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According to its website, Gomde Germany-Austria offers 'Authentic Dharma in astonishing surroundings.'Supplied

I’m sitting with a 21-year-old Berliner of Vietnamese and German descent thinking of him as my son. This is not because I have a son (I don’t) or our eyes are similar (they are not) or because I am old enough to be his mother (I am). It’s because we have both found ourselves together at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat centre in the mountains of Austria. Specifically, we are in the Salzkammergut region in Upper Austria where edelweiss flowers and alpine forest scents thrive instead of lotuses or sandalwood. A desire to increase unbiased, compassionate love is what drew both of us to this corner of the world.

I’ve felt this longing since I was 28, when I lost my mother to breast cancer, 32 years ago. The Berliner caught on in his teens owing to bullying in school, which eventually led him to a book that made powerful statements about the meditation teachings of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, who was an accomplished Buddhist master.

We are in Gomde Germany-Austria, which, according to its website offers, “Authentic Dharma in astonishing surroundings.” (Dharma is the term for Buddhist teachings). There is much more than that. Settled in a region of lakes and alpine designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, the centre is a renovated farm on an idyllic hill in the picturesque Almtal village. It was founded in 2004 by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, the son of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.

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According to the Global Wellness Institute, wellness tourism will experience 8.6 per cent average annual growth and a US$8.5-trillion dollar market boost by 2027.Ira & Christoph Hilger/Supplied

In a world still emerging from a pandemic in which ideological extremes, brutal wildfires and the horrors of war are everyday occurrences, more of us are not only terribly stressed, but we are hyperaware of the fragility of life, even if that fragility has always been there. Physical and mental health can no longer be taken for granted. This heightened awareness has increased the need for more meaningful life experiences. Suddenly, traipsing around Disneyland, or standing waist-deep in a chlorinated pool with a beer at an all-inclusive resort doesn’t cut it. Instead, more people need and want to be well, and according to the Global Wellness Institute, wellness tourism will experience 8.6 per cent average annual growth and a US$8.5-trillion market boost by 2027.

I met Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche 10 years ago on a plane headed for Nepal. My life in Toronto had spun out of control, and I was desperate to discover a lasting solution. The kindness radiating from Rinpoche’s eyes and an invitation to visit him at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, a famous monastery in Nepal of which he is the abbot (the temporal and spiritual leader of a monastic community), struck me as a rare and sacred opportunity. While there, I felt entirely absorbed in love and kindness.

But a journey to Nepal is complex and time-consuming, which is why having easier access to authentic Buddhist practices is important.

Rinpoche has founded multiple centres across the world so that teachings can be more accessible. Each region is carefully chosen, with mountains being an important factor. Jack deTar, the executive director of Gomde California, tells me that Buddhist scriptures suggest retreating to the mountains to encourage calm-abiding – a practice that flourishes when we disentangle from disturbances in cities. I have the same feelings of peace in Austria as I did in Nepal. There’s something particularly divine about Austria, a land with rugged ranges, achingly good opera, apple strudel and Klimt masterpieces. Vienna is just a few hours away by train, and after a meditation retreat when all the senses become heightened, arias and art seem even more glorious.

One day, during lunch in the sun, a Brit tells me he comes to this retreat for the food. It’s clear he’s half-joking when he brings me a plate of coconut-cream tiramisu even though I am still munching on a purple cabbage salad in a tangy vinaigrette. The meals – European style breakfasts of fresh bread, jam and cheeses, vegan or meat stews for lunch and dinner – are creative and full of flavour, and taste even better in the fresh air. There are hiking trails, and a spring-fed natural swimming pool, but the real joy comes inside the meditation hall during Rinpoche’s careful meditation instructions. We must “learn how to heal,” he says. All combined, the teachings, cool springs, orange sunrises in mountainous skies and sleeping on the Earth in a small tent, feel deeply medicinal.

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Settled in a region of lakes and alpine designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, the centre is a renovated farm on an idyllic hill in the picturesque Almtal village.Ira & Christoph Hilger/Supplied

The magic of a retreat, however, are the guests, or sangha (community) in Buddhist terms. Not only do we all have each other’s backs, we coax open our hearts. There are about 250 people of all ages and faiths, from all over the world at Gomde Germany-Austria, many of them Europeans. There’s a German physiotherapist who lends me his wool hat because mine remains in my delayed luggage; there’s a tall Austrian with exquisitely crafted tattoos with whom I share a yogi job of preparing breakfast each morning; there is a Swiss historian with the gentlest of souls, a woman I am instantly drawn to. We talk about fear and sadness, feelings that lose their grip amidst the beauty of the terrain and flair of Buddhism. It is deeply healing to simply sit together.

On the last day of the retreat, I ask the young Berliner how he feels. He tells me that he’s happy and that he loved the meditation teachings. For me, the retreat was a powerful reminder to cultivate a deeper unbiased love for every living thing. It’s not necessary to go all the way to Nepal to discover this. True peace and love can be found where you might least expect it.

If you go

From Vienna airport go to OBB train station by railjet (€4/15-minutes). At OBB take a train to Wels; then transfer to the train for Grunau im Almtal and get off at Viechtwang (€50/3 hours total travel time) At Viechtwang, there’s a taxi service that takes you directly to Gomde (€4).

Food and accommodation rates cover fixed costs to operate the centre – the suggested donation is €75 per day (pay less if needed or more to help those with limited incomes).

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The centre was founded in 2004 by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, the son of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.Supplied

Travel tips: How to make the most of a meditation retreat

  • Before your flight, read about Tibetan Buddhism and Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche at
  • Tie up loose ends at work and home (a retreat is best experienced offline).
  • Get in a service frame of mind (everyone is assigned a “yogi job,” or chore for one to two hours per day).
  • Bring a meditation shawl (to warm your shoulders during early morning sits).
  • Bring cash in small denominations (the common practice is to donate to the teachers and translators for the teachings).
  • Bring earplugs for dorm style sleeping arrangements.
  • Turn your phone off and talk to your fellow retreatants – they are fascinating and have a shared interest in fostering peace and love.
  • Embrace freedom from your regular routine.
  • Know the codes of conduct: Leave your short shorts at home (it is a sign of disrespect to bare too much skin); place your hands at your heart and gently bow your head in the presence of a Buddhist master; never leave the meditation hall during a teaching session.

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