Location: Spread over 5,000 acres of forest on a mountainside in Pansiyagama, a village area of Kurunegala district in North-Western Province.
Tradition: Pa Auk Sayadaw, the mixed Samatha and Vipassana method from Myanmar. Also part of the Sri Lankan forest tradition known as Galduwa.
Practice intensity: 6 out of 10, mostly self-driven. There are next to no requirements that you join anyone for anything, so you can practice at your own pace, or laze around and waste time. The 6 is if you chose to attend teacher interviews and meditate in view of others.
Accommodation: Individual rooms or kutis, typically with shared bathrooms.
Food: Vegetarian, offered by lay-people, mostly or all vegan it seems. Non-spicy options for foreigners. Very large selection, see photos below.
Min/Max stay: None.
Clothing: White as is the custom all over Sri Lanka.
Transport: Getting here from the district town of Kurunegala is the best option. Kurunegala is a major stop on the railway route from Colombo to Batticaloa on the east coast, and is around 2 hours from Colombo. From the Kurunegala bus station, a less than 1 hour bus ride gets you to Melsiripura, from which another short bus ride will get you to within walking distance of the entrance, although tuk-tuks are also hanging around to ferry you and your baggage the final leg to the gate. It’s a well-trodden route and the bus people know where you’re going and will help out.
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 is the nationally renowned forest tradition headquarters, spread over a vast area. The area where you as a visiting lay meditator will stay is all a short walk, but monks who live on the far hilltops can get a 4WD lift. They teach, and stick firmly to, the Pa Auk method from Myanmar, which seeks to combine Samatha concentration practices with Vipassana insight practices. A yogi is expected to do the concentration practices to a certain level of proficiency before advancing on to Vipassana. It’s possible to bring your own practice and just work on that, but if you attend the optional teacher interviews, expect to be lectured on sticking to the monastery’s method.
The food is a big event, twice a morning. At 6am and again at 9.30am the monks line up and file through a large Dana Sala (lit. donation hall), after which the lay meditators get a go. The lay devotees dish out large portions from dozens of giant pots. Forget trying to sample each dish – there’s far too many and your plate/bowl won’t hold a fraction of it. Note that if you look foreign, you’ll be shunted to a parallel queue where you get ‘un-spicy’ food on the belief that you cannot handle the spiciness of normal Sri Lankan food. But since no other monastery I’ve seen gives this option, and therefore foreign yogis with even a little experience in the country would have adapted, I’d recommend skipping the foreigners’ queue and sticking with the good stuff.
Oh, I forgot to mention the centre is popular with East Asian folks, especially mainland Chinese, so the less spicy options are also provided for their benefit. Notwithstanding that certain regional Chinese cuisines are among the spiciest on earth. Haha 😨😫😢
There are 2 main areas for lay yogis to hang out in. One is a little up the hill, and consists of a stupa and surrounding gardens, with the original old but beautifully maintained meditation hall. It’s not so big but rarely busy. Down near the entrance is the new meditation hall on the 3rd floor, quite large and equipped with mats and cushions. On the ground floor is a large area that seems to be for monks’ meditation only. On the floor in between is offices and the very large library.
When I was here (May) it rained heavily every afternoon, and sometimes at other times. There were giant snakes spotted, but few mosquitoes or spiders. Spread over such large areas, it felt under-occupied and very quiet. It was possible to spend the day in meditation (in the halls and kuti), reading (in the library), resting, etc, and barely interacting with another person, unless you sought out a chat with one of the monks or other yogis. So in general a good and peaceful practice environment.
I saw one western female meditator, otherwise it was a man’s world. Also there is a lot of segregation of monks from lay-people’s facilities, so for example chairs and toilets are often labelled ‘Ven Monks Only.’ So it pays to hunt around to find the facilities for you so you know where to go when nature calls, etc.
The kutis have this ingenious design where their concrete stilts have this inset level filled with some kind of industrial strength bug repellent, and the stairs to the front door are set away a few inches to ensure nothing can walk on into your accommodation. The fly screens are small gauge and fit the frames well. So despite the wild forest environment, you’re pretty secure inside your room. Although with no fans, it can get hot and humid in the middle of the day in the hot season. You’ll look forward to the big downpours at those times.
A personal impression gleaned from numerous little details is that it’s a vast establishment where, despite the very friendly care shown by some monks to a newcomer, there’s a certain coldness and you can feel like a number in an institution, similar to the feeling at a university or hospital. The place also exists to cater to monks, so as a lay yogi there is a sense of being left out or looking on from the sidelines. Maybe they want to encourage people to ordain, and certainly there’s a lot of people going into the monkhood from here. But anyway, mere details if you’re looking for a solid practice environment.