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How "special" is the annual retreat at Panditarama (Myanmar)?

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Every year, a 60-day retreat (Dec - Jan) is conducted at the Panditarama Forest Center in Myanmar (Burma): https://www.saddhamma.org/html/retreat.shtml

From the website:
Every year the Panditarama Forest Center conducts a Special Sixty-Day Retreat hosting over a hundred yogis from around the world in silent, intensive, meditation practice.This is a unique opportunity to learn from senior monks who have been trained by Sayadaw U Pandita. There are daily one hour Dhamma talks at the forest center throughout the entire retreat. These provide meditators with precise practical and theoretical instruction vital for intensive Satipatthana Vipassana meditation practice. Throughout the meditation retreat Sayadaw U Pandita’s chief disciples will guide your practice.

I was wondering if anyone here participated in this yearly retreat before, or is participating this year? Does anyone know if there's a big difference with coming there for retreat at any other time of the year? In terms of seniority of the monks, ability to teach (foreigners), etc... ?

I was going to participate, as I have the possibility to do so now, but reading online so many critical reviews (especially about the lack of real guidance by the teachers), I am having second thoughts.

Hope it's ok to start this separate thread for the topic of the yearly retreat. There are other discussions and reviews here about the center, for reference... if anyone's interested:

RE: How "special" is the annual retreat at Panditarama (Myanmar)?
Answer
10/4/19 6:30 AM as a reply to Laurens.
Hi Laurens,

I did this retreat over Dec17-Jan18 and I spoke with one of the senior nuns there about what it’s like to practice there at other times of the year (and I extended my stay an extra four days into “normal season” so I got a taste) so I’ll share some of that here:

The original reason this was called a special retreat was that Sayadaw U Pandita used to lead it himself. He did this for 17 years. Since he passed away in 2016 his senior monks are continuing it.

On a practical level, the differences are:

• During the normal season there are no live dharma talks (instead you have recorded audios from Sayadaw U Pandita’s talks - they are fantastic in my opinion). 
• The interviews still happen at usual schedule every other day, but they aren’t done by the senior monks. 
• The main dhamma hall where male yogis practice is closed and men practice in a smaller hall instead (which was actually better temperature and quieter). As far as I could tell the female yogis didn’t change hall.
•There are far fewer people. During the few days after the retreat there were maybe 20-40 instead of 170-200 (they had a live count on display in the dining hall so this latter number is accurate).
•The whole special retreat is contextualised and framed as an opportunity to attain stream entry. On the opening talk they say that a meditator who practices properly should attain it within a few weeks of the retreat, and they mention this throughout the retreat. So this context wouldn’t be there during normal season.

The schedule is otherwise identical.

There are approximately 8 Sayadaws during the retreat and you get assigned one at the start.
I had a hard time during interviews. I got better and more precise help from the nun who did interviews after the retreat was over (and she spoke better English).

It’s possible to do retreat there for as long as you like. There was a guy there that a nun told me had been there for 13 months on retreat.

The dhamma talks were mostly on the Abhidhamma; eg explanations of the aggregates as well as interesting things about mental factors, ethics, etc. Some of it seemed to be from Sayadaw U Pandita’s book “In This Very Life”. Also some sutta stories. Personally I found the information fascinating. 
Different Sayadaws gave talks at different parts of the retreat, and the talks weren’t organised into an single coherent thread of teachings, but they hinted that might change in the future.

Are there any specific concerns giving you second thoughts?

Personally I found it to be a good resource, and I met some other people on the retreat who had beneficial experiences . One of the main complaints for me was the noise in the dhamma hall from loud squawking birds and chirping geckos. I’ll be looking to try Pa Auks place in Burma or Sri Lanka next chance I get for a long retreat.

RE: How "special" is the annual retreat at Panditarama (Myanmar)?
Answer
10/4/19 6:47 PM as a reply to Andrew S.
Hi Andrew, thanks for your reply, that was illuminating!

It's fantastic to hear they contextualise this retreat as an opportunity to achieve stream entry, because that is of course what I am looking for. Did they actually describe it that way? I guess you need to read (hear) between the lines, or do they openly talk about the progress of insight?
 
Are there any specific concerns giving you second thoughts?

Well, yes:
  • Mainly it's the concern that the teacher's guidance will be minimal (due to language and cultural barriers). You mentioned it yourself that you had a hard time during the interviews. It's common for Panditarama in Myanmar apparently. I'm not sure what effect that will have on my mental state when spending two months there.
  • Related, given the lack of good guidance probably: some fear and doubt about whether or not I'll be able to do this. I think so, but I feel a bit intimidated now by the length, strict schedule, the foreign setting, the bugs and spiders that I'm imagining everywhere already, ... emoticon I've done retreats before (7, 10, 15 days and weekend retreats), but never outside Europe and never that long. But my excitement for having this opportunity now feels stronger than the fear.
  • Other personal concerns: it's putting some pressure on the relationship I'm in right now, but that's a totally different topic and unrelated to the center.

Practical question: did you still have your own kuti during the retreat, or did you share a room with other meditators? I guess with 170-200 people it gets a bit crowded.

Another question I had: the tapes from Sayadaw U Pandita they play, are they English translations?

RE: How "special" is the annual retreat at Panditarama (Myanmar)?
Answer
10/5/19 12:58 PM as a reply to Laurens.
Hi Laurens, glad it’s helpful!

“I guess you need to read (hear) between the lines, or do they openly talk about the progress of insight?”

They used the word stream entry in the opening talk, paraphrased from memory: “a yogi [on this retreat] who practices respectfully with proper effort should attain stream entry within two or three weeks”. They said it a few times during the course. In at least one dhamma talk they described the fetter model and the qualities of a stream enterer (and the other paths too). 

I don’t remember them mentioning the progress of insight specifically, but I’m not sure.

Personally I think I took the stream entry context a bit too seriously and put some pressures / expectations on myself which might have stifled  my practice a bit, but it certainly contributed to keeping the effort up.

Concern re: mental state & interviews

I came to the retreat with the pain of some difficult life situations, and I know my own anxiety and confusion interfered with the interview aspect. Some people told me they had no issue with the interviews so I don’t think this needs to be too much of a concern, and I wouldn’t discourage someone going based on my interview experience. 

It’s possible to get support even if you don’t feel it from your interviews. Sayadaw U Pandita’s translator Ma Vajira was managing the retreat so people would sometimes ask her for guidance. Shes fantastic. Hopefully there will be people like that around if you don’t click with your interviewer.

They also have pocket guidebooks written by Sayadaw U Pandita in the office that you can also probably find online about how to report on interviews properly. One is called “Paving the Way” and I think the other was “guidance for yogis at Vipassana interviews”. I hadn’t read them  but might be something to look into if you’re concerned.

There were definitely a lot of bugs and spiders. All the more reason to take their advice to not be distracted looking around at nature etc. I made the mistake of staring at some large spiders for “short” minute intervals and with the heightened concentration those images and feelings sank deep into the mind very fast and showed up later as big hindrances.

I had my own kuti, but I have the impression that some others might not have. There was a full-bed mosquito net and very few bugs in the kuti.

There were only 50 Male yogis and we had our own hall so it didn’t feel too crowded actually. If I remember correctly the females had two halls but I don’t know how the accommodation was. It’s a huge compound though. 

The Sayadaw U Pandita talks were translated live in the recording itself, so you hear both him and then his translator taking turns.