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 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 embodies 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 to the people at such a time. What was it like for them to see their beloved leader walk away from the palace 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, one crosses 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 claws 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 destroyed the Mongols’ superior naval fleet by puncturing the bottoms of their ships with deep sea divers and hidden underwater spears. With minimal losses in the south, they then positioned 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 in order to relieve 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 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 into the mountainside. As I stop 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 draws especially near, our reward from the mountain for stopping to enjoy her beauty.

The retired king studied the Dharma in depth with the Eminent Master Tue Trung, who had also been born into the Tran royal family and dedicated half of his life to protecting the country before stepping into monastic life. After 6 years, the former king finally ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1999, 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 had still not built great temples or pagodas, but was content with the simple life of awakening, while finding ways to deeply guide and impact the well-being of the country.

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

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



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

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

- Helga and Karl Riedl, upon beginning Intersein Center

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly Arriving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


Our Great Mindful Launch! (aka Adventurous Detours of our First 2 Weeks)

Guden tag dear community and big smiles from Germany! :)) We have officially arrived, ich bin angekommen, and are off to a wonderful start to our project!

While other posts can cover the community magic of the two centers we have visited, I can’t help but share some of the more fun and funny side stories and excursions on our trip so far.

Where to begin?! First off, we departed our temporary work-life as the resident practitioners at A Quiet Place Molalla, (in northwest Oregon), in a haste but with boundless warmth in our hearts. Our experience there was one of great joy, along with unbelievable generosity from the Quiet Place community and the wider Sangha in Oregon. Practicing with the community there set a beautiful tone and a gas tank full of gratitude for us to go out into the world to discover community … Thank you to everyone that was part of our Oregon chapter.

After packing every inch of David’s 2005 Hyundai Accent, we made the 5-hour car trip to Bellingham, WA, to say one final farewell, (and multiple hugs) to my parents, to leave the rest of our belongings at my Dad’s house (not the first time in my life), and to pack for the next 8 + months of our international mindfulness tour. Astonishing that I can survive 8 months with just one bag!!

Just a shuttle, plane trip, and a train ride away we found ourselves on the bustling streets of New York City. While en route to our first community on the East Coast, we squeezed in a short and last visit with my Brother who I won’t be seeing for the next whole year.

Being in New York is a bit like visiting the circus, there is so much to look at and be amazed by, and so many sensations being roused.

Looking up at the tall sky scrapers is like peering up at the trapeze artists standing on high on their miniature platforms, in sheer awe at the height they and these structures can take. Very occasionally even New Yorkers will take a brief pause in midst of their busy lives to pay respect to the high rises that make this city so famous.

And the New York metro is a clown circus during rush hour. Everyone going every which way, complete and udder madness if you’re not used to it, resembling a true daily life circus, yet somehow there is a system to it all.

After this brief and intense city visit, (including a wonderful stay with my Bro and his partner), we made our first ‘official’ stop on our world tour project: Morning Sun Mindfulness Community. As we entered the serene peace and quiet of the forest, this calm blanket began to ground us once again in the energy of mindfulness.

Morning Sun, situated in southwest New Hampshire, spans 250 acres of forest which includes protected land that cannot be developed or built on. The combination of natural beauty, depth of practice offered by the community, and tremendous warmth and ease, makes it a shining example of the kind of community where I hope to put down roots someday. After a beautiful yet quick farewell to the Morning Sun crew, we bussed it to Logan International Airport in Boston for our red-eye flight to Frankfurt.

Being averse to airplane food and a bit of a health food snob, I always prepare plenty of wholesome snacks to munch on during these long transcontinental flights. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to bake the organic purple sweet potatoes I had bought several days earlier from the Coop in Keene, a college town close to Morning Sun. I couldn’t bear to let these prized taters go to the wayside so I brought them along in hopes that somewhere in the Airport we would find a microwave to cook them. No such luck.

Disappointed, but still determined, I went from food vendor to food vendor, persistently and hopefully inquiring about their cooking capabilities. I feared that either we would be eating raw sweet potatoes in flight, or that these precious tubers would find their way to German soil. I was dissatisfied with either scenario.

Finally, a ray of sunshine appeared as I spotted a Sparro’s Pizza and went to try my luck. After explaining my situation with the sweet potatoes, this kind, unassuming Sweet Potato Bodhisattva not only took pity on sweet little me and my sweet sweet potatoes, but generously wrapped each potato lovingly in aluminum foil, placing them carefully on a pan at the back of the fire roasting oven.

Success!! Not a minute to spare before our plane departed, I ran back to retrieve my prized sweet potatoes, which were roasted to perfection. As others grudgingly opened their prepackaged snacks and peanut bags, we smiled at our freshly roasted spuds, enjoying every bite of prized nourishment. Deep bows to the kind staff at Sparro’s for their supreme generosity and kindness.

We arrived in Frankfurt at 11 am local time and a day later than when we left. Germany welcomed us with splendidly clear skies which apparently had been the first time in weeks. Only days prior, snow and frost still covered parts of the country. Somehow, we helped bring the sunshine and have been enjoying the first appearances of spring ever since.

I am already loving Germany! The countryside landscape is absolutely stunning and everything seems to come out of a fairytale. Rolling hills, open meadows with wild flowers and herbs, enchanting little cottage like homes, chapels on hilltops and all sorts of cafes and bakeries. And everything is so well maintained here! I can definitely feel the German work ethic coming through in the manicured gardens and lawns, and all-around cleanliness that Germany offers.

We had an entire day to kill in Frankfurt before a night bus to our first Euro community destination. We decided it would be much nicer to roam around outside and enjoy the beautiful sunshine than cooped up in some museum, however many stars they have on Trip Advisor. We elected to try our luck at the Frankfurt Zoo. At just 10 Euros a pop this zoo is a steal!

I have not visited the zoo since learning the practice so was surprised at what a mindfulness practice it can be. Nothing can bring you more fully into the present moment than being up close to animals, especially remarkably enormous ones like a rhino or hippopotamus as they are feeding. You can feel the tremendous power of these amazing creatures, and sense their deep presence just by being around them. But the most unforgettable encounter was our visit to the great apes.

Observing the gorillas and bonobos, I was so keenly aware that they are our ancestors. Their mannerisms, facial expressions, and hands resemble our own. After many minutes of simply watching these incredible creatures, I realized we were the only people left in the exhibition.

As I turned the corner to visit the gorillas once more before the zoo closed, I saw a female gorilla with her tiny baby on her back. She was pacing back and forth near the window and for a brief minute she stopped and I peered into her eyes. The intensity and depth of her stare was almost startling and I quickly got into a crouched position so she would not feel threatened. Or perhaps it was an instinctual reaction out of respect for this great being. Either way, I felt in total awe of her presence.

After a short while, David joined me along with the zoo keeper. She informed us that this female had had twins recently but that one of them had not survived. The other, also sick after birth was nursed back to health by this woman. Every day, the zoo keeper would show the baby to her mother so she would know her baby was alright. Eventually when the gorilla baby was strong enough, she was returned, literally from human arms to her gorilla mother’s arms, and to the gorilla pack.

Since then, every time the zoo keeper goes near, the mother gorilla comes out to show her baby to the zoo keeper, so she knows that her baby is alright. We were there to witness this incredible human-animal connection.

Fully aware of the sensations in my body, my breath moving in and out of my lungs, I delicately walked away from the great ape exhibit, enjoying every step, every breath and feeling truly grateful to be alive. (What a great fortune to have been born a human, and to fully witness this miracle of life.)

Guden tag dear community and big smiles from Germany! :)

We have officially arrived, ich bin angekommen, and are off to a wonderful start to our project!

While other posts can cover the community magic of the two centers we have visited, I can’t help but share some of the more fun and funny side stories and excursions on our trip so far.

Where to begin?! First off, we departed our temporary work-life as the resident practitioners at A Quiet Place Molalla, (in northwest Oregon), in a haste but with boundless warmth in our hearts. Our experience there was one of great joy, along with unbelievable generosity from the Quiet Place community and the wider Sangha in Oregon. Practicing with the community there set a beautiful tone and a gas tank full of gratitude for us to go out into the world to discover community … Thank you to everyone that was part of our Oregon chapter.

After packing every inch of David’s 2005 Hyundai Accent, we made the 5-hour car trip to Bellingham, WA, to say one final farewell, (and multiple hugs) to my parents, to leave the rest of our belongings at my Dad’s house (not the first time in my life), and to pack for the next 8 + months of our international mindfulness tour. Astonishing that I can survive 8 months with just one bag!!

Just a shuttle, plane trip, and a train ride away we found ourselves on the bustling streets of New York City. While en route to our first community on the East Coast, we squeezed in a short and last visit with my Brother who I won’t be seeing for the next whole year.

Being in New York is a bit like visiting the circus, there is so much to look at and be amazed by, and so many sensations being roused.

Looking up at the tall sky scrapers is like peering up at the trapeze artists standing on high on their miniature platforms, in sheer awe at the height they and these structures can take. Very occasionally even New Yorkers will take a brief pause in midst of their busy lives to pay respect to the high rises that make this city so famous.

And the New York metro is a clown circus during rush hour. Everyone going every which way, complete and udder madness if you’re not used to it, resembling a true daily life circus, yet somehow there is a system to it all.

After this brief and intense city visit, (including a wonderful stay with my Bro and his partner), we made our first ‘official’ stop on our world tour project: Morning Sun Mindfulness Community. As we entered the serene peace and quiet of the forest, this calm blanket began to ground us once again in the energy of mindfulness.

Morning Sun, situated in southwest New Hampshire, spans 250 acres of forest which includes protected land that cannot be developed or built on. The combination of natural beauty, depth of practice offered by the community, and tremendous warmth and ease, makes it a shining example of the kind of community where I hope to put down roots someday. After a beautiful yet quick farewell to the Morning Sun crew, we bussed it to Logan International Airport in Boston for our red-eye flight to Frankfurt.

Being averse to airplane food and a bit of a health food snob, I always prepare plenty of wholesome snacks to munch on during these long transcontinental flights. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to bake the organic purple sweet potatoes I had bought several days earlier from the Coop in Keene, a college town close to Morning Sun. I couldn’t bear to let these prized taters go to the wayside so I brought them along in hopes that somewhere in the Airport we would find a microwave to cook them. No such luck.

Disappointed, but still determined, I went from food vendor to food vendor, persistently and hopefully inquiring about their cooking capabilities. I feared that either we would be eating raw sweet potatoes in flight, or that these precious tubers would find their way to German soil. I was dissatisfied with either scenario.

Finally, a ray of sunshine appeared as I spotted a Sparro’s Pizza and went to try my luck. After explaining my situation with the sweet potatoes, this kind, unassuming Sweet Potato Bodhisattva not only took pity on sweet little me and my sweet sweet potatoes, but generously wrapped each potato lovingly in aluminum foil, placing them carefully on a pan at the back of the fire roasting oven.

Success!! Not a minute to spare before our plane departed, I ran back to retrieve my prized sweet potatoes, which were roasted to perfection. As others grudgingly opened their prepackaged snacks and peanut bags, we smiled at our freshly roasted spuds, enjoying every bite of prized nourishment. Deep bows to the kind staff at Sparro’s for their supreme generosity and kindness.

We arrived in Frankfurt at 11 am local time and a day later than when we left. Germany welcomed us with splendidly clear skies which apparently had been the first time in weeks. Only days prior, snow and frost still covered parts of the country. Somehow, we helped bring the sunshine and have been enjoying the first appearances of spring ever since.

I am already loving Germany! The countryside landscape is absolutely stunning and everything seems to come out of a fairytale. Rolling hills, open meadows with wild flowers and herbs, enchanting little cottage like homes, chapels on hilltops and all sorts of cafes and bakeries. And everything is so well maintained here! I can definitely feel the German work ethic coming through in the manicured gardens and lawns, and all-around cleanliness that Germany offers.

We had an entire day to kill in Frankfurt before a night bus to our first Euro community destination. We decided it would be much nicer to roam around outside and enjoy the beautiful sunshine than cooped up in some museum, however many stars they have on Trip Advisor. We elected to try our luck at the Frankfurt Zoo. At just 10 Euros a pop this zoo is a steal!

I have not visited the zoo since learning the practice so was surprised at what a mindfulness practice it can be. Nothing can bring you more fully into the present moment than being up close to animals, especially remarkably enormous ones like a rhino or hippopotamus as they are feeding. You can feel the tremendous power of these amazing creatures, and sense their deep presence just by being around them. But the most unforgettable encounter was our visit to the great apes.

Observing the gorillas and bonobos, I was so keenly aware that they are our ancestors. Their mannerisms, facial expressions, and hands resemble our own. After many minutes of simply watching these incredible creatures, I realized we were the only people left in the exhibition.

As I turned the corner to visit the gorillas once more before the zoo closed, I saw a female gorilla with her tiny baby on her back. She was pacing back and forth near the window and for a brief minute she stopped and I peered into her eyes. The intensity and depth of her stare was almost startling and I quickly got into a crouched position so she would not feel threatened. Or perhaps it was an instinctual reaction out of respect for this great being. Either way, I felt in total awe of her presence.

After a short while, David joined me along with the zoo keeper. She informed us that this female had had twins recently but that one of them had not survived. The other, also sick after birth was nursed back to health by this woman. Every day, the zoo keeper would show the baby to her mother so she would know her baby was alright. Eventually when the gorilla baby was strong enough, she was returned, literally from human arms to her gorilla mother’s arms, and to the gorilla pack.

Since then, every time the zoo keeper goes near, the mother gorilla comes out to show her baby to the zoo keeper, so she knows that her baby is alright. We were there to witness this incredible human-animal connection.

Fully aware of the sensations in my body, my breath moving in and out of my lungs, I delicately walked away from the great ape exhibit, enjoying every step, every breath and feeling truly grateful to be alive. (What a great fortune to have been born a human, and to fully witness this miracle of life.)


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

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

Hello Worldwide Friends,

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to hearing where your curiosity takes us!

- David and Vanessa

Wake Up Retreat at Morning Sun

July 28, 2016

Orientation has just ended for the Wake Up retreat here, as we begin this four day campout retreat on the majestic land of Morning Sun. We will use much of the 240 acres, to hike, build bonfires, swim, have discussion groups on the edge of ponds, mindfully walk as a community through forests meadows.

What a treat it was to arrive on Monday, three days before we begin the Wake Up retreat, which precedsd the Family retreat a week later. I've been surprised that we've worked so little in the last few days! We've worked a few hours in the monring, and I cooked dinner for this opening night. But the biggest intention for the staff is to hold a solid and fresh container of deep practice, attention, and support for the many young adults arriving. That is our biggest contribution! And done enough to beautifully set up things at the same time.

Since arriving on Monday, it's been a glorious display of nature and community. Or rather I should say, community within this nature preserve. So far, every morning we meditate together at 7am, followed by yoga together. This is my new favorite practice... resting until 7am meditation! Brilliant, I say! Why not be fully rested and awake throughout the day after a long and satisfying rest into the early morning.

What I've enjoyed so much is that the atmosphere is so intimate here during our staffing retreat. Each day, we spend so much time together, among the 6 of staffing and with the teachers. Michael and Fern have been so present every day, sharing themselves with so much care, brightness, and affection for all of us here. And with just 8 of us in total, it feels like we have known each other and been building bonds for weeks, if not months already, during this time.

After our silent breakfast each day, we gather for a short dharma talk and read two or three few mindfulness trainings. Then we discuss among the 8 of us the significance of the trainings to our lives, and share our reflections and understanding of the dharma talk. It's been such a delight to begin the day in this way, focusing on the dharma and nourishing our minds from the get-go. We prioritize this first, before beginning working medtiation. Isn't this the proper order of our ideals... beginning the day with meditation, breakfast, and study of the dharma... before launching into work and goal orientated matters?

After our “dharma study”, we head into a work meeting and take care of various tasks and projects around the community, such as staining outdoor furniture, watering the gardens, mowing grass, cooking lunch, and cleaning the facilities. We're encouraged to work in a spirit of love and joyous contribution for our community, as our highest collective intention is to build an energy of love in the environment at Morning Sun. We are invited to take a break and rest for a bit if we overwhelmed or exhausted and fall out of that spirit. For myself, such encouragements, give me more energy to put my heart and sweat into the tasks at hand.

Just after working meditation we have lunch at the pond, or on a small hill just overlooking the pond, where we are covered by the shade of pines and decidious trees.

After dinner together, some of us head for a swim in Blueberry pond, which is the closest one, just adjacent to the community center. What a more pleasant way to wash away the day's sweat, and play with each other to end our day. Then, we gather again at 8pm for an evening meditation in the meditation hall, as we bring our day to full circle, in contemplative stillness together.