Weekend Wanderlust: A bastion of Buddhism in North Rhine-Westphalia

Buddhist monks and nuns from Vietnam have created an oasis in the small community of Waldbröl, North Rhine-Westphalia. Read why people from around Germany and the world recharge here.

Weekend Wanderlust: A bastion of Buddhism in North Rhine-Westphalia
Participants of the course „Way out of fear” during their meditation walk through the monastery garden. Photo: DPA

They own almost nothing but have, nevertheless, a lot to give. It begins well before sunrise. The Buddhist monk Thay Phap An and nun Song Nghiem perform fluid Tai-Chi movements.

Shaved heads, in brown robes. Smiling. Behind them an illuminated Buddha statue. In front of them fifty men and women, for whom days of meditation and respite are beginning. 

“We bend down low and breathe out,” repeats Vietnamese nun Song Nghiem patiently. “And smile,” reminds Thay Phap An in a gentle voice. 

This is not  Ho Chi Min City or Bangkok. Rather it is the North Rhine-Westphalian city of Waldbröl, about an hour’s drive from Cologne. 

Buddhist in the Bundesrepublik

There are many Buddhists in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Freiburg, Cologne-Bonn and in the Ruhr area. For Monk Thay Phap An the most important thing is that “people gain clarity here. They leave us more carefree, with a change in their hearts. To see that is very moving.”

The Vietnamese have made a place for slowing down and tranquility in the little city in the upper Berg region of North Rhine-Westphalia. An oasis. People come from all over Europe to draw strength.

The 40-strong Buddhist community lives modestly: everyone has only a table, bed, chair and few personal belongings; no TV or computer. They eat vegan, even from their own vegetable garden.

Thay Phap An is a charismatic person. The fifty participants in the four-day course “Way out of fear” in November have come from Belgium or the Netherlands. As soon as he speaks, total silence falls. 

“The essence is the teaching of mindfulness,” explains the monk. 

Eloquently, relaxed, he speaks about Buddha, transience, the fear of death, a conscious life in the here and now – interspersing scientific and psychological aspects.

“Whatever life gives us, it’s a blessing.” 

Thay Phap An with nuns Hoang Nghiem and Song Nghiem in the entrance hall of the monastery. Photo: DPA

You can feel that Thay Phap An is a learned man with an eventful past. Someone who has delivered his message many times in many countries around the world.

He is director and course manager of the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) – a somewhat cumbersome name for the serene Buddhist community of Waldbröl, a small forested town of just over 19,500 inhabitants 

As a teenager, Thay was one of the thousands of people to flee his country before the Vietnam War via boat. He lived in a camp in Malaysia and was later able to study in the US, obtaining a degree in mathematics before becoming a monk in France.

At his side, teaches Song Nghiem, barely taller than 1.5 meters, but contagiously happy. When singing together, she gets her words mixed up. 

“Now I’m going to lose my license as a singer,” she jokes. When she is asked to pose for a photo, the 66-year-old runs her hand over her bald head, saying mischievously: “As nuns and monks, we pay no attention to our outer beauty, but to our inner self.”

Song Nghiem came to Darmstadt to study, she holds a degree in Chemistry and worked for a long time in science and business. She lost almost her entire extended family during their escape before the Vietnam War. She believes in “the goodness of the people.” 

The nun was also educated in the French “Plum Village”, founded by internationally renowned Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, 93. He started the EIAB a good ten years ago in Waldbröl – 60 kilometers from Cologne.

Here, living amongst the Buddhists, is a German nurse, Bi Nghiem, 72. 

Doesn’t she occasionally miss a glass of wine, or watching TV? “That is the last thing I need”, she laughs.

But she does embrace small luxuries: “When I am travelling, I read a newspaper to know what is going on in the world.”

A huge bell hangs in the monastery garden. Photo: DPA

A total transformation

As the first Buddhists came to Waldbröl, they initially had to do without heating and running water in the previously unoccupied buildings. The monumental building was once used as a care home for the mentally ill. 

The Nazis expelled all 600 patients at the end of the 1930s and planned a pompous hotel, which never went into operation. Since then, thousands of visitors from 35 countries have come knocking. 

“We want to help make society calmer, more peaceful, more compassionate and loving,” says Thay Phap An. “There is a vacuum in people’s spiritual lives.” Many sought balance, harmony, more happiness, and inner peace.

The recipe in Waldbröl: Meditation, also through silent group walks, deep relaxation. Meals are taken in silence. Some participants later talk of panic attacks, fear of failure, psychiatry, depressions. Their tears flow. 

Many say that they feel well cared for by the monks, collect themselves and finally “come down”.

Song Nghiem assures: “We do not differentiate between you and me. We share everything, including our suffering.”

Respect, compassion and appreciation are most important – things which many are missing in their daily lives. There are courses for mourners or courses for reducing stress.

Some just stop by when a huge bell strikes outside and peace is prayed for. We do not proselytize, says Thay Phap An.

Followers of all religions are welcome, he adds.

Translated by Sarah Magill.

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Why are some parts of Germany still not vaccinating people in their 60s?

Germany has no doubt accelerated its vaccine rollout. But despite the progress, some people in priority groups - such as the over 60s - are still not getting their jab in some parts of the country.

Why are some parts of Germany still not vaccinating people in their 60s?
People queuing at a a special vaccination campaign at the Ditib Central Mosque in the Ehrenfeld district of Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Henning Kaiser

After a painfully slow start, Germany ramped up its vaccination campaign, breaking European records on the number of shots administered to people in one day.

Yet despite all of this, there appears to be a lottery on where things are moving quicker in the country.

Now as Germany gets ready to lift the priority list on June 7th – meaning that all adults will be able to apply for a vaccine appointment, no matter their age, health condition or job – there are worries that not all members of risk groups are being vaccinated.

Although Dortmund, in North Rhine-Westphalia, has opened up vaccination appointments for priority group 3, people aged 60-69, who are also in this group, are not able to book an appointment at a vaccination centre.

They have been invited to “special vaccination” drives using the AstraZeneca vaccine on certain days in April and May but according to Dortmund’s city vaccination plan, this offer has now ended. They were generally available on a first-come-first-served basis and ran out quickly.

“As soon as further vaccine for this group is made available, further appointments may be booked,” says the plan.

Dortmund city’s vaccination plan shows that over 60s in priority group 3 are currently not able to make an appointment. Screenshot from

That’s the case despite over 60s being able to access a vaccine in many other parts of the country, including Berlin and Baden-Württemberg.

The Local Germany reader Richard, who is 65 and has lived in the Dortmund area since 1999, said he was concerned that people in this age group were being forgotten.

Although priority groups should be able to book a vaccine appointment with their GP, or another doctor, many GPs are not carrying out vaccinations or giving out appointments. 

Richard said his doctor told him it wasn’t possible for him to make a vaccination appointment until mid-June when everyone can apply.

“I have followed the requirements and requests of the government in patiently waiting my turn, but with this opening up of applications to everyone on June 7th, I feel that my being a good citizen and not trying to jump the queue as many people have has been thrown back in my face,” he told The Local.

Richard said he is keen to get a jab soon as he suffered from severe bronchial asthma until he was 14 which means he still gets shortness of breath when he catches a cold. Furthermore he suffers from panic attacks and works in the live music business which may require full immunisation for travel when it gets back on track.

A person receiving a vaccine in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

“It seems that many Germans think that the healthy 60+ category is already being inoculated, but in Dortmund that is simply not the case; as of this morning, it is still not allowed to book an appointment.

“With under three weeks until the doors are thrown wide open, I am really concerned that I and every healthy fair-minded 60+ person are now being forgotten.”

The Local contacted the North Rhine-Westphalia health office for a comment.

Why is there such a lottery when it comes to getting the vaccine in Germany?

Despite a clear acceleration of vaccine delivery in Germany, there are still people who belong to ‘risk’ priority groups who have not been vaccinated yet.

Other readers of The Local have also reported that they’ve struggled to find information or get an appointment even though they qualify for a shot.

This could be down to bureaucratic failures in states or local regions when trying to secure appointments. It’s also not particularly helpful that each area in Germany has a different way of doing things, and processes change at short notice.

The vaccine rollout in Berlin is different to neighbouring Brandenburg, and so on.

Another factor is the behaviour of people. It appears you are more likely to get a vaccine if you push for it, or have the time and resources to contact lots of different doctors – but Health Minister Jens Spahn has urged people not to put pressure on medical staff.

You might know a person with a contact for a vaccinating doctor, or you might be lucky enough to receive an appointment from your own doctor, be it a GP or a specialist. 

This points to a long-standing problem with Germany’s organisation of the vaccine rollout: it isn’t very logical, and a lot of it depends on luck.