge. Then there are more connected, more rooted in the tradition in its previous forms. It is such a strange phenomenon. It is such a wide expression, and yet overtime there is this some sort of movement as well toward more relevant forms like you are talking about, of dealing with money, of dealing with sex, of dealing with technology, dealing with the things that are such a part of our lives whatever we want them to be or not.

Martin: Yeah, and I think there is room for all of that. It’s like the thing with pioneers and settlers. Some more tend towards the pioneering and some more towards the settling. So some people would feel maybe uncomfortable in trying to reinvent things and really feel the kind of… that there is something somewhere to anchor their heart and something that’s got a long tradition to it and established culture forms.

So it’s not that’s a wrong thing but I think at the same time it is important that we recognize that the cutting edge of developing dharma practice in our culture is the kind of bringing into question those cultural forms, and actually being willing to find our own new ways of translating dharma practice into our culture. And that it’s helpful to look backwards in time for the wisdom and the essential parts, but we really need to look to where we are at and what we are doing and what our lifestyle is of that translation happens.

Vince: And as you are saying that I am thinking as a teacher you are both responsible for bringing dharma to people, and at the same time it sounds like you’re also still learning, still figuring out “How do I practice in a way that makes this more relevant?” Since many of your teachers were, could be considered more traditional teachers; you spent time in India, and things like that. So, does it feel like that, that you’re both a teacher and still trying to figure this stuff out, as you go?

Martin: Yeah, very much. I mean, actually, most of my teachers haven’t been very traditional, even the ones that were, were Asian, which has been a real blessing for me, I think. Ajahn Buddhadasa, for example, who’s kind of a very revered Thai master–but he was quite kind of shocking in his un-traditionalness. He was completely uninterested in statues and wouldn’t let there be any in the forest where he lived for many years. I remember often him giving talks to visiting Thai pilgrims and saying, “You just stop off here to light incense and use the toilets!” He says, “You might as well just get off at any toilets rather than come to a monastery. It’s pointless, you being here, unless you’re interested in really transforming your heart and mind,” which was kind of a shocking message.

And I guess my own sort of making it up as I go along, or wondering about that, really happened after sort of three or four years of pretty intense practice, being mostly in Asia for all that time, and then after meeting my wife, Gail, she rather quickly in a kind of unorganized and unplanned way, became pregnant and our daughter was born, sixteen years ago now, and we have a twelve year-old son as well. So, having children, suddenly whatever model we had, which for me had been growing up spiritually within a kind of renunciate, Asian, monastic model, a lot of my reference points for what real practice was just went out the window, and it became very clear to me that dharma practice had to have a much, much broader basis than doing meditation retreats. That it had to be relational. And I guess that’s the thread that’s actually followed through, mostly, over the last fifteen or sixteen years, is “What’s relational dharma practice in my life?” And then, increasingly then in the lives of my students and people that come to the center and all. And that’s why a lot of our retreats, here at the Le Moulin Art and Silence, we often have these kind of halfs, of silent-mornings of formal sitting and walking practice, but afternoons where people are kind of encouraged to kind of work with one another, hang out with one another, socialize with one another, because a lot gets stirred up in the sort of relational field, which is different than what’s there in being rather solitary. And so, it’s been important to me to kind of include all of that, somehow.

Vince: And this kind of flows nicely into this other topic, which is something that you call “Freestyle Buddhism”. And when I first heard it, I started thinking of, you know, like a freestyle, hip-hop, Buddhist rapper or something, but you mean something different by it. And it’s kind of related to a topic that we’ve explored a little bit called “Urban Dharma”, but you differentiate from that, and I was wondering if you could say a little bit about, what is Freestyle Buddhism?

Martin: Yeah, well, I think partly I just like the associations. Like you say, with rap, the associations of freestyle, which just has a kind of, making it up as you go, a sort of dynamic, DIY. I don’t know if you have that term in the States? Do you? DIY?

Vince: Yeah.

Martin: Do It Yourself…

Vince: Yup.

Martin: …associations to it. Also what, you know, when I say Buddhism, I try to remember that Buddha means awake. Now that’s why The Buddha was called The Buddha, alright? Because he was awake. And so Buddhism means Awake-ism or Awakening, and The Buddha was a freestyle Awakener. He practiced with several different teachers, and he found a lot of benefit in that, and yet he had to make his own way. And I think it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath-water. The history, and tradition, and the accumulated wisdom, and skill, and precision, and care of all those years of developing tradition are really important. And yet, actually, ultimately we all have to find our own, freestyle awakening: These universal, deeper features of recognizing the nature of mind, and yet, you know, our individual karmas, if you like, to put it in a kind of traditional language, our individual configurations and personal history. And different things work for different people at different times.

And so, I think it’s kind of tragic. We kind of easily get caught in some idea that there’s some way that’s the best way, and we just have to follow that way. I am always kind of suspicious of the idea, and there are lots of claims within the spiritual world and within Buddhism as much as anything else, or that this way is the fastest way, or the purest way, or the oldest way. There is something that is recommended that is basically better than other approaches.

In a way, if there is only one true way, it’s your own way. It’s your own way through of finding what nourishes you in different moments and sometimes some particular teaching or contact with some teacher or some tradition can be very very nourishing and rich. Then after sometime it comes to the end of the road with that and you need something else.

I think it is important to have the inner freedom, that what is essential is freedom and awakening, wisdom and compassion, and nobody has got a monopoly on that. So by freestyle awakening I guess I mean keeping the awakening part really really central, and then whatever the forms are of that, letting them serve the awakening and not in themselves kind of take over, bemuse that is what happens I think sometimes when there is a mix of a kind of essential practice with the cultural expressions. Is that the form, we kind of get comfortable with the form.

Even just the form of meditation, we start off with some passion for meditation, we sit down really connect, and then after a while we kind of learn how to get comfortable with that. I can sit for half an hour or fourteen minutes. My legs don’t really cause me too much trouble anymore and there is not too much anxiety or too much restlessness, and so our meditations like the form takes over. We learn how to do it in a rather comfortable, but actually undynamic, dull way. So freestyle awakening really means it is kind of keeping us on our toes that we don’t just get comfortable or just settle with some form.

Vince: It seems like that kind of approach would also encourage a type of trust of one’s own sense of the path and one’s own kind of intuition about what’s needed. That seems like a really empowered the individual practitioner to have a more fluid and freestyle approach like that.

Martin: Yeah, yeah. Again, I think that is really important. I think actually it is the job of an authentic teacher actually to reflect that kind of trust back to the student. Again, I feel I was very very lucky in having teachers that really supported that. I remember spending time with one old monk in the Himalayas after I had stayed for several weeks.

He just kind of pointed me to the deepest understanding I had at that time, and the deepest experiences I have known at that point. He said, “Those you are touch stones, refer to that. Let yourself be guided by that,” and that was very very helpful to me.


Martin Aylward