Part 3: Building Avalokita's Community: The Residents, Organization, and Meditation Hall

Interview with Stefano, Letizia, & Marco Part 3

Founders and Residents of Avalokita

June 18, 2017

Stefano (St): I would like to share with you about when Thay visited here. One of our founders, Sylvia wrote this:

“On March 21, 2008, Thay visited the newly purchased property here. With the apple and cherry tree blossoms and snowy mountains in the background, Thay shared his mind about our center: “This is the pure land”, he said. Then he blessed Avalokita with a ceremony. While standing all in a circle in the big meadow, we discovered that we had no incense and no water. So Thay picked up a dandelion, and said, “With this flower, we have everything. This flower contains the whole cosmos.” Using the dandelion, he blessed the place, and all of us by touching our foreheads with the flower. We sang the Prajna Paramita in Italian, and we all felt very moved and happy.”

Sanghabuild (SB): It is wonderful that our teacher could come here and visit Avalokita while he was healthy.

St: Yes we were lucky. He came to Rome for a retreat and the day before the retreat, he was not engaged, so he could come here and visit.

SB: He must have been so proud of you.

St: We were so happy. Brother Michael also came with him, as well as Sr Gina, Phap Do, and Phap Ban. There is a video on our facebook page of Thay blessing the ceremony. (Visit Avalokita’s Facebook page to see the video)

“Thay visited the newly purchased property here. With the apple and cherry tree blossoms and snowy mountains in the background, Thay shared his mind about our center, saying, ‘This is the pure land.’”

SB: Were both of you, from the beginning, always saying, “Yes, we’re happy to live here”?’ Or at what point did that manifest, because that is a big aspiration. I really admire you three for being able to live this life.

St: For 10 years, this has been Helga’s question. Every time we met with Helga and Karl to discuss about the center, she said, “Everything is going fine. But who will live here?!” (Stefano laughs). Every time we met together, this was a koan for us. We were so lucky to have Letizia, having already lived at Intersein. Also at that time, there was a couple, Amedeo, and Nongluck, who were both OI members.

When the center opened, Helga and Karl asked me to live here as well, because I had just ended a relationship of 17 years with my partner. I was free at that moment, so they asked me if I would like to stay here too, at least for one year. I accepted, but it was also for another reason. Because, I was in love with Letizia already, although nobody knew at the time (laughing together).

I accepted the opportunity to live here, but I also confessed that I wasn’t sure that I would be able to live in a small room, as I had been used to having a larger place to myself for many years. I also explained that I needed to make some trips throughout the year. I had to admit and share about my limits at that point. I was not like Letizia and Marco who are so easy and willing to stay in a normal room, as I was used to another kind of lifestyle. It was already a big jump to stay here, so the community accepted these limits I had at the time, and still do have partially. So then I came here, and we were four. Soon after, Marco arrived in November, and we were 5.

A gorgeous summer day at Avalokita with residents Marco (kneeling), Letizia (2nd from left), and Stefano (right), as well a visiting Catholic Dominican nun from Germany.

“I was free at that moment, so they asked me if I would like to stay here too, at least for one year. I accepted, but it was also for another reason. Because, I was in love with Letizia already, although nobody knew at the time.”

St: Letizia and I moved there in the end of 2011 to support the renovation work.  There was still lots of work to the central building. This hall is an extension of the house that we created for the community.

SB: You created this meditation hall we’re in now?

Letizia (L): Yes, like the Amish. (laughs)

SB: Wow, you built it yourselves?

St: Yes, yes, but not all by ourselves (laughs). There was a carpenter, and a group of about 15 of us staying here for 2 weeks during one periond, and then another 2 weeks later. We paid the carpenter to guide our group and the group supported the rest of the construction.

L: During the construction, very often we still invited the bell for 2 minutes of silence. And even with the carpenter! (laughter)

St: We told him, “Oh, you need to stop too!” (more laughter)

SB: When did you start renovating?

St: In 2009, and it took more than 2 years to renovate.

SB: Thats’a lot of community work together, which is amazing.

S: One of our OI members, Andrea, is also a building carpenter. So we renovated places like the bathrooms, some walls, and other areas as a community with his support.

The community listens in serene stillness, as a young man offers the gifts of a bamboo flute during the last night of a retreat.

St: At one point the couple went through a crisis, both with each other and also with the center, as they had different ideas about it. After some consultations with Karl and Helga and a stay at Intersein, they left. Since the end of 2012, it has been just the three of us here.

In 2015, Marco had a crisis too, and he left for 9 months, leaving just me and Letizia here. Marco then returned in the spring and we began again. So you see, this center could not be possible if there was not a strong community embracing us. When we were just two, we still offered retreats. When the extended community came, we were a true community.

Marco (M): What our community went through when I left and came back, it underlines that this is a human path. Because when I came back, they could say ‘No, you left.’ But no, they accepted me with open hearts.

L: We were so happy when he came back because he could clarify things in himself and with us. Karl and Helga supported him and us, by giving him 3 points to clarify in himself as he returned. This event became a big path of understanding and growing up for him. When he came back, he was much more clear and stronger in himself as well.

“What our community went through when I left and came back, underlines that this is a human path… they accepted me with open hearts.”

St: I also want to share about an evolution in our community regarding the non-resident community who often supports and helps us. In the beginning, it was more an idea of material help: cooking breakfast, helping to clean, and so on. Slowly, slowly this has changed a lot. In the beginning we called them ‘Staff’. Now we call them, ‘Extended Community’. Because now, what is more important is that people come here to support the energy of the place. Together we create an energy, a field of consciousness where everybody can come and be held and supported. We know now after so many years, that when people come here, they come for this.

So if you want to make breakfast, that’s okay. But it’s not the main meaning for being here. Because when 20 people come, they need to be supported by our energy and field of consciousness. When you have this field, you have true silence and concentration. When that is missing, people are just on a kind of holiday. That’s also a good thing, we make holidays too… But it’s not the purpose of this place, not the purpose of why people come here, to go to the beach and so on. So it’s important that there’s a group around the resident community to support the energy field of the place.

L: When our extended community of friends offer help, it’s just a consequence of their own personal practice.

St: It’s a subtle thing. They don’t just come here with the idea that we need help, saying, “There are just 3 of them, we need to help them.” No, they come here to practice, and in their practice, they offer help. It’s a kind of revolution in our thinking.

L: It’s a difference in mental state.

SB: It’s beautiful to see how sensitive you are to the energies that people offer here, the subtle energies of practice. You know what people are offering through their work, but especially through their presence.

“Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh

SB: What is the organizational and decision making structure like here?

St: Our center is owned by the Avalokita Foundation, which we discussed before, and this group also makes up the General Council which guides the outline of our work here: what we want to do, which teachers we have, what renovations and improvements we need, like building or buying new benches around the property, and other suggestions. We meet at least once per year, for a 3-4 day retreat, possibly with Helga and Karl present. This bigger council creates smaller councils, like the Council of the Residents or the Council of Finances. If you want to buy small things, then you ask the resident community. But if you want to buy something more expensive, like when we bought the lawnmower, we go to the GC and say, “This is the cost, what do you think about it?” Then the GC discusses and decides what we do. There is also a Dharma Teacher council, including Helga and Karl, just to review our situation, and offer some suggestions here and there. This is our structure, and it flows very easily. We are still very happy about it.

SB: How do you meet all together?

St: Whether we meet in person or on Skype, the practice is our base. We begin every meeting with 3 sounds of the bell. Then we decide the sequence of speaking, and everybody may speak without being interrupted. In the beginning, everyone shares how they are doing, so we have a chance to hear each other, laugh, catch up with what is happening for those who live farther away, and create this connection again. Then we start discussing each of our agenda points, always sharing one at a time. At the end, we finish with 3 sounds of the bell and say goodbye. In our Skype meetings, we feel the support of this style of communication. We continue in the same way, whether during a retreat, meeting in person, or on Skype. The practice is always the ground of our work.

When we created the Avalokita Foundation, we incorporated the 14 Mindfulness Trainings into the charter and in a way that was legally accepted. From the beginning, our center is based on these principles.

We also have internal rules when we meet as a larger council. We created internal agreements, for every situation. In our residential community as well, we have written agreements, like what to do when you are responsible for facilitating practice, and for many other situations. When we show clearly how we do things, others can easily come and learn to facilitate the practice. We have several committed friends who have trained here and help us with rotation tasks.

“The practice is always the ground of our work.”

The Founders Community of Avalokita, over 9 years later after their original visioning session.

SB: Do both of you offer retreats together as Dharma Teachers?

St: Sometimes as OI members, I know for myself, that we have the tendency to offer the practice to others, but we don’t practice ourselves. We forget to practice. Of course it’s a good thing to feel the beauty of the practice, and want to offer to others, but we jump there. So we have to jump back, just to offer the practice to ourselves. And then maybe later we can offer the practice to others, based upon our own experience. This is why I received the lamp transmission in 2006 but have never given a Dharma talk. I feel that we have great teachers already. We have Thay and many Brothers and Sisters who have come here: Sr Annabelle, Sr Gina, Sr Bi Nghiem, Kaira Jewel, Richard Brady… so many good teachers. They don’t need me as a Dharma teacher if I just repeat something. I want to experiment more with myself, and if there is something that I can share, I will share, but not just to repeat something I already heard in a talk. This is very important.

Thay is a true model, he really embodies the teachings. Can you say in English, “Walk your talk”? This for me is the base, because people feel the difference. When you really embody the teachings, something greater is passed on. When Thay speaks it, you feel it. On the other hand, it has been said in our tradition that, “Even if you don’t really experience what you’re teaching, then it’s still good to teach anyways, because others will listen and make the experience.” So this is still good I suppose. But for me, I cannot say something that I don’t experience. This is just for me, and my truth, to be honest. Letizia is of the same vision about that. We have perfect dharma talk videos to watch already (laughs).

SB: Well, you are living your dharma talk. It’s a different kind of teaching.

St: I try to realize what Thay says, “My life is my message”. This is the most important.

L: That’s the main question. It’s not necessary to have a school to teach.

SB: However, I would still love to attend a retreat with both of you, really, as a couple and living the practice here. There are few couples who are Dharma teachers and can share about their practice of being in relationship.

St: Now I think he is flower watering!

SB: Well, we have received so much from the both of you already today. Thank you so much. It feels like we are here with Karl and Helga right now.

St: Grazie, Grazie

Our last night with the residents of Avalokita, as well as Elina and Michael, having just led a retreat. We celebrated our Sangha experience together Italian-style, at a delicious pizzeria.


This is the 3rd and last offering of the Avalokita series. To discover more about Avalokita's creation, we invite you to read Part 1 and Part 2.

To learn more about Avalokita Centre, including retreats and other offerings, please visit their website at Avalokita.it  or their Facebook page.


"If you Practice Well, the Money will Come".... Part 2 of Avalokita Center in Italy

Interview with Stefano and Letizia, Part 2

Founding Members and Dharma Teachers of Avalokita

June 18, 2017

Sanghabuild (SB): What do you feel is most important to share about the founding of this beautiful center and community?

Stefano (St): I will share about the vision, because this is so important. The center is what it is now, but we started with a vision and still grow with that vision. This is important to keep in our hearts because we developed a vision for a resident core community like what we have now, but bigger. We dreamed of at least 5 residents, because Thay has often said that you need at least 5 to have a community. But we make it work anyways with the 3 of us for now.

When our core community becomes stable and settled enough, we intend to create a bigger circle of families and children, a multi-generational community of practitioners. We imagine how many people who could profit from the practice and the community. It is the core community that keeps the fire going. People could practice meditation together in the morning and then go out to work, or school, as socially engaged practitioners. They could receive support from the community and then bring Thay’s practice into the world. This is still the vision we keep in our hearts. Maybe we will realize it in 10 years or 15 years.

It was important for us to be clear about this vision when we were looking for a place to buy – one with the potential to grow up, not for just one house. Now we have the possibility to build 3 or 4 thousand square meters.

SB: Wow, that is a lot of space to grow! That is over 40,000 square feet (by US measurements).

St: We developed this in the beginning with the city council, and now we have permission to build when we are ready. If we had not had that strong vision initially, then we may have settled for something else.

Meandering up the spacious fields behind Avalokita, the views are remarkable… a forest valley below and green to golden fields across.  One can see how much room there is for this community build and grow.

Letizia (L): I want to add a small point. When we speak of both the resident core community and the families who would reside here, the ‘residents’ are those who live and work here and don’t have another job. They dedicate their lives to the place. This is a very important point, because in this way, there’s not a dispersion of energy. Our vision also included those who have the wish to live in a practice center, but who don’t have the possibility to leave their work or their family, but who could still profit from living here.

Because when I left my job, I was living alone and had no children so it was easier to leave my job. But if I had children or a husband, maybe I would not be here now. This possibility gives families with children a wonderful opportunity to breathe new fresh life into them. At the same time, I feel that dedicating our lives as ‘residents’ to the practice center is important because we can keep the energy concentrated and not dispersed. This is important, like what Sr Chan Khong said, “If you practice well, the center will manifest”. So it’s important to keep the question alive in ourselves: “Where do I put my energy?”  I want my thoughts and actions each day to go in the direction of our vision.

When our core community becomes stable and settled enough, we intend to create a bigger circle of families and children, a multi-generational community of practitioners. We imagine how many people who could profit from the practice and the community. 

A broad community of both young adults and all-age Sangha members gather after a long hiking meditation through the forests and hills surrounding Avalokita.

St: When we were looking for a place, we were also looking for money. We were looking for an affordable place, in a beautiful environment, well-preserved, with good air and water. We visited many places, some in Tuscany that were more expensive, and others that were affordable and nice but too far from any center. If you have to drive more than 20 or 30 minutes to town, it becomes a problem if you need a doctor or hospital, or take children to school every day. If our vision is to have this bigger community then we also need to be close enough to schools. So, slowly, we passed on many places in Italy.

The place in Tuscany was very beautiful and several people really liked it. We even invited Karl and Helga to come and visit it with us to have their perspective. Yes, it was beautiful, yes it was nice, but it was more money than we had, and we would have to borrow money by taking some loans to pay for it. When we asked Karl’s advice, he said to us, “The question is whether you want to be practicing together, or whether you want to run a business. Because if you settle here and buy this place, then you will have to be constantly wondering how to pay for such a place, and this will distract you from your practice.” And so, from then on, the same question continued to guide us. Whenever we need to make any decision about something that may “improve” our center, we ask ourselves:  ‘Will this support us in our practice?’. If yes, we include it, otherwise we drop it. In this way we understood that the place in Tuscany was not the ideal place for us, that it would give us too many cows, as Thay says. (A story of the Buddha, in which a man lost many of his cows and was deeply distressed. Therefor, if we can let go of ‘cows’ we don’t need, then we can live more freely).  So we let it go, and patiently kept looking for another opportunity.

It’s important to keep this question alive in ourselves “Where do I put my energy?” I want my thoughts and actions each day to go in the direction of our vision.

Good air, clean water, well preserved, and a beautiful environment?…. Yes!

One day, a friend living not for from here, Francesca, heard about this place, and said, “Why don’t you come have a look?” And so I came here with her and it was quite a ruin. But it was a beautiful place, wth the mountains, spaciousness, and fields. So we said, ‘Why Not?’, and we asked the community to come and take a look. We invited Helga and Karl to come again for the 2nd time to look at a property. A group of 15 of us visited the place together. We walked up the hill and sat close to the big oak and cherry tree on top, for half an hour, just to look and feel. Then we said, “Why not? This is good!”

The first point of business was to discuss with the town and county governance here, whether they would like to support us in our intentions. ‘Were we truly welcome here?’, we wondered. We didn’t know. We had two or three meetings with people in the village at the elementary school, and we explained what we wished to do. They shared with us that they had had a bad experience with a previous community. So we explained our intentions in depth and spoke with their mayor.

We shared that we wanted to start small, but then have the possibility to grow and expand. So we made an agreement with them, before purchasing the place in full, that it would be possible to build 3 to 4 thousand square meters once we bought it. And that’s a lot to build. This was very important. We have to think ahead that places can really grow up. It may not, who knows? But if we start here and outgrow the space, then we have to go to another place and start over again. So we wanted to really build at the right place.

The southern view of Avalokita, with villages behind and city life below. The center is intimately surrounded by nature; however, schools, a hospital, markets, and amazing pizzerias are just down the hill or across the valley.

SB: Backing up a little bit, I’m curious, when you spoke with the community here and the schools, how were you received? And did you share that you were Buddhist?

St: Sure, sure we told them. In 2008, after we bought the place, we had a day of mindfulness with the people in the village. We invited them to come and have lunch together, and we explained our practice of walking meditation. Here in the village, there was nothing like that. Everybody came and asked questions, and we showed a video of Thay. Over time we created more and more connections. Now, during Christmas time, Easter, and New Years, some of us attend mass, and we know the priests. Also after the earthquake in 2009, and last year as well, their church was partly destroyed, and so we invited the priests to come here and offer mass. They found another solution, but what is important is that we asked them. “If you want to come at 10 o’clock, well we won’t have a dharma talk until 11 o’clock.” So now we feel a very good relationship with the village. They appreciate what we do, and they say, ‘Ah, you make this very beautiful, we love how you care for the borders.” We have planted many beautiful plants and flowers near our neighbors’ property.

Avalokita is part of a village, reaching out to their neighbors and lovingly caring for their adjoining gardens.

SB: How did you acquire the finances for buying the land?

As for the money, our spiritual tradition has an answer: ‘Sraddha’, which in Sanskrit means ‘trust’. Trust in the practice. It’s one of the 5 powers taught by the Buddha. So we founded a trust, an organization, to gather money and raise the funds. In Italy there is no fundraising tradition, not at all like in the United States.

One day we shared our concerns about raising enough money to buy the place, with Sr. Chan Khong. She smiled gently at us and looked at us for some moments. She reinforced our trust and shared, “If you practice well, the money will come.” Wow! So this was our inspiration to continue to practice and vision together.

So we decided to create a core group of people who were very dedicated to this project, and would meet once a month together for 2 years. Every month, we enjoyed a mindfulness weekend in a different part of Italy, to practice sitting and walking meditation, mindful eating, listen to dharma talks, and so on. The rest of our time in the weekend, we sat together in a circle and shared our visions for the future center. The overarching guideline for our practice together was, “There is no way to a practice center, the practice Center is the way”. And we developed trust that the money will come.

In reality, this was exactly what happened. Practitioners started giving donations from 5 euros to 100,000 euros. So by the end, we gathered over one million euros.  

SB: A million?! Wow, that’s incredible you were able to do that. I’m so impressed.

St: To buy the place it was not so expensive, about 200,000 euros. But it required many many renovations, lots of work. So we needed money, and money came. I have to say that the majority of the money came from our inner circle: practitioners and OI members, and not just from one single donor. We received donations from one to two hundred people and this brought a lot of energy to our project. So also from this point of view, our center has been a community creation. 

“There is no way to a practice center, the practice Center is the way”

She smiled gently at us and looked at us for some moments. She reinforced our trust and shared, “If you practice well, the money will come.”

SB: That is truly amazing. When did you start the financial planning and fundraising?

St: In 2003 we started gathering money using a Trust with the name “Towards a Community of Mindful Living.”  In 2008, we bought this place, closed the Trust and created the “Avalokita Foundation” that is still composed of about 30 dedicated people, and which owns the place. The renovations lasted 4 years, while we continued to raise funds. On April 22nd, 2012, we inaugurated the center together with over 200 people, including many from the village nearby and all the workers who had contributed to renovate the building. 

SB: Can you share about how it was bought?

In the past, this place was a ceramic workshop, as this area is well known for its clay and ceramics in Italy. Before that, it was a preschool and kindergarten. When we arrived here, the owner was so happy to sell to us. He had other people who were also interested to buy, but he really appreciated our project and supported us. He really wanted to sell to us because he knew that the place would have a beautiful future.

L: The owner, he told us, ‘I would really like to sell this place to you, because in this way, it will be owned by everybody.’

St: He was very understanding of what we wanted to do. He is still alive, and lives in the village here. He is 85 years old, and he comes every so often to visit us.

The founders of Avalokita, celebrating both the Centre’s completion as well as their Sanghahood together.

SB: So you bought the place in December in 2007. So that was almost 4 years, by the time you moved in, in 2011?

St: Yes, because As I shared, in the beginning, we had to clarify with the municipality about the project and our long term planning to build more upon the property just to be sure. When we bought it, we just invested part of the money. But before we started restoring the place, we had to be sure that there was support. So also in the meantime, we created the Avalokita Foundation. Once this place was bought by one of us, he then gave this place to the Foundation.

SB: And that was one of the big donors?

S: Yes, but that person bought this place with the money of everybody. It was really a trust process because everyone trusted everybody else. And he was a dharma teacher. So everyone gave their money to one person, and the person who bought the place then made a donation to the Foundation. So it’s owned by the Foundation.

He told us, “I would like to sell this place to you, because in this way, it will be owned by everybody.” 

SB: What was difference between the Trust and the Avalokita Foundation, and does this entity make decisions for the practice center?

St: When we found this place, we had part of the money, yet not all of it. Slowly we investigated how to manage it. The ‘Trust’ and the ‘Foundation’ are 2 different things: the Trust opened in 2003 to gather money initially; it involved only me and Silvia, another founder. We closed the Trust in 2008 as soon as Avalokita Foundation was created and took its place.

The Avalokita Foundation is a financial foundation; it was the right means and instrument for us. Maybe in the US it’s different, but here you have people in a group, which is a closed group, you have a vision and money, and you wish to realize a goal. A foundation is a good instrument to do that.

When we created it, we invited all the Italian OI members to join, and many of them did. Our Foundation totaled 25 OI members and other practitioners, who were deeply linked and committed to the center, including Helga and Karl (guiding Dharma teachers from Germany). The Foundation members are involved in the General Council, which makes decisions for the Center, including finances. This is a very living organ in our community body. Every year, those who no longer have enough conditions to participate, they leave the Foundation. Meanwhile, we invite another committed practitioner and community member to enter. Thus, the core community is constantly renewing and restoring itself, while maintaining its roots

A breathtaking sunrise manifests directly over Avalokita, as a new day dawns for this community’s blooming center of practice.

SB: It seems that this was really the right place for you.

St: I don’t know, but this is the place! Right or wrong, this is what we have now, but we like it. We like it very much. I would not want to live anywhere else. Why? Well, what do I want to do with my life? Here my life has a beautiful continuation. I would not like to go back to Rome, or my job. For Marco and Leticia also, it’s our life, we have no doubts about it. Because when you work here, you see people arrive with sadness. But after they stay here, they leave with this (points to a big smile on his face). It’s a great great gift, something that gives back to you. It’s so great, it’s the most important thing that somebody can give back to you. To see people’s lives transform, from this place, from what you do here, and how you support it. It’s such a great gift, a great reward.

Right or wrong, this is what we have now, but we like it. We like it very much. I would not want to live anywhere else… Here my life has a beautiful continuation.

SB: I can see that you’re Helga’s student, because she says the same thing about living in Intersein.

St: This is the experience of a community practice center; whether you do it here or in the US, you experience the same. Whether people are living in Rome, Milan or wherever, the city is stressful. When they come here and just arrive at a beautiful place, with gardens, flowers, a mountain, and community, it is a real gift.

L: They can come here, change their rhythm, and slow down. It happens like a magic trick.

 “To see people’s lives transform, from this place, from what you do here, and how you support it. It’s such a great gift, a great reward.”

“When they come here and just arrive at a beautiful place, with gardens, flowers, a mountain, and community, it is a real gift.”


To continue learning about the development of Avalokita's creation, we invite you to follow Part 3, the last of the Avalokita series...


Part 1 of Avalokita: "There is No Way to a Practice Center.... The Practice Center is the Way!"

Interview with Stefano and Letizia,

Founding Members and Dharma Teachers of Avalokita

June 18, 2017

Sanghabuild (SB): Please share with us about your journey. How was this incredible center and community created here?

Stefano (St): Thank you for this opportunity for us also to remember. Sometimes we are so taken in the present, it’s a beautiful moment, but also we can forget to remember.

What is original in this story, is that this center has been the fruit of a community, from the material point of view, but also from the spiritual point of view. This is something I feel is very precious here. The story actually starts between 1993 and 1999, when Karl and Helga were living in Plum Village. Since Helga speaks Italian very well, she was responsible for the Italian families. There were not so many Italian OI members like there are now; at the time there were just 5 of us. Being in touch with Helga and Karl, we developed a great appreciation for their work there: the way they presented Thay’s teachings to Italians, their incredibly generous availability to listen to us, offering us personal consultations, and so on. Many strong connections were created during this time between the Italian Sangha with Plum Village and Thay, because we had somebody closer to us who we could address, ask questions, or go to for support.

Karl and Helga in Plum Village, France, after having received the Dharmacharya lamp transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in 1996.

Then in 1997, Thay suggested that his students create communities of mindful living everywhere in the world. It was a really strong invitation to the community, above all to the lay community. So in that period, the Italian Sangha invited Karl and Helga to come to Italy and create a practice center. It was just an idea… but a seed was already planted!

At the same time, Karl Schmied, a German Dharma teacher and wealthy businessman, invited Karl and Helga to go to Germany, to open a practice center with him. This would soon become Intersein Center. So, we admit that the Italians were a little bit disappointed (laughs). But what could we say? They already had a beautiful place there, and so we just accepted that it was like that. But!… The desire and aspirations were still there. After Intersein was built, the Italian OI members started to visit Intersein regularly in addition to Plum Village. We deeply appreciated the place, its beauty, how they cared for the gardens and buildings, and of course the support from Helga and Karl as teachers.

The forest of beech and fir trees surrounding Intersein are illuminated first in the early morning sunshine.

Helga and Karl also supported the Italian community by offering weeklong retreats in Italy, starting in 1999, which created more and more connections. They took care of our budding OI community. With their support over the years, we have grown from only 4 OI members to now 63, including 7 dharma teachers in Italy!

Helga and Karl made a strong bridge between us and Thay’s teachings, especially about being a community. They really supported us to create a real community. Before the center, the community.

So already at that time before we started the project, when our OI community had a problem, we went to Intersein. This was easy as we already had a weeklong retreat every year in the summer at Intersein. We went there for one week in July, and they came here for one week in August. When our OI community was still young, we had some real challenges. I remember how they sat with us in the Intersein upper meditation hall for hours over many days, supporting us to go through it together. Every time the dinner bell was invited, people found us in the meditation hall discussing our OI challenges. At the time, they were younger and more available. Now they are older and have to take better care of their energy and time.

“They really supported us to create a real community. Before the center, the community.”

Helga receives the lamp transmission ceremony from Thay, ordaining her as a lay Dharma Teacher in the Plum Village tradition.

The story of our practice center is the story of the OI community in Italy. This is very important. I have an image which I love regarding our connection with Plum Village, Thay, the monastics, Karl and Helga. Thay is like a father; he is our beloved father. But as a father, he travels a lot, and he has a lot of kids every where. Spiritual children of course (laughs). So we have one aunt and one uncle to help take care of Thay’s children, who can address their nieces and nephews and say why the father is engaged in so much wonderful work in the world. And so this is the image for me – they are the uncle and aunt, that supports the parents’ vision. When a child stays with the grandparents, perhaps they are not as strict as the father and mother. Karl and Helga, however, they are quite strict as uncle and aunt, sometimes more strict than Thay! But it’s to give us good direction and motivation for practice.

Thich Nhat Hanh leading walking meditation in Plum Village, sometime during the mid-1990’s.

In 2002, inspired by Thay’s invitation to create mindfulness communities, and also inspired by the experience of Intersein, which was already in its third year, we asked Helga and Karl, “Why don’t you come to Italy anyway?” We thought, “Maybe there is space for them to come here at least part time.” So they were really wonderful to say, “Okay, okay, you start and we will come.” So in 2003, we started the project to create this center. We had the encouraging idea that they could come and help us, because they also had Karl Schmied to help with Intersein, the other co-founder of Intersein. We started with this idea and then slowly, slowly, we began to understand that it was only us who were in charge! And this was a big learning for our community. Because in the beginning we had the idea that Helga and Karl would solve everything, and we would be able to simply enjoy our practice center (laughs). But no. Slowly slowly we understood that we had to be responsible for everything, while receiving their guidance. And so we grew up slowly like that, as a community.

Karl and Helga guided and encouraged us by saying, “Okay, you can create a group in the OI community, to put together a vision of the place, and so that when the center is ready, you will have a very clear and shared vision, about what you want to do here. Yes, we have models – we have Plum Village, we have Intersein, but maybe you can manifest an Italian practice center!”

This became the best period in our community. For those of us who were able, we gathered once a month, calling ourselves, the ‘Explorative Core’, to understand our direction together. We met in person from Friday to Sunday and with a similar program we have here: meditation, silent meals, walking meditation, silence in the morning. And in the afternoon we had visioning sessions together. It was very interesting, because at first you may think that everyone is fairly clear about what we are going to create together. Then you discover that everybody has their own ideas! Somebody wants a volleyball field, somebody wants to have sheep, somebody wants an organic garden…and on and on and on. So in this way through our visioning sessions, everyone was able express themselves and be heard, as well as have a chance to look through the community’s eyes.

The community of Avalokita gathers to share experiences and insights during Dharma Sharing.

“Yes, we have models – we have Plum Village, we have Intersein, but maybe you can manifest an Italian practice center!”

Over time, we understood that we had to focus ourselves on what could support our practice. For example, personally I would like to have an organic garden here, with vegetables and big tomato plants… but we are only three residents now. You can already see in the evening how much we water all the fruit trees. So we discussed, “Will an organic garden support our practice?” “No?” “Okay, not now.” So we dropped it. This happened similarly for many things, so many ideas we have had. Every idea is welcome, but it always comes down to the main question: ‘Does this support our practice or not?’ Then, it’s very clear and easy to decide. It allowed us to put together a vision that we have realized.

SB: Who offered this question? It’s simple but it’s very deep.

St: It was from Karl. Many times he told us, ‘When we have a Sangha meeting at Intersein-Zentrum, I am full of ideas. So I sit there and I share my ideas. And then we ask, “But does this support our practice? No? Okay, I drop it.”

It was a very powerful time for many of us, creating connections between this group, really building trust in each other, and trust in the process. We learned a simple process of decision making, like the Sanghakarman, in which we cultivate our views and refine insights together as a Sangha body. This was a beautiful teaching for me, a wonderful period of growing up as a person and as a community, in that experience with the explorative core group.

We pause during walking meditation at Avalokita, looking at this beloved mountain range as one Sangha body.

“Everyone was able to express themselves and to be heard, as well as have a chance to look through the community’s eyes.”

SB: How many people were in the explorative core group?

St: We were about 15. Because remember, the OI was about 20 at the time. And also we involved 3 or 4 friends who were not OI members, but were really involved with it.

SB: So 15, and most were OI, except for a few? And did those first 15 stay until the end?

St: The majority yes. Our deep experience of community building in this way made it possible for the founding members to stay engaged and responsible for our center. I’ve heard of many experiences in which those who built the center ended up leaving. Karl offered us this metaphor: “When you go to the jungle and open a path with a machete, it’s a kind of work you offer. But after the path is opened, other people come and continue the path by offering flowers and different things.” In this case, it’s amazing that the same people who started visioning Avalokita 14 years ago, those who cleared the path, they are still here, taking care and planting flowers.

SB: And those people who came together? They were really inspired to have the center?

St: Yes, we were inspired to have a center in the Plum Village tradition, this was very clear. Our foundation and vision was guided by the 14 Mindfulness Trainings, as well as our beloved aunt and uncle, Helga and Karl, and with support of Thay and the monastic community. Every year, we sent Thay a letter, letting him know about the progress of our project, and we shared with him what we’ve been doing whenever he came to Italy. And as I’ll share later, he came here to bless our center.

The community of Avalokita is blooming in ways, including its luscious gardens and radiant lily pond.

So in this way, the center was born with roots well planted in the Plum Village tradition. But, most of us knew nothing about how to manage a lay practice center! So again, we took guidance from Karl and Helga about running an organization and facilitating practice. Some of us lived at Intersein for one month to train, whereas Letizia had lived there for 3 years. And at the time, there was no possibility to have such training at Plum Village as a lay practitioner, although that has changed I think. Here, we have a rotation of facilitators during the retreat. One person is responsible for the bell all day long, from wake up until evening. It takes some training to be present and focused all day long for all the activities and meals. So we learned a lot from Intersein’s experience as a lay practice center, while never forgetting Plum Village as our root temple.

At a few points, deep inspiration came from Sr Chan Khong, who shared with us, “If you want to create a practice center, be a practice center already.” So our group lived this experience together. Our motto became: ‘There is no way to a practice center, practice center is the way.’ We tried to realize this aspiration just to be a practice center even if we didn’t know whether would receive money for the place, or find people to live here full time.

“Deep inspiration came from Sr Chan Khong, who shared with us, ‘If you want to create a practice center, be a practice center already.’ So our group lived this experience together.”

Avalokita’s main building, against a glorious mountain backdrop. The locals call this range “the Italian Tibet”, and it’s easy to see why.

To learn more about the Italian Sangha’s creation of Avalokita, we invite you to follow Part 2 of the Avalokita series…


Gem at the Foot of the Mountain: Welcome to Avalokita, Italy

Welcome to Avalokita,
Beloved Mindfulness Practice Center of Italy

In the first of our two posts on Avalokita, we welcome you on a photo journey through this wonderland of mountainous landscape, vibrant flora, and rock solid community. We will walk and hike through the span of one full day at Avalokita, from red glowing sunrise over the Italian countryside, to glowing mountains in the dark blue twilight. Here at Avalokita, the sun, mountains, fields, and moon are as much a part of the community as the people who live and commune here. Let us now awaken to her early morning summer rose light…

Waking up before the morning bell, taking soft steps through the house, filling a thermos with hot tea, we walk slowly up the rugged field, finding a comfortable spot amidst the straw grass and clods of earth. With each sip of tea, red light over the dark rolling hills grows brighter and brighter…

The burnt red light changes to flaming pinks and orange, all the while filling the mountainside behind us with its glowing spectrum.

Avalokita has awoken.

Like rich golden oolong tea pouring into a clear glass cup, the golden morning light flows in and fills the tea room completely, awakening both orchids and Thay’s calligraphy. Its message is clear and alive in this moment…

“La Pace e la gioia sono possibili”

“Peace and Joy are Possible”

The pond lies motionless under early morning rays. Without a hint of urgency, the lilies take their sweet time to open, and frogs rest after another boisterous night of lusty croaking. But the butterflies and bees already quietly make their breakfast rounds through the garden. Morning meditation is over, yet noble silence continues for the community, quietly and vibrantly alive.

Breakfast in serenity and quiet, as we eat and contemplate…

“This bread is a gift of the entire cosmos”

Every morning after breakfast, whether during retreat or not, the community at Avalokita gathers for Morning Circle. One of three resident practitioners, Letizia guides us in a short meditation to both center our mind and presence individually, and connect us collectively. Then we grasp each others’ hands for a few moments, welcome the day’s activities before us, and share the joy of song.

“Morning has come,

Night is away.

Rise with the sun,

And welcome this day.”

Avalokita stands like a sentinel over the activity bell, ensuring the bell master’s calm and focus as she invites the community for the next gathering.

Behind her, Thay’s words echo throughout the house, a reminder of when he and a delegation of monastics visited the center just after its opening in 2011. Upon walking mindfully up the back hill, between the center and mountains, Thay spoke, “This is a place of healing.” Then Thay offered it a name, “Center of Deep Listening”. Because the Italian translation of had some ambiguous meaning, the founders adapted the name to “Avalokita”, the bodhissatva of great compassion and deep listening.

“Ascolta con Compassion”

“Listen with Compassion.”

The Sangha gathers in the meditation hall for a Dharma discussion, facilitated by Marco, another Avalokita resident practitioner.

On the left is Dharma teacher Michael Schwammberger, former monk and abbot of Son Ha Hamlet in Plum Village, who offered this 5 day retreat at Avalokita. The community invites both lay and monastic Dharma Teachers from around Europe to offer retreats throughout the year.

Sharing in pairs…

Italians love love love to share from the heart, as seen from the rich smile on her beaming face…

And some playful sharing too, never a problem for Italian youth…

Okay, enough sitting inside for us. Let’s take this Sangha magic out and explore!

But keeping our silence, we tune into the world and each other, soaking in cascading mountain reliefs, glorious sunshine, rolling golden fields, abundant wild cherry trees, and more. Each step of our silent strolling bodies is alive and free…

Hungry?  Yum!!!

We break, and pick some wild cherries in the woods. No joke, these grow all over Avalokita’s property and around the region.

Try some, but let’s save enough for a cherry crumble later!

We continue hiking through Avalokita’s hillside of olive groves, 65 trees in total. They cure their own olives here, as well as partner with friends to make fresh olive oil for cooking. The groves are also perfect for a quiet and romantic period of evening sitting meditation.

And you can enjoy some premier organic Italian olive oil with Marco, Avalokita’s unofficial bread master, especially after a hot loaf arrives fresh from the oven.

Some salt and olive oil on delicious homemade bread, along with Marco’s charming Italian accent, “Mangi, Mangi!”, and you know you’ve truly arrived at this Italian Sangha home.

Every evening, the Sangha enjoys either sitting meditation in the hall, or a slow walking meditation outside. This evening, the weather is sparklingly beautiful, and the sunset light is irresistible…  We head outside again for a mellow saunter around the center.

Nothing else to say here …

Here is the pure land. The pure land is here.

Local villagers call this region, “the Italian Tibet.”

Turn around, and see why.

Behold the magic behind our steps….

And we arrive back home, watching dual sunsets unfurl their majesty of lights before our eyes, and at our feet.

We end this evening with a tea meditation, filled with musical offerings that respond to the day’s many wonders and teachings. Everyone has a turn to share their tune, inspiration, and laughter with the community, as we close the retreat together in rhythm and harmony.

An aspiring rock star by day, this young man shares the depths of his gifts and spirit with the Sangha by night.

We know that he will share his awakening and compassion with countless other youth as he passes through this sacred center and blessed community.

As the evening closes, we meander outside the meditation hall to commune with the refreshing night sky before bed.

Always awake, magnificent, and solidly present at any hour, we bow goodnight to the mountains embracing us.

Goodnight and thank you, Avalokita


Stories from Plum Village to Intersein: Interview with With Karl and Helga

“We want our practice to be an expression of our deepest gratitude”

Here, we head straight into the stories and teachings of Intersein Founders, Karl and Helga. Splashing together interviews with their written stories, and using colorful anecdotes of the past to paint their teachings for us in the present, Karl and Helga offer a living window into the first years of Plum Village. Their early encounters with Thich Nhat Hanh (referred to affectionately by his students as Thay, meaning teacher), and six years as residents in Plum Village paved a foundation for later building the most established lay practice center in the tradition, Intersein-Zentrum. Weaving in and out of their stories, we offer old photos that few have seen of the very early days in Plum Village, including Karl and Helga’s building and stewardship of West Hamlet (a lay residence in Plum Village).

The historic meeting between Karl, Helga, and Karl Schmied, in front of the buildings which would soon become known as West Hamlet. Karl Schmied and a Vietnamese-German friend bought the property which Helga and Karl were tasked with completely renovating and overseeing for the next 3 years.

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How did you arrive in Plum Village and where did your spiritual journey begin?

It all began in May 1992. But our spiritual journey and search had already been underway for fourteen years: it started in 1978 in Poona with Bhagwan/Osho, leading us to large international communities in England and America, to monasteries in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Japan and Thailand, and finally to Italy, to study and learn in the Tibetan-Buddhist tradition at the Lama Tsong Khappa Institute in Pomaia, south of Pisa.

When Thay and Sister Chan Kong arrived at the Institute in May 1992 to lead a retreat, it was as though we had run into old spiritual friends after a long, long time. Although barely recognizable, there was an intense feeling of closeness. Thay’s presence, his teachings and practice, gave us the feeling that we had arrived home after a very long journey. Encouraged by Sister Chan Kong, we took part in the three week June Retreat in Plum Village, and at the end we knew, ‘This is our spiritual practice, this is the language we understand and want to learn.’ We were completely clear that we needed a Sangha to progress along our chosen path.

The next step was the Winter Retreat 1992/93, to learn what it meant to live in a spiritual community. We were deeply moved by the cheerful warmth of our Vietnamese brothers and sisters in the Dharma, practiced and celebrated with them, and enjoyed the presence of Thay, especially listening to his Dharma talks while the whole community was squeezed into the kitchen of Lower or Upper Hamlet. When Thay subsequently asked, ‘Why don’t you just come and live with us’, we decided to move to Plum Village.

That was in May 1993. Our new life had begun.

Summer retreat participants with Helga and Karl in the early 1990's when the community was still small with only a few monastics. In the next decade, Plum Village would soon have thousands of summer retreatants very year.

Helga: Our new ‘home’ was the former kitchen in the Persimmon building, one of the large, old farmhouses in Lower Hamlet. We exchanged all the comforts of our large house and the wonderful landscapes of Tuscany for a small, dark and damp room. The view was no longer over the rolling hills of Tuscany and the Mediterranean, but rather rusty washy machines. For three days I wrestled with the question of whether I had made the right decision. Listening to Thay’s talks, practicing mindfulness, observing my mind, I realized that I had not come to Plum Village to indulge my own likes and avoid my dislikes; rather I had come for one reason only: to get to know my own mind and cultivate Bodhicitta.

Shortly afterwards I received an emphatic reminder of this from Thay. It turned out that we were given responsibility for the renovation of an old building. We saw this as a challenge and a chance to drop all our ideas and expectations and to do all that was needed and desired of us with joy. After we had successfully renovated the house we showed Thay around, admittedly with pride, and with the expectation of a few words of praise. Thay must have felt this as he turned to me and said, ‘Helga, this is not why you came to Plum Village.’ Although a little disappointed I could accept what he said, and then a few days later understand that I was still very dependent on praise and criticism. Thanks to this direct, personal comment by Thay, I was able to understand my reasons for coming to Plum Village more clearly.

After two weeks of of living in Plum Village, Sister Chan Khong presents Helga and Karl with a task. Two German friends in the Sangha had donated an old crumbling building and beautiful piece of land not far from Plum Village. Karl and Helga were asked to make it a Sangha home. With shovels in hand and friends to help, Karl stands outside of the dilapidated old building, later to be known as West Hamlet.

    

It's hard to believe that these rooms would soon become a beautiful meditation hall and dining room. Helga works with a friend to completely renovate the ramshackle stone walls.

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Karl: During the Winter Retreat, Thay gave his Dharma talks (Sundays and Thursdays) alternately in the kitchens of Lower Hamlet and Upper Hamlet. Even today I can still clearly see the small kitchen of Lower Hamlet before me: Thay sat against the one long wall with the large black oven to his right; opposite him, perhaps six or seven meters, was the kitchenette where food was prepared on large gas rings. In this intimate space, up to 30 of us huddled together... therefore, we were cosy and warm. I had taken on the honorable task of recording Thay’s Dharma talks, and had acquired the necessary equipment.

On one Sunday I was also the ‘Bell Master’, which meant I had to invite the bell before, during and after the talk in ‘masterly’ fashion. I had positioned the bell in a raised spot on the sideboard behind me, and had my equipment before me on the table. For some reason I was not able to achieve a particularly elegant state of concentration, and this was reflected in the sound of the bell. As the sound died away I heard Thay’s voice, ‘Karl, come!’ As I turned around shocked, the next sentence arrived, ‘And bring the bell with you.’ It seemed like an eternity before we, the bell and I, reached Thay, and I put the bell down next to him on the table. And then came Thay’s loving hand which guided mine in inviting the bell. A great tension in me disappeared. Only intuition now. Him and me, just that. I stood in this atmosphere of loving attention without the slightest hint of blame or rebuke, just goodwill.

After 10 minutes, he was satisfied. I went back to my seat and Thay began his talk. At the end, several mainly Western Dharma friends approached me with compassion and sympathy – rebuked before the entire community?!

No. It was the most impressive experience of Thay and his message: peace in one person creates peace in another.

Helga sharing a cup of tea and wide smiles with her teacher while still residing in Plum Village.

"The manner in which Thay teaches the Dharma and the Practice is both gentle and simple, yet also deep. And always unconventional. We cannot hold onto knowledge, should not pass on empty words and a practice that has been drilled into us. And he dedicatedly helps us to only teach what we ourselves have realized. On the one hand this still remains for me a great challenge, and on the other, it liberates me and gives me the encouragement to be myself."  - Karl

For one year, Lower Hamlet in Plum Village was a completely lay community while the monastics lived in the other hamlets. Thay offered a ceremony to present Helga as the abbess of Lower Hamlet during that period. Plum Village was later led completely by monastics. Karl and Helga stayed there for over 6 years during all of these changes. In 1998, their beloved Dharma brother, Karl Schmied, made a proposition to them to build a lay practice community together in Germany. 

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What was your inspiration for moving from Plum Village to Intersein?

Helga: I remember when I was in Plum Village, in 93 or 94, and Thay said, “The noblest task that you ever can do is to build community. The noblest task is building a community that can reduce the suffering in the world, and to be there for people to transform. But first we have to transform, and then we’ll be able to help people to transform. So living 6 years in Plum Village, I knew that this is the lifestyle that I wanted to live. Otherwise, other things don’t interest me. And after 6 years, we thought, “This is our life now,” and we wanted to do the same thing in Germany that we experienced in Plum Village. This was our vision, to live this kind of life that Thay lived. And therefore we did...

In May 1999, Karl, Helga, and Karl Schmied bought an old hotel in the Bavarian countryside in south eastern Germany, near the Austrian border. Before launching the new center and moving in, they agreed that it was necessary to completely renovate the old building with its 20 bedrooms, pub and restaurant. For about one year a worker form a neighboring village did all the major work, with some guiding assistance from the founders. Karl and Helga continued to live in Plum Village during this time while overseeing the project. They believed that it was essential to move in together only when the house was near completion, in order to begin their community life by focusing on practice, and not simply on construction. Whatever was left to be done, which was still a lot, could be done in the working meditation period together, or “doing things joyfully period” as they called it. They finally moved in with two Sangha friends and began their new life of community practice together. After just a few years, their center was thriving and became a spiritual refuge for the greater Sangha in Germany. Their training in Plum Village and close relationship to Thay created a foundation for the community's strength and stability of daily practice.

What are some lessons that you have learned and can share with us?

Karl and Helga: One of the principles of our Sangha: never, even in difficult or seemingly pressing situations, put the practice aside, skip the scheduled activities. Yes, there is a lot to do for a small group of people – running a big center and many retreats, being there for many guests – and there are a lot of fascinating ideas and projects. But the main question is: is it in accordance with the life we would like to live, does it fit into our schedule, is it really necessary? Through this emphasis on a constant, uninterrupted practice, gradually the stability and happiness of the small Sangha increased and radiated out. People were intrigued by this concentrated and light atmosphere, noticing, how so much work was done with calm and ease, and how this contrasted with their own unskillful ways of their daily life. So, most people came back again and again, staying for even longer periods – depending on their time and financial resources – to be in close contact with the Dharma and the Sangha. Refreshed and with new insights they return to their families and workplaces – and coming back, they report their experiences, sharing their successes and difficulties.

Karl Schmied with Karl and Helga Riedl together at Intersein

Helga: When I arrived in Plum Village I was not aware how I was being pulled one way and another by my preconceived ideas and opinions. For 40 years we had not felt comfortable in our culture. This caused us to leave Germany. For over 20 years we travelled in Asia and did not have the least intention of returning to Germany. The county that attracted us most was India, our spiritual homeland. Thay must have noticed and it felt like he was talking directly to me when in one of his talks he put his finger on his heart and said ‘India is here’. I could hear myself spontaneously answer, ‘No Thay, for me India is India.’

When in 1999 our Dharma brother Karl Schmeid asked whether we would be willing to open a practice centre in Germany together with him, I only tentatively agreed upon the condition that I could spend 2 months a year in India. After returning from my second stay in India and after a long meditation, I asked myself the question, ‘How is it possible that Thay is always at home where he is, and what is it that prevents me from experiencing this for myself?’ It became clear to me that I had created an image in my mind that reflected my preferences, attachments and expectations but had nothing to do with reality. As a result of all of this I was able to free myself from the fixed idea that I needed to go to India, and to make peace with Germany. Not least of all, I no longer rejected the long, cold winter months, but rather came to see them as a productive time for introspection and meditation. So I finally understood what Thay meant at the time when he pointed to his heart with his finger and said ‘India is here’. However, now it was my own experience, which made it all the more liberating.

"For ourselves we see only one way of expressing our gratitude for all we have received: through our practice, and by passing on what we have received from him as well as we can and circumstances permit."

Helga and Karly each individually received the Dharma Lamp Transmission from Thay in 1996, offering them boundless trust and encouragement to teach the Dharma.

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“Since the very beginning we inspired and attracted people to share our way of life and practice, that means to live under the same roof for twenty four hours in the spirit of the six harmonies.”

What has been your Vision for Intersein?

Karl: “The emphasis for us is always transformation and healing. You can help and support what is now referred to as evolutionary psychology. That means, humanity needs to raise its consciousness out of its kind of conditioned mind into a kind of a higher mind. Adn that is actually what Buddhism wants….

So we have to raise the consciousness, into a different state, you can call it a nirvana-state consciousness, where you don’t have such conflict, but you have wisdom, compassion and all these kinds of things. And then by itself you don’t have dukkha and don’t create dukkah (a Buddhist term reflecting our mind's tendency towards unsatisfactoriness or suffering). And then you are a lamp for other people. You are not a lamp for other people just because you are aware. That is nonsense, it doesn’t help. Awareness is to be ware of where you are stuck, and to help you raise your mind into a different kind of a mind. That is what we are here for.

Helga: “What we want is for people to come here and feel attracted to really transform their deep suffering. And this is not every person’s interest, and this can be difficult. When we have retreats, it’s first for ourselves, and then we can share what we have learned with others. The aim is just to transform. The more we dive in, we see how deep rooted the suffering is. So we think, “Ah, we still have to learn.” And this keeps us moving, learning, and transforming. The more difficult it is, the more we say, “Ah I didn’t expect this, I thought that I was already done with this.” But then we say, “Oh, okay, another time.” Although it’s sometimes painful, but behind the pain, is the liberation, the freedom, because you have a chance now to tackle it. And this is what we actually want. We want for other people to do the same. First of all we are here to do the same. And when we realize the practice, then we can share it with others.”

Karl and Helga, after having received the Dharma Lamp Transmission, in the large meditation hall of Upper Hamlet, Plum Village

What do you see as your continuation?

Helga: “A continuation, in the sense of Thay’s teachings, is whatever we transmit to the people who come here – they are all our continuation. It’s not the continuation of this place, but our continuation. Like when we see people coming, and they tell us, ‘Ah, I have learned so much!’ So we have a lot of people who are transformed already by being here, and by the way we’ve shared our practice. This is our continuation. And so we are already happy with that.”

Karl: “Our experience now is that you cannot have a lay Sangha over a long period of time without a proper elder. So if you want to know how to really continue, then you need elders, and not only a Sangha. The Sangha comes to the elders. If you have a Sangha without elders, and it’s a kindergarten, then it doesn’t work. So if we don’t have an elder here, when we’re gone, then things are closed. That’s it. It might be bitter, but that’s the way. A Sangha itself, in this kind of lay atmosphere, does not have a continuation.

We had some ideas in the past and they didn’t work. But now, we have a new vision for Intersein’s continuation, and this is why we are so happy that you are here. Because of the international networks of people coming together in Sangha, we can now imagine that these centers can be sustained by the larger global community. You have to stabilize them and have an elder, in the greater Sangha. There are enough elders – a few - but they can shift around and hold places like we do at Avalokita center in Italy. We go to Italy 2 to 3 times a year to help hold the place, and sometimes they come here.

And this could be a new model. I think that is also what your intention and vision is. This might be the future that is possible for these kinds of lay practice centers, if you get these places working together, sharing energy, manpower, and support. For example, let’s say someone has lived in Plum Village or the Happy Farm for one to two years. Why don’t they come here at least for 3 months? They have good energy, and we can support that; they bring in energy, and we hold the energy together. We can shift people around in different communities where they can stay. They don’t need to stay stuck in just one place, which they don’t like. We can do it differently, and that is what you are for (points to us). We have done the old dinosaur stuff!

Thay is certainly right when he says that the next Buddha is a Sangha. But, it’s not the Sangha that he has in mind. It’s not a Sangha on the spot, in one place. It’s a kind of a network Sangha, where everybody knows each other. One can say, ‘Hey why don’t you come over, we need someone in the kitchen.’ ‘Okay, we’ll send you someone over who is good for that.’

So you see that is actually the answer…. Now it’s your job. We’re done here” (and Karl laughs heartily to close the interview together).

Young and enthusiastic souls rejoice among elders and all... A proper celebratory goodbye on our last day after a month long stay at Intersein. 


First Impressions, Deep Impressions: Meet Intersein Teachers, Karl and Helga Riedl

"After having lived in Plum Village for more than six years, we knew very clearly that we were wholeheartedly ready to adopt this practice and lifestyle." 

- Helga and Karl Riedl, upon beginning Intersein Center

From living in large international spiritual communities in the US and Europe, to residing at Plum Village for over 6 years in close proximity to Thay and Sister Chan Khong, and finally to their home practice center in Germany where they have been living and teaching for the past 18 years … it has been an incredible spiritual journey for these pioneering western Dharma Teachers. We will share a combination of personal interviews with them as well as their own written reflections.  In each account, we step deeply into their lives of practice, stories of community living, intimate encounters and lessons with Thay, unique interpretations and teachings of the Dharma, and how they founded the first lay practice center in the Plum Village tradition.

Welcome to founding teachers of Intersein, Karl and Helga Riedl.

 

First, we share with you our first meeting and introduction to them, as well as their unconditional support for our project of researching and writing about lay practice communities. Contrary to how they first met other practitioners at Plum Village in its very early beginnings, our first interaction with them were by email. But I assure you, the impressions they made on us were were no less profound.

About a year ago, I started putting my long-held dreams to tour and research lay practice centers into action. I reached out to these centers, and shared about my aspirations and dreams for this project, how I hoped that it would support other budding lay practice communities, and the greater community of practitioners worldwide. I asked to visit them the following year, and at a reasonable cost due to our shoestring traveling and research budget. Some of the centers didn’t respond back; others ranged from supportive to mildly encouraging. But Helga and Karl’s response was first, and most memorable of any community.

Dear David, right now I almost cannot express in words how much I'm touched by your idea and plan and how much I am excited, that all conditions will be sufficient for you to get it realized. It is kind as if a dream comes true for me that someone in this tradition takes care to let the Mahasangha know about the energy of lay practice centers, already existing and being vital in sharing the Dharma. We are doing that since 1999!

Well, in any case, we will support your project in any way possible for us. So you can stay, live and practice with us for any time you feel appropriate, just being our guest! Without any cost for you! … Please let the Mahasangha know about your project and share that in whatever ways possible.

With heartfelt greetings from Intersein-Zentrum from Karl and Helga.

Their depth of support, enthusiasm, and connection to our aspirations lifted me into elation. I forwarded the email to many friends, enthused that our project was gathering essential support and and could succeed after all. Almost exactly one year later, we were able to finally step foot onto the land of their beloved community and meet them for real.

Karl and Helga walking around the garden, and shining their Zen eyes upon its forms and needs.

Truly Arriving

We would have never guessed that just a week prior, they had their last snowfall over what was now fresh green glades between the forests. With a stroke of sunshine luck, we arrived midday with flawless spring weather. Vanessa chose to lay down in the shade, while I followed a blooming fascination to explore. I walked slowly around the property of seemingly never ending gardens, soaking in the sight of the ponds, budding lilacs and rhododendrons, white-stoned dry river beds, small and stoic sitting Buddha statues, and towering forest trees that encompass more than half of the property. It felt like the barriers between my self and the gardens were dissolving, as each ray of sunshine and each fragrant blossom passed through my being. I didn’t know it at the time, but I understood before I left – that in reality, I was already meeting Karl and Helga. Yes, their presence, caring attention, and service of joy was dug into the roots of each lupin flower and pine tree, and the soil of each stone placed around the ponds. Slowly and steadily, growing every day over the last 18 years, their presence now beams through every inch of this mindfulness oasis.

As I walked through from under canopy of oak and beech trees, I saw a tall, older, and slender man with little hair walking up the path from a building below. He had an air of quiet concentration, while also taking his sweet time walking up the hill. Drawing nearer, I could see he was both smiling and curiously staring me as I approached. “David is that you?”, he asks in a confidently curious but excited way. As I nod and confirm that it’s me, he says, “You’ve finally made it here, have you!?” We meet and embrace without hesitation or a moment of awkwardness. We’d never seen each other before, yet I felt so strongly as if I was being welcomed back home with the love and warmth of a grandfather or an uncle after having been gone for many years. After a few more words, he said, “Come now, it’s time for lunch”, as he took my left arm in his right hand, heading us towards the main building. Walking up and across a green glade together, a feeling of delight in my chest, face, and in the soles of my feet on the grass all told me - I was truly arriving.

As we entered the hall, people had already been serving food and sitting down to eat together, silently and serenely, as is their practice. But Helga noticed me coming in, and so instantly stood up from the table and came over to me near the serving table; also without hesitation, she gave me tenderly strong hug. We both looked up at each other, for just a moment or two, but with open brilliant eyes, and a rich smile that held nothing back. It was only a moment’s exchange, but I knew right then that I was completely at home with her, and at Intersein. I was right were I needed to be – I was at truly home with them.

Over the next 4 weeks, it was more of the same: unconditional support and delight at both having us there to join their deep community practice as well as partner together in our respective Sanghabuilding endeavors. But each week we saw different shades and colors of their personality and wisdom of practice, as we got to know them more personally and intimately. We met individually on three separate occasions in their simple yet elegant quarters (formerly, Thay’s personal Intersein ‘hut’ whenever he came to teach). After every interview, as Vanessa and I walked slowly out of their quarters, the two of us stopped nearby, overlooking the hill and glade of grassy wildflowers. Knowing what we had both experienced, we looked at each other with eyes of both astonishment and deep gratitude, recognizing what precious gifts we had just received.

In a side conversation with Karl one afternoon, he shared that he and Helga have lived in community for over 25 years now! Ironically, the following morning, the Intersein residents surprised them with a birthday party to celebrate 18 years of Intersein! They blew out birthday cake candles, the residents offered a song, and we celebrated this special anniversary with them. In their typical humble and humorous style, they said that Intersein was finally not a young kid anymore. 

As stepping stones on their way to Plum Village, Karl and Helga had lived in a spiritual community in Oregon and England for over a year, as well as a Tibetan Buddhist center in Italy, before meeting Thay and moving to Plum Village. “What is it that keeps us here in community?” he asks with a curious smile, but with eyes that convey some ripe answer behind them. Clarifying that he and Helga get along very well with just the two of them, they could be very happy living together on their own. "There must be something here that keeps us going.... Or we must just be crazy” he says with a big smile again as he looks into me. I respond quickly back at him with my own smile and truth of the matter, “Well, I hear you there. That’s my kind of crazy, too!”

I shared with some friends there that each interview with them was like reading stories of the Buddha and his disciples's lives, the first ancestral teachers of Buddhism.... but in person! Reading accounts of the Buddha, Shariputra, Mahakaccana, and Moggallana in the book, Old Path White Clouds, I felt great awe and respect for their depth of wholeheartedness and skill in sharing the Dharma with so many others who were eager to learn the path. I felt that similar extent of respect, gratitude, and awe as we sat with Helga and Karl and listened to them again and again, wholeheartedly transmit the depth of their experiences and wisdom of living the practice over many years. Knowing that we would be sharing our journey with others, and also simply to encourage our path, they poured themselves fully into every encounter we had. Each moment was an opportunity to connect and transmit, imparting to us that their time would soon be passing, and sharing their faith in us and our generation to continue. But it was also light, easy, and very playful as we shared tea and stories. We laughed at their ways of Sanghabuilding in the old days as they renovated old buildings together; and they broke into laughter with incredulous eyes when we explained about using Thay's Facebook page to promote retreats and internship programs (the fact that Thay even has a Facebook page was practically a mini-enlightenment for them). 

"You can do it differently, and that is what you are for (points to us). We have done the old dinosaur stuff."

I could share much more about our personal interactions with them over our month long stay. But that's enough for now... Let's transition to a more in-depth look at 25-year spiritual path of living and teaching in community of these two elders.  

In the following post, we explore their lives and stories from the beginning....

 

 Can you see Karl and Helga glowing through the sunlight, forest, and building of Intersein?.... Look deeply....


Welcome to Intersein (The Inside Tour)

Brightness and simplicity is the main impression of the house. Everything manifests simplicity - solid wood furniture, bright linen curtains, Ikebana-flower-arrangements and Thay's gathas. The same Buddha-relief as in Lower-Hamlet transmits concentration and serenity in the meditation hall. Whoever comes, immediately feels at home. The mind naturally calms down, leaving hurry and worries behind and relaxation can set in. This whole atmosphere is a first, but essential aspect of the practice center. People easily turn towards the practice, and mindfulness can already be a deep experience.

 - Karl and Helga

 

"I Have Arrived, I am Home"

Take a walk with us, a visual mindfulness tour through this magical mindfulness palace of Intersein. A palace of beauty, coupled with simplicity. A field of awareness, coupled with ease. A home for retreats, coupled with a family atmosphere of practice.

A former hotel, this has been the Sangha's home for the last 18 years. As we walk or sit from room to room, don't hesitate to pause from time to time, relax into your body, and let the calming energy of this center penetrate your mind and body.

Remove your shoes or sandals, and slowly proceed into this welcoming room. The unbroken melody of running water, perhaps some jingling wind chimes, a warm glowing background light, and Thay's callligraphy... all say the same thing in different languages..."You Have Arrived." 

Through the first door, into the common rooms we go...

The golden surface of the dining tables warms the heart of this house. Let us meander around...

 

Ikebana arrangements from their gardens pervade the hall. In every direction, they light up the room with spring's newest gifts.

Hello there little friend. Hope you have a peaceful day, too!...

At the rear of the dining hall is the tea room. A perfect place on a cold and rainy day to enjoy a warm drink with friends, or to break out your laptop. (This is where the hotspot is!)

Feeling thirsty for peace? A combination of spiritual nourishment and physical nourishment is Intersein at every level.

Here, A wonderful selection of herbal loose leaf teas all come from their own garden. In addition, there are always one or two large containers of wonderful herbal concoctions, prepared fresh each morning.

Front and center, Thay's calligraphy reminds us...

"Mindfulness is the Source of Happiness"

I hear a bell... let us stop and breathe for 3 breaths...

Centering body, speech, and mind in oneness, resident practitioner, Tom-Phillip invites the bell, calling the community to stop, breathe, touch life deeply, and then gather promptly together.

Let's head into the hall to see what's happening...  Ahh, I hear singing as well...

 

"Guten Morgen, Guten Morgan! Good Morning, Good Morning!...."

It's time for the community Morning Circle!  This is the powerful start to the day here at Intersein, where meditation meets joy and togetherness.

A short guided meditation, some inspirational words by Helga, Karl, or one of the residents, holding hands for a few moments to connect with each other...  Let the morning silence end, and a joyous day together begin!

While the begin their morning work in the garden, we'll keep checking out this big place...

Winding up the stairway, green light pours in from every direction...

"Opening the window, I look out onto the Dharmakaya.

How wondrous is life!  Attentive to each moment, my mind is clear like a calm river."

The river of Intersein's mood flows through each room: simple, warm, natural, and spacious. This simplicity offers more attention to the large windows and glass doors that open to greater sources of beauty...

 

Another simple bunk room for two...

Across the hall, we head to an interview room

Where teacher and student can meet quietly, on chairs or cushions.

"Where does the dharma and your life meet the road together? I want to hear..."

Let's take a peak out the window, as I overhear a sharing circle starting outside...

Wow, so many friends gathering, to share about the practice! We're in the middle of a "work retreat". And the community gathers to share about practices of mindfulness in the course of their morning work together. So inspiring to see them sharing deeply about the practice.

I think someone spotted us... Let's give them some privacy and respect their confidentiality

Up to the third floor now we go...

Perched under the southern rooftop, this little Buddha room has lustrous advantages.

It is our evening haven as long-term guests or residents when retreatants have evening activities downstairs.

This is the resident studio which also contains half of Karl and Helga's library collection. It is a gorgeous room to work in. But if you want access, then think about living here long-term...

And finally, we arrive at our room...

Entering onto our balcony, the Bavarian country side in morning springtime glory...

Surely, we've been born in a Pure Land realm....

Looking southwest, a brilliant beech tree meets morning beams, and a flower garden slowly awakens below.

Would you like to join me for a cup of tea while we're up here?

Then we head down to the meditation hall. So if you thought the first one was nice... that was just an appetizer

Wonderful!  Karl is sharing about the history and inspiration for Intersein. They lived in Plum Village for over 6 years, so they have many old stories to tell us kids in the Sangha. We listen with wide eyes, curious minds, and grateful hearts.

We come to the end of our indoor walking tour. We hope you have enjoyed it as much as we did!

We close here with a relief of the Buddha and Jesus, holding each other as friends on the path. Intersein is located in a traditionally strong Catholic region.  But they have found a home for their friendship in this Sangha dwelling in the Bavarian countryside of Germany.


Welcome to Intersein (The Outdoor Tour)

2 Senior Teachers

6 Residents

4 story practice center

18 years running solid

20+ retreats year-round

10,000s trees surrounding

1 Practice

&

1 Community

Intersein - Center for Mindful Living

Born in 1999, it is the longest standing, largest, and has been the most robust lay residential practice center in the Plum Village tradition.

How can one capture the gorgeous surroundings of this mindfulness center, community of practitioners, teachers, residents, guests, birds, forest, flowers, ponds, buddhas, bodhisattvas, breath-taking views, meditation gardens and all?

It’s beauty and magic is overwhelming on so many levels of body, heart, and mind, such that we will let these photos speak first.  

So please, come with us!  We will take a mindful, leisurely walk around the land, gardens, building, and people of this community. Take off your sandals or shoes, enjoy the bare grass, and enjoy each step on our path...

Sitting in a field of wildflowers in the distance, Intersein appears, snugly embraced by the surrounding forest.

Taking some steps closer, we see gardens of rhodendrons, lilacs, and an assembly of trees... intrigued by the lower garden's beauty, we saunter further.

Slowly approaching, one finds a smiling Buddha, quietly watching over the pond and garden, ensuring its serenity, moment to moment.

Crossing over a trickling stream, we look back to see the meditation hall, facing this serene oasis.

Turning around and facing south... it takes your breath away. Let us pause for some moments, and savor 3 full in and out breaths to fully soak in this spacious beauty into the depths of our store consciousness....

Walking under a refreshing canopy of beech and oak leaves, peering down a row of rhododendrons.... our spirit settles under the shade, but our senses continue to awaken at each violet blossom and herbal fragrance.

Where will this ambrosial path lead next?

 Turning the corner into sunshine... a compassionate friend greets us to her garden, with a soft gaze and everlasting smile. We greet her compassionate presence with a bow, and remember to kiss the earth with each step on our path...

Walking up the hill, we peer over the former the hut of our root teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Now, this refuge within a refuge is the simple yet gorgeous abode of Karl and Helga, founding teachers of Intersein.

Avalokita quietly protects their entrance with an unceasing compassionate gaze.

Walking onto the upper field, we see a friend taking a break, soaking in shades of green, and the musical array of many feathered friends.

One never wanders far without seeing a family of tulips showing off together. In the near distance, friends share a cup of tea on the patio.

Just around the corner, and look who's there! ....  A couple of joyful sister weeding the garden together, surely making Helga very happy.

Over some flower bushes, another friend pops out with shovel in hand and smile in full force. Hello Stephan!

And at the other end of the glade, retreatants shovel their love, sweat, and mindful attention into the soil together. Only through community can we grow these most beautiful gardens.

Walking on the cool grass across the field of the Sangha's backyard...

Ahhh, work is finally over for the morning. A resident couple, Andrew and Claudia, enjoy each other's support for a lazy loving break.

Come on, let's give them some space and keep walking towards the forest...

The spruce giants shelter this center like a mother hugging her child. Let's wander into her wooded realm, and explore a few treasures...

Just a few moments away, exists this other refuge of stillness, beauty, and peace.

We find some friends during outdoor walking meditation, having finished work in the garden. Allured by their peaceful river of steps, we follow them for a short while, enjoying each breath and step behind them.

We'll come back and explore the forests here in greater depth and beauty later. For now, let's make our way back to the center.

On our way, we see the teachers, walking around and sharing their zen eyes over the garden. Hello Karl and Helga!

In the front gardens, sunlight pours over Intersein in its mid-morning glory.

We approach the entrance, beholding the beauty of this Sangha home. Our outdoor walking tour is coming to a finish. Before we head inside, we turn around once more towards the plum cherry and beech trees spanning the view...

With gratitude, we feel our seeds of peace and beauty have been watered with each step, and each breath of forest air. We turn around to step inside, but just before we enter...

We see our an inspiring old friend, who welcomes us with his peaceful smile and look of compassion, as we finally enter this Sangha home....


Watering Powerful Seeds: The Wake Up Center at Morning Sun (Part 2)

Michael Ciborski shares our deepest intentions for creating a Wake Up Center at Morning Sun

Heading Back to Morning Sun

And Ready to Start Visioning!

After a blissfully warm visit in August, we were back at Morning Sun for springtime action in May. Last year, I soaked in the community life, history, structure, and culture in depth. With fresh eyes, I caught my first glimpses of this community, which appeared like bright fluorescent green maple leaf flowers under the warming sunshine of spring. The community clearly has so much glowing enthusiasm and brightness for growth, it’s both awe-inspiring and contagious. Most of the residents are in their mid to early 30’s with a few in their 20’s, along with some grandparents and kids along for the mindfulness adventure.

But our aims of this round were different, especially in regards to me and Vanessa. Our intentions for this weeklong visit were threefold – for Vanessa to explore Morning Sun as a possible future home, for us both to continue partnering with Morning Sun in building a Wake Up Center, and to connect with some of our treasured friends!  (like playing together with Annie and the tulips one morning for a photo shoot)

But as I look back at our weeklong visit at Morning Sun, one conversation in particular continues to visit me. It’s a great window to share as the brief words convey the depth of our visit and aspirations there. We were capturing video interviews from different Wake Uppers and Morning Sun residents. Michael shared that when we first started thinking about the Wake Up Center, one thing stood out bright and clear for him, and has remained with him ever since: “Who do we want to leave the future of our world to?” Yes, we’re all engaging in valuable projects and relationships in our lives and in the world. But at the end of the day, and especially at the end of our life, who have we helped empower to truly care for our world and lead our society? If you’re like us, you want to leave this world in the hands and hearts of young people who have been training and developing more understanding, compassion, and wisdom to most skillfully take care of their lives and our world.

So that is the foundation behind this Wake Up Center we aim to build at Morning Sun. And what is this Wake Up Center, you may ask? Good question! We’ve been trying to explain that to potential donors all week!… and with as much inspiration and insights as we could convey.

Here are some fruits of our time together: quotes that best capture our vision and plans for the Center:”

“Our programs will be developed from one basic question and premise:

What are the most powerful things that we wish to transmit to future generations?”

The Center is a powerful intersection of Bodhissatva training, enabling young people to develop tools for personal, psychological, and spiritual maturation, as well as respond compassionately and communally to the suffering in the world.

A homebase for supporting, training, and growing Wake Up programs; a place where many young people can come to develop a solid mindfulness and meditation practice with other experienced young practitioners.”

It will have a multidimensional approach, with a variety of programs, mentored by Dharma Teachers and Morning Sun founders, Michael and Fern, and supported by the practice community at Morning Sun.”

A home for young people to learn to live harmoniously together; not merely teaching mindfulness in society, but embodying mindful living and communication in our daily lives.”

Consistent trainings and workshops for many young adults to learn to facilitate mindfulness practice in diverse realms of society, such as schools, universities, hospitals, juvenile hall, and more.”

Young people will learn to organize and facilitate quarterly Wake Up retreats together, focusing on issues that are strongly alive for young people, such as:

  • Relationships and communication

  • Practicing at work and right livelihood

  • Social and climate change justice

  • Healthy fun living and mindful consumption

  • Family life and parenting

We’ll have more to come soon!

But if you feel inspired to support this initiative or partner with us, please contact us so we can further discuss our aspirations. No need to wait to join this adventure of Sanghabuilding together.


Watering Powerful Seeds: The Wake Up Center at Morning Sun (Part 1)

Seizing this opportunity even on our “lazy day”, Vanessa, Dave, and I headed to town after getting word that Fern and Johanna were available and ready to meet at Brewbakers cafe. When one feels such a calling and inspiration to create, even a community designated day off of work is perfect time for us to throw our aspirations into a cafe and blend up our project visions together. During our short visit to Morning Sun, we’d been seizing such opportunities and gathering in groups of 2, 4, or 5 of us at a time, whether after breakfast, in the meditation hall, or in this bustling little college town down the road from the community.

Dave, formerly known as the Brother Heart, had recently transitioned from living four solid years in the monastery, having shed his brown robes and laid down his alms bowl. Leaving the monastery a few months before, he decided to spend the entire summer program at Morning Sun, a destination already known as a safe-haven and respite for former monastics. Having spent a few years in monastic life myself, I couldn’t imagine a more supportive, inspiring, and wonderful place for him to be right now. A wise and blessed choice for him, no doubt. Having practiced with him for some months at Deer Park, Vanessa and I also couldn’t be happier to see him at Morning Sun.

I dropped off Vanessa and him in front of the cafe, as the spring morning sunshine had quickly turned to puddles that afternoon. By the time I reached the cafe only a block and a half from the car, I was half-sopping wet. The warm and rich roasted coffee bean and pastry aromas infused every nook, cranny, wooden table, booth, and person in this cozy cafe. Straight back, there was Fern and Johanna. A 27 year old aspiring artist and dedicated Wake Up community enthusiast, Johanna had arrived at Morning Sun a few months before. Each with a mug of hot cocoa and whipped cream on top, and cozily seated towards each other in the booth, their intimate sisterhood session had clearly already begun.

After some warm greetings and smiles, Fern shared with us that she had to leave by 6pm, so we had only about one hour together. Between attending her children’s dance at school, forging out time for a biweekly date with her husband Michael, and shopping for Morning Sun, her time is squeezed. By the genuine freshness in her smiles as we sat down, and the spontaneous bright beams of compassion in her eyes, you wouldn’t know it. But this is the life of a mother of three, senior lay Dharma teacher, and one who’s devoted the last 10 years of her life to creating a thriving mindfulness community. We’d gratefully take each minute offered of her time.

We hunkered together, intending to write a video script intend that would excite and inspire potential donors for the Wake Up Center. We knew that our brainstorming time was short, so we jumped in with our creative ideas, passion, insights, and schemes all together. It was a short amount of time and it was messy. We tried our best to listen to each other’s inspiration while still searching for our own, talked over each other at times, disappointedly let go of personal ideas that were initially exciting but altogether not working out, and tried again to listen to each other. We seemed to grind down each other’s ideas to the core, sometimes patiently, and sometimes less so, but the air of safety and care never left the circle. 

In the midst of our brainstorm grinding, the cafe was grinding its own beans, and so loudly that we couldn't hear each other anymore. We stopped, relaxed our postures, and took a few minutes to just breathe, and re-establish our presence of calm, ease, and connection together. Then Dave started making over-exaggerated facial gestures of concentration, acting as if he was thinking just as hard as the coffee bean machine was grinding. We all burst into laughter watching him make such ridiculous faces of concentration - but we were also really laughing at ourselves being so serious about our work together. Good thing the air of humor and playfulness never fully left our circle either.

Michael, Morning Sun co-founder #2 and Fern’s husband, joined us after an hour and a half; to our happiness, he was 30 minutes late to meet Fern. He came to take Fern on their Friday night date, but our conversation was all too powerful and moving to leave. So we then had Michael’s creative genius and fresh eyes to join us.

Our momentum and vision were coalescing together slowly, steadily, increasing, brewing, and finally, Aha!! We had it. What finally came out was a damn fine vision for our video, and most importantly our collective harmony, happiness, and celebration together.

We had a vision to deeply inspire and uplift others, no matter if they were to partner with our project or not. Our video would be a mini-Dharma talk in itself, watering seeds of hope and peace in anyone who watched it, while also creatively imparting our deep collective dream and message to others. Each one of us would have an important role in the video’s creative expression. It was perfect.

These moments together, hashing out our aspirations and dreams, and putting them into concrete expression, these are what great community memories are made of. This, my friend, is Sanghabuilding.