Location: Pallekele, Kundasale, near Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Tradition: Samatha and Vipassana. A monastery exclusively of nuns, although lay-men are welcome to stay and meditate as well as women.
Practice intensity: 5 out of 10. Largely up to you, can meditate in your room or in various locations. No supervision. Generally expected to do your best to join in at least one of the 2 daily Pali chanting sessions. A book of the chants is provided.
Accommodation: Individual and shared (twin) rooms. The newer rooms have attached bathrooms.
Food: Dana (donated) by the local laypeople, very healthy, somewhat spicy. All vegan except for some optional desserts.
Min/Max stay: 14 days max for local people, unlimited for non-local people. No minimum.
Transport: A 3-wheeler tuktuk from downtown Kandy is about USD 5, and takes around 20 minutes. Cheaper if you use the PickMe app, the Sri Lankan Uber-style service.
Clothing: Must wear all white, plus a sash or cloth around the torso. Men wear a long skirt-style garment known as a sarong, but can also wear trousers.
Contact: The centre has no website, but this blog has a good rundown: upasakaperera.blogspot.my, +94-(0)81-2420050 (this number is for the office, note that it may be a challenge to communicate in English).
Visas: 30 days on arrival, can get online at http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/, then can extend in Colombo at the ‘Suhurupaya’ Immigration Dept for 60 days, then again for another 90 days, totalling 6 months. Can then get 1-year residence permit via certain (major and well-organised) meditation centres.
This centre was a very pleasant find, as the other options in the area around Kandy are often overcrowded with foreign tourists. I was the only non-local meditator there during my stay, and had a wonderfully immersive experience in the local Buddhist practice and culture. I would suggest this place is not for everyone, as it requires some participation in traditional Buddhist practices, such as daily chanting and puja (offerings) events. So if you prefer an ‘international’ or secular environment for your practice, best to check out the nearby Goenka centre or Nilambe centre.
The Pallekele centre is not far from Kandy, which is easily reached from the capital Colombo by train. Then a tuktuk ride from the station to the centre. Pallekele is a small town up the road from Kandy, set in quiet hills. The centre itself is on a rocky hilltop, so there are concrete ramps and stairs laid onto many of the stone surfaces to make them passable. There are lots of trees, and breezes often flow through the area, so it can be cool and comfortable even in the warmer seasons. There is a minimum of meditation equipment so be sure to bring a cushion or bench if you have particular sitting needs. Otherwise it’s traditional cross-legged on the floor kind of stuff. Oh, and you’ll need a spoon if you prefer not to eat with the hands. Anyway, there’s a supermarket and other shops a short walk away, so you can pick up things after arriving.
The centre was established in the 1990s by a monk, the Venerable Amatha Gavesi, who then entrusted the running of the place to nuns under the Venerable Chandra Loku Manio (manio means nun), who leads a community of 20-30 nuns. A meditator is assigned a teacher-nun whom they meet with for meditation advice. Since a senior nun Dhammadinna Manio speaks English wonderfully well, she takes care of the foreign meditators. You begin with metta and body contemplation meditation to help settle the mind, followed by Samatha single-pointed concentration on the nose breath. Once this is built up and you are getting the first few jhanas (concentration states), you are instructed in the Vipassana technique.
I do not have a copy of the schedule, but it was the usual arrangement of getting up before 4am, then there is optional chanting 3.45am-4.30am, then meditation until around 6am, when meditators take up an especially Sri Lankan practice – sweeping the paths and grounds of leaves. I ended up skipping the morning chanting for sitting instead. I get the impression that foreign yogis can be forgiven for not attending all of the chanting and puja sessions if they are meditating and otherwise keeping busy in ‘wholesome’ ways.
Breakfast is at 6.30am. Lunch follows at 10.30am, and some optional tea or juice at 7pm. There is a second Pali chanting session, in various locations including under the Bodhi trees and in the relic hall, at 4pm. Offerings are usually made to the altars at both chanting sessions, and as the sole foreign visitor, I was often waved over by the nuns and encouraged to participate in offering flowers to the Buddha statue or water to the Bodhi tree. It was definitely a matter of getting out of my comfort zone, but I came to enjoy these experiences because it’s always a trap with meditation to make it too laid-back, too much to our liking, and this kind of practice woke me up to the need to overcome the usual ennui of the mind.
Retreats are run for around 15 days every 15 days, starting on the full moon each month, and local people usually book in for a 15-day stay in advance. While there, I was told foreigners needn’t book in and can just call and turn up, and also can stay longer than 15 days.
The centre survives on donations and community support, so a cash donation upon departure is a good idea, although there is no pressure.
The schedule was not strictly upheld by, for example, requiring us to all be in a hall together, so I found myself spending around 2 hours per day reading Dhamma books, and there was the opportunity to check email by iPhone in my room. Daily chats with other meditators and occasional trips to a nearby supermarket also helped undermine the sense for me that this was a hardcore practice regimen. After all, the nuns live there full-time, and the local community come to visit a lot, especially for the monthly full moon prayer/meditation events. Having said that, I noticed they don’t tolerate people only hanging around, so keeping up some degree of practice is necessary.
There is a good collection of English language Dhamma books in some locked cabinets under the relic hall. Be sure to ask to borrow some books.
To sum up, this centre might best suit the slightly adventurous traveler, as you’ll need to adapt to a few new ways, as well as the food, which I enjoyed immensely but it seems not all foreigners enjoy the spices.