Sunday, November 6, 2016

Experiencing Buddhist Meditation, Retreats and Ordination in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has long been a favorite destination for all types of spiritual seekers, from those wanting to learn how to be calm and stress-free, avid meditators who enjoy long periods of solitude, seekers of the Truth, those with an aspiration to ordain as a Buddhist monk or nun and the rest that fall somewhere within all of that. Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka around the third century BCE, and it has remained predominantly Buddhist with over 70% of the population declaring themselves Buddhist at the last census.

So why do people want to meditate or learn about Buddhism? Well, the answer seems somewhat obvious. Life is demanding and stressful and some people seek an answer to either help them become successful, maintain that success, overcome stress in their lives or find inner happiness. But there are some who are seeking a deeper Truth or the answer to "Why are we here?". It could be said that those who seek out meditation are looking for something that is more internal and potentially lasting, and  doesn't involve alcohol, sex, or some other distraction. These days it's not just stereotypical spiritual seeker, but more mainstream. From politicians (like Hilary Clinton), professional athletes (such as LeBron James, Novak Djokovic, Shane Watson to name a few), high profile business leaders, law enforcement, students and everyday people like us.

Before I relocated to Sri Lanka I had already been interested in meditation, and not necessarily Buddhist meditation. I had spent a few years trying out Christian prayer meditation (from mystic saints to modern day mystics);  Hindu meditation (from yoga meditations to assorted teachings by various Indian sages); Buddhist meditation (from secular to non-secular Buddhist teachings); and a plethora of modern spiritual teachings on present moment awareness and awakening. You could say I walked down the meditation aisle at the spiritual supermarket and went about doing my own research and testing along the shelves. Mostly, I committed to trying to take something good from each of those teachings and putting what wasn't so useful (or maybe what I couldn't understand) back on the shelf.

By the time I arrived in Sri Lanka, it seemed like a fortuitous opportunity had landed in my lap and even now I find I'm still enjoying my spiritual adventures around the island. If anything, what I've found has been useful and I've been able to adopt certain things into daily life. It's as much about the journey as the destination. And I still apply my commitment to taking in what is good or useful to me. Since that time, I've also come to realize that many people from all walks of life come to Sri Lanka to learn to meditate, go on retreat, or even come to ordain as a Buddhist monastic.

There are all kinds of meditation being taught in Sri Lanka. From yoga meditation that is usually centered around breathing and the body to some forms of Hindu yoga, Goenka's vipassana meditation and mainstream mindfulness meditation. However, many don't come to Sri Lanka for these teachings (which don't originate in Sri Lanka), but for the core Buddhist meditation, and more specifically Theravada Buddhism.

The fascinating thing about learning Buddhism in Sri Lanka is that there is a strong foundation in the Buddhist scriptures or Tipitika (i.e. the Pali Canon). These are teachings of the Buddha in written form, which were first written out on palm leaves in Sri Lanka around the first century BCE at Aluvihare. Prior to this they were only ever memorized, recited and passed down as oral teachings. You can learn more about this significant historic period in one of my earlier blog posts "Travel Monday: Art, Buddhism and the Historical Significance of Aluvihare Rock Temple".

There is undoubtedly a richness that can be traced back to Pali that can be a useful aid to decoding the teachings of the Buddha.



Buddhist Meditation Classes or Places to Meditate


I receive emails from time-to-time from travelers, expats and foreign pilgrims asking about where to learn to meditate or access meditation classes in Colombo in the English medium. It's peculiar, but there aren't actually a lot that I've found in English that are pure Buddhist meditation. As I've already mentioned in this post, you can more easily access mainstream meditation classes conducted in English that fit with yoga or other spiritual practices.

Having said, this is a short list of teachers/organizations that conduct Buddhist meditation classes in English that are held in or around Colombo:

Pagoda Meditation Center, Nugegoda - Venerable Olande Ananda Thera conducts a regular Buddhist Meditation Programme every Sunday from 4pm to 5.30pm as well as Guided Meditation and Dhamma Discussion on poya (unless he is away teaching). For further details on his teachings, or to listen to some of his talks and meditations, or to get in touch please refer to the website.

International Lanka Vipassana Meditation, Colombo 7 - this center specializes in Buddhist Vipassana Meditation and the monks give Dhamma teachings as well as conduct residential and non-residential Meditation Programmes (weekend, monthly, poya), though are primarily in Sinhala. It doesn't appear that there are English meditation teachings, however, it is a very pleasant and conducive place to go to meditate in Colombo. Please note that they have strict guidelines for conduct and dress code when visiting - white clothing, no jeans or salwars, no sleeveless tops and noble silence. For further details on teachings, talks, meditation retreats, or to get in touch please refer to the website.

Damrivi Foundation, Colombo 5 - the Damrivi Foundation organizes a weekly meditation programme and occasionally hosts Dhamma talks and discussions in English. The three to four hour weekly meditation session is conducted by a lay meditation instructor, Mr Gamini Priyantha on Wednesday and Sunday mornings. For further details on teachings, meditation programmes, or to get in touch please refer to the website.



Meditation Retreats and Individual Retreats


This is a list of places to that offer opportunities for group meditation retreats instructed by a Buddhist monastic or lay meditation teacher, as well as individual retreats without formal instruction. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, but some of the more popular places where travelers, foreign pilgrims and English-speaking local practitioners have found it conducive to meditate and practice in Sri Lanka.

Most of these places, particularly monasteries or forest hermitages, have strict requirements when it comes to observing precepts and dress code (usually well covered and white). Be sure to take note of these requirements before making plans and so forth.

Ayya Khema International Buddhist Meditation Centre - is a Buddhist monastery for bhikkhunis and a meditation center located in the village of Olaboduwa in Gonapola, Horana (about 25-30kms from Colombo). The head of the center is Venerable Dr. Bhikkhuni Kusuma. The center accommodates up to 20 meditators, with residential facilities for up to 10 at a time and is dedicated strictly to international meditators. Voluntary donations are accepted for the upkeep of the center. For more information please visit the website.

Dhammika Ashramaya - is a separate nunnery affiliated with Na Uyana for female practitioners that began in 2003. There are about  80 resident  nuns and  lay  women. You are required to observe ten precepts for the duration of your stay at Dhammika Ashramaya . Applications are welcome for short and long stays at Dhammika Ashramaya for female guests. For more information, please visit the website to download the introductory guide.

Kanduboda Siyane International Insight Meditation Center - first opened in 1956, this is both a meditation center and a monastery located at Kanduboda in Delgoda (about 25kms from Colombo). The meditation center offers Vipassana meditation instruction in the style of the late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw and can accommodate up to 70 meditators. The main teacher and head monk is Venerable Upāli. Monks, nuns and lay practitioners are welcomed.  Women have a separate, enclosed area. There is no charge for accommodation, meals and services for staying, though the Center relies on and encourages donations. For more information, please visit the website.

Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya - is a Galduwa Theravada forest monastery for bhikkhu, samanera and lay men located close to the town of Kirindiwela. The Abbot and resident meditation teacher is Venerable Uda-Iriyagama Dhammajeewa Thera who teaches in both English and Sinhala languages. Retreats are open to both male and female practitioners and they advise short three-day retreats are suitable for those with less experience in meditation and longer retreats of up to fourteen days are for those with prior meditation and retreat experience. The retreats are held throughout the year at the Retreat Centre, which is located at the foothills of the monastery and is run separately with its own accommodation facilities and meditation hall. There is no charge for attending retreats as teachings, accommodation, food, and all the other facilities available during the retreat are given freely. Donations are accepted in the form of financial support,volunteering of time or special skills, or other forms of material support. Longer stays of up to three months at the monastery to practice are possible for male guests on approval. Females guests can only stay for the duration of the retreat. For more information, please visit the website.

Na Uyana Aranya - is a Galduwa Theravada forest monastery for bhikkhu, samanera and lay men located at Pansiyagama, in Kurunegala that dates back to the time of King Uttiya (3rd Century BCE). The monastery is spread over more than 5000 acres of forest on the ‘Dummiya’ mountain range and there are 100 monks and 30 lay practitioners resident. Venerable Angulgamuwe Ariyananda is the Abbot and resident meditation teacher. The main method taught is Pa-Auk Samatha-Vipassana meditation.  Applications are welcome for short and long stays at Na Uyana. For more information, please visit the website.

Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre - is a meditation center primarily for lay people to learn and practice Buddhist meditation located at Nilambe in Galaha (close to Kandy). The renowned Sri Lankan lay teacher, Godwin Samararatne was the previous teacher at Nilambe until his death in 2000.  The resident teacher is currently Upul Gamage and there are also other teachers who instruct retreats. Regular programs and meditation retreats are held at Nilambe in English and Sinhala languages. The website currently states that "it is not possible to stay other than scheduled retreats". Teachings are offered free of charge, but the center requests a small daily charge from visitors to cover board and lodging. For more information please visit the website.

Nirodha Retreats - throughout the year there are Vipassana Meditation Retreats conducted by Bhante Samadhikusalo (previously known as the lay teacher Dhammaruwan) in Sri Lanka. He also travels abroad to teach meditation retreats. For further details on his teachings, upcoming retreats or to get in touch please refer to his Facebook page or personal Facebook. There is a website but it tends to be temperamental when loading. It appears that he conducts a regular Sunday meditation class in Colombo, but I can't confirm this.

Paramita Meditation Centre - is a meditation retreat center located at Kadugannawa. You'll have passed it if you have travelled the route between Colombo and Kandy. It was established as a meditation center for international visitors to Sri Lanka. Currently, Venerable Balangoda Sumangala is the resident Teacher and monastic who is available to offer instruction on Buddhist meditation and teachings. During a stay, you can choose to either practice with some form of guidance, enjoy your own personal retreat. The center relies on donations and the website suggests that "visitors make a fair contribution that will cover food and lodging" to maintain and improve their facilities. For more information, please visit the website.

Rockhill Hermitage International Meditation Centre - is situated on a mountainside and consists of a monastery, a men's area, a nunnery and a women's area for the practice and learning of meditation and Buddhist studies. It is located at Wegirikanda, in Hondiyadeniya. Intensive meditation courses are held for ten days at the beginning of every month (1st to 11th) and caters for individual retreats from the middle of the month (15th to 25th). Longer stays may be available on request. The resident teacher is Venerable Dharmachari Silatawa teaches Vipassana Meditation and Dhamma in both English and Sinhala languages. Teachings are free of charge, but guests are requested to contribute a reasonable amount for food and lodging (per the website, a minimum amount of US $20/day is payable). All other donations are voluntary and welcomed. For more information please visit the website.

Sumathipala Nahimi Aranya Senasena Kaduboda, Delgoda - opened in 2003, it is situated right next to Kanduboda Siyane International Insight Meditation Center at Kanduboda, in Delgoda (about 25kms from Colombo). The place is mainly for laypeople who have already developed their own meditation practice, but monks do visit and stay for limited periods. The female yogis and nuns have their own separate area. The resident teacher and monastic is Venerable Gampaha Pemasiri. Although Venerable Pemasiri does not conduct run formal meditation programmes, he offers guidance and may give Dhamma talks on request. There are approximately 40 kutis that have been built by lay people, who have built them on the basis of having access to them for life). When they are not in residence, the kutis are lent out to visitors who wish to come on individual retreat. While there is no charge to stay at Sumathipala, those who wish to give dana do pay.  For more information, please visit the website.



Buddhist Ordination



There is much interest from foreign Buddhist practitioners with regards to ordaining as a monk or nun in Sri Lanka. I've had a couple of friends who have flown to Sri Lanka from overseas to investigate options for ordination while staying at monasteries. There are a number of Buddhist traditions or monastic lineages in Sri Lanka, and the most popular with male foreigners in ordaining as a Bhikkhu seems to be the Galduwa forest tradition (an independent part of the Rāmañña Nikāya), which is said to have the strictest vinaya tradition or standards of discipline in the country.

Therefore, Na Uyana (see above) and Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya (see above), the two principal meditation monasteries in the Galduwa forest tradition, are popular monasteries for Bhikkhu ordination. Having said that, male foreigners have ordained under other traditions, including the Vajirama Tradition (a chapter of the Amarapura Nikāya) and Kanduboda (see above) group (another chapter of the Amarapura Nikaya) and other.

The timeline for Bhikkhu ordination is approximately as follows:

1-4 months      Upasaka training (8 precepts)
6-12 months    Pabajja - Samanera "novice monk" ordination (10 precepts & 76 Sekhiya rules)
3 months         Vinaya classes followed by a Vinaya exam
3 months         Upasampada - Bhikkhu ordination (227 rules of Patimokkha)


The ordination of women as Bhikkhunis in the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka is said to have been revived around 1996. I've read that since 2005, it has been the Dambulla chapter of the Siyam Nikaya that has been carrying out Bhikkhuni ordinations in Sri Lanka. However, there is contention over the validity of Bhikkhuni ordinations in Sri Lanka. As a result, the majority of women ordained in Sri Lanka are still largely ten precept nuns rather than Bhikkhunis.


Thanks for reading this blog post. Wishing you happiness and inner peace.


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