New Years Retreat 2018: Brothers before Refugees

Brothers and Humans before Refugees

Part 4 of the Greece Sangha Service Series

January, 2018

It was the first gathering and first night together of our New Years retreat on Aegina Island. Although we were not far from home, the raucous life and cries from Athens seemed like a distant world behind us. Our Aegina oasis on the other hand, with its jungle-like garden, serene ocean two hundred meters away, groves of pistachio trees surrounding us on all sides, aged beauty of its historic residence with wooden floors, old garden statues, and multiple balconies overlooking the dark aqua sea with island and peninsula mountains in the horizon – it was an utterly majestic setting, and she enveloped our souls into its wild and heavenly embrace. Because of the generosity and vision of her stewards, we were able to afford this beautiful center and express our deep aspirations. This was a unique New Years retreat combining international volunteers, refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and Greek residents. While paradise surrounded us, even more magic was unfolding within its walls.

Groves of bare pistachio trees and a forested garden surround the castle-like retreat center on Aegina, our island oasis for five days together.

Instead of heading up top to the presentation room with its impressive views of islands and stars, we gathered in the communal room downstairs for our first gathering together. Its lofty ceiling and windows expansively overlooked the garden’s jungle, offering us a relaxed and casual, yet inspiring atmosphere for us to connect, release, and be embraced. While the group contained several strong friendships, many of us were totally new to each other. Furthermore, it was the first time that several of us, including volunteers and refugees, had ever experienced meditation, let alone a full retreat.

Sensing some shyness and hesitation, we decided to shatter any nervousness right from the start with introductions that combined laughter with light-hearted embarrassment. “Please share your name, where you’re from, and imitate the calling or movements of your favorite animal…” Everyone was shocked and laughed at my absurd suggestion, but then became quietly focused on themselves and their upcoming animal presentation after seeing that I was serious about it. Giggles, outright laughter, some admirations, tons of embarrassing moments, and success! We were bonding and overcoming our social fears, not merely as volunteers and refugees, but more like kids playing and sharing freely in a tree house together. As we went around, it was clear that Mohsen, a new friend from Afghanistan, had by far the best callings out of anyone, and was able to beautifully imitate several animals named in the circle. Now we were ready to dive in further.

A beautiful brother.

“This retreat is a gift to ourselves. It’s a gift to our bodies and minds to deeply rest, to release what we’ve been holding in the city, in our homes, our jobs, our relationships, and in our hearts. The wild beauty of this island, the lulling sounds of the ocean embracing us, and especially the kind and supportive friends around us, all these elements are allowing us to release tension, to let go, and to touch something deeper in ourselves. We may invite ourselves to touch the deep wells of peace, compassion, and spaciousness within us…”

On the one hand, I was used to providing very clear guidance on meditation practice, including upright posture. On the other hand, I felt cautious about overly encouraging anyone to sit or be in a way that felt strange or uncomfortable for them, especially those with different religious and cultural backgrounds. After stopping to breathe for several moments, I settled on a middle way and shared, “Here is the way that some of us here have learned to cultivate peace and joy in our bodies and minds. You are welcome to join us and experiment it yourself. But don’t merely take our word for it. See for yourself what feels comfortable, beneficial, and right for you.”

Mohsen, our friend from Afghanistan, lay back against the couch with his eyes closed, as I slowly coursed into our first guided meditation. The couches were not very supportive for a typical upright position, and already Mohen’s posture looked more conducive to falling asleep than meditating. But we didn’t have proper meditation cushions and our most essential task was to allow him and everyone else to begin feeling deeply comfortable with such raw silent awareness. Cultivating this collective quiet presence was new to him and others, and we wished to enter it slowly, for this doorway would allow us to enter further realms of deep authenticity, contemplation, brotherhood and sisterhood, and genuine transformation together. At least, we hoped.

We sat (or laid against the couch) in quiet stillness together for fifteen minutes, as we guided a basic mindfulness practice focusing on one’s body and breath, touching the simple yet profound joy of being fully present and alive. Whether people were meditating, or passing out on the couch, who could tell?  

Under the surface, our silent candlelit awareness slowly started seeping in, infusing drops of peace and compassion into the skin, muscles, bones, and heart of our newly born Aegina family.

In addition to relaxing and rejuvenating our bodies and spirits, our retreat’s purpose was to learn deeply from one another, especially by encouraging everyone to share about their authentic experiences and needs. Having arrived on a deeper level together, we were ready to begin listening. We invited everyone to give their personal ‘weather report’ in the moment, as well as tell about their intentions for coming to this 4-day retreat. One by one, people spontaneously voiced what was alive for them,  while the rest of us listened deeply. After about an hour, only Mohsen was left. We sat in silence for a few minutes, giving him the space to offer his unique voice. Not wanting to pressure him, I prepared to close the circle, but cautiously asked him a last time. He raised hand slightly and glanced my way in affirmation.

“My whole life I have struggled. I have struggled for so long. Peace, calm, what you speak of – I don’t know what that is. I never knew what that is. Walking in the garden, relaxing, swimming in the ocean, I don’t know what that is. People in my country, they struggle. This is the first time in my life I have tried something like this – meditation. And I really appreciate you for sharing with me.” Mohsen turned to look at me as he spoke. The light was dim in the room, and I could only see the dark shadow over his eyes. Yet his deep dark eyes still conveyed something perfectly to me – the soft intimacy and peace of sharing something precious together. He turned back to the circle, and continued. “I try it now, and I think it helps me.” My heart sank into deep appreciation, knowing that our community was able to offer this young man who has struggled so much of his life, some moments of real peace. Even if it was just a few moments, it was what we had come here for. I felt my chest sigh quietly in relief, as I sensed that our aspirations had already come to fruition, had already realized themselves. Even if this is all we had succeeded in, it was enough and worthy all our efforts to manifest this retreat.

Mohsen dove in further, fearlessly sharing his thoughts with us. “I am living in Athens now with the label of fucking ‘refugee’. I hate that word, that label. First, I am a human being. People don’t know me, don’t know where I’m from and my experiences. I am not just ‘refugee’. They don’t understand me, but they think they do.”

“I have a few friends who are really good – a few. They spend time with me, we go places together, and we have a nice time. Really, they are so great. But they are few compared to the others. The others who aren’t open to me, or don’t say anything to me, even as I say hi and say something to them. But they don’t say anything back, they only talk and spend time with each other.

“What really upsets me, what I hate, is that people think that they’re better than me, better than refugees. The way they talk with me, or don’t talk with me, and how they only spend time with each other, and not with refugees, that upsets me so much. They think they are better than me, and so I work hard, I work so hard all the time to prove that they are not. They are international volunteers but why are there? They do not come to help. I asked them one day, ‘Why are you here?’ And then they say, ‘Oh, for fun.’ For fun? For fun? How can they say that? They think this is fun for them? This is our lives here.”

Mohsen bent his head forward and put his hand near his eyes, covering most of his cheek and eyes. It was difficult to see his face, but we still felt it. As he paused and took in some moments of silence, with our ears and hearts we could still see his eyes and expression in the shadow of his hands.

Light and darkness dance with each other, both in sunsets and in our lives.

After a few minutes, a new tone conveyed clarity and strength, but with the continued pain of exasperation. “Normally, I am not able to say these things, and they build up inside me until I explode. I get upset and then I go drink and then I go talk to them about it when I am drunk. And then people get upset that I talk to them like this. I say that I am talking like this when I am drunk because I am not able to say this to them before. I need to talk about it but I don’t know how… This is very good, talking here with all of you. It’s good for me.” Mohsen’s voice started becoming more relaxed, with hints of gratitude peeking through with a sense of relief. We could feel the storm of his feelings returning to the ocean of calm and clear skies that we typically see in him.

“I am happy that I have this time to spend here with all of you, with open-minded people. For this I am thankful.” Mohsen paused pensively for another moment, before decidedly putting his palms together in front of his chest and deeply bowing to the group to close his sharing.

Mohsen’s words blew us all away. Most of us had just met this young man. And yet, here we were, on this island together, listening to him share some of the deepest sentiments and struggles of his life as a ‘refugee’ in a foreign world. We were volunteers, yet he shared the pain of volunteers in his life; we knew him as a ‘refugee’, yet he shared the pain of living with label; we were mostly white Europeans and Americans, yet he fearlessly opened up our understanding such cultural divisions. Mohsen clearly felt the atmosphere of safety and care in the room grow stronger around him, and he trusted it to embrace him, so that his truths could spread its wings and fly out towards all of us.

The majestic golden eagle, Afghanistan’s national bird; an icon of freedom and strength.

When someone entrusts the sacred gems of their interior world to me, it is one of the most precious gifts in life that I can receive. I later asked Ioan, one of his closest friends and who invited him to attend the retreat, whether he had shared these deep reflections before. Ioan said he was amazed how much Mohsen had shared, how powerful his words were, and that he had never heard him share such sentiments before.

Throughout the next few days, Mohsen fully immersed himself in our retreat. We enjoyed walking meditation in the garden and down to the ocean, sunset meditation at the beach, mindful eating during silent meals, mindful hiking to an ancient olive grove together, writing reflections on the new year, and another sharing circle. The longer we spent together, the less we remembered who was ‘volunteer’ or who was ‘refugee’. We were all just kids playing on this island together, just boys and girls touching moments of joy, peace, and freedom together. Perhaps we were all refugees fleeing from the chaos of city-life, and we were all volunteers, continuously gifting and serving each other in various ways to make the retreat possible.

One of the many moments that stood out the most during our retreat was watching Mohsen’s determination one morning to cook us a traditional Afghani meal. The night before Mohsen left the retreat a day earlier than us, he expressed an unshakeable wish to offer us a gift from his homeland. Mohsen awoke earlier than everyone else and started the long process of sautéing eggplants, cooking rice, preparing eggs, and crafting the secret sauces of his land ancestors.

With our backpacks filled with both Greek and Afghanistan delights, we set off together for our hike on New Years Eve.

We hiked that day to an ancient olive grove, where trees had nourished former monastic communities in a sacred valley up to two thousand years ago. The great grandmother olive trees were not only the perfect inspiration for our reflections together, but also for our special New Years eve Afghani meal. We sat between these beautiful ancient beings, and relished Mohsen’s offerings. Not only was the meal uniquely delicious, but we savored Mohsen’s happiness as he offered us all a true taste of his homeland. With each bite of mouth-watering eggplant in sweet yogurt sauce, we were instantly transported from this Greek island to the roaming hills of Afghanistan. If listening deeply to Mohsen share his struggles was like the rain soaking into the earth and seeds, then offering his homeland meal was like the sunshine pouring down upon his blooming flowers.

Behind the camera, Mohsen captures us rejoicing over the feast.

Mohsen made it clear to us that our retreat together on the island meant the world to him. The night he left, we had a big hugging circle around him, and he kept sharing with everyone how much, ‘I fucking appreciate you all and this time!’. Had he bloomed among us?  Or was it us who had bloomed because of him? Perhaps it was true friendship who bloomed instead, revealing her brilliant petals and sweet fragrance to all of us. Yes, true friendship, with her timeless blossoms of inclusivity, compassion, and joy.

Because of the magical diversity of our group, this was one of most amazing retreats that we had ever organized, and Mohsen’s presence in our circle was perhaps the biggest treasure. It allowed those of us who had never been refugees, to see the world through his eyes, and receive the lessons he had to offer. The extent to which his genuine story will help and guide us in our continued work as volunteers cannot be overestimated.

Bringing people together from different worldviews is a catalyst for even greater transformation in our lives and maturity in our worldview. Our deep wish is to have another retreat in the future, with more migrants from abroad, Greeks, and international volunteers coming together to practice peace, and share our unique gifts with each other.

With blue sky, rocks to climb on, great friends, and a fresh smile on our hearts, what more could we ask for?

Special thanks to our kind and generous hearted Sangha friends who had offered scholarship funds for this special New Years retreat in Greece. (Especially Elli & Rob, Anne Woods, David Percival, and Sue Rempel. Your support was the last condition for us to bloom). Thank you!

Enjoy a few more photos to taste the many flavors of our Sangha retreat...

With 2,000 year old Great-Grandmother Oak behind us, what more inspiration could we ask for to reflect deeply this New Years?

Sangha sunset meditation on Aegina…

Sangha Family!

A mindful lunch together…

 And the 5 year old children within us were set free!!!…

Jasmine Rising from a Sea of Fire

Jasmine Flower Rising from a Sea of Fire 

 Part 3 of the Greece Sangha Service Series

December, 2017

We were in the middle of mindfully savouring our silent dinner, when I caught Mohammad’s text that he was nearby outside. I quietly stepped outside to greet him downstairs. Watching him walk down the street towards us with his approaching smile, I felt both relief and elation that he was able to finally join us despite the short notice of our holiday plans. “Hello David!”  I gave him a big hug, returned his smile, and said, “Hi Mohammad, I’m so glad that you could make it! We’re happy to have you join us.”  Riding up in the elevator, I asked him, “Do you know about Thanksgiving?” “Oh yes, it’s in the movies”, he said with both sincerity and a touch of humor. “Haha, yes, that’s true, it’s in the movies. Well, it’s a very important holiday for us in the States.”

But this wasn’t just any Thanksgiving – it was also an occasion for the few us Americans to royally treat our fellow European, African, and Syrian friends to a special evening together. Most of us had come to Athens a few months prior to live together as a mindfulness intentional community of volunteers serving in refugee camps and community centers. Our American trio wished share the best of our homeland culture with our Athens family, infusing the holiday with not only delicious food, but also deep friendship, moments of silence, and gratitude sharings.

Vanessa and I were preparing almost the entire day. After a busy morning of shopping apart, we looked at each other, a bit weary and disheveled, and Vanessa pleaded, “I want to meditate for a bit before cooking.” “Ahhh, you speak my mind as well, let’s sit for at least 15.” Even though we had loads to prepare before everyone arrived, we took our time and started off our big kitchen day with peace and joy. Lighting some incense and a candle, we settled into a relaxed seated position, quietly tuning into each other and each breath. After 15 minutes of heavenly relief, Vanessa invited the bell, and we slowly, and mindfully moved from the hall to the kitchen.

Candlelight and calligraphy adorn our altar and illuminate our minds.

Vanessa lit some incense again, reminding us that the kitchen was also meditation hall, and the chopping boards our sutras, where we could place our loving attention into each dish as a gift to our family. Meanwhile, Mercia shook her magic wand around the house, transforming our dining room with white candlelight, an array of white flowers, fresh rosemary branches fanning around the table, and several persimmons infusing warmth and bright joy between them all.

One of the sweetest moments earlier in the evening was our silent meal. Typical thanksgiving feasts can be fun but also loud and socially exhausting. We infused the holiday with our ways of peace, gratitude, and attentiveness to the subtle miracles of our lives. After a meal blessing and some guidance about mindful eating, we invited a bell and began eating in silence together. After cooking for several hours, and with so many us together in a festive spirit, the quiet power of us all together was the tastiest dish I could have asked for. Although it was a different experience for our new friends, there is something universally precious and satisfying about silence. Together, we relished every morsel and moment together.

Throughout the evening, the mood was light and celebratory, especially because of our two guests of honor: Bara, Leonie’s friend from Senegal, and Mohammad. Besides myself, only Dermot, a fully gregarious and generous Irishman in our mindfulness community had met Mohammad. We both had wonderful encounters with Muhammad at the community center for refugees, and were excited for him to join us. This was the first time at our apartment and we had no idea how rare this experience was for him.

“One love”, from Dermot and Bara

As he sat down with us, I brought Mohammad a non-alcoholic specialty that Vanessa and I made for our holiday occasion. Sparkling bubbles rose up through pomegranate juice and seeds, and a slice of citrus, as I amiably offered him a goblet. A few friends started asking questions with smiles and open-eyed curiosity. As appreciative as was for their sweet and open-minded intentions to greet Mohammad and know him better, inevitable discomforts arose as I watched our different universes slowly colliding. Normal social intros take on different meaning in such circumstances.

“How long have you been in Athens, Mohammad?” “Just two months already.” “Oh, two months, and where did you come from?”  “I’m from Syria.” A short silent pause. Yes, they expected the answer, but the response still carries its share of untold stories of war and limitless hardship underneath, and in this case, as recent as September. “And where in Syria do you come from?”  Another politely habitual question… “Aleppo.”  Another short silent pause. Again, it’s a typical response as there are thousands of Syrians from Aleppo, like Mohammad, living in Athens. Nonetheless, images of white concrete rubble extending for miles and miles flutter in and out of our consciousness as we continue to converse.

Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, after several years of war.

Here we were, enjoying a typical holiday meal, ready to share our deepest gratitudes, in an air of lightness, ease, and joy, as our guests of honor join us from different worlds. How do we hold our two worlds together? How to bridge the oceanic gaps between us? Perhaps we already were.

I serve Mohammad some of my and Vanessa’s favorite vegan Thanksgiving dishes: a plate of homemade mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, coconut curry squash stew with roasted chickpeas, and beets in balsamic and orange zest sauce. Vanessa humorously explains our search for cranberry sauce, which was nonexistent in Athens. Mohammad smiles at me warmly as I serve him, and I see that there is peace and gratitude in his eyes. The conversation continued.

Mohammad carried an air of respect, ease, and a subtle confidence built of trust while sitting and conversing with us throughout the evening. He was displaced from his homeland, but I could sense his deep rootedness and strength as he conversed. His english was imperfect, but his voice and intentions were heard clearly; he showed little or no embarrassment or shyness when asking for clarity or explaining that he could not understand our thick accented Irish brothers. In one sense, he was a stranger among us; but in another, we were the strangers in this new land, and learning deeply about his world.

Syrians regard jasmine as their national flower. Here, a branch of jasmine blooms with Damascus in the background.

The conversation naturally grew lighter, as he and Dermot joked about what American shows he watched to learn English while growing up in Syria. Our friends gradually learned that Muhammad was a young doctor, having just finished med school training, merely months before fleeing Aleppo and arriving in Athens. He was from a well to do family in Syria who provided him with excellent values and education throughout his life. But virtually no one, especially from Aleppo was able to escape the devastation. His family had lost nearly everything except their lives as they fled to Turkey. His 18 year old brother escaped to Germany two years ago and Mohammad had been trying to arrive there with him as well, but that road had been blocked multiple times and he was struggling to find another way through. Even a young and talented doctor, fully educated, versed in multiple languages, bright, handsome, of wealthy background, and of upright bearing – even one this blessed was searching to find a path forward in the aftermath.

We were thrilled that Mohammad could celebrate Thanksgiving with us, and revelled in all its novelties, including his first taste of apple pie, which he had also only previously known from the movies. While Mohammad was clearly enjoying his pie quietly, I watched him pause for a few moments in reflection. Then with an almost giddy smile, he shared something with us. “This is the first time I have been with non-Arabic people.” We all looked at him, as our eyes lit up, our mouths opened wide in awe. “Wows” and “Ahas” erupted among us, as our hands went in the air in celebratory exclamation. I had expected for this to be Mohammad’s first Thanksgiving ever, but I had never considered that it might be his first gathering with non-arabic people. That is, his first meal with white people. “What an honor for us to have you here, Mohammad! We get to share this special moment with you, and what a privilege!”  Hearing this news greatly increased how special the evening felt for all of us.

Francie expresses a beaming smile and happiness across the dinner table as we share Thanksgiving.

A lively and joyful conversation ensued for some time, and would have easily lasted the entire evening as well if we had wanted. But we really wished to bring out the very best of our tradition, so I invited a bell and transitioned us ahead. “It’s a custom for many of us and our families back home in the States, that on this special holiday, we take time to share our gratitudes for this life: our precious friendships, nourishing and delicious food, our health and family, the gorgeous blue sky, our beloved community, and so on. We have so much to be thankful for. Sharing such blessings with each other makes them feel more real in our lives, and even increases their abundance. Tonight, this evening is made even more special as we have the presence of two special guests of honor: Bara and Mohammad. Thank you for being here dear brothers, for receiving the specialness of our holiday, and blessing our evening with your presence.”

We went around the table, each of us reflecting on our deepest gratitudes at this period of our lives. It was so moving to hear everyone share, but it was our guests of honor who really captured our deepest attention and awe.

After a few moments of silence between us and the glowing candles glowing between us, Bara jumped in, speaking bravely before the rest of us. Offering his respect and enthusiasm, Bara stood up while beginning to share. “Thank you for welcoming me so beautifully with you tonight. The food is really so good, wow, yes so delicious. And now I asked Leonie about maybe becoming a vegetarian.” Everyone laughed out loud with him while also hearing his sincerity, knowing his strong preferences for non-vegetarian dishes. Bara continued English, while filling in gaps in French, his more fluent tongue next to native Senegalese dialect. “But seriously, I really appreciate this beautiful time with all of you. I have not felt such lightness and ease and peace in my heart as I feel tonight in some many years.” We all dropped into a deep listening silence as he spoke. “The silence and energy here and your presence is very healing for me. And I feel you are all my brothers and sisters. Yes, truly. Because in our world, it really means something when we see past colors, and it’s not just about being black and white…”  Bara’s words quickly became emotional and he stopped speaking in mid sentence. “I’m sorry, I need to go outside now. Please excuse me”. We encouraged Bara to take his time and enjoy the fresh air as he stepped outside.

Although we didn’t understand completely what arose for Bara, we felt the pain in his heart that was able to spontaneously emerge from the depths of his gratitude. This pain was able to surface safely amidst the presence of our deep listening, and his uplifting words of gratitude. Being in the presence of a group of white friends, we represented all the wealthy European and North American countries which over decades, forbade him and his native brothers from entering our lands and working alongside us. While sensitive to his pain, we were comforted by his words that healing and peace was taking place within him, in the midst of our fellowship. One by one, throughout the rest of the evening, Bara conveyed his heartfelt gratitude and joy to each of us, illustrating with his big smile and intimate eyes how dearly he enjoyed the evening. With childish enthusiasm, he promised that soon enough, he would be treating us all to a proper Senegalese feast as well.

The following week, Bara offered us a Senegalese dish, West African nut stew. (Delicious!)

Again, silence returned amidst flickering candlelight around white blossoms and bold persimmons, as we waited for the next person to share. “Okay, I’ll go.”  Following the form that he had seen, Mohammed put his hands together in front of his chest and bent his chest in a slight bow forward. As if to remove anything blocking his throat, he projected his voice firmly and clearly.

“The war destroyed everything for us.” He paused, half nodding to affirm his reality, as our ears lit up to receive his powerful sharing. “Yes, we lost everything.  During that whole time and since I have come here to Greece, I have never felt such peace as I feel here with you.” I felt both startled by the power of his statement, as well as moved for his depth of his gratitude in this moment. The directness of his eyes and openness of his words towards each us held nothing back. “It’s so nice to be here with you. The food has been delicious, and your hospitality is remarkable. I want to thank all of you for inviting me and being so warm and open. It is very special for me to know all of you.” Then he stopped and paused for a moment before continuing. “If it weren’t for the war, then I would never have been able to be here tonight and know all of you.” Mohammad looked like he was full of emotion, as if he hadn’t even conceived that that would come out. We all just sat there in pure silence, half-amazed, and half-processing the power and meaning of his words. Hearing him speak about both the war in his country and his gratitude for our friendship was like watching a jasmine flower rise from a sea of fire.

Who knew? Who of us knew that sharing sharing a simple yet heartfelt holiday dinner from our homeland in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, filled with moments of silence, and in an atmosphere of acceptance and gratitude… who knew that such simple gifts could offer such radical happiness and healing for each other? It’s so simple. And yet, so powerful. If we have a community that can do this together, then we are beyond lucky. A community that is able to offer warmth, friendliness, the peace of shared silence, simple nourishing foods, deep listening, and an openness to gratitude – these are the precious gifts that so many of us have been waiting for in our lives. If we have such gifts, then we can embrace many people, including others, and heal wounds that may be buried in our hearts for many years.

Now, we are already planning out our Christmas and New Year’s gatherings – new occasions to embrace and celebrate each other with more friends.

Thanksgiving dinner together, shortly before Mohammad arrived.

Wake Up Athens Video

Greece Sangha Service in Action...

We are excited to share our first video of our Greece Sangha Service Project!

We are a group of 15 international friends practicing mindfulness, who met in Plum Village mindfulness center in the summer, and share the common aspiration to cultivate peace in the world by bringing our presence, thoughtfulness and care to every interaction. We felt a strong calling to come to Athens together in order to listen and learn, and to offer our support and compassion to a country that currently faces both a refugee and an economic crisis.

Here is our unfolding story... 

Thanks to your generous donations so far, we reached our initial goal and are now crowdfunding for phase two of the project!

Help us reach our new goal of 200%!

The funds raised will be overseen by a committee consisting of members of our community of mindful volunteers. Together, we have been envisioning long-term projects which will have positive and sustainable impacts upon the well-being of the most vulnerable populations in Greece. 

We wholeheartedly invite you to support our project!

Please support Our Mindfulness Service Project in Greece!

Thank you!!!

Responding Communally and Compassionately in Greece

Sanghabuild Arrives in Athens

November, 2017

Dear Beloved Community,

Greetings from Athens! It is with tremendous joy and dedicated hearts that we write to you from our blooming residential practice community in Greece: Wαkε Up Athεnα!

Over the past month, over a dozen of Wake Uppers have descended from diverse European countries and North America with the aspirations to live and practice together, listen deeply and learn, and serve the beautiful people, animals, and land here.

As many of you know, during the past several years, Greece has been a doorway for millions of migrants seeking refuge from war, persecution, and economic distress. They have risked everything: their homeland, savings, family members, and even their own lives, while hoping for a new way of life. The stories they are sharing with us reveal both the ever-resilient and tender loving heart of humanity, as well as the depths of human sorrow and tragedy.

We have come with a deep faith in the power and resiliency of our own beloved community and practice to support us in responding both communally and compassionately to this ongoing situation. First and foremost, we come here to learn, listen, and appreciate the strength, wisdom, and joy that has kept them alive and persevering through untold hardships. They are our teachers here, no doubt.

Beholding Athens, in all its glory and challenges

We also believe that as a community of practice, we have something to offer to the people, animals, and land here – that by our practice of deep listening and mindfulness in daily life, we may respond in ways that offer true friendship and support.

So far, we’ve been 15 practitioners strong, representing Germany, Ireland, France, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, and England. We are serving in refugee camps, community centers, and NGO’s in Athens, and in diverse capacities such as art therapy, physiotherapy, assistant cooks and staff in soup kitchens, mental health practitioners, legal support, construction, English and French language instruction, animal care, community gardening, and more! In coming weeks and months, we will also be offering mindfulness practice sessions for staff and volunteers in NGO’s around Athens who have requested our support. Some of us will be staying for one month, others two to four months, and still others indefinitely.

We begin every day by holding each other in meditation, words from our root Teacher, and a quiet communal breakfast. Most mornings we have a check-in sharing together, and every evening, we share a communal dinner in mindfulness to support our collective harmony and joy. We maintain a vegetarian diet and freedom from alcohol or other substances in our houses, and continuously support conscious communication with each other. Every week, we do something super fun in Athens to refresh our spirits and grow our wonder at the beauty of this land. We’re continually reassessing our weekly and daily practice together to better support each other and the Athens community.

Every morning, we gather in silence and joy, preparing our minds and hearts for whatever the day asks of us.

We have been blessed by the gracious support and abilities of our Sangha sister Leonie Meester, who has been living in Greece for two years already, and opened up the door for all of us to live together in two Sangha houses in Athens, located next to each other. We live in a migrant-rich neighborhood, allowing us to live in the same neighborhood with those we aspire to learn from, serve, and build relationships.

Perhaps our greatest lesson thus far is that we are most effective, receive and offer the most, through the simple yet priceless beauty of friendships we have been making, both with each other and with the diverse people living here. This is where our deepest joys and gratitudes have been manifesting so far.

We welcome people’s questions, encouragements, and support for our Sangha living and service experiment.

Bowing before the three jewels,

David Viafora, representing Wake Up Athena

To learn more, visit us on Facebook: Greece Sangha Service Project

The Abbot of Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, Thay Phap Huu offered us this calligraphy to support and encourage our efforts as a community of practice in Greece. It has been our prevailing mantra throughout.

Interview with Morning Sun Community - as featured in the Mindfulness Bell

Morning Sun Community's Featured Article

We are excited to share Sanghabuild's interview with Morning Sun Founders Michael and Fern, recently published in the Mindfulness Bell, a journal of the art of mindful living!

We feel that this is one of our best articles yet, and we are happy to invite you into Morning Sun's first intimate steps as a young but thriving community. We are also excited to share that the editor selected Sanghabuild's photo of Morning Sun's young adult retreat as the cover photo!

For a more authentic experience with the original Mindfulness Bell article, we have preserved the article and photos in their initial form and layout for you to read.

Step into Morning Sun Community's creation and adventure

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Fig Picking and Harmonious Living in West Hamlet: Part 2

Fig Picking and Harmonious Living 

 Part 2 of the West Hamlet Series

August, 2017

During our last evening at West Hamlet, Michel and Pascale invited us to take a walk around the vineyards and forests, to a place they often enjoy together as a couple. We still had some packing and cleaning to do, but we knew that this opportunity was not to be missed. West Hamlet is perched upon a plateau that overlooks a long plain of vibrant greenery. Along their property and neighboring lands are terrific views of farms, vineyards, and forests expanding as far as the eye can see… all of them exuding different shades of nature’s emerald solar panels.

We walked to Pascale’s favorite spot on the banks of a shallow hillside cliff, and silently watched the sunset together. In no words at all, Vanessa and I listened and watched the simple beauty of Michel and Pascale’s life unfolding together there at West Hamlet: time to meditate in community each morning, watching sunsets with friends in the evening, communicating deeply with each other as a couple, and leisure time in nature (not to mention luscious fig trees on our walk!). They prioritized living simply within an abundance of nature, instead of more affluent jobs in the city.

A daily spectacle, just behind West Hamlet

Walking back up a small hill, Pascale showed us some juniper bushes and berries that she often collects to flavor her homemade sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables. While picking a few on the spot, she relaxedly shared with us, “I love the nature here, it’s so rich. I love gathering plants, their seeds, and fruits. And I love the plants themselves. Sometimes we go out and pick herbs for hours, and then share them with everyone. When I think of going back to the city, I think ‘Oh no, there’s so much nature here.’”

The overwhelming beauty and proximity to nature is clearly nourishing for everyone in West Hamlet. But whenever I asked them about what they love the most about living there, interestingly, nature wasn’t number one.

“What do I love?”, Pascale amusedly pondered. “Being so close to the Village, benefiting from the days of mindfulness, the morning meditations… all the time we spend at the Village. And what I love the most is to give French classes to the Brothers and Sisters, because that amuses me so much!” Similarly, Michel shared, “What pleases me, is that we are on a path of practice, and we live many ways together in the practice.”

The other residents were quite on the same page as we asked them later. “The proximity to the Village”, Serge replied without the slightest hesitation. “That’s the most important. It’s not only because we are physically close, but it’s the meetings and time together with the Brothers and Sisters. That’s what I love. And the place is so beautiful here, very lovely. When I’m with the Brothers and Sisters, I’m close to the teachings, the recitations, formal lunch, walking meditation outside, and the wider lay community. I have so much joy with my spiritual family.”

A common noontime sight at West Hamlet on a lay day

Over the week, I heard over and over again about how privileged they felt to be living so close to the Village and spending intimate time with the monastics. Over the course of my stay, and often hearing about the joys of living together and down the road from Plum Village, I started to wonder, ‘So, where does the rubber meet the road here in West Hamlet?’. I was curious.

“What difficulties do you experience in community here?”, I asked each of them. Amazingly, both Serge and Josselyne, as well as Michel and Pascal expressed that they had virtually no problems living with the others in community. ‘Interesting, I thought…’ and continued to probe further.

I was sure that regular sharing circles were a big part of their harmonious magic and bonding together. Most communities we had visited used practices like Dharma Sharing and Beginning Anew to attune to each other, develop understanding, and resolve tensions. But once again, they surprised me. When I asked about Beginning Anew (a group sharing exercise that allows expression for gratitudes, regrets, and asking for community support), Serge responded bluntly that they don’t practice formally in that way. As for Dharma sharing, they originally tried to schedule it every week, but in actuality, they only meet monthly, mostly because of their time in Upper Hamlet. I was surprised to see how harmonious they were living together, while not practicing in this way. ‘How do they do it?’, I wondered.

Taking a walk down the road from West Hamlet, vineyards and bucolic homes adorn the way.

Michel helped to point out the differences between communication within their intimate partnerships versus their community practice. “As a couple, we do beginning anew, and we share a lot. In our lay hamlet, however, from time to time, we only share as a group once a month. Sometimes, we share only every few months, because of all the retreats happening in the Village. But we also practice informally with each other: loving speech, compassionate listening, and of course all our nonverbal gestures. We pay attention to each other, not to hurt or upset each other. For example, I’m a smoker, and I always try to pay attention not to disturb others whenever I smoke.”

Serge explained that while at home, “We tend to really focus on how conscious we are of each other throughout the day. It’s our informal practice of mindfulness that never stops. We function more like a family here. Everyone gives energy to do something when they can do it.” Otherwise he explained, “We let it go and there’s no pressure.”

Our conversations also explored other roots of their harmonious living. For example, everyone had commented at least once how much joy and energy they derive from working and spending time with the monastic community almost every day. Michel expressed with admiration, “The Brothers are a magnificent example of such brotherhood. The community monastic is a global model.” Such closeness with the monastics consistently nourishes and supports the way they speak, listen, think, and behave at home together.

I was curious about their weekly schedule of practice and how instrumental it was towards their communal harmony. Serge recounted their learning early on together that they couldn’t live up to high expectations of daily morning and evening meditations, and other activities in West Hamlet. It was unrealistic for their daily lives often spent in the monastery, so they changed their program to four simple morning meditations per week with rotating facilitators. Each morning, the facilitator chooses the program based upon their individual inspiration. They always sit for 30 minutes, but the facilitator may choose either a guided or silent seated meditation, followed by walking meditation, sutra reading, touching the earth, or whatever practice he or she wishes to guide.

I was impressed by their collective harmony together, but pressed further about what challenges them in community life. “What about for yourselves individually?”, I asked. “What’s difficult for you?”

Warm glowing candlelight infuses their intimate hall during morning meditations

Without much reflection on the spot, Josselyn easily admitted, “Sometimes I just need more silence and solitude. I would like to have a little cabin in the forest at times. That’s my character to need this. Not a lot, just from time to time.” “Yes, me too”, Serge chimed in. “But that’s possible because of our age. When we were on retreat for 10 days at Montagne du Dharma, there was such silence there. When we are at Plum Village, or with our family, I really need space not to talk so much, some silence. Chatting really makes me tired.”

Josselyne amusedly continued. “We thought that we would have several moments in community, and then spend most of our time alone. But the community has shown us otherwise. In fact, we see that we have a little room now and the rest of it is community space. So we spend most of our time in community, with less time for ourselves alone. So it’s flexibility that is so important for us to have.”

Serge also confessed that he often feels the weight of his perceived community role as the ‘Papa’. “That’s a bit difficult at times, to always be the Papa. The role of Papa, I’ve done that for a long time, and I don’t necessarily want to do that again: the one who gives directions, rules, and responsibility. Not only Papa, but leader, even if I have qualities for that.” I asked Serge, “Do you think that it’s more your habits or the community’s needs?” “The two, yes”, he said, “But it’s my responsibility to look at my habits and always be responsible for them.” Between their sharings, I could sense the degree of personal responsibility that people took for their own frustrations and needs. It was likely another significant plus towards the communal harmony scale.

“The Kingdom is Now or Never” – Thay’s powerful reminder to all who who enter the hamlet

It wasn’t until a few days later that I learned something else about West Hamlet’s harmony and ease of communal living. Pascale had been sharing with me about a potential community living project near Plum Village that is more long-term in nature. Both couples are highly considering buying a residential complex with several other families and couples. She reflected, “We don’t have many difficulties here at West Hamlet, because we don’t have many big decisions here. Materially we don’t have difficulties; we only make decisions about the food and that’s easy for us. Each couple has their own room, so we don’t really have any challenges sharing space. I’m aware that it’s more difficult when we make bigger decisions as a community, because there’s more at risk.” “Aha. That makes sense”, I affirmed, as we added another piece of the harmony puzzle.

It’s clear that the six adults at West Hamlet are deeply committed and skillful practitioners, taking time and energy to live consciously and harmoniously together. But hearing Pascale share about the temporary nature of their home helped me to realize something. They are guests in West Hamlet which has unique rewards there, namely harmony and proximity to the monastics. At the same time, there are limitations to their lives there as well, namely decision making that is coupled with greater ownership and long-term sustainability. Pascale continued to reveal insights more at length with me, helping me to understand their next steps forward towards sustainable lay community living, while not neglecting both the gems and rocks that lay on their path (to be continued in a following post!).

Pascale, with figs in hand and a smile in midday bloom

On our way back home, I showed Pascale and Michel a fig tree that I found while jogging the other day. “Look!” I said. “There are so many purple figs here that no one is even picking!” Appreciating my excitement, Michel smiled and beamed back to me,“Yes, that one is nice, but there is another one just down here, that is even better. The fruits are bigger and just as sweet, with both purple and green ones nearby.” “I like the dry ones”, said Pascale. “You can collect those too, and they will last during your travels.”

My small bag was getting too full of figs, so with Vanessa’s promise to wash my shirt, I took it off for us to collect another few rounds. Like excited children, we picked and ate figs to our hearts’ content, laughed, shared, and ate some more before finally walking back together in the dark. Ready to take along with us on our journey the next morning, we strolled back with an overflowing bag and shirt full of fresh and dried figs, complete gratitude for our sunset walk, tremendous joy for our new friendships, and not to mention, a shirt completely stained and dripping with fig juices. And yes, Vanessa did fulfill her promise to wash it… about one week later 😉

This is the second of a 4-Part Series of West Hamlet, Plum Village. Stay tuned for Parts 3 and 4:

Living as a Couple in Community: Interview with Michel and Pascale, and

Deeper Roots, Fresh Visions: Visioning Sustainable Lay Community near Plum Village

Recreation of West Hamlet: The Lay Residential Community of Plum Village, Part 1

Quick and Cool News!....

This August, the Sanghabuild duo of David and Vanessa participated as staff in the Wake Up retreat in Plum Village, where we were joined by over 500 young adults. No, not 50… yes, 500! It was an incredible retreat with an explosion of meditation practice combined with creative expressions. To learn more and get a peak window into the retreat, feel free to check these sublime photos by Mercia Moseley.

But back to our mission of lay mindfulness centers…

 Part 1 of the West Hamlet Series

The Creation and Recreation of the West Hamlet, Plum Village

August, 2017

“Why don’t you have a practice center close to Plum Village instead, where you can form community the easiest, and have the most support from the monastic Sangha for your practice?”

After staffing the Wake Up retreat for two weeks, Vanessa and I spent one week with the community at West Hamlet, located in Plum Village about 2 kilometers from Upper Hamlet. We spent a week with its then current resident couples, Serge and Josselyne, and Michel and Pascal, who have been living in West Hamlet for almost 2 years. Later that month, another couple from Wake Up Paris moved in with their new baby, giving the small hamlet a holy resident number of 7.

So how did this lay hamlet sprout up so vibrantly in the monastery? There are two threads we will weave together here: the early construction and renovation of West Hamlet by pioneering lay Dharma teachers Karl and Helga in 1993, as well as the re-establishment of West Hamlet as a lay residential community in 2015 with its current residents. The older story is told in full glory and details in a separate post, Treasures of the Elders. For now, we offer the newest story of its re-creation, including reflections and growing ambitions from the current community, and photos comparing West Hamlet of the 1990’s with West Hamlet of 2017. Let’s see how this river has wound its way down the mountain over the years…

The historic meeting between West Hamlet founders Karl, Helga, and Karl Schmied in front of the old buildings…

25 years later, in the exact same location, Sanghabuild meets the new West Hamlet caretakers Josselyne and Serge.

In 2011, Serge and Josselyne were among a group of deeply committed lay practitioners envisioning a new ‘manyfold’ community practice center in the south of France, known as Montagne du Dharma, or Dharma Mountain (manyfold meaning monks, nuns, and diverse lay practitioners). A group of 15 to 20 people, including 3 nuns and 2 monks started working together, holding a few visioning retreats for themselves, and sharing dreams to manifest a center that could especially support the future of young people in France. They envisioned a community where lay friends lived all-year round, and the monastics would often come to support it with retreats.

As they enthusiastically shared their visions and plans with others, a growing tidal wave of interest and questions from lay friends around France came as a response. They started a blog with news of its early development, and started receiving donations, collecting 30,000 Euros as a starting fund. This number soon grew to 60,000 Euros, even with no building or land yet under their name.

Eventually, a donor appeared who wanted to offer a large house in the mountains of Ardeche, which was remarkably beautiful in the pristine forest, but also remarkably cold in the dead of winter. After some months of discussion, the community knew it wasn’t the right conditions for a community practice center, and the project was placed on hold. The steering community, including Serge and Josselyne, needed to let go of their dreams for the moment and let Montagne du Dharma breathe by itself for the time being.

But the seeds for a residential lay community were still deeply planted in them all.

Larry Ward offers the gift of song to the West Hamlet community in their dining and living area during the annual New Years Eve retreat and celebration…

….Meanwhile, over 20 years later, joyful community living still ripens in the same space.

Soon after, while visiting Plum Village, monastic Brother and longtime friend Phap Lu spoke to Serge and Josselyne, “Why don’t you have a practice center close to Plum Village instead, where you can form community the easiest, and have the most support from the monastic Sangha for your practice?”

There were already many lay friends living in the vicinity of the Village; it was clearly a burgeoning Sangha for both monastics and lay friends, no doubt about it. People were attracted to the monastery and days of mindfulness, and keen on community living.

Serge and Josselyne visited the monastery often and finally the monastics invited them to live there temporarily to help with some administrative documentation. This admin work was essential for the monastery, but time-consuming and challenging for the monastic Brothers. Serge and Josselyne thought about it for a short while, and then finally said to themselves, “Ok, why not? We’re ready. Let’s try it.” Like two young hippies cutting loose from mainstream society, they sold their lot, bought a camping car together, and moved to Upper Hamlet, arriving just before the French speaking retreat in April, 2014.

Josselyne shared, “We decided to sell our home, even if we didn’t know exactly what would happen. We wanted to go with the project in the Village, and be close to the monastics, even if we were unsure what that would look like.”

I was sure that Serge and Josselyne lived off of the money that they used to sell their house, and asked them to clarify how they supported themselves while living in Plum Village full time. Well, I was wrong. Josselyne explained, “We wanted to take care of our children, as well as ourselves. So we divided the sales of our house into 7 parts, because we have 5 children. So 5 parts for them, and 2 for us – that makes 7.” This was the kind of faith and generosity with which they embarked upon this new Sangha journey. “We didn’t know what would happen, but we did have a lot of confidence, faith, and a little camping car for the two of us. And we lived comfortably in it for 6 months with the Brothers.”

Karl and friends prepare the ground of renovation for West Hamlet, building a community home for generations to come…

Decades later, a lay community is reborn and flowers adorn the Sangha home of its recent ancestors.

Upon moving to the Village, Serge worked on the long and tedious process of preparing official documents for the fire marshal, as well as other bureaucratic measures that were essential for the monastery’s running as a retreat center. French speaking monastics were short in number for such tasks. Serge’s help, later aided by Michel, became an invaluable support for the community, and earned the deep respect and trust from the monastics.

Brother Michel and Sister Pascal, who practiced for years with Serge and Josselyne in the Montepelier Sangha in the south of France, joined their longtime Sangha friends in July and lived there throughout the summer and early autumn. They too were part of the collective visioning for Montagne du Dharma, and later found greater inspiration to live in Plum Village with Serge and Josselyne. Slowly dreaming of long-term living in Plum Village, they helped out here and there in the Village by cooking meals in New Hamlet, assisting with administration tasks, and teaching French courses to the monastics, loving every minute of community life in the Sangha.

By September, it was getting cold, and a small camping car wasn’t going to make it through the winter for either couple. They asked the monastics for a more sustainable living solution, patiently waiting for a response, knowing full well how fast time travels on the Plum Village clock…

Finally, by October, the brothers came with a solution, and they offered the couples an opportunity to live and practice as caretakers of the historical West Hamlet! (Okay, we knew that was going to be the solution now, but they didn’t back then). And thus West Hamlet was reborn, not merely as luxurious retreat housing just outside of Plum Village hamlets, but as a true lay residential hamlet in Plum Village.

In the backroom of the Upper Hamlet registration office, the abbot Phap Huu, and a few other brothers met with new core lay community of West Hamlet, and together they carved out details for how West Hamlet could best function and support a growing manyfold community. This is what they drafted:

  • Returning to its roots in 1993, West Hamlet is re-established as a lay hamlet; its residents live there full time, taking care of the property and guests.

  • Conviviality: every week during the lazy day, the community invites the Brothers to come over and join them for dinner! (Later, this included the Sisters too)

  • Serge and Michel take responsibility for all external bureaucratic relations of Plum Village.

  • Pascal, a former French language teacher, offers weekly French courses with the Brothers, assisted by Michel.

  • Josselyne and Pascal both work in the registration office as part of a 6 member lay-monastic team.

If you can believe it, this is the same room, separated by over two decades, great loving efforts, and countless community meditations.

Two years later, West Hamlet has been growing and thriving as a lay residence and communal space. I asked Serge and Josselyne how they have felt living and working so closely in the monastery, as opposed to their previous aspirations to build a lay center in the south of France.

Serge reflected, “We often ask ourselves this question, ‘What is really important for our lives together?’ For us, we wish to live the practice deeply, but we also wish for regular contact with the monastics to nourish our practice and relationships, not only lay friends anymore. We love the fluidity of the Village and with so much brotherhood. I like being here, because I’m in the monastery, and I’m still near the Brothers, but not with the brothers. That lets me keep some independence while still expressing my lay life. Here I have more space, whereas the monastery has the Vinaya. Here, I have the best of both worlds.”

As for Josselyne, she beamed a bright smile back at me in response to my question. “It’s an adventure. We don’t know what will happen, what will evolve.” Let’s be reminded that these are 60 year olds, not 16 year olds… I was beyond impressed how they embody the joyous vitality of impermanence in their lives, family, and community. Intrigued by Josselyne’s sense of adventure, I later asked her again about what she loves the most about living there in community.

She explained that every day she has the sense of “living vibrantly, because it’s very impermanent. I love sitting and living with that sensation. It’s living by letting go, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. And so we are very present, even if it’s not always easy. We don’t know what’s going to happen here, but it’s the best environment for us. And that’s not going to change.”

The bucolic abode of West Hamlet under sunset illuminated clouds, with its traditional stonebuilt walls and modern renovations.

Josselyne also shared about what it means for her as a grandmother. “We have grandchildren, who can come and visit here whenever they want. And that’s what we want for them. Our children found a home near here too. I am happy here because I have my blood family as well as my spiritual family. What do I want more than that?”

Talking to Serge and Josselyne, you have the sense that they’ve struck gold in their lives. But not the kind of gold you find in the earth, the kind that you find in their eyes and their hearts.

As for Montagne du Dharma, in the following two years, a donor offered a beautiful property in the southwest of France accessible to urban centers, and their visioning community renewed itself while including a group of young adults passionate about the Dharma.

Serge and Josselyne are still greatly supporting its development, but like Michel and Pascal, they have already found their home in Plum Village.

Like a father or uncle, Serge embraces Vanessa as they celebrate the moment under a windswept sunset.

This is the first of a 4-Part Series of West Hamlet, Plum Village. Stay tuned for Parts 2, 3 and 4:

Fig Picking and Harmonious Living

Living as a Couple in Plum Village Community: Interview with Michel and Pascale

Visioning a Sustainable Lay Residential Community near the Village

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  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…