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.
A senior 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.
Still puzzled 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 is this 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.
"I am off for a meditation retreat" said Buddhi looking straight in to my eyes.
"That sounds interesting. Tell me about it"
"Well, every 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.
This little description of his holiday plan got me really interested.
"Buddhi, if you don't mind, can you tell me more about it?"
Nilambe 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 6.00 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.
After tea 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.
Yoga classes 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.
The most magnificent specimen of bathing tanks is the pair known as Kuttam Pokuna at Anuradhapura. This is situated in close proximity to Abhayagiri Vihara. The garden which separates these 2 ponds is 18 ½ ft. The larger of this pair is 132 ft in length and 51 ft in breadth, while the smaller is 91 feet long,depth of the smaller pond is 14 feet and the larger pond is 18 feet. The sides and the bottom of the ponds were faced with well cut granite slabs. Round the pond is a magnificent wall. Leading to the pond are a beautiful flight of steps on both sides, and decorated with "punkalas" and scroll design. There were underground ducts bringing water into these ponds and others emptying them. A wall is built to enclose the ponds, and inside it is a small compound.
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 place.
Till 9.30 am it is "Karma Yoga".
Karma Yoga? I asked with surprise.
Karma Yoga 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 morning 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
1½ ft high and 2½ 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 both legs.
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 at 12.00 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.
It is interesting to see how the mind wanders between the plate and the lip.
After lunch 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.
The afternoon meditation 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 and 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.
The evening 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 few biscuits 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.
After dinner 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.
Around 9.30 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.
One can practice meditation 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)?
Not really. 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 Ata Sil.
"You mentioned words such as Mindfulness, and awareness, do you have to know all these before going there?"
If you have previous 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 meditation, 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 to meditate, 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 teachers teach 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 to realize these to some extent, not intellectually but through direct experience, then you are free to that degree.
A meditation retreat lasting 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 busy-ness going?
I did not feel the journey. 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.
Through the beautiful 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 the tea 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.