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 Intersein 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…

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