Nissarana Vanaya Forest Monastery, Mitirigala, Sri Lanka

Famous forest monastery & meditation centre

Location: In the forest, 45km to the east of Colombo, in a district known as Meethirigala. (Note the various spellings of the place name: Mithrigala, etc).

Tradition: Mahasi Sayadaw Vipassana, with emphasis on walking meditation. Also, part of the forest monastery tradition.

Practice intensity: 6 out of 10. Schedule is presented as strict, with ‘compulsory’ sessions, but no checking or calling out of slackers is done.

Accommodation: For lay-people, a dormitory with 3- and 4-bed rooms, some with bathroom attached. Male only.

Food: Vegetarian. Probably vegan, except perhaps for some desserts. Donated by lay-people.

Min/Max stay: None.

Cost: Donation.

Clothing: All white as is the custom in Sri Lanka. With sash is recommended but optional.

Transport: Best access is by bus from Colombo or Kandy to nearby Meethrigala or Pugoda towns. Or if you don’t mind spending a bit more, you can get a tuk-tuk direct. (Install the PickMe app, a Sri Lanka Uber-style service, for excellent local rates.)

Contact: http://www.nissarana.lk, nissaranavanaya@gmail.com, +94-33-3339193.

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.

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Please note you must apply via their website listed above and receive acceptance by return email. And they only have facilities for males within the monastery, but for the scheduled retreats, women can stay in the accommodation in the main building. See the retreat schedule on their website, and note that if you stay outside of the retreat times, you’ll be living in the dorm under the meditation hall and helping out around the monastery.

This is the famous forest centre, much talked about in Sri Lanka and abroad. But it’s not for everyone. It is firstly a monastery for hardcore forest-dwelling monks, and has a dormitory and facilities for lay-people, some of whom are vying for one of the limited monastic opportunities here. So lay-people tend to come a distant second in the running of things.

The head teacher and abbot is the renowned Ven Dhammajiva, who conducts retreats here and abroad, supported at the centre by the younger Ven Chandaratana. The centre was opened in 1967 and has been home to a succession of highly regarded meditation masters, of whom the current abbot is the latest.

The centre runs frequent short retreats (listed on the website) but, outside those dates, lay meditators tend to become helpers around the monastery. While you do get the opportunity to maintain a mostly retreat style routine, you spend some of your day tied up in monastery activities, such as cleaning and gardening, Dhamma discussions and teacher interviews, puja (offering to the Buddha statue) and chanting, and filing behind the monks to collect your lunch from donors at the front office building.

The jungle life can be a pretty confronting experience, somewhat different and challenging compared to the more urban centres. There is a range of wildlife, including very large snakes, personally sighted! Oh, and leeches will find you if you go wandering along the pathways away from the meditation facilities.

The humidity and heat (in summer anyway) is incredible, and means your laundry takes days to dry. Also, the accommodation is all in a dormitory beneath the meditation hall, with little ventilation, so expect dampness and musty air, and potentially crowded quarters, especially around the monthly Poya Days (full moon days). But it’s all part of the challenge that helps some of us get over ourselves and practice better. So if you’re a kuti or solo room kind of meditator, perhaps best to steer clear.

They are firmly in the Mahasi Sayadaw Vipassana camp, and you are given meditation instructions upon arrival, and teacher interviews are around 3 times a week. Plus there are plenty of walking lanes all over the place so there’s always room for walking practice.

Plenty of English is spoken, and there’s a number of international monks here. I found the monks who take care of the lay meditators to be warm and friendly, although strict. This centre would suit meditators looking for an authentic monastic environment with such optional but encouraged retreat restrictions as no internet/phone and little to no chit-chat. (A note on this: my iPhone was taken from me at the office upon arrival, whereas everyone I spoke to in the dorm still had their smartphones. No idea why – I must look like an internet addict! Also a no-photos or video policy. So apologies that the second-rate photos had to be taken surreptitiously with the iPad camera.)

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Meditation hall and walking lanes
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Meditation hall
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Meditation hall
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Walking lanes
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Forest path
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Dormitory beneath meditation hall
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Dormitory entrance
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Dorm room
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Meditation hall in morning fog
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Wooden ‘gong’
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Forest monk’s umbrella
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Refreshment facilities in dorm
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Walking lanes inside dormitory building

Author: Peter Stuckings

Australian, living all over Asia. Explorer of the mind illuminated. Scholar of cognitive sciences, Buddhist & Pāli studies. Plant-powered. (Pic of EEG brain activity testing at Hong Kong U - yes a brain was detected!).

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