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

Welcome to Avalokita,
Beloved Mindfulness Practice Center of Italy

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

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

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

Avalokita has awoken.

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

“La Pace e la gioia sono possibili”

“Peace and Joy are Possible”

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

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

“This bread is a gift of the entire cosmos”

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

“Morning has come,

Night is away.

Rise with the sun,

And welcome this day.”

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

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

“Ascolta con Compassion”

“Listen with Compassion.”

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

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

Sharing in pairs…

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

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

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

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

Hungry?  Yum!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing else to say here …

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

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

Turn around, and see why.

Behold the magic behind our steps….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodnight and thank you, Avalokita

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Karl Schmied with Karl and Helga Riedl together at Intersein

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

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

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

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


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

What has been your Vision for Intersein?

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

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

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

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

What do you see as your continuation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Helga and Karl Riedl, upon beginning Intersein Center

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly Arriving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Welcome to Intersein (The Inside Tour)

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

 - Karl and Helga


"I Have Arrived, I am Home"

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

"Mindfulness is the Source of Happiness"

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Another simple bunk room for two...

Across the hall, we head to an interview room

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

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

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

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

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

Up to the third floor now we go...

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

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

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

And finally, we arrive at our room...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Intersein (The Outdoor Tour)

2 Senior Teachers

6 Residents

4 story practice center

18 years running solid

20+ retreats year-round

10,000s trees surrounding

1 Practice


1 Community

Intersein - Center for Mindful Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where will this ambrosial path lead next?

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

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

Avalokita quietly protects their entrance with an unceasing compassionate gaze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading Back to Morning Sun

And Ready to Start Visioning!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Relationships and communication

  • Practicing at work and right livelihood

  • Social and climate change justice

  • Healthy fun living and mindful consumption

  • Family life and parenting

We’ll have more to come soon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Residential Practice Communities?.... What's Your #1 Question?

Imagine if you were visiting all of the lay practice residential communities around the world in our tradition, and you could ask each community just one or two questions....
What would your question be?! 

Hello Worldwide Friends,

As you may guessed or read about, my partner, Vanessa Loucky and I are traveling this year to all of the lay practice residential communities around the world in the Plum Village Buddhist tradition. Our intention is to bring more understanding, discussions, and insight as to what it takes to create, grow, overcome challenges, and live happily together in mindfulness-based intentional communities. And several of these are young adult communities too, stemming out of Wake Up! (an international movement of young adults building mindfulness communities).

We want to bring your curiosity, questions, and partnership with us on this journey!
Our aspiration for this journey is to travel with the curiosity and heart of our Sangha (especially our readers!) as we research communities and share the findings with our greater community.

We would love to hear what questions you would like for us to ask these residential communities we visit. What are you questions, aspirations, or needs for living in an intentional community? 

We already have an initial set of questions, but we don't want to influence others' authentic questions and needs with ours. Please keep in mind that the 14 or so communities that we visit this year are a diverse array of Wake Up Houses, long established practice centers, smaller retreat centers with residents, larger practice communities, and everywhere in between.

Looking forward to hearing where your curiosity takes us!

- David and Vanessa

Courageous Authenticity: The Ground of Dharma Sharing

At our recent Wake Up retreat, on the last full day together, we had the most extraordinary dharma sharing circle that I've ever been a part of, in the 15 years or so that I've been practicing. Collectively, people in the circle shared with more depth, vulnerability, trust, and courage than I've ever witnessed. It was both awe-inspiring, heart-opening, and humbling to experience together.

One of the most powerful forms of practice in the Plum Village tradition is Dharma Sharing. Like sitting and walking meditation, it asks us to be 100% present, for ourselves first as always, and then for others. In Dharma Sharing, we channel our capacities of mindfulness and concentration to tune into both the words and full expression of others as they share, as well as our own body and emotional responses. It's no less of a practice than other forms of meditations. It simply depends on our mind.

Brother Rogelio at the bell, during a mindfulness event in Tijuana, Mexico.

Sitting at the bell, I opened the circle with three sounds, inviting everyone to first come home deeply to themselves, in order to be fully alive for our sharing together. Knowing that this was our only dharma sharing of the retreat, and intuiting that a few people had some things on their chest, but not exactly their depth, I opened the introduction by encouraging everyone to share with courageous authenticity. Knowing that fear can hold people back from sharing, I said, "That is our gift to the circle when we share, and our authentic inner world will resonate with others." I added, "This is our one chance to really share what's alive for us and receive the collective power of each other's attention and compassion. So let's not miss this opportunity." I shared some of the other basic guidelines, and opened the floor.

Right off the bat, a few people didn't hold back, and poured out their suffering to the group, as raw and real as it asked for. Courageous authenticity was off the charts. The first couple of sharings were very heavy, as people unveiled what they felt were the 'dark' and unspoken sides of themselves. There was deep trauma in the room, and for the first time in our retreat, it was shared openly, painfully, and beautifully. It was both painful to listen, difficult to embrace, as well as incredibly inspiring. Behind the pain, I could hear deep hope and trust in transformation, perhaps simply because it was actually being shared openly into a room full of caring, dedicated friends.

A few of our friends who were on retreat for the first time shared with me afterward that they felt afraid that people would disperse and break up, that we couldn't hold it together or move into a lighter space together, as it was so heavy. There was a point when I could feel the heaviness upon the hearts of everyone in the circle. Our deep listening was absorbing and even partially experiencing a sliver of the other person's experience, sharing the suffering with them. But several of us there had been in many sharings before, and we knew the value, the deep transformative potential of this mud. We kept breathing, listening, and attending with fierce compassion to our friends. We listened to a long sound of the bell after every sharing that was deeply emotional, inviting everyone to come back to their anchors of stability: body and breath. After those first sharings, we sat in silence for several minutes each, still taking it in, and allowing our breathing re-establish stability and ease. Eventually, others bowed into the circle, sharing their own experiences, encouragements, and faith of resiliency.

Still early on in the circle, after we had spent some minutes just breathing in silence, and the mood was still heavy and sinking, one of our retreat facilitators offered a song, a call and response that a few of us knew. People joined in slowly, and soon the song filled the room with a new light, lifting us to a different plane together. We knew the suffering was still there, but we also had the brightness of this song and joy together. It's like we were sinking in a river with heavy currents, and then suddenly, we were swimming near the banks, with the river on one side of us, and the forest and sunshine on the other side. The universal balance of suffering and joy was restored.  


Slowly, others shared their own deeply hidden suffering; suffering that had not seen the light of other people's attention for years or ever. And with utmost sincerity, people thanked the initial courage and openness of our friends who shared first. They said, "If you had not shared so openly first, then I would not be able to share this right now". "I'm sharing right now because I'm so moved by what they said first. It gives me the courage." What initially felt painful, fearful, of shameful to share with others, became a beacon of light and trust for others. From then on, we heard people share stories and sides of themselves that were deeply hidden gems in their hearts. But they needed the tools of compassion and safety to mine them. I wish I could share more explicitly what people said, it was so remarkable. But since confidentiality is one of the sacred tenets of dharma sharing, I wouldn't dare. I trust you get it.

From halfway through to the end of our session together, the compassion and connectedness in the room grew so strong, you could practically flap your arms and fly off from it. Almost everyone of us had been moved to tears by the power of others sharings, and not just once but several times. As a facilitator, I recognized the deep happiness of the moment and said to myself, '’This is why we are here. This is why we work to prepare and hold these retreats for young people. Sometimes I forget, but right now, I remember, more than ever."

After the circle had come to a close, and people left the room, I watched one of our friends who was brand new to both mindfulness practice and retreats. She had been the most quiet, introverted, and socially distant member of our retreat so far. She too was so moved by the sharings, including the power of her own expression, that was previously hidden in her life. But after the circle closed, who was the first one to go up to the man who had first shared so much of his pain and suffering to the group? Without any hesitation, she steadily walked over to him, and with a smile in her eyes, seemed to open her arms as wide as the earth to him. He smiled boyishly at the profound intimacy and care being offered in that moment and accepted her embrace. I turned halfway from them so as not to disturb their moment together, and facing just in front of our ancestor altar, wept before the ancestors with deep gratitude for everything that had passed. This practice opens people's hearts and fills them with compassion.

Hugging Meditation at a New Years Retreat on Whidbey Island, WA (not related to this article).

Since that extraordinary circle sharing, I've wondered, what conditions help to create dharma sharing circles that are transformative, insightful, and healing? That is the question that we may ask ourselves as facilitators. Of course, not all dharma sharings can or need to be as powerful as during a retreat. They take place in a larger environment, whether it's a week long retreat, or an evening of practice together. Everything that precedes and follows a dharma sharing is contributing and present within that circle.

Given the range of conditions, what supports a circle to contribute to people's relief of suffering and growth in their practice?   Here are a few things that come to mind, including for the role of Dharma sharing facilitator:

  • Inviting people to share with courageous authenticity. This is one thing we always have to offer to others when we share.
  • Sharing one's real experiences of practice and life, rather than ideas.
  • As much as we are listening to others, remember to come back to one's breath and body, grounding awareness in ourselves and the room. This is a gift to ourselves and others, and improves the quality of our listening together.
  • Listening with curiosity and care to understand another person. If we notice judgment arising, we may also recognize that we're not trying to better understand the other person, and instead relying on our own views. Cultivating curiosity can dismantle judgment and leaves us open to learning more about that person and ourselves.
  • The practices outside of the dharma sharing affect its quality. The quality of the sitting and walking meditation, dharma talks, meals together, periods of silence,… these all contribute to the dharma sharing as well.
  • The bonding activities between people outside of dharma sharing and formal practices, like games, play, singing, socializing, and just hanging out. These experiences together contribute to people's feelings of trust, safety, and harmony. Knowing that others see us for our joy and childlike playfulness, and not just our suffering and trauma, invites us to open up more to what else is there.

I can add more, but I'm more interested in what others have to share from their experiences of dharma sharing. Whether as a facilitator or as a participant, what forms of practice, facilitator guidance, and other conditions contribute to sharing circles that promote people's insights, healing, and transformation?  Please, share your insights!


Feel the magic of community sharing!

Mindfulness Beyond Borders

9 Wake Uppers

From 4 countries

4 days

5 events

100s of tacos

1 Tijuana

And Infinite Fellowship!


Mindfulness Beyond Borders


Eight of us walked across the bridge, exiting the border patrol, and emerging into the new streets, smells, sounds, language, and people of this neighboring community. Tijuana is as much a next door neighbor, as a long-distant friend for those living in the affluent bubble of San Diego. Crossing the bridge is like walking through a portal to a new dimension, like something out of Dr. Strange, as our eyes, ears, and minds opened wide to absorb and understand the new energy of this realm and culture.

It was quite a shock to our senses that afternoon, in contrast to earlier that morning, awakening to the sound of the temple bell pulsing through quiet mountain misty air of Deer Park Monastery. The last week was spent in the luxury of the great hidden mountain of Deer Park, which was blooming beyond belief. Lilacs infused the air we breathed everywhere we walked, while dharma teachers infused the air with crisp awareness. We had just ended a unique 5-day retreat combining diligent young adult practitioners with seasoned Dharma teachers, and our spirits were raised adequately to meet this new adventure before us.

The eight of us were a mixed flock of Caucasian, Venezuelan, Vietnamese-American, French, and Mexican young adults. We came from many backgrounds, but one thing united us all – our lives were steeped deeply together in the cauldron of practice. We converged at the monastery, but we were heading into new territory, where we could share the magic of our practice together into new corners of our world.


We soon met up with our Tijuana hosts and last members of our cohort, who came to pick us up for the beginning event of our 4 day mindfulness tour. From there, most of us had little idea of who we would meet, the venues to where we headed, and especially the depth of exchanges that lie ahead on our path.

‘Mindfulness Beyond Borders’ - what does this mean? Where does our attention and community of practice get limited, stuck, small, or short-sighted?  How do we share our practice beyond the safe and comfortable borders of our community, nation, personal space, and our ideas of who we and others are? This was the theme driving our aspirations, after all. Only diving into together, could we truly answer these questions.

We arrived promptly at the first venue, a yoga, meditation, and farming center in the outskirts of the city, and had all of our cushions and mats placed promptly for an anticipated crowd. To our surprise and concern, it was time, and only a few people showed up. We came all this way for only a few people to listen and share with us? … We settled into a circle and just sat quietly together. We were here to practice in this beautiful city, no matter who came. We would offer our energetic vibrations of peaceful steps, conscious loving breaths, and ears of Avalokiteshvara, no matter the conditions around us. That was our intention, and I felt myself drawing a stake of aspirations and plunging it straight into the earth beneath my cushion as we sat.

However, 15, 20, and then 25 minutes later, we gradually learned the significance and meaning of the phrase ‘Latin time’. The circle slowly filled with new friends, especially youth. It was a good first test of our intention and heartfulness. We passed that test, and the rest of our events were equally filled with kind souls and hungry, inquisitive minds.


Our brother, Rogelio was on stage that first evening, and here was the first example of one of the greatest delights of this tour – watching our dear friends light up on the stage of practice,  sharing their hearts away, as we’d never seen them before. In English, Rogelio’s sharings never struck me as incredibly charismatic or awe-inspiring. But then again, most young adults don’t have the floor to really teach and share their practice before an eager audience. But now, he was in his element of culture and language, with a wide circle of curious youth, and the rest of us at his side, wholeheartedly. His eyes and hands lit up with bright animation, like a fire spinning show in a dark night, illuminating others with each word and gesture, and then slowly, gently, putting his fire out and quieting our minds into a serene and relaxed meditation.



I had been sitting next to a young man who was radiating a simple but authentic joy and serenity throughout our practice. I admired his composure, while curious about his roots of culture and spirituality. Neither of shared each other’s language, so we just exchanged a few words of greeting and smiles. After the meditation and some fun conscious movement games together, we listened to questions from our new friends and entered into a circle sharing. The exchanges centered around basics of mindfulness practice, but also touched upon cultural issues between the US and Mexico.

When time allowed, I shared my experience of the evening. While motioning to my neighbor I said, “Although we don’t speak the same language, and weren’t born in the same land, we both communicate in a similar ancient language. That’s the language of peace. We’re Peace Brothers.” He and I beamed smiles at each other, as we waited silently for the translations. I continued and spoke to the entire group. “Others may be using their energy to try to build walls. But right now, we’re already dismantling the walls within our own hearts. And we’re building bridges too, and we know how much joy that offers us. We can’t always control what our political leaders may say or do, but we can still be happy to sit, breathe, walk, listen, and smile together. Our government leaders don’t look very happy building walls. Maybe if they were to join us here, then they’d be happier, like us.”  I could say that at the moment, because our joy was palpable that evening. You could feel it throughout the room.

Fortunately, we saw this young man very often during our tour of events in Tijuana. And now we had this special bond, so that whenever we saw each other, it was always “Hey Peace Brother!” or “Hey Hermona Paz!” He became a great friend to us.


(One of our many amazing 'Peace Brothers' on our Tour)

At almost every event, I or someone else shared similarly about us being there in the context of our countries’ political circumstances. At the end of our last event, overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth of our hosts, I couldn’t help from sharing what was on my heart: “Thank you so much for welcoming us so generously and lovingly into your space, and to participate in your community. Please allow me to humbly apologize for the ways that our political leaders are currently acting and speaking. We ask you to please forgive their arrogance and ignorance. They do not understand how to appreciate and enjoy the gifts of your land and your ancestors, as we are able to enjoy now today.”

The elders and hosts nodded, smiled and with gracious hearts, said, “Don’t worry, we already have. And our political leaders are quite the same.” I can’t say for sure, but I thought I saw some of their faces soften, and their eyes seemed to really see me in that moment. I hope that they were able to lessen any resentment and hurt they may feel towards the US and especially our government over the last few months. Acknowledging that their government isn’t always much better, we all moved into a lighter space of acceptance and compassion for each other.


Our last full day in Tijuana, we had the morning free - so we hit the beach! Eight of us spent three hours lounging, sipping coffee from the many cafes along the boardwalk, and eating a brunch combo of fruit, bread, seed and nut-butters, homemade Mexican jams, and treats. We felt like kings and queens that morning with nothing to do and nowhere to go, except to simply be present with admirable friends. Is this not the ultimate luxury of our time?

Even as we delighted in the ocean, sand, and sunshine, and felt the buoyancy of other’s stories and laughter, something could not escape our attention throughout the morning. About a quarter mile north of us, the brownish-black pylon fencing looked small in the distance, but we felt its heaviness in the landscape of pristine coastline. Eventually, we knew we were destined to walk in that direction. Our curiosity, compassion, and practice took us there. We took light-hearted, but determined walk together northward, while still enjoying the sand beneath our toes, and the pervading smiles and laughter between our group.

Finally, we reached the wall, which extended about 200 feet into the ocean, and without visible limit in the other direction. We peered our heads between the pylons and gazed at the unbounded beaches ahead, and watched a few couples walking casually and freely on the other side. We were so close to them, yet we also felt strangely in different universes. We could shout to them, see them, hear them - but we could not fuly enter into their universe. Suddenly, without conversation, as if we were of one mind, we started sitting next to each other against the wall. We lined up, rooting ourselves into the earth, and into our community.  It was the only meaningful response before us….

Sitting, breathing, and touching life in a way that transcends all borders of our mind and world.

Sitting in this way, we touch the mind of no beginning and no end, no here and no there, no you and no I, no countries among us, and no borders between us.

Sitting there, we transcend the wall. We become the wall, as well as the sound of the waves crashing and lapping at the shore, the sun rays pouring over us, the ocean breeze flowing between us and between the pylons, the sand on both sides, the barbed wire, the people walking on both sides, the border patrol, the air we breathe on both sides, and the time that erodes and crumbles all walls.

Sitting, breathing, listening, not a word. This was the only true response we could offer to this space and moment. And we could only offer this as a true community.

We traveled in our 2 car caravan to several other events around the city, to share our practice and the vibrant energy of mindfulness within our mobile Sangha. We presented at a small conference of Tijuana therapists, a yoga and meditation community, and students at Ibero University. But the University faculty and administrators were so excited about our presentation, that they wanted to join as well! At each event of our tour, we were struck by the interest and wholehearted engagement of so many friends. We may live in different countries, but we share the same suffering and stress of life, and the same curiosity and determination to awaken our hearts and minds.


On the last full day, we visited the yoga community studio, where the Tijuana Sangha meets each week. The day before we were scheduled to facilitate, they offered us the option to either share our practice, or have someone treat us to a traditional Cacao Ceremony. We accepted the invite immediately!  We had  been offering the jewels of our tradition throughout the last several days, and now it was our turn to receive the gems of their Mayan ancestral heritage. And who offered this ceremony? To our delight, it was our ‘Peace Brother’ from our very first gathering.

Scholars estimate that cacao has been used as a health elixir and ceremonial medicine as far back as 1900 BC by the ancestors of Central America, the Olmec people, before becoming a ritualistic medicine used by the Aztec and Mayan cultures. And we thought that Buddhism was old!  Signifying both life and fertility, raw ceremonial grade cacao has been used for centuries to unlock euphoric states, release negative emotions, and connect to pure heart energy. As Wake Uppers, we were totally down for this kind of fun. Cacao is considered a heart opener, due to certain active ingredients, primarily theobromine, which expands the release of dopamine, the ‘pleasure’ hormone. Another primary actor is phenethylamine, the ‘love’ compounds of cacao, known to create heightened sensation and empathy, as well as help relieve stress and depression. When taken in ceremonial doses, it’s a powerful stimulant that opens the heart chakra. But this evening, we journeyed light with cacao, and just got a small dose of its flavor and sacred power.

The Cacao Ceremony reflected our practice in so many ways! We started with playful movements, so that the energy and innocence of our child heart spirits could manifest in our circle – this is essential in Mayan spiritual tradition our host explained (much like Wake Up!). Then we wrapped bundles of sage with different colored yarn while setting prayers and intentions for our time together. Our ceremony facilitator poured a few cups of raw cacao into a wooden bowl filled with agave nectar, and proceeded to share his prayers and blessings while stirring the bowl and grinding whole cacao beans into the mixture. Passing the bowls to his right, we each were given the opportunity to do the same, and offer our heartfelt blessings. After a round of this, we were all invited to stir the bowl again and hand grind more fresh cacao bits, all while singing our love to the bowl and to the community (very Plum Village-ish once again). All the singing, gratitudes, playfulness, and sweetness of the cacao reminded us of our Plum Village tea ceremonies! But the cacao dessert at the end was unlike anything we’ve ever tasted - surely one of the most exquisite tastes of my life. The flavors were rich with the love of the evening.


Enthralled by the beautiful rituals, sharing and lightheartedness of the evening, we could not believe it lasted 3 hours! And our energy reflected it! Now we were not only Dharma meditation high, but we were Cacao high too!  Not only were we fully present, we were Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah present! As the 8 eight of us waited outside for more friends to join us, we started singing, beat-boxing, playing our imaginary instruments, and everyone was dancing like a circus troupe parading down the elevator, stairs, parking lot, and beyond into the evening.

The local Sangha members got a kick out of us! They loved hanging out with us after events, so we joined for a last evening of tacos to finish off the amazing evening of meditation and cacao festivities together. After enjoying tacos and guacamole of our dreams, we parted and shared goodbyes wholeheartedly with many of our Tijuana beloved friends. Amazing that just 4 days earlier, most of us had never even met.

While leaving, I motioned to my ‘Peace Brother’ how cool his pants are, perfect for meditation. Then he motioned to me how he liked my shirt too, and then his face lit up. He raised his eyebrows with an idea. We were on the sidewalk of a busy street near our cars, but before I knew it, we were both taking off our shirts in front of everyone, and offering them to each other with ecstatic smiles. Mine was a Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt, a perfect Southern Cali gift. His was a custom handmade shirt in traditional Mexican design from the region of Chiapas, both simple and beautiful. I have to say that his gift to me was the better offer, but we knew that that wasn’t the true value. Simply to exchange a part of ourselves with the other was the real gift.  And now we remember and embody each other’s spirit every time we wear them. Thank you, ‘Peace Brother’!  But this won’t be the last time we meet, I’m sure. Upon leaving, he promised me that during our next trip down to Mexico, he’ll offer us a different Cacao Ceremony, which is deeper, with more energy - spicy cacao ceremony as he called it. Well, we’ll see you soon, Peace Brother!


Special thanks goes to our dear Sangha sister, Denisse Aguilar, who was at the hub of this Tijuana Wake Up tour and mindfulness adventure. Deep gratitude for all of your wholehearted courage, perseverance, and love that you poured into this tour and your Sangha. We love you! 


Also, deep gratitude and love for all nine of our brothers and sisters who adventured with us, offering your unconditional joy, harmony, and sincerity of practice. You made this mindfulness tour really come alive and sparkle at each moment for everyone, even when we least expected it...