Location: Lumbini Peace Garden, Lumbini, Nepal. Right by the Indian border in the south of the country.
Tradition: Mahasi Sayadaw Vipassana, as taught by one of his leading disciples, Sayadaw U Pandita, from Myanmar. A branch of the Panditarama network from Myanmar.
Practice intensity: 8 out of 10. No checking on your attendance anywhere, but daily teacher interviews are detailed. Due to most people keeping to the schedule and noble silence, consistent practice is normal.
Accommodation: Dormitory for <10 days, 3-bed rooms 10-30 days, individual kuti >30 days. As of Sept 2018, there are hot water systems in the kutis.
Food: Lacto-ovo vegetarian, provided by full-time staff. Can avoid the eggs and dairy if you like.
Min/max stay: Minimum 7 days, no maximum.
Cost: By donation.
Clothing: Up to the meditator, the usual standards of decency and non-distraction apply.
Transport: A short taxi ride from the Bhairahawa airport, following a 30-minute flight from Kathmandu (check out Buddha Air). Or 12 hours by bus from Kathmandu to Lumbini (don’t believe when they say 8 hours!). Or accessible from the border crossing from India at Gorakhpur/Sunauli, and details of this journey are on the centre’s website listed just below.
Visas: 30- & 90-day visas on arrival at Kathmandu airport or at the Gorakhpur/Sunauli border crossing near Lumbini, (new fees as at July 2019 – USD 50 for 30 days, and USD 125 for 90 days). Can extend by 30 or 90 days, to a total of 150 days in Nepal within a calendar year. So you can arrive in, say, August and then renew again in January, staying for a total of up to 10 months.
This centre, opened in the late 1990s, is quite special for a number of reasons. Firstly, the two permanent resident teachers are highly experienced meditators in their own right, having trained under the widely renowned Burmese master Sayadaw U Pandita. Secondly, the centre is fairly remote and choosy about meditators that apply, so the atmosphere is typically one of serious and dedicated practice. Thirdly, the conditions – food, accommodation, space – are all conducive to good practice.
The method is Mahasi Sayadaw Vipassana, as the name suggests, developed by the late Burmese master Mahasi Sayadaw. The technique centres on paying moment-to-moment attention to every physical and mental act or experience, in every conscious moment, from awaking in the morning to sleeping in the evening. With intensity, this practice leads to insight into the nature of sensate reality, and so on. I won’t go into detail as there is plenty of detail on the web. At this link you can listen to a recorded Dhamma talk by the teacher of the centre, Sayadaw U Vivekananda, in which he thoroughly describes the technique. (Note the recording begins at 1:20.)
They accept meditators after a brief email exchange in which they ask some questions about your experience, and who recommended the centre to you. They are trying to determine if you are serious, which is a good thing as it ensures a purer practice environment for those who are accepted. But they’re not Draconian, and they accept newcomers all the time. They allow only 25-30 yogis at any given time, to ensure the facilities are not overloaded, and there are usually a number of long-term retreatants there, so access to the places allowable for people who want to come for short retreats can be competitive.
The two teachers give interviews daily, except for a break day every Saturday. The interviews are 10 minutes long and you are expected to report on the experiences in your practice, although once you have a relationship with the teachers, a bit of chit-chat tends to work its way into the interviews as well. The teachers stagger the interviews so you may see Sayadaw U Vivekananda on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and Sayalay Bhaddamanika on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, for example. This system seems to have 2 benefits – one is so the teachers can monitor how you’re coping with the challenges in the practice, and also to ascertain whether a meditator is actually really practicing or not!
There are live Dhamma talks by the Sayadaw on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, and recorded ones on all other nights in which he, or another teacher, typically addresses the issues he hears meditators are encountering, as reported in their interviews. So these talks tend to be pointed and relevant, and a big help to the practice.
The food, in my experience, is excellent in taste and nutrition. It is buffet-style, so you can choose what and how much you eat. Some meditators bring extras to leave on their table such as vitamins, condiments, etc. Meals are at 6am and 11am, with juice at 7pm or so.
The journey to (and away from) the centre can be harrowing, as much of the national highway network has been dug up for repairs, but the repairs have not been completed. So the road surface is very poor and the bus tends to jolt around a lot. If you have a sensitive back, best to fly. The bus costs around US$7 for a 12-hour journey, whereas the short flight (check out Buddha Air’s website) is around US$110 each way. But the speed and comfort of flying (30 minutes) versus the hellish bus journey makes it worth considering. There are plenty of guesthouses in Lumbini village not far from the centre, which is good to know if you arrive after 5pm, as the centre prefers you arrive in the daytime to be allowed entry and to settle in. Besides, it’s a good idea to take a day out to see the sights, especially the Maya Devi Temple that is reputed to mark the spot where the Buddha was born.
A note on the climate and air conditions. The centre tends to be closed during the middle of the year when the weather is hot and humid. And it tends to be very popular during the coldest time of the year, around Christmas, when temperatures can get below 10 degrees Celsius. There is usually no rain during the winter, but there tends to be very heavy fog, humidity, and sometimes a shocking amount of smog. The air quality can be very poor much of the winter due to unregulated industrial proliferation in the area. Surgical-style masks are often available at the centre, but if you suffer from conditions such as asthma, perhaps this centre is not for you. Update early 2019 – this winter the smog was limited and weather unusually warm and mild.