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...

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