I left home
early in the
morning for Kandy to spend the forthcoming long weekend at the company
holiday bungalow. As I was driving through Battaramulla I saw my friend
Buddhi waiting for a bus towards Colombo.
manager of a
leading company with a company car, I was surprised to see him in Denim
jeans and T shirt carrying a back-pack waiting for a bus like a tourist
on a shoestring budget. I stopped the car, crossed the road and asked
him what he was doing there. "I am planning to go to Kandy on holiday
and waiting for a bus" he said quite casually.
"Come with me.
I am also going to Kandy," I said.Buddhi liked the idea.
by what Buddhi said, I asked him" Why are you waiting for a bus, what
happened to your car?" "Ah, this is a different kind of a holiday, it
is better to be without the car" he replied. We placed his back- pack
in the boot and set off.
"Tell me, what
special holiday you are talking about, are you on a secret mission or
doing a consumer research?" I asked.
"Yes, in a way
it is a kind of a research " Buddhi said.
I became even
more inquisitive. " Tell me Buddhi, what are you up to?" I am now
imagining various possibilities.
off for a meditation retreat" said Buddhi looking straight in to my
interesting. Tell me about it"
year when I
have a long weekend like this I go to a place called Nilambe, for a
short meditation retreat. It is a real holiday. Free from all the
busy-ness of the business world, free from meetings, phone calls,
e-mails and the rest of it. I will be there with just the bare
necessities. No phones, no electricity, no noises, no meals in the
night. It is a holiday for both the mind and body. A holy holiday".
Buddhi continues with so much joy in his voice.
description of his holiday plan got me really interested. "Buddhi, if
you don't mind, can you tell me more about it?"
meditation center is
situated up on a tea estate. Turning off from the Peradeniya
University, you go 18 kilometers along Galaha road till you reach a
board indicating the turn-off to the Meditation Center. From that
point, you have to climb uphill about three and a half kilometers to
reach the Center.
There is a long
hall and a
kitchen just above the landing. Around these buildings there are lines
of rooms for the meditators to stay. These simple little rooms are
called 'Kuti'. There are separate sections for male and female
meditators. One can stay as long as one likes provided there is room.
The Center is very popular among international students of Buddhist
meditation. The resident teacher, Godwin Samararatne was well known. He
passed away an year ago.
There is no
charge levied for your stay. You are only expected to make a little
donation to cover the cost of your stay.
What do you do
there ? I asked.
Well, the day
begins at 4.45
in the morning with the sounding of the gong - a hollow log . The sound
created by hitting this log with a wooden hammer is the means of
communicating the start of an activity. It can be heard very far. After
the morning gong you come to the main hall where all sit in a group and
meditate till 6.oo o'clock. The end of the mediation is indicated by
ringing a small bell. You then walk down to the kitchen area to pick up
your morning tea. Hardly anyone talks except a brief greeting. People
line up with a cup, collect the tea, sit in silence at a place of your
choice and have the tea. Some prefer to sit inside the kitchen around
the hearth to fight the cold, others sit outside where there are cement
benches. Some go up hill and take a vantage point to see how the
morning sun removes the veil of mist that covers the Gampola valley far
down. Every morning it is a new experience with birds of different
shades and colors singing away on tree tops. On a clear day one can get
a clear view of the Sri Pada away in the horizon.
around 6.20, the
Yoga session begins. It is not compulsory. Yoga is a form of exercise
that attempts to unite body and mind, thus making the whole being
healthy. The tradition of teaching Yoga continues with one person
taking the lead for the benefit of the newcomers. Most of the
westerners who do the spiritual circuit, get some exposure to Yoga in
India, hence sometimes you come across very good yoga teachers at
Nilambe. There are also very smart Sri Lankan youth who conduct yoga
lessons. Those who do not wish to join Yoga classes take a morning walk
up the hill. It is indeed a treat. You walk through a thick grove of
pine trees above the meditation center. A foot path takes you to the
top of the hill. At the edge of the foot path there is a little lake
with fountain water at the border of the virgin forest. One can imagine
what a rich vegetation it would have been before tea was planted on our
hills.From the top of the hill you can see the Hantana range and a
valley down glistening with the morning sun.
last for one
hour. The next half hour is to get ready for breakfast. Near every
dormitory or the line of 'kutis' there is a wash room with running
water. Water just flows down from the lake on top of the hill.
Breakfast is at
8.00. It is
a simple breakfast. A porridge made out of brown rice flour and
'kurahan' is the usual recipe. One can add a banana or a few grapes to
make it sweeter. Once again eating is only to satisfy hunger. You try
to eat mindfully, without talking. Silence is the key word. You finish
your breakfast and wash the plate mindfully and place it at the right
Till 9.30 am it
is "Karma Yoga".
Karma Yoga? I
asked with surprise.
means doing some
work mindfully. It is a very good practice for lay people like us. You
can choose one of the daily routine work which keeps the place going.
While some choose to clean toilets others work in the kitchen or clean
the areas around the 'kutis' they stay in. Some cut grass while others
repair a broken foot path. Once again the important thing is how you
can do it mindfully.
I was tempted
to ask Buddhi
what he means by doing things mindfully, but did not want to disturb
his vivid description of the extraordinary experience.
At 9.30 in the
gong goes again announcing the time for Group Sitting, meaning group
meditation in the main hall. The main hall is about 100 ft long and 20
feet wide. It is a simple hall. Along the walls on all four sides is a
cement bench of about 1 ft high and 2 ft wide. The whole floor
including the surface of the bench is covered with mats. There are
enough cushions of different shapes and sizes. Some Japanese style
meditation cushions are circular in shape and black in color. For the
benefit for those who cannot bend their legs in the traditional cross
legged position there are little wooden bunks. The art is to sit with
your back straight and the weight of the body distributed evenly to
You choose the
type of seat
that suits you and sit for a meditation session for two to three hours.
Depending on your choice you can either sit the whole period or mix it
with a session or two of walking meditation as well. Though you
meditate in a group there are no instructions given to the whole group
at once. The bell to end the session goes after two hours. Yet some sit
longer. Others leave the hall silently and retire in to their own
'kutis' and continue their meditation on their own until lunch time.
Lunch is served
noon. It is a simple, balanced vegetarian meal. Eating mindfully,
watching the desire to experience tastier food, experiencing the touch
sensation of the fingers, and at taste points of the tongue, observing
the smell of the food, becoming aware of the wandering of the mind
while eating, these are all part of the meditation.
interesting to see how the mind wanders between the plate and the lip.
there is time
for rest and using the library till three in the afternoon. There is a
library with a large collection of books on Buddhism, Meditation,
different philosophies, and even a good collection of audio cassettes
of well known teachers such as J Krishnamurthi.
session starts at 3.00pm and lasts for two hours. After the meditation
session tea is served in the kitchen.
To keep the
body relaxed you
can join the evening Yoga session or take a stroll either to the top of
the hill or down the tea estate. Before the evening 'pooja' to offer
flowers to the Buddha, there is an item in the calendar called
"watching the sun set". It is the celebration of the day. Every day you
are treated with a symphony of colors on the sky as the sun sets in the
western horizon. You learn to observe the beauty of nature being with
it. You keep your eyes loosely focused on the distant horizon
become aware of all the sounds around you and the silence that deepens
within you and around you. In this state of awareness you begin to
enjoy the sun set. How it slowly silences the day. Sometimes you hear
the sound of the gusty winds as they pass through the pine forest.
Slowly the day ends. there is no rush. You let it happen. You begin to
observe beautiful shapes of clouds that glitter in kaleidoscopic shapes
and colors. You hear sounds of children in a nearby village. Birds vary
their chirp. Some even come to trees near you.
pooja begins at
7.00. But by 6.30 all retire to the main hall and sit on the ground in
front of the small white statue of Buddha. For the benefit of those who
are not familiar with the Pali stanzas, one long staying German
meditator has prepared a small booklet where Pali stanzas are written
in Roman characters with the meaning in English. Buddhists observe
Pansil and join the chanting. Others just listen. The chanting is done
in a way so that the westerners can pronounce them easily. The candles
that burn in front of most of the meditators to read the books help
create a serene ambiance in the whole place. The chantings end with the
Karaniya Metta Sutta and the group sit together for a short meditation
on loving kindness.
The supper is a
and a cup of Soya coffee. Though many may feel it is not enough, you
will be surprised to find that you hardly feel hungry in the night.
there is a
short discussion on a topic related to meditation. Now that teacher is
no more to lead this discussion, either his assistant Upul (he is now
the resident teacher) or an experienced meditator does it.
people retire in
to their 'kutis' either with the help of a torch or a candle. It is
encouraged to use candles to protect the environment. You begin to
realize how little light you really need to live when you spend a few
nights at Nilambe.
in the 'kuti' as long as one likes or can sleep on the small bed
provided there. It is a narrow cement bench in most rooms. In some
rooms it is a small bed. Blankets are provided as it can be quite cold
up there on some nights.
What do you
wear? I asked.
Well, there is
no hard and
fast rule as long as you cover yourself properly in a manner that suits
the occasion. Most of the westerners wear white cotton trousers.
Females wear the sarval camis sets. Locals wear sarongs and shirts.
Do you have to
observe Ata Sil (Eight Precepts)?
Since this is a
place mainly for the westerners most of whom are non-Buddhists, what is
expected is for them to observe the Five Precepts even without taking
the three refuges. For the Buddhists, they can either observe Pansil or
words such as Mindfulness, and awareness, do you have to know all these
before going there?"
If you have
experience in meditation this is an ideal place to deepen your
practice. If you are a novice then you can meet the resident teacher
Upul Gamage, a very kind young person with experience who will give you
the required basic instructions.
When we talk of
it does not mean that we keep thinking of something all the time. The
English word Meditation can mean contemplation, but the Buddhist
concept of 'bhavana' is really the development of the mind. There are
two basic types of Meditation. One is called Concentration meditation
where you choose one object either an internal or an external one -
and bring your attention to it all the time. For example one can select
a word and keep repeating it until the mind reaches one-pointedness.
The other type of meditation is Vipassana meditation which teaches you
to be aware of all the sense messages that come to your mind including
your thoughts. There again you start by concentrating on one object
such as the breath. You can either focus your attention on the rising
and falling of the belly as you breathe in and out or observe the touch
sensation at the tip of your nose trills as you breath naturally. While
that becomes your main meditation objective any other sense message
that comes to your mind too can be the meditation object. Here what is
important is keeping awareness intact irrespective of the object.
If you sit down
it is because you want to know the true nature of your being, your
mind. Then you need not have any preconceived ideas as to how the
meditation session should be.
We are told of
the story of
how a meditation student went to a teacher and said, "Sir I cannot
meditate, because my mind goes all over the place". "Then be aware that
your mind goes all over the place", he was told. In this meditation
technique you learn to let go thoughts without getting caught in them.
Well these do not happen overnight, but why hurry?
different techniques. But the core message is realizing the true nature
of life. One begins to concentrate on the ever changing nature of life,
that there is no permanent self, and as a result, there is
unsatisfactoriness in life.
When you come
these to some extent, not intellectually but through direct experience,
then you are free to that degree.
a few days help you create a real space in your mind. This is a
worthwhile experience. You begin to see inner likes and dislikes that
shape your being. You begin to develop awareness throughout the day. It
gives so much freedom in real life as it gives you the ability to face
life a bit more objectively and realistically. You will enjoy a certain
amount of freedom. The fact that you spend a few days in total silence
without uttering a word can be a unique experience in itself. You can
see for yourself how the mind quietens when you keep your mouth shut.
Although you sleep only for a few hours, you will not feel tired. You
will be quite happy sleeping for just three to four hours. You will
feel totally relaxed as you take only one main meal, that too, a simple
vegetarian one. You will realize how much energy we spend to keep this
I did not feel
It was a long chat. When we reached Peradeniya, Buddhi suggested I drop
him there. But by then I was so keen to visit Nilambe myself that I
offered to drive him up there. He was not sure whether my car could
make it to the top, but it was worth taking a chance, I thought.
landscapes of Peradeniya University we drove along the Galaha Road. The
air was so fresh we put down the shutters allowing the clean natural
air sweep us as we cruised along.
The journey up
estate was not that easy. Yet I managed. Around 10.30 we arrived at the
Center. There was absolute silence. The air was so pure, the breeze was
soothing. The silence was so deep that I too decided to join Buddhi. I
called the holiday bungalow and cancelled my booking. I switched off
the cellular phone disconnecting my links with the rest of the world
for the next three days.