“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….

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