“We want our practice to be an expression of our deepest gratitude”

Here, we head straight into the stories and teachings of Intersein Founders, Karl and Helga. Splashing together interviews with their written stories, and using colorful anecdotes of the past to paint their teachings for us in the present, Karl and Helga offer a living window into the first years of Plum Village. Their early encounters with Thich Nhat Hanh (referred to affectionately by his students as Thay, meaning teacher), and six years as residents in Plum Village paved a foundation for later building the most established lay practice center in the tradition, Intersein-Zentrum. Weaving in and out of their stories, we offer old photos that few have seen of the very early days in Plum Village, including Karl and Helga’s building and stewardship of West Hamlet (a lay residence in Plum Village).

The historic meeting between Karl, Helga, and Karl Schmied, in front of the buildings which would soon become known as West Hamlet. Karl Schmied and a Vietnamese-German friend bought the property which Helga and Karl were tasked with completely renovating and overseeing for the next 3 years.

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How did you arrive in Plum Village and where did your spiritual journey begin?

It all began in May 1992. But our spiritual journey and search had already been underway for fourteen years: it started in 1978 in Poona with Bhagwan/Osho, leading us to large international communities in England and America, to monasteries in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Japan and Thailand, and finally to Italy, to study and learn in the Tibetan-Buddhist tradition at the Lama Tsong Khappa Institute in Pomaia, south of Pisa.

When Thay and Sister Chan Kong arrived at the Institute in May 1992 to lead a retreat, it was as though we had run into old spiritual friends after a long, long time. Although barely recognizable, there was an intense feeling of closeness. Thay’s presence, his teachings and practice, gave us the feeling that we had arrived home after a very long journey. Encouraged by Sister Chan Kong, we took part in the three week June Retreat in Plum Village, and at the end we knew, ‘This is our spiritual practice, this is the language we understand and want to learn.’ We were completely clear that we needed a Sangha to progress along our chosen path.

The next step was the Winter Retreat 1992/93, to learn what it meant to live in a spiritual community. We were deeply moved by the cheerful warmth of our Vietnamese brothers and sisters in the Dharma, practiced and celebrated with them, and enjoyed the presence of Thay, especially listening to his Dharma talks while the whole community was squeezed into the kitchen of Lower or Upper Hamlet. When Thay subsequently asked, ‘Why don’t you just come and live with us’, we decided to move to Plum Village.

That was in May 1993. Our new life had begun.

Summer retreat participants with Helga and Karl in the early 1990’s when the community was still small with only a few monastics. In the next decade, Plum Village would soon have thousands of summer retreatants very year.

Helga: Our new ‘home’ was the former kitchen in the Persimmon building, one of the large, old farmhouses in Lower Hamlet. We exchanged all the comforts of our large house and the wonderful landscapes of Tuscany for a small, dark and damp room. The view was no longer over the rolling hills of Tuscany and the Mediterranean, but rather rusty washy machines. For three days I wrestled with the question of whether I had made the right decision. Listening to Thay’s talks, practicing mindfulness, observing my mind, I realized that I had not come to Plum Village to indulge my own likes and avoid my dislikes; rather I had come for one reason only: to get to know my own mind and cultivate Bodhicitta.

Shortly afterwards I received an emphatic reminder of this from Thay. It turned out that we were given responsibility for the renovation of an old building. We saw this as a challenge and a chance to drop all our ideas and expectations and to do all that was needed and desired of us with joy. After we had successfully renovated the house we showed Thay around, admittedly with pride, and with the expectation of a few words of praise. Thay must have felt this as he turned to me and said, ‘Helga, this is not why you came to Plum Village.’ Although a little disappointed I could accept what he said, and then a few days later understand that I was still very dependent on praise and criticism. Thanks to this direct, personal comment by Thay, I was able to understand my reasons for coming to Plum Village more clearly.

After two weeks of of living in Plum Village, Sister Chan Khong presents Helga and Karl with a task. Two German friends in the Sangha had donated an old crumbling building and beautiful piece of land not far from Plum Village. Karl and Helga were asked to make it a Sangha home. With shovels in hand and friends to help, Karl stands outside of the dilapidated old building, later to be known as West Hamlet.

    

It’s hard to believe that these rooms would soon become a beautiful meditation hall and dining room. Helga works with a friend to completely renovate the ramshackle stone walls.

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Karl: During the Winter Retreat, Thay gave his Dharma talks (Sundays and Thursdays) alternately in the kitchens of Lower Hamlet and Upper Hamlet. Even today I can still clearly see the small kitchen of Lower Hamlet before me: Thay sat against the one long wall with the large black oven to his right; opposite him, perhaps six or seven meters, was the kitchenette where food was prepared on large gas rings. In this intimate space, up to 30 of us huddled together… therefore, we were cosy and warm. I had taken on the honorable task of recording Thay’s Dharma talks, and had acquired the necessary equipment.

On one Sunday I was also the ‘Bell Master’, which meant I had to invite the bell before, during and after the talk in ‘masterly’ fashion. I had positioned the bell in a raised spot on the sideboard behind me, and had my equipment before me on the table. For some reason I was not able to achieve a particularly elegant state of concentration, and this was reflected in the sound of the bell. As the sound died away I heard Thay’s voice, ‘Karl, come!’ As I turned around shocked, the next sentence arrived, ‘And bring the bell with you.’ It seemed like an eternity before we, the bell and I, reached Thay, and I put the bell down next to him on the table. And then came Thay’s loving hand which guided mine in inviting the bell. A great tension in me disappeared. Only intuition now. Him and me, just that. I stood in this atmosphere of loving attention without the slightest hint of blame or rebuke, just goodwill.

After 10 minutes, he was satisfied. I went back to my seat and Thay began his talk. At the end, several mainly Western Dharma friends approached me with compassion and sympathy – rebuked before the entire community?!

No. It was the most impressive experience of Thay and his message: peace in one person creates peace in another.

Helga sharing a cup of tea and wide smiles with her teacher while still residing in Plum Village.

“The manner in which Thay teaches the Dharma and the Practice is both gentle and simple, yet also deep. And always unconventional. We cannot hold onto knowledge, should not pass on empty words and a practice that has been drilled into us. And he dedicatedly helps us to only teach what we ourselves have realized. On the one hand this still remains for me a great challenge, and on the other, it liberates me and gives me the encouragement to be myself.”  – Karl

For one year, Lower Hamlet in Plum Village was a completely lay community while the monastics lived in the other hamlets. Thay offered a ceremony to present Helga as the abbess of Lower Hamlet during that period. Plum Village was later led completely by monastics. Karl and Helga stayed there for over 6 years during all of these changes. In 1998, their beloved Dharma brother, Karl Schmied, made a proposition to them to build a lay practice community together in Germany. 

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What was your inspiration for moving from Plum Village to Intersein?

Helga: I remember when I was in Plum Village, in 93 or 94, and Thay said, “The noblest task that you ever can do is to build community. The noblest task is building a community that can reduce the suffering in the world, and to be there for people to transform. But first we have to transform, and then we’ll be able to help people to transform. So living 6 years in Plum Village, I knew that this is the lifestyle that I wanted to live. Otherwise, other things don’t interest me. And after 6 years, we thought, “This is our life now,” and we wanted to do the same thing in Germany that we experienced in Plum Village. This was our vision, to live this kind of life that Thay lived. And therefore we did…

In May 1999, Karl, Helga, and Karl Schmied bought an old hotel in the Bavarian countryside in south eastern Germany, near the Austrian border. Before launching the new center and moving in, they agreed that it was necessary to completely renovate the old building with its 20 bedrooms, pub and restaurant. For about one year a worker form a neighboring village did all the major work, with some guiding assistance from the founders. Karl and Helga continued to live in Plum Village during this time while overseeing the project. They believed that it was essential to move in together only when the house was near completion, in order to begin their community life by focusing on practice, and not simply on construction. Whatever was left to be done, which was still a lot, could be done in the working meditation period together, or “doing things joyfully period” as they called it. They finally moved in with two Sangha friends and began their new life of community practice together. After just a few years, their center was thriving and became a spiritual refuge for the greater Sangha in Germany. Their training in Plum Village and close relationship to Thay created a foundation for the community’s strength and stability of daily practice.

What are some lessons that you have learned and can share with us?

Karl and Helga: One of the principles of our Sangha: never, even in difficult or seemingly pressing situations, put the practice aside, skip the scheduled activities. Yes, there is a lot to do for a small group of people – running a big center and many retreats, being there for many guests – and there are a lot of fascinating ideas and projects. But the main question is: is it in accordance with the life we would like to live, does it fit into our schedule, is it really necessary? Through this emphasis on a constant, uninterrupted practice, gradually the stability and happiness of the small Sangha increased and radiated out. People were intrigued by this concentrated and light atmosphere, noticing, how so much work was done with calm and ease, and how this contrasted with their own unskillful ways of their daily life. So, most people came back again and again, staying for even longer periods – depending on their time and financial resources – to be in close contact with the Dharma and the Sangha. Refreshed and with new insights they return to their families and workplaces – and coming back, they report their experiences, sharing their successes and difficulties.

Karl Schmied with Karl and Helga Riedl together at Intersein

Helga: When I arrived in Plum Village I was not aware how I was being pulled one way and another by my preconceived ideas and opinions. For 40 years we had not felt comfortable in our culture. This caused us to leave Germany. For over 20 years we travelled in Asia and did not have the least intention of returning to Germany. The county that attracted us most was India, our spiritual homeland. Thay must have noticed and it felt like he was talking directly to me when in one of his talks he put his finger on his heart and said ‘India is here’. I could hear myself spontaneously answer, ‘No Thay, for me India is India.’

When in 1999 our Dharma brother Karl Schmeid asked whether we would be willing to open a practice centre in Germany together with him, I only tentatively agreed upon the condition that I could spend 2 months a year in India. After returning from my second stay in India and after a long meditation, I asked myself the question, ‘How is it possible that Thay is always at home where he is, and what is it that prevents me from experiencing this for myself?’ It became clear to me that I had created an image in my mind that reflected my preferences, attachments and expectations but had nothing to do with reality. As a result of all of this I was able to free myself from the fixed idea that I needed to go to India, and to make peace with Germany. Not least of all, I no longer rejected the long, cold winter months, but rather came to see them as a productive time for introspection and meditation. So I finally understood what Thay meant at the time when he pointed to his heart with his finger and said ‘India is here’. However, now it was my own experience, which made it all the more liberating.

“For ourselves we see only one way of expressing our gratitude for all we have received: through our practice, and by passing on what we have received from him as well as we can and circumstances permit.”

Helga and Karly each individually received the Dharma Lamp Transmission from Thay in 1996, offering them boundless trust and encouragement to teach the Dharma.

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“Since the very beginning we inspired and attracted people to share our way of life and practice, that means to live under the same roof for twenty four hours in the spirit of the six harmonies.”

What has been your Vision for Intersein?

Karl: “The emphasis for us is always transformation and healing. You can help and support what is now referred to as evolutionary psychology. That means, humanity needs to raise its consciousness out of its kind of conditioned mind into a kind of a higher mind. Adn that is actually what Buddhism wants….

So we have to raise the consciousness, into a different state, you can call it a nirvana-state consciousness, where you don’t have such conflict, but you have wisdom, compassion and all these kinds of things. And then by itself you don’t have dukkha and don’t create dukkah (a Buddhist term reflecting our mind’s tendency towards unsatisfactoriness or suffering). And then you are a lamp for other people. You are not a lamp for other people just because you are aware. That is nonsense, it doesn’t help. Awareness is to be ware of where you are stuck, and to help you raise your mind into a different kind of a mind. That is what we are here for.

Helga: “What we want is for people to come here and feel attracted to really transform their deep suffering. And this is not every person’s interest, and this can be difficult. When we have retreats, it’s first for ourselves, and then we can share what we have learned with others. The aim is just to transform. The more we dive in, we see how deep rooted the suffering is. So we think, “Ah, we still have to learn.” And this keeps us moving, learning, and transforming. The more difficult it is, the more we say, “Ah I didn’t expect this, I thought that I was already done with this.” But then we say, “Oh, okay, another time.” Although it’s sometimes painful, but behind the pain, is the liberation, the freedom, because you have a chance now to tackle it. And this is what we actually want. We want for other people to do the same. First of all we are here to do the same. And when we realize the practice, then we can share it with others.”

Karl and Helga, after having received the Dharma Lamp Transmission, in the large meditation hall of Upper Hamlet, Plum Village

What do you see as your continuation?

Helga: “A continuation, in the sense of Thay’s teachings, is whatever we transmit to the people who come here – they are all our continuation. It’s not the continuation of this place, but our continuation. Like when we see people coming, and they tell us, ‘Ah, I have learned so much!’ So we have a lot of people who are transformed already by being here, and by the way we’ve shared our practice. This is our continuation. And so we are already happy with that.”

Karl: “Our experience now is that you cannot have a lay Sangha over a long period of time without a proper elder. So if you want to know how to really continue, then you need elders, and not only a Sangha. The Sangha comes to the elders. If you have a Sangha without elders, and it’s a kindergarten, then it doesn’t work. So if we don’t have an elder here, when we’re gone, then things are closed. That’s it. It might be bitter, but that’s the way. A Sangha itself, in this kind of lay atmosphere, does not have a continuation.

We had some ideas in the past and they didn’t work. But now, we have a new vision for Intersein’s continuation, and this is why we are so happy that you are here. Because of the international networks of people coming together in Sangha, we can now imagine that these centers can be sustained by the larger global community. You have to stabilize them and have an elder, in the greater Sangha. There are enough elders – a few – but they can shift around and hold places like we do at Avalokita center in Italy. We go to Italy 2 to 3 times a year to help hold the place, and sometimes they come here.

And this could be a new model. I think that is also what your intention and vision is. This might be the future that is possible for these kinds of lay practice centers, if you get these places working together, sharing energy, manpower, and support. For example, let’s say someone has lived in Plum Village or the Happy Farm for one to two years. Why don’t they come here at least for 3 months? They have good energy, and we can support that; they bring in energy, and we hold the energy together. We can shift people around in different communities where they can stay. They don’t need to stay stuck in just one place, which they don’t like. We can do it differently, and that is what you are for (points to us). We have done the old dinosaur stuff!

Thay is certainly right when he says that the next Buddha is a Sangha. But, it’s not the Sangha that he has in mind. It’s not a Sangha on the spot, in one place. It’s a kind of a network Sangha, where everybody knows each other. One can say, ‘Hey why don’t you come over, we need someone in the kitchen.’ ‘Okay, we’ll send you someone over who is good for that.’

So you see that is actually the answer…. Now it’s your job. We’re done here” (and Karl laughs heartily to close the interview together).

Young and enthusiastic souls rejoice among elders and all… A proper celebratory goodbye on our last day after a month long stay at Intersein. 

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