Compassionate Living: Outer and Inner Nature Meet in the Himalayas

By Franka Cordua-von Specht • 6 min read


“When we address issues in the outer world, we start by looking inward, and we take care of the inner environment so we can be in better shape to care for the outer environment.” – Mai-Linh Leminhbach


On a hill overlooking the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas, not far from Bir in northern India, is a learning center that teaches people, often Westerners like myself, about living life more sustainably and compassionately.

I didn’t know exactly what this meant or what to expect when I climbed the hill to this incredibly thoughtfully constructed, elegant, yet rustic campus called Dharmalaya Institute for Compassionate Living.

What unfolded was a profoundly moving week that combined the experience of living close to the land with that of daily meditation. 

We washed our dishes with ashes (no detergents on site), enjoyed the rich taste of the organically grown vegetables, and lived in cabins made of the earth, the Himalayan adobe, harvested from the surrounding lands and crafted by local artisans. The environment — with its emphasis on sustainability — supported the meditation classes, the developing of friendships and teamwork amongst the group, and a deep respect for the land.

We were doing exactly what the institute envisioned: learning about sustainable and compassionate living by living it. 

Mingyur Rinpoche meditating at Dharmalaya. When Rinpoche was young and attending Sherab Ling monastery, he would often scramble up the hill to the breathtaking perch overlooking the Himalayan foothills.


“Dharmalaya is an incubator for inner and outer learning and transformation,” said Mai-Linh Leminhbach, one of the Institute’s founders. She explained that compassionate living addresses all the fundamental aspects of life, like food, shelter, lifestyle, occupation, and so on. “For each of those areas of life, we ask, how might we do less harm and be of greater help?” 

Mark Moore and Mai-Linh Leminbach, both Mingyur Rinpoche students and Tergar guides who facilitate Joy of Living workshops, are the directors of Dharmalaya, which they co-founded in 2009 and employs ten full-time local village staff. The institute is a unique combination of a school for creative changemakers, an environmental nonprofit, and a retreat center.

Most of Dharmalaya’s programs focus on “inner and outer sustainability.” Examples of the outer are natural building, permaculture, organic gardening, design, and eco-architecture. Inner examples include meditation and yoga retreats, Joy of Living retreats, compassionate communication, wise leadership, and other valuable skills.

“Most of our programs — and my personal favorites — blend the inner and the outer, taking a contemplative approach to the outer and a practical approach to the inner,” said Mark, an eco-social entrepreneur, experiential educator, and author. “This makes them well-suited to anyone who wants to be a compassion-driven agent of change in our world.”

Focusing on “inner and outer” is key to the Dharmalaya vision. “If outer sustainability is living in harmony with nature as we conceive of it in the larger world, inner sustainability is living in harmony with our own true nature. The key is to understand that these two natures are inseparably one,” said Mark.

For Mai-Linh, the time spent meditating allows and nourishes joyful, sustainable application, and that supports sustainable thriving, which in turn supports meditation. “So, it’s a mutually reinforcing cycle, which in time isn’t so linear but more intertwined,” she said. 

Mai-Linh and Mark at the opening ceremony of Dharmalaya.


One could say that the vision for Dharmalaya was seeded in Mark’s high school years. He had the good fortune to attend an “extraordinarily human” public alternative school in Colorado where aboriginal rites of passage inspired the curriculum. This was designed, as Mark said, “to prepare students to ‘understand the world that is and create the world that ought to be.’”

While study gave him an intellectual understanding of our planet’s ecological crisis, it was five months of living in a village in Nepal that was pivotal. 

“In the high Himalayas, my homestay family and fellow villagers were living in absolute harmony with nature,” he said. “They were mindful of interdependence and lived accordingly. A tree was never cut without planting seven in its place. Water was treated as something sacred and precious. This just makes so much sense, right?

“But coming back down from the mountain (literally and figuratively) after that idyllic immersion in natural living, and seeing with fresh eyes the destruction that comes with so-called ‘development,’ was devastating. 

“I’ve lived with this cocktail of inspiration and devastation cohabitating in my heart ever since, and it’s fuel for my work,” he said.

With this guiding inspiration, he would be further buoyed by a life-changing conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who offered him an hour of insightful guidance.

“I shared an inspiration that I’d had about a school for contemplative, experiential learning about compassionate living,” said Mark. “His Holiness’ strong encouragement set the dream in motion.”

For her part, Mai-Linh, who works as faculty at Dharmalaya, was motivated to support people in developing their natural potential. “I wanted to contribute to creating a place that would offer a nourishing, healing refuge for people to learn — and unlearn — in an environment that supports inner transformation.”

Mai-Linh had wished to actively work towards change since childhood. “Growing up, I had the sense that nature was sacred, and I felt heartbroken to see how we humans were destroying it.”

A Tergar retreat at Dharmalaya in 2018.



Those who come to Dharmalaya are of all ages, from high school to retirement, and come from every socioeconomic background. “What they all have in common is a big heart and a wish to be a part of a more harmonious world,” said Mark.

While the vision for Dharmalaya may appear ahead of its time from a modern vantage point, as Mark said, the Dharmalaya model is about “as old as it gets.” 

In fact, he said,  “The model has much in common with indigenous ways of learning around the world, such as the “gurukul” system of ancient India, where a few students would gather under a tree with their teacher and talk about everything that really matters for a meaningful life and a harmonious, flourishing world. 

“From my perspective, what’s happening in the world as we look around is an indication that it’s past time for modern society to learn from old wisdom about what works, to help us address the whole person and the whole system to create whole solutions,” said Mark.

The Dharmalaya vision is growing globally, with Mark and the Earthville team creating a sister school in Colorado. Called Earthville Institute, the eco-campus incorporates natural building and organic farming and will include a retreat center in the future. Programs began in 2022 and will consist of retreats as early as July 2024, with Joy of Living workshops to come the following year.

“I don’t know if humanity will come together in time to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis, but I do know that many of us will do all we can, and that will make some degree of real difference for many,” said Mark. “It’s the challenge most worth facing, and the practice helps us bring our best to face it.”

April 2024

Mai-Linh Leminhbach is a Tergar Guide who leads Joy of Living workshops and retreats for Tergar and meditation programs for other organizations. Her diverse activities (facilitator, interpreter, personal coach, project and change manager) and her role as cofounding director of Dharmalaya Institute in the Himalayas sustain her passion for exploring inner and outer sustainability. She is based in Switzerland, where she regularly enjoys retreats in nature.

Mark Moore has been leading meditation retreats and sustainability programs in the Himalayas and beyond for a decade, including Joy of Living retreats for Tergar. Cofounder of Dharmalaya Institute in India and Earthville Institute in the US, he has been exploring wisdom traditions and sustainable development since 1995. An educator by day and artist and writer by twilight – editor and coauthor of To Create the World That Ought to Be, Mark divides his time between the Himalayas and the Colorado Rockies.

About the Author

Franka Cordua-von Specht, co-founder of the Tergar Vancouver Practice Group and Tergar Canada, works for Tergar International’s marketing and communication team. She is a Tergar Guide and facilitates Joy of Living workshops.

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