Satipanya Budhist Retreat
Address: White Grit, Minsterly, Shropshire, SY5 0JN, United KingdomTelephone: +44 (0)1588 650752Website: http://www.satipanya.org.ukContact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Satipanya is a small retreat centre just over the English border into Wales, dedicated to the Mahasi tradition. As the website gives plenty of practical information regarding sitting at Satipanya, I will more focus on how the centre might be of use from a pragmatic Dharma point of view.
The centre offers courses from evening meditation classes, hikes, and day and weekend retreats, to an (up to) three month summer Mahasi retreat, led by Bhante Bodhidhamma. Satipanya also offers reiki and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction courses by other teachers, but I won't be commenting on those here as I haven't experienced them.
I was at Satipanya for a two-week Mahasi retreat and found it very appropriate for anyone who wanted to go at it in a hardcore fashion; rigorous practice from the moment you wake and while you are reclining to sleep is encouraged. The eight precepts are followed at all times to focus one on the practice – reading, entertainment, speech, eating meals after midday and so forth aren't permitted – but I didn't get the sense that these were vindictively enforced (for example in the case of those with special dietary needs). Bowing to the Buddha in the shrine room is customary but otherwise rites and rituals are minimal, beyond some chanting.
The centre itself is a large, modern bungalow in between several farms, set in a Welsh valley. As such it is quiet, except for the sounds of farm work and animals. Plenty of retreatants (I recall about a dozen) are crammed in to a building with two toilets, two showers and a single kitchen, so retreatants are given times to wash and expected to take as little time as possible, especially in another of Satipanya's frequent reminders not to indulge in sense pleasures. The site is undergoing various extensions in the next few years. Retreatants are asked to discuss in advance if they would not be able to offer a minimum donation of £30 per diem. The current administrator of the centre, Martin, is efficient and unauthoritarian both in helping a prospective retreatant organise a visit beforehand or in ironing out any problems during a retreat with the minimum of disruption. Both he and Bhante are both easy to get hold of and particularly email-savvy which is a help.
Retreatants stay in single or double rooms, in which they are expected to do walking meditation if the weather is poor. Interestingly, I'd never shared a double room with another retreatant (I'd always been in a larger dormitory before this) and this had pros and cons: my roommate was a veteran of Burmese centres and so wanted to wake up to meditate even earlier at times, which required some compromise and careful noting of the 'Vipassana Vendetta' phenomenon, but the close proximity to a very dedicated meditator encouraged me to emulate him.
2019 update: after the construction of an extra building, every meditator will now get a single room. For this reason, a maximum of about 10-12 persons can be accommodated at any time. This creates a pretty ideal setting for continuous intensive practice, except maybe for those particularly vulnerable to the appeal of their phones, tablets or books (dormitories help to curtail that particular type of craving). The option to hand any such irresistible device to the manager on arrival is explicitely offered if that is a problem for you.
The daily schedule is based upon the Burmese tradition, beginning at 3:30 and ending at 21:15, with hourly alternated sitting and walking sessions, totalling 11 ½ hours minimum of meditation. Outside of those times Bhante suggests either continued meditation or 'calm abiding' in the present moment as a break. Morning and afternoon puja (Pali chanting and metta practice) are customary and an hour of light work are required on top of these. A session of chi gong first thing in the morning led by Bhante helped to establish bodily mindfulness and shake out some soreness, and some metta in the evenings calmed things down. Bhante also led a Tibetan-style healing visualisation at the end of the course.
The first few days of the course were, I felt, carefully presented by Bhante to ease newcomers to intensive retreats in, with basic meditation instructions and a discussion of early problems given as taped talks nightly. These led to more sophisticated talks on the defilements, more intricate noting instructions and an introduction to the Buddhist theory of the chain of cognition.
The teacher, Bhante Bodhidhamma is a monk who practiced in the Mahasi tradition in Burma and Sri Lanka, including 8 years as a monk in a Sri Lankan Mahasi monastery, after initially training in the Zen and Theravadin Forest Traditions. His style is humorous and irreverent with a constant gentle emphasis on sustained mindfulness and practice, particularly at meal times and in noting intentions, as well as an approach full of metta rather than emphasising the precepts. He acknowledged the Progress of Insight model explicitly towards the end of the retreat and gave a minimal description of the nanas, but privately and publicly emphasised his view that it needed to be put aside when I spoke in those terms. In interviews he answered multiple technical questions and put some of his answers in technical terms, such as discussing contact, intention and vedana, but also emphasised practice instructions and not using interviews as psychotherapy. Having found the whole retreat difficult as I related in interviews, Bhante suggested techniques such as body scanning and calm abiding in the present moment as an alternative to noting if dwelling in content began to seriously disrupt practice, though with a continued emphasis on gentle consistent effort. (Edit: It's also arguable that this was classic Dark Night symptomology and 'keep going' might have been appropriate advice, but at the time noting less furiously didn't seem like a bad idea!)
To sum up, I would consider Satipanya to be the most suitable place for a pragmatic Dharma practitioner to go on retreat that I've yet been to, though any geeking out in interview regarding the nanas won't be encouraged. I feel that practitioners attempting to practice in a focused and diligent 'waking to reclining' way will find their efforts supported, while those who are not yet able to do so will be encouraged to up their game in a healthy fashion.