Weekend Retreat at Mariposa: Through a Newcomer's Eyes

Weekend Retreat at Mariposa: Through A Newcomer's Eyes

Part 2 of the Sugarplum Sangha Series

September, 2018

We were mindfully enjoying a silent dinner on the first night of retreat when a few more people arrived to the retreat. I noticed them walking slowly, carefully, but with inexpressible eagerness into the dining hall.  A young woman entered the room and hardly glanced at the serving table of delicious offerings. Instead her bright eyes were filled to the brim with joyous anticipation, and focused on a friend coming to greet her. The intimate blend of shyness and joy clearly told a story of how much this place and its people had been on her mind and heart, perhaps for weeks, months, or longer…. she had finally arrived.

The brightness in the woman’s eyes and the nature of that interaction was like someone meeting up a beloved family member or a longtime friend while traveling abroad; the love of home and deep familiarity mixed with a sense of ripening adventure was bursting out of her face. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the fire of anticipation immediately cooled in the refreshing lake of contact, as they hugged silently and serenely for a few minutes. As a new person to this community, I felt a mixture of both awe and appreciation as well as a touch of envy for the close bonds they appeared to share. Earlier in the week, Jonathan and Eric had already forewarned me with patient excitement in their voices, about the special quality of friendships that were blooming among their nascent community. But hearing about and experiencing are two separate things. This dinner was my first real taste of the wider Sugarplum Sangha that fluidly blends both residential and non-residential practitioners into one family.

The Sugarplum Sangha has held a retreat every month of the year together since December 2016. At that time, Joann Rosen, a seasoned Dharma Teacher and long time resident of the Mariposa Institute had been in communication with Jonathan Borella and My Tong, who were passionate, committed (and not too shabby) Sanghabuilders in the Bay and LA area. She invited them to come live there, partner with the existing Mariposa Center, and hold retreats there regularly, thereby laying the foundations of a mindfulness retreat center and residential community. By the time I visited them in April, they had already offered well over a dozen retreats, and their young Sangha tree was already bearing some delicious fruits in its 2nd year together.

So where does the sweetness of the Sugar Plum Sangha come from?  Well the best way to taste this sweetness is to dive in with me on this weekend retreat and weeklong journey I spent there with them… So come along!…

Welcome to Mariposa! …. Dinner will be a bit late, but very happily prepared!

As the sunset laid down countless beams upon the glowing oak leave canopy over Mariposa, I walked down the gravel road to a large wooden yurt for orientation. Its Eastside windows seemed to hang like a spaceship in midair over the creek bed valley and oakwood forest, offering us the beauties of outdoor living in this cozy hall. Having helped wash up after dinner, I was the last one to arrive. The atmosphere inside was crisp with silence as I opened the creaking wooden doors to enter. Everyone was sitting quietly, with eyes closed, breathing harmoniously in stillness together, as if they were some kind of single living, breathing organism in circular formation.

After several minutes, Eric, one of the four residents, invited a bell and broke the silence with a soft yet unmistakably excited voice to welcome us. My, another resident and Sangha co-founder, sat next to Eric as they co-led the orientation. On the surface, they calmly explained the fundamentals of mindfulness practice as well as logistics of the center; but on a more subtle and energetic level, the two of them were tempting us to step more closely into the magical mindfulness journey they have been walking together over the last 15 months. The mood in the room, like the tones in their voices was serene and sincere, with small unconcealed bursts of joy and nervousness eliminated any heaviness in the air. My’s soft, angelic voice was balanced by an unquestionable trust and confidence in the depth of her experiences thus far. “This is the 13th or 14th retreat we’ve done here together, and it’s something very precious that we’ve been slowly cultivating together. We’re a community and peer led retreat. That means we’re all learning from and growing with each other. Yes, we learn so much every time, just like we will this weekend.” 

After a pause, Eric recommenced, “As a community, we all have some parts of our lives that we’re beginners at, and others that we’re more experts at. These retreats are a chance for us to share our gifts with each other, learn from each other, both offering and receiving at once.”  Many gifts and givers there were indeed that weekend. The diversity of five organizers who were leading various activities was impressive, spanning females, males, Filipino, Caucasian, and Vietnamese backgrounds. To be honest, the wide spectrum of unique strengths among the facilitators was one of the most uplifting aspects of the whole retreat for me. As I happened to glance over a few of the anonymous feedback forms at the end of the retreat, it seems like I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

This happened to be the first retreat without Jonathan, one of the core founders and teachers in the community, and it seemed like a big deal for people, especially the organizing and facilitating crew. He was the most seasoned practitioner among them and carried most of the Sangha’s facilitation and organizational leadership in the first year. But by now, the forest had grown several pillar trees who stood strong to embrace the rest of the forest.

Eric was the only male on the organizing team this time. Being a resident and having lots of practice experience over the last few years, he’d had a primary role in organizing retreats the last year. Eric shared with me a few days prior that Joann, the local Dharma Teacher, had commented to their organizing team, ‘Yes, the retreat was great, and things are going great. But, there are too many white guys talking.’ This was felt like a conundrum for them at first, as both Jonathan and Eric, the two ‘white guy’ facilitators, were the only ones living full time at Mariposa over the past year, and thereby did most of the organizing and preparatory work for the retreats. But Joann’s point had clearly made it’s mark, as the Sangha was now supporting a more diverse and dynamic group of non-resident members into facilitatory action. The leadership was well spread out across the retreat. No voice stood out too strongly in front of another, while every voice stood out strong among each other.

After over 45 minutes of sitting and listening together, the facilitators suddenly shook things up with a surprise. I was reminded of the facilitators’ youthful ages as we moved into a game I had never heard of before…. “Buddha Freeze Tag!” (In fact, they later admitted that they invented the game that morning!)

What Buddha Freeze Tag feels like with Sugarplum Sangha

Prior to the game, we had listened to a moving passage form Old Path White Clouds, an account of the Buddha’s life, in which the Buddha befriended and affectionately touched a child who was part of the lowest class in Indian society, the ‘untouchables’. And this became the theme of the game! Basically, someone is the ‘Buddha’ and stands in the middle. That person tries to tag the ‘untouchables’ (the rest of us in the circle) to make them Buddhas and bodhissatvas as well. The untouchables are afraid of being tagged (because of deeply ingrained cultural fears), and try to avoid being touched. Someone in the circle starts off by saying a second person’s name; that second person has to say someone else’s name in the circle before the Buddha in the middle tags them. Slowly, everyone becomes a Buddha, and the game ends when we all become enlightened! (i.e, tagged out). The game was a total hit among everyone, while at the same time forcing us to memorize everyone’s name extremely quickly, especially for us competitive types! Everyone rolled with laughter as people tried to blurt out each other’s names before freezing with fear of being tagged. What a contrast to the meditation and stillness earlier in the evening. It was one of the most fun and creative ice-breakers that I can ever remember playing. What do you expect with the facilitators all being in their 20s and 30s? While perhaps not always true, this quality often supports better games all around.

Dawn in the mountains of Mariposa, home of Sugarplum Sangha

The nights and early mornings in these low coastal mountains were still cold, as we gathered for pre-dawn meditations every morning. A wood fire stove had been burning well before our arrival,  as we cozily gathered inside for warmth, togetherness, and peace. After the meditation, My translated a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh that was originally offered in Vietnamese. I was feeling sleepy that morning, and yet I felt ease and grateful knowing that every aspect and need was being cared for so fluidly and generously by the rest of this young Sangha body.

We finished the dharma talk and proceeded to breakfast, which was was completely silent until wash-up. Except for the last lunch, every meal was silent during the first 15 to 20 minutes in order to practice mindful eating, and maintain a collective energy not dominated by boisterous exchanges throughout the day. And all the better for us, as the meals were exquisitely prepared, and we were a talkative bunch already. For example on the first night, Teel, a new Mariposa resident, went all out to prepare a burrito bar on the first night that included homemade cashew butter topping, cilantro sauce, and a chocolate banana date smoothie. Aside from the decadence, you could feel the love and intimate Sangha friendship flowing through each of her dishes.

Following a break, the Sangha started ‘working meditation’, which I would more appropriately call ‘joyful service’, because there wan’t a lot of meditation happening. While perhaps some people were quietly focused at times, my team had continuous laughter, smiles, and conversations throughout.  We tossed each other empty buckets like footballs after dumping each load of manure, and used wheel barrow journeys down the hill to get to better know each other. Regardless of one preferred quiet or conversation, one thing was clear: a ubiquitously positive spirit infused our work to help build and beautify this Sangha home. We knew that our hands were helping shape, even a little bit, this center for future retreats and possibly even future generations of practitioners.

Working meditation is the best!!

What a day of retreat… Besides everything mentioned, the Sangha gathered for a letter writing exercise, a 2 hour presentation and discussion on global mindfulness communities, dharma sharing for an hour and a half, and an hour and half long Interplay session…. WOOWWW!!!  We sure packed it in. It may have been the fullest day of retreat in my life… and it was all incredibly rich and fun as well. It was one of the most joyful days I’d had in quite a while, actually. I enjoyed it thoroughly, despite even not having slept well the night before. You can bet that I slept well the following night though.

Sunday included another 40 minute meditation at dawn, followed by yoga and breakfast together. One thing I really valued about this retreat was the organizers’ sensitivity to time and spaciousness for closing the retreat on Sunday, which gives everyone plenty of time to clean up their rooms and leave right after lunch. An unhurried drive home (especially for those commuting a few hours back to the Bay), time to settle in back home, do some laundry if needed, and enjoy a relaxing evening before Monday at work is what I call smart retreating.

Our closing session together was… well perfect, for me at least. We grounded ourselves in silent breathing for 10 minutes, the home base of our practice together. Then we did a series of touching the earth practice, offering our respect and gratitude to the land all the ancestors who came before us, before entering into a final sharing circle. For both the closing circle and dharma sharing the day before, people shared with a depth of trust, and vulnerability that was both striking to me as well inexpressibly familiar. People’s raw honesty and personal suffering was matched by overwhelming appreciation and joy for their experiences on retreat and everyone there. This candor and vulnerability allowed people to feel really seen, heard, and supported in what was most present in their lives right then and there. People shared about mental health issues in their family and feeling helpless about it; others shared about current struggles with mental health and weight control; another shared about feeling socially anxious throughout her life, yet still greatly enjoying the retreat’s social activities together; several people spoke to a recurring theme of critical and harsh self-judgments, and how to hold such thoughts and feelings more attentively with discernment and with compassion. Throughout it all, everyone shared their gratitude for what was happening in the retreat, and the opportunity be part of this vigorously budding community.

Cleaning the windows of our souls, we reflect each other more clearly and beautifully…

One gets the sense here that people are positively proud of what they are creating together, and for this precious seedling that is on the rise. They were grateful and excited to be part of something that felt so fresh and genuine, and with so much potential to grow in themselves. Most of all, they felt the happiness and pride of building it themselves. They weren’t following one leader or teacher throughout the retreat; instead, the regular members were all slowly become the leader themselves in some small way or another. That is the mysterious power of the Sangha – something that you can’t exactly place your finger on or duplicate, but you can touch it and receive it through the magic and strength of the group.

Before leaving Mariposa, I sat with Teel on the deck of her porch and newly decorated cabin during a lazy afternoon after the retreat. The afternoon forest was cool yet the spring sunshine was still bright. I shared with her that MorningSun Community, my resident home Sangha feels pregnant with possibility; it’s still young and a growing community that’s just waiting for something big to be born and created through it. She turned to me with wide eyes of knowing and said, “That’s what it feels like here too.”

A Sugarplum Cinnamon Swirl…. Yummm!!!


For more information on Sugarplum Sangha, and to see some really cool videos of their retreats and practice, visit:

www.SugarplumSangha.org


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

Working mindfully, working joyfully, working with a smile to benefit all beings…

How wonderful to clean. Day by day, my heart and mind grow clearer.

(My favorite photo taken at Sugarplum Sangha!)


Special thanks to the kind and generous hearted Sangha friends at Sugar Plum who welcomed me for one week to their community. I'm looking forward to visiting back soon!


The Blooming Forest of Sugar Plum Sangha

The Blooming Forest and Community of Sugar Plum Sangha

#1 of the Mariposa Series

May, 2017

What most impressed me when first visiting Sugar Plum Sangha at the Mariposa Institute was not the hand-built redwood cabins and dorms, nor the meditation hall overlooking the valley forest and creek, nor even the burgeoning community of young people. Rather, first off was the blooming forest completely enveloping their community. So before sharing anything further about the flourishing mindfulness community, let us saunter through the petal rich flourishing forest community. Let us take a rest and sit atop a high rock overlooking the valley with a warm cup of tea in our hands. Welcome to Mariposa and her many many blooming beings….

The slow and rich forest mountain drive up to Mariposa…

Not far off the 101 freeway in Northern California, less than 2 hours north of San Francisco, I drove along a dirt road into the dark green mountain hills, climbing slowly into a river valley well hidden from the city. It was already late afternoon when I arrived at the Mariposa Institute, and its old redwood built cabins and campus appeared very cool and dark shady brown under the thick shade of the oak forest. An old friend appeared, Jonathan, welcoming me with a long Sangha hug to this car weary traveler.

I was eager to explore, so we briefly toured the main buildings and a few cabin dwellings sprinkled throughout the forest valley, as we meandered to the meadow and creek main attractions.  It is difficult to describe the overwhelming contrast of spring’s magic in these California coastal mountains to the frigid city life not far away. It softens the senses, and seemed to prepare my heart and mind for a deeper connection to the community.

We sauntered along the forest paths at the same pace of the soft breeze in the air, following Jonathan’s footsteps that felt neither too slow or too fast. Each step, this hallmark of our tradition, reminded me I was at home in the Sangha here. Even a slight rush to our gait would seem to disrespect the rainbow galaxies of wildflowers and fresh fluorescent green blades waving to us from below. Light permeated a little bit everywhere through the feathered canopy of baby green oak leaves.

Crossing a meadow filled with wild violet irises among countless other blooming beings whose names I have yet to learn, we coursed our way through a steeper forested hillside with a streamed below. Every so often, I would stop and look at Jonathan as if to say, “Dude, You live here now?!”  Jonathan would just chuckle as if he was also barely believing it himself and say, “Yah, I know.” 

The trail meanders through meadows, oak forests, and all along the riverbed valley.

It didn’t take me long to discover why they chose this valley as the true soil to plant their deepest aspirations for building community.“There must be over a billion flowers booming in this stream valley alone, and perhaps a hundred billion across the other valley as well” I thought to myself. Over the next several days, I met many violet and white striped ‘wild irises’, various shades of violet and off-white lupin, little yellow ‘mariposa lilies’ growing on the rocky hillsides, the ‘crimson columbines’ that look like mini gorgeous spaceships, the transparent white and orange ‘fairy lanterns’ that look like real fairy lanterns, and the ‘blue dicks’ with their long stems and just usually two to four violet flowers on top that the butterflies perch and eat from… each one was a new mesmerizing friend.

During my walks either alone or with a friend, I would occasionally stumble upon a whole tribe of  one variety, especially if we ventured off the path. Minding their own business on a undiscovered slope tucked in the valley, I would find this village of wild violet irises, or a well knit community of cool-blue lupin friends. Perhaps they enjoyed particular conditions together there: a little more shade, more moisture, or perhaps more this soil than another. Whatever their reasons, they gathered by the dozens and dozens nearby, covering they territory they have claimed as home.

A family of lupin pops up to greet us happily along our way.

Eventually we came to what Jonathan wanted to show me: a simple, yet very elegant series of cascades hopping down one after another for about 25 to 30 feet. The multiple stages had 5 to 8 foot cascades, gently hopping down one after another, turning left and right, and filling small 2 to 3 person sized swimming holes in the rock at each turn. On the one hand, it was nothing in comparison to the falls that Vanessa and I had become accustomed to in Washington or New Zealand. They weren’t gigantic and thundering, nor magnificent enough to attract people from afar. Yet, this was their waterfall….  gentle cascades in their very own humble backyard. And at a short distance, even a small waterfall can be almost overwhelming to the ears, drowning out any noise in the periphery, and simultaneously numbing the spirit of any dis-ease and anxiety in the periphery of our mind. This was a clearly a Mariposa gem.

I asked Jonathan if we could climb the rocks left of the falls, rising higher above the ravine walls. He hadn’t tried it yet, so like little boys again, we played rock climbing up to the top. The steep and edgy rockside, combined with its pasty violet white succulents growing all around, and various golden yellow, violet, and light maroon wild flowers spurting up in the most unforeseen places was at once exhilarating and peacefully delightful.

Finally, we arose to the simple summit, and behold the view! The view that I am now sitting upon. The kind of view that puts so much of life into grand persecutive and scope of ease. The kind of view that mellows an anxious spirit, and warms the cold places in our soul. It was an western view to catch the last of the sunset rays over the horizon. As I would later find out, the other side of the waterfall valley had an equally stunning view, rising even higher than where we originally perched. With its eastern view, it was an unparalleled morning meditation spot, offering the first glimpses and warmth of the rays peaking up over the mountainous horizon.

A longtime resident later informed that it was called King Kong hill, and I think for good reason. The rocky plateau on top jets out high above the creek bed, and offers a stunning view of the valley on multiple sides. The sheer drop on the eastern side over the creek bed makes one feel like your just the king of the whole forest. If it weren’t for a few lilac bushes on the northwestern side, then the protruding outcrop would offer a full stunning 360 degree view.

Jonathan and I had planned on heading back before sunset, but with our new view, that plan just became obsolete. We poured some tea and breathed silently with the lingering rays. Neither of us could call ourselves wealthy by most conventional financial standards. But a cup of tea out there under the evening sunlight, our bums cushioned by thick red-green moss over the rocks, welcomed by many blooming friends, having a deeply present friend to enjoy it with, and indeed we could call ourselves with absolute certainty, very rich beings in this Universe.

Welcome to the Sugar Plum Sangha at Mariposa.

Old friends, young hearts, and playful spirits

“A view that mellows an anxious spirit or warms the cold places in our soul”



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

We also wholeheartedly invite you to check out more of what the Mindfulness Bell journal has to offer.  Each issue focuses on the most cutting edge practices and topics of socially engaged practice in our world, from mindfulness in education, mindful consumption, social justice and racial equity, practicing peace in times of war, mindfulness and the Plum Village community's continuation in light of Thich Nhat Hanh's illness, and more...

Deepen your journey of practice with the Mindfulness Bell...


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

Interview with Stefano, Letizia, & Marco Part 3

Founders and Residents of Avalokita

June 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

SB: He must have been so proud of you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SB: Wow, you built it yourselves?

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

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

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

SB: When did you start renovating?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L: It’s a difference in mental state.

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

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

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

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

SB: How do you meet all together?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St: Now I think he is flower watering!

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

St: Grazie, Grazie

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


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

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


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

Interview with Stefano and Letizia, Part 2

Founding Members and Dharma Teachers of Avalokita

June 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SB: Can you share about how it was bought?

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

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

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

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

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

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

SB: And that was one of the big donors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Interview with Stefano and Letizia,

Founding Members and Dharma Teachers of Avalokita

June 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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...