Being and Non-Being (Online)

Being and Non-Being (Online)

(Part 1 of Digital Dharma Series)

October 2019 

After hearing the long undulating sounds of the bell, Selina slowly massaged her hands and face, tenderly transitioning out of the guided meditation. A light, crisp pitch of the smaller bell signaled for her and others to stand up and practice walking meditation, or use the restroom if needed. But as usual, Seline gently walked out of her living room, silently stepping into her baby daughter’s room. Over the wooden crib walls, she was in the same fetal position, tucked away under a light blue cotton blanket, and looking as peacefully still as if she too had just benefited from the meditation happening next door.

Seline’s peace turned into a soft joyous smile as she gazed for a few more moments, and then as quietly as she came in, slowly walked back to her sitting cushion on the floor. She took a few conscious breaths after resettling into her seated half lotus posture, and then very mindfully reopened her laptop. There was her beloved Sangha – seated beautifully and quietly on her screen, having just finished walking meditation and waiting for the Dharma sharing circle to begin. Present and at ease, Seline was with her Monday evening online Sangha, and she felt fully at home.

Even just 10 years ago, this kind of connection was impossible for most people. Now, hundreds of practitioners around the world, spanning multiple languages, are connecting and supporting each other’s mindfulness practice through virtual mindfulness communities. It’s the perfect fit for single parents like Seline, who sorely missed her local Sangha’s support and strength in person. But now, she can engage once or twice a week with her online group while never having to roam farther than the sound of her baby’s voice.

Due to the calls of parenthood, young parents often feel left out of Sangha life during the most challenging period of their family’s development. Not everyone has a grandparent willing to stay over while one or both parents go to Sangha every week, and most retreat centers don’t have children’s programs until the kids are 5 or 6 years old. But now, the Sangha can come right into their own living room, and the bell is never louder than one’s headphones.

Young parents are not the only ones connecting through online mindfulness communities; this modality seems to be born out our changing world that many others live in as well. Consider Joseph, a 34 year old video producer from the UK, who needs a stable source of motivation to meditate and emotinal support to balance his demanding profession life. This Wednesday, Joseph is in Barcelona, far away from home. But it’s no problem –  his Sangha is traveling with him, just an hour later than usual. He hooks up online, opens up Zoom, and finds a dozen friends already waiting for him, ready to meditate.

Like many others in the business world, Joseph is continually traveling to different cities and countries around Europe, spending just a fraction of each month at home. His online Sangha has become the most reliable companions on his path, having been with the group for 3 years strong. Others in his Sangha have been deepening friendships with each other for even longer. Every week since 2012, each of them takes a 90 minute break from their hectic lives to meditate, read or listen to a Dharma teaching, and discuss how the practice is going in their every day lives. Everything is live, in the moment, online. Some of the members have moved multiple times, having left family, friends, jobs, pets, neighbors, and even the coffee shop and corner store owner. Through it all, no mater where they move, the Sangha keeps showing up, right in his living room.

So where can one find or create such a virtual Sangha home?  Plumline.org is has been the central nursery of newborn online groups in the Plum Village tradition. Anyone with the intention to practice can start or join one. Over two dozen groups exist in multiple languages, with different themes of practice, meeting every day of the week. The demand has been so great that some of the groups have had to close their attendance to newcomers.

Online mindfulness gatherings to prepare for the Greece Sangha Service Project, 2018

I recently asked Plumline visionary and co-founder, Alipasha Razzaghipour about why he thought these groups have bloomed in recent years. Combining enthusiasm with a rational depiction of the digital world, Ali shared “Technology is redefining the intersections of space and contact in our world, radically changing the way we relate to distance and travel.”

Ali recounted that a dozen years ago, the first online groups were based on text messages. “I will begin meditating now,” typed one member into their Sangha chat box. “Okay, me too. Enjoy your sit,” confirmed another. Sounds pretty bland, especially compared to the technology of video calls today. But just being aware that another Sangha member was meditating together with them in that moment, despite not being able to see or speak to them, was already very supportive and beneficial. Not everyone can join a local group, for any number of reasons, so being with a virtual Sangha is better than none at all – even a texting Sangha! “Online Sanghas are not for everyone” Ali plainly admitted. “But in-person Sanghas are not for everyone either.” While in-person Sanghas have been my preference over the years, it’s a good point he makes!

Practicing mindfulness with others non-locally has other advantages. It presents a golden opportunity for small niche groups of practitioners to come together in ways that were never before possible. Consider someone living in a small city in Germany who wants to form a mindfulness group that is also dedicated to exploring environmental issues. Whereas her small local mindfulness group doesn’t have the interest, across the US it will be easy to find a dozen (or five or six dozen) practitioners with that particular calling.

Another great example is with young adults who consider aspiring to the Order of Interbeing (OI), which offers tremendous opportunity to deepen practice and study of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings. The Order has been a predominantly older white middle class community in the US, and it’s been challenging to cultivate a more diverse and younger generation. Having multiple young adults in one region with this calling is rare, so young adults or people of color can feel isolated given the generational and cultural gaps. Last year, we were able to easily form not just one, but two online groups of young adults with diverse backgrounds who are enthusiastic about studying the trainings with their peers. The monthly group has been filled with creativity and connection and would never have been possible without a virtual space to connect to. Thank you technology!

Alipasha admitted that there are a number of drawbacks of meeting online, depending on the digital platforms used. For one, the degree of transmission from teacher to student practitioner or peer to peer is not the same online as in person. Perhaps that gap will never be fully closed. Ali believes that’s it’s essential that new practitioners really taste the experience of mindfulness in person first, whether during a retreat or by visiting a local group. Ideally, people can both practice in person as well as online to complement their practice opportunities. This is becoming a reality for many people in the Sangha, who wish to connect locally as well as with niche groups across the globe. Other niche groups include the Earthholders Sangha dedicated to mindfully embracing environmental justice, a facilitator Sangha, Sanghas who speak in Mandarin, Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Italian, and Polish! This may not seem like a big deal for those who live in those countries. But to live in Vietnam and speak Polish at Sangha, or live in Poland and speak Vietnamse to your mindfulness group can be quite a special mindfulness opportunity!

Aside from the many incredible benefits, there are other obvious challenges that come with using a computer to support your meditation practice. Ali jokingly shared, “More than once I’ve noticed during our circle sharing, that someone is wearing glasses and I can see the light reflecting a changing computer screen.” He laughed, noting “We are in fact inviting people to meditate and listen deeply to each other right in front of perhaps the biggest source of addiction in their lives – their screens.”

While meditating online may have its disadvantages, it’s obviously working for many people who are clearly sticking with it over time. Online video groups such as Heart Sangha and World Interbeing Sangha are celebrating their 9th and 10th birthdays together!  With such longevity, these groups are undoubtedly providing a steady source of Dharma nourishment to people, with no signs of slowing down. Plumline already has almost 30 groups meeting regularly, speaking in seven different languages. 

As technology continues to advance its capacities to provide more lifelike experiences for users, the degrees of separation continue to dwindle. When asked what the future holds for online communities, Ali is clear that this growth has just begun. “We’ve seen the evolution of digital Sanghas fly forward in the last few decades; from text based Sanghas, to multiple person phone calls, to Skype, to Google Hangouts, and now to Zoom. Just watch, it won’t be long before we are meditating together in a virtual meditation hall.”

Wow, it all sounds very cool and exciting for the future of Sangha life. But I think our capacities to connect with meaning and flexibility right now is already pretty good. I certainly won’t be holding my breath for it.


“Breathe You are Online”


Climbing Up Zen History in Vietnam

Pilgrimage to Yen Tu Mountain

April 2019 

Standing next to a creek at the foot of the mountain, I beheld my first glances of the ancient pagodas jetting out of dark forest foliage. Misty clouds enveloped the mountain above, hiding the peaks in mystery. Early the next morning, just after dawn, I planned to follow the ancestral footsteps of those who lived, practiced, and pilgrimaged to this sacred mountain of Yen Tu. In particular, I wished to know more deeply the king who abandoned his life in the royal palace to live and train as a Zen monk in the splendor of this mountain. For those practicing in the Plum Village tradition, Yen Tu mountain is the home of our Bamboo Forest School of Zen, and whose soil and stones embody the unique story our Vietnamese Buddhist lineage.

In the 13th century, the royal prince of Vietnam had a hungering curiosity to learn and practice Zen. Instead of assuming his royal duties, he wished to live in the mountains where ascetic life flourished. The prince would soon become king, and when his father learned of his son’s wishes for renunciation, he pleaded for him not to abandon his country and people at such a time.

Does this story sound familiar? Like Siddhartha, the young prince was determined to walk the true path of awakening. However, he did not leave his worldly concerns and the plight of his people just yet. Instead, at the age of 21, he became king and promised to unite his country to defend against imperialistic forces in the North. Supported by his father’s guidance, the young King Tran Nhan Tong immediately developed a plan to unify and strengthen the country in order to fend off the inevitable invasions of the Mongolian empire.

Down at the foothills, several thousand steps under the cloud shrouded peaks, I crossed a charming pagoda bridge, under which an ancient stream flows. It is said that after the king left the capital to pursue monastic life on Yen Tu, many of his royal attendants drowned themselves in the river to demonstrate their unswerving loyalty. Hence a pagoda was later built there to honor them. Feeling unable to fully grasp such a dramatic display of fidelity, I stopped to breathe and gently ponder the river and entrance to Yen Tu. How overwhelmingly loved this king must have been by the people at such a time. What was it like for them to see their beloved leader walk away from palace leadership into the mountain caves and thatched roof hermitages?

At the entrance, one saunters up an endless sight of well laid stone steps weaving through the dense forest hillside. After about 15 minutes of heavy breathing and climbing, I crossed the forest floor at a more mellow incline until the path eventually forks in two. Straight ahead lies an embellished stone staircase, a seemingly new edition to this pilgrim route. To the right is an earthy pine rooted path; its ancient yet familiar appearance pulls me closer and eventually upward. Scattered stone steps rise high and lonely above the soil like the last teeth holding on to its earthen gums. Only the rugged pine tree roots which dominate former stone steps provide stability to the washed out soil. While the route grows ever more steep, the barren pine roots feel ever more sturdy for many native and foreign sandals and fingers to take hold.

As unrivaled horsemen and with superior naval forces, the Mongols had already conquered all of China and were rapidly spreading west, even conquering most of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It was only a matter of time before their insatiable appetite wrapped its jaws around the Viet kingdom. The Mongols invaded with huge armies by both land and sea. Under the sophistication and courage of King Tran Nhan Tong and his father, the Viet forces used an ancient secret method developed centuries ago to protect against the Mongols’ large naval fleet. As the Mongol forces traveled up the Bach river towards the capital of Hanoi, the Viet forces ambushed them by both land and water, keeping them stalled on the river for a few hours. The Mongols’ greater naval fleet had no idea that underneath them, the Viet forces had previously installed iron tipped spears on the bottom of the riverbed.  As the tide gradually flowed out and the water level steadily decreased, the spears began puncturing the ships’ bottoms!  At the same time, Viet fishermen who were skilled in the art of deep sea diving, were also stealthily puncturing the Mongol boats with nails and hammers.  The famous Mongol admiral who was leading their naval fleet was wearing very strong and fancy metal armor that he used to vanquish his past enemies. But when his ship began to sink, he and his heavy armor did as well. Within a few hours, the Mongols’ naval fleet was nearly decimated. With minimal losses in the south, the Viet forces then repositioned themselves to impeccably defend the northern border against the fierce horsemen.

Under King Tran Nhan Tong, the country had become safe and protected, and enjoyed a period of peace. Without the hardships of war, the king lessened taxes to give relief to the poor, and postponed other military campaigns so that the country could recover after two fierce wars, several famines, and other natural disasters. Having fulfilled his royal duties to his people, King Tran Nhan Tong prepared for his deepest aspirations to unfold. After 15 years leading the dynasty, he passed the crown to his first son in 1293, while closely guiding him for the next 6 years. Relieved of the overwhelming burden of ruling the country, he could now dedicate the rest of his life to spiritual awakening, while also serving as the national counselor to his country and son.

Even as I savored the various dark and light green shaded forest rooms up the mountain, beads of sweat coursed down my face at every turn, and my body grappled with the dense jungle humidity. To escape my discomfort, I continuously felt the urge to push through the fatigue, and race upwards to my destination. The habitual tendency to push through and finish felt so familiar to me, and yet there was another force walking up the mountain alongside me. I could hear the soft and firmly planted footsteps of the Noble Teacher steadily following behind me. His steps had gracefully landed on this path countless times, and had infused his presence into the mountainside. As I stopped to catch my breath, it was as if he too was pausing to breathe at my side for a short rest. A black butterfly with fluorescent blue spotted wings drew near to me, a reward from the mountain for stopping to enjoy her beauty. As I later found out, the Vietnamese say that seeing this black butterfly means the ancestors are present!

The retired king studied the Dharma in depth with the Eminent Master Tue Trung, who was also been born into the Tran royal family and had dedicated half of his life to protecting the country before stepping into monastic life. After 6 years of study and training, the former king finally ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1299, and soon made his home in the majestic forests and peaks of Yen Tu Mountain, dedicating himself to mastering the 10 ascetic virtues. Having lived most of his life in a palace embellished with gold and precious gems, he finally discovered true peace as a homeless monk. He wore only a patchwork robe, slept under simple thatched roofs on Mount Yen Tu, and took the medicine and spiritual nourishment of nature’s offerings. After 10 years on the mountain, he was still not interested in building great temples or pagodas. Rather, he was content with the simple life of awakening, while finding ways to deeply guide and influence the well-being of his country.

Even though we have never met the Noble Forest Bamboo Teacher in person, we may still encounter his presence through teachings, stories, and poetry. They are a gate for us to truly step onto this sacred mountain.

“Going Up Mount Bao Dai”

The landscape is deserted
and the moss makes it seem even more ancient. It is still pale early spring.
Cloud-covered mountains come close,
then waver and fade.
The flower-covered paths are cast with shadows. Everything is like water flowing into water.
For a whole lifetime
the heart always gives voice to the heart. Leaning on the magnolia,
I raise a flute to my lips,
as moonlight floods my heart.

To continue the journey up Yen Tu Mountain and hear about the Noble Teacher’s life, visit

Part 2: From King of Vietnam to Zen Master

References:

– Hermitage Among the Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh
– The Patriarchs of Truc Lam Sect, by Thich Thanh Tu, https://www.truclamvietzen.net/ZenFounders.htm



London's Family Sangha!

New London Family Sangha Video!!

London's Family Sangha

December, 2018

Noah and Hannah are in their prime Wake Up years in a blooming young adult community in London. 30 and 27 years old respectively, they’ve been practicing for several years, having facilitated the weekly Wake Up gatherings, organized and co-facilitated retreats, and even started a thriving mindfulness community of 6 young adults living together in London. For many practitioners, this is more than enough to satisfy a rich life of practice and Sanghabuilding. But as young adults, without the responsibilities of their own children, they’ve taken their capacity as Sangha builders to a whole other realm of practice that is just yearning for more growth and offerings…. Family Sangha.

Three years ago, Hannah and Noah’s aspirations collided with Claudia’s, a mother of two teens whose determined spirit for a family Sangha matched theirs…. and a new Sangha was born.  Claudia is from Mexico, and is one of the brightly colored beams in this multifaceted jewel of the Family Sangha, which is one of the most diverse Sanghas in London, and perhaps even among all of the UK Sanghas in the Plum Village tradition. There is usually someone representing each decade of life up till decade #7, and those from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds find a rare and sacred sense of beloved community together.

I was beyond excited and grateful be invited by Claudia, Noah, and Hannah to help organize and teach at their second annual Family Sangha retreat, which just bloomed last weekend. Every month of the year, about a dozen or so families with children of all ages convene in London as one community to nourish each other’s well-being, connect as friends, share a mindful meal, and practice the art of mindfulness. Parents, grandparents, children, and teens – whatever the age, everyone (over 4 years old) has an opportunity to explore the simple yet timeless tools of practice in ways that match their developmentally appropriate needs and strengths. Babies and toddlers just kind of soak in the general vibe, but who knows how much their mirror neurons are taking in and reshaping under such lovingkindness ambiance?!

These family style retreats are probably unlike any other retreat you’ve been to. To be straight up, it’s way more challenging and daunting to one’s practice than any other retreats I’ve done before. Overall, there’s way more work, disorder, and even chaos, and less calm, noble silence, and samadhi than any typical retreat. And yet, as we deepen our practice together over the weekend, it’s even more glorious and satisfying to witness that seed of beloved family-ness blossom in my own soul than any I could imagine.

Half a dozen toddlers may be tumbling around the meditation hall, kids start playfully teasing and laughing with each other, and the teens seem to be just barely hanging on as we gather all together in a circle as one community to begin the day.

Breathing in, I am aware of the elements of chaos within and around me,

Breathing out, I completely surrender to this present moment, with all of its incredible gifts.

Breathing in, I anchor my being in this breath,

Breathing out, I feel my solidity ripple into the room.

Noah sounds a large bell, inviting kids and adults to listen attentively so they can hear the last fading, soothing sounds of the bell, before raising their hands to signal the end of the bell. Kids, teens, and parents all suddenly become one living, breathing, listening body; gradually, little hands and big hands rise together. The sudden change to quiet concentration in this same room is uncanny; before we even know it, mindfulness is alive.

Instead of a children’s Dharma Talk, we try something new with everyone. We form a new circle, aligning ourselves according to our biological age. Eight generations span across the room, from several months old to early 70s. Each person is then invited to share their name, age, and the coolest thing about being that particular age for them. The unique joys and wisdom of our respective years on this planet is awe-inspiring as we collectively celebrate our ageless diversity that typically goes unnoticed.

Soon, the young ones break off for a children’s program with Renata (a regular bodhissatva momma in Family Sangha), while the teens and parents stay to listen to a teaching about authenticity and friendship in the lives of teenagers. Afterwards, the teens split off with me and Hannah, while Claudia and Noah co-facilitate a sharing circle for the parents. Each group then has their own space to dive into their own needs and topics, with privacy, honesty, and most importantly a bit of quiet from the roaring little ones.

Each day, the teens and us share a space together for 75 to 90 minutes, where they can just share freely. No interruptions from parents are allowed, no cell phones to distract, and no one is giving advice to them; only toddlers occasionally try to bust in through the door and see what’s so important. We keep them at bay and blockade the entrance, as a teen refuge is a precious thing! When teens are able to have their own space, and freely share about whatever gripes, struggles and injustices they face in a world that hardly understands them, something magical starts happening. In the midst of sharing what bothers them the most, or what fires them up, there’s a tangible bond that starts forming. In that depth of sincerity and connection, bits of wisdom and personal insights start trickling in little by little. “What was said earlier about if you want to see yourself in 5 years, then look at your friends now, that’s kind of true. That makes me think about who my friends are now and how they’re all influencing me.” I wish I could share more, but I’m sworn to teen secrecy until the end of time.

Ella was a particularly unique presence and gift to our group, her capacity for communication having left us in awe. Ella has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. She can’t speak or use most of her body. But a few years ago, she started learning a computer program that uses retina laser technology that allows her to ‘type’ into the computer using her eyes’ focus. Amazingly, Ella participated in every teen sharing circle, connecting deeply with us about her personal reflections as a teen. While Ella’s situation is grossly different than a typical able bodied young person, she faces many of the same elements of teen life, from loads of work at school to struggles with parents, to fitting in and going after her creative dreams. For me, Ella’s insights were some of the brightest gems of our retreat.

By the end of the retreat, every teen shared that the best part of the weekend for them was simply having a space for them to share and just be themselves in the teen space. Hannah and I secretly felt like we had just been handed a big treasure chest at the end of a 48 hour voyage at sea on the teen ship.

The last day of the retreat, we offered a practice called Beginning Anew for each of the families to explore together for an hour. Each family found either a nice spot outside on the grass, on a bench, or inside with some tea and biscuits. Then each member was invited to share their sincere appreciations for the other members of the family, express any apologies, as well as as for support for anything that has been difficult within their family or in their lives.

Children, teens, and parents all practice in separate spaces to share, write letters, and create beautiful Beginning Anew cards. The depth of practice and harmony that manifests as the separate streams weave back together as larger families is truly an auspicious sign for the future of our world in which we struggle so deeply to both live and raise children.

Not being with my own family or partner there, I walked around outside during the Beginning Anew sessions. Some families were cuddled up next to each other on a swing, others were sitting together on the grass, sharing smiles and treats, passing cards they colored and wrote for each other, and looking at each other with eyes of affection. I didn’t feel alone or separate from my own family while walking through. Instead, I felt the deep roots of family happiness growing inside of me like a small tree. “Yes, happiness is possible!” was the family vibe in the air. Even as I was holding space for the families to practice together, it was I who received the fruits of their practice. 

Perhaps not everyone was celebrating harmoniously at that hour; some wounds need to be unearthed in order to be healed over time, even if the exposure is painful and difficult. But the collective harmony and transformation was vibrant, and everyone had their peers to take refuge in if their family felt like too much.

For anyone who wishes to start a Family Sangha in their own community, it’s totally possible. Just ask Claudia, Hannah, and Noah. You don’t need to be expert facilitators, and you don’t even have to have kids yourself. In fact, a family Sangha may need you because you don’t have kids, and so you have the time and energy to organize! You just need the spark of bodhicitta to help grow this particular garden, and some time to watch it blossom.

For more information, check out FamilySanghaLondon.com or be sure and watch amazing video that they recently made about their community!


Old friends, young hearts, and playful spirits



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...