Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Retreat at Nilambe, Srilanka

Few weeks back, I’ve had the pleasure of spending 5 days at the Nilambe (Pronounced Nil-lamba) Buddhist meditation centre in Srilanka.  It was a 5-day silent retreat conducted by Venerable Khema Dhamma, started on 4th December 2015.

In here I will put down my experience living, meditating and experiencing things in and around the centre during that few days plus some additional background information that might be helpful for a fellow practitioner or for a curious mind.

There are few ways to get to Nilambe and I used the route through Peradeniya to get there from Colombo. There is also a different route you can take through Gampola but either way you have to stop at the office junction. You can also catch the bus 633 from Peradeniya to Delthota via Galaha and get down at the Office junction.

From the Office Junction, its a 3 Km steep winding road up to the centre. This road is narrow, not well maintained and has few trenches created by running rain water that might be hard to get through if you are driving a vehicle with low clearance. Only a 4x4, a Maruti or a three-wheeler should be able to make it up to the hill. As of December 2015, a three-wheel ride will cost around 350 Rupees from the office junction to the centre.  If you decide to walk, just note that the path may be swarming with leeches during the rainy season. So be cautious.  

On arrival, I went directly to the centre office, filled few forms and was handed over the key to my room.  Centre will provide a pillow, pillow cover, bed sheet and a blanket if you haven’t brought your own. 

Rooms are small, narrow but adequate for the purpose. They can get damp with heavy moist air when raining (which seems to be all the time , everyday ) and anything kept inside will absorb a heavy load of moisture. So biscuits and match boxes kept outside will be not be usable after a day. Rooms are also not suitable for closterfobics or to meditate inside. I’ve noticed some people smoke inside their rooms regardless of the restrictions in place. So if you are allergic to cigarette smoke, maybe its good to request for a different room. 

Food and drinking water: 
Food is prepared on premises, is vegetarian, basic, tasty and adequate for the purpose. Breakfast is served at 7.30 AM, Lunch at 12 PM and a snack usually consist of bread, jam and margarine is served at 6 PM.

Tea is served at 6 AM after morning meditation, afternoon tea at 3 PM and Coffee is served at 6 PM. After first day I found out that my belly is rumbling around 5.30 AM so I had a Milo (which I bought and took with me) before going to the meditation hall in the morning.

Direct water from the tap is not safe to drink as we were advised.  Centre has provided 2 basic water filters that you can use.  But if you really want to be safe with water and haven’t got your travel vaccinations before you arrive to Srilanka (which is a must), you can bring a hot water flask with you. If you keep them in the kitchen at right times, which are displayed on the notice board, centre staff will fill them up with boiling hot water. This might be the best option for getting safe drinking water. 

All facilities in the centre are well maintained. Toilets and shower rooms are clean, spacious and adequate. Kitchen and all the communal areas are clean and kept tidy at all times. However, if you go to the kitchen at night you will find its swarming with hundreds of cockroaches of all sizes and shapes. Maybe spreading Metta has gone bit beyond its practical limits. But if you care to wash your cup, plate and utensils with soap in the morning before use as I did, you will be safe…  I guess.

There’s no electricity at the centre. You must have a torch, batteries, few candles and a lighter. I found not having electricity is really helpful for the practice and I hope that the centre will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Hot water shower:
Solar heated hot water showers are in all bathrooms. So there’s no excuse for not taking a shower. Clean body and clean cloths aids in practice and definitely will help others who are sitting next to you.

The dreaded leeches. They are anywhere and everywhere. They crawl on the paths in search of victims during night and when it rains. This was my first real experience with these creatures and boy, they taught me a great deal. They are an integral part of living at Nilambe so instead of hating and feeling disgusted, try to live along with them. They are great meditation masters who are there voluntarily to teach you some good lessons on compassion, presence of mind and patience.

To avoid a leach bite, make it a habit to always inspect your feet and slippers. If they are marching on your feet you can grab them and throw them away. No not towards another practitioner. LOL.  I kept few tissues in my pocket for this purpose because I felt yucky to touch them with my bare fingers.

If they have bitten in to you and started feeding, don’t pull them out by force, apply soap, squeeze them out or spray insect repellent on them.  These actions will cause the bite wound to infect. To remove the leach, use your fingernails and slide the mouth away from the bite wound. Once the bleeding stops (yes those tissues come real handy), wash ,  apply some antibiotic cream to the wound and put a plaster/Band-Aid.

To avoid leaches altogether, wear a pair of thick old socks and spray insect repellents on them (Thanks Rebecca for the tip) I’ve used Aeroguard and it worked well. Many locals use a local ointment called Sidhalepa which has a distinctively sharp odor which may hinder other practitioners during sessions. So avoid it if possible. 

Its not easy to practice anything when tiny mosquitoes are singing around your ears. Cover up as much as possible and ideally use a hoodie or a scarf   sprayed with insect repellent to get pass that barrier.

What to bring (Essentials):

  • Soap
  • Washing power or washing soap to wash cloths
  • Tooth brush / Tooth Paste
  • Razors or a fully charged shaver
  • Good torch and batteries
  • Warm cloths 
  • Umbrella 
  • Insect repellent spray
  • Towel
  • Candles
  • Lighter - As I have found out ,all my match boxes were useless after first day because they have absorbed moisture.
  • Tissues
  • Antibiotic cream for leach bites - If you inform that you have a leach bite and its getting in to the infectious state, the friendly and helpful staff will quickly prepare a home remedy made with Turmeric, which has antibacterial qualities to apply on you wound.  Even though it works, the paste has a distinctive and strong staining qualities and it will get in to blankets , cloths  and meditation mattresses.  So “YES” to Antibiotic cream.
  • Few Band-Aid Plasters to cover up leach bite wounds.
What to bring (Good to have)
  • Fully charged Power bank
  • Bed sheets and blankets
  • Few pair of old thick socks
  • Biscuits and drinks to consume and share
  • Hot water flask
  • Rubber Gloves - If you would like to clean the garden and communal toilets, which of cause is a voluntary service, these will come very handy.  It is a great way to contribute, to take a break from the rigorous meditation routine, realistically practice loving kindness meditation by servicing others selflessly and to collect merits.
  • Paracetamol
  • A basic camping chair - After few days of practice, sitting cross legged on a mediation mattress, both my legs, knees, ankle joints and bums started aching and on 5th day I was hardly able to sit down for few minutes in one posture because of the pain which  was unbearable. This made me think a basic camping chair might be really useful in that type of circumstances.
My practice:
I have been practicing (trying to) different mediation techniques since few years now. But it has never developed in to a stage that I feel adequate enough. Practicing meditation in real/normal world is similar to running towards the opposite direction of an escalator. Yes you try hard, and just for a moment you think you have actually progressed a bit ... but at the next moment, the world will catch up and put you back in your starting place.

So, for me, the purpose of visiting this retreat was to find out how far I can go ahead with the practice in an ideal environment and to see how good it is going to feel.

During the first  2 days , it was a constant struggle with run away thoughts and I’m sure I haven’t spent even a  minute concentrated on breath alone. But from the third day onwards, mind started settling in and the practice became easier and more concentrated.  On fifth day the joy and peace I felt was overwhelming and I was wishing the retreat will never end.

Poya day program:
Every full moon day, there is a full day program at the centre. Food and drinks will be provided and is conducted in Sinhala for local practitioners.

Official websites:
English: www.nilambe.net
Sinhala: www.nillambe.org
Dharma Resources: www.nilambe-deshana.net

Many thanks to the administration, Venerable Khema Dhamma and fellow practitioners with who I have spent 5 joy fully peaceful and productive days. May you all attain peace, happiness and liberation in your journey through the samsara.

Finally , here are some photos:

Nilambe, Road from office junction
Nilambe, Entrance
Nilambe, Garden
Nilambe, Communal Area
Nilambe, Dana Hall
Nilambe, Flower Offerings
Nilambe, Second Meditation Hall
Nilambe, Communal Area
Nilambe, Main Meditation Hall
Nilambe, Outside the Library
Nilambe, Path to rooms
Nilambe, Storage Room

Derana TV has done a small program on the centre on 23rd of July 2016. Program is in sinhala but you can have a look if interested. relevent part starts from minute 13.00.


  1. What a nice experience. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Thank you. Im glad you found it useful. :)

  3. you still in the path of the enlightened one. i am happy for you bro. I am planing to go 12 day retreat at vipassana meditation by Goenka n somewhere around VIC.

  4. Thank you so mmuch Tiraj for sharing your experience and all the info. Im going fromm 5/8 to 10/8 and this has been extremely helpful to me.
    Take care
    Min :)