How Satipanya Buddhist Retreat came about

I have had enough curiosity asking how Satipanya finally came about that I thought I would write the story.

I returned from an eight year stay as a solitary at Kanduboda Meditation Centre in ’98. I wasn’t well and felt I needed to get back home and sort out my body. Exactly what was wrong I’ll never know.

I arranged to stay at London Buddhist Vihara where I knew the Head Monk who has sadly passed away. Ven.Dr.Vajiragnana had allowed me to stay there while I was visiting my mother who was in a nursing home three years before. The arrangement was that I was to pass the Rainy Season (the months over summer) at the Viahara and then decide what to do.

Previously there had been a monk teaching meditation there, but I found on arrival that he had disrobed. I then found myself being asked to lead the Wednesday Meditation Class. I had been teaching groups off and on even as a layman in the early eighties and throughout my monastic life from time to time. Since I had left the teaching profession to become a monk I wasn’t really interested in becoming a teacher. Even so I felt I could not refuse the request and saw it only as temporary. However, by the end of the Rainy Season, I knew I did not want to go back to Sri Lanka. It was clear to me that the inspiration that had driven me into a solitary life was now fulfilled. So I decided to stay in England and see how I could continue as a monastic.

It became very clear to me that the only way I could continue to get the support to live the contemplative life was to teach. It is difficult to find the sort of financial support one needs to live without offering a service to those who wish to give. In a mainly Buddhist country like Sri Lanka, there is a huge infrastructure that allows men and women to spend their time in meditation and contemplation. So it was that I began to take the task of teaching the Dhamma seriously. And with it came a growing enthusiasm which frankly I never had a teacher.
Two years on with a wonderful response to the idea of a city centre, we rented a house in North London. I am especially grateful to Seetha Siriwardene and Ramini Samarasinghe.

The Opening Ceremony that summer of 2000 saw 30 plus people, but there was an unforeseen flaw. Had I been a Londoner I would not have made this mistake. Virtually all came from the west of London and I was way up in the distant north. One or two came, once! That was it. On the first evening class the first Monday in September, one person came, the next door neighbour. He didn’t come again. We had of course advertised locally. ‘So let’s give it time.’ The following Monday, no-one turned up! Matthijs van Leeuwen, a Dutch student at Imperial College, had come to lodge with me and be my ‘kapiya’, attendant. He had set up the website for us and had supported me in my search for a property. I told him that if we did not have a group by the end of September, there wouldn’t be one. And that’s how it was. By Xmas I had decided the venture was not going to work and I told supporters that I would see out the rent agreement till next June.

That winter five of us spent in retreat. Perhaps it was the spiritual energy generated by this that a few people began to come and local group had established itself by spring. However, the real purpose of the venture was to set up a city based meditation centre where people might come to do long retreats, much as you have in the East. So sadly we brought the centre to a close.

I entered one of those periods in life when the future did not seem to offer much. I didn’t want to go back to the East and my city centre no longer existed. What to do? I left it up to the Dhamma. In a most wonderful way, Peter Mennim who had spent the winter on retreat with us, got in touch with Stephen Batchelor and told him about my situation. Stephen is on the Teacher Council of Gaia House. It seemed that at that time they were in need of a resident teacher. He and his wife, Martine came to see me and before I knew it I was meeting Christina Feldman, a founder member, at Gaia House.

Gaia house became my Dhamma Teacher Training College. In helping the personal students I had to deal with both physical and mental ‘issues’. But most importantly I could run long Mahasi Courses. It was a strange place for me to get used to since it was a lay establishment and all my education in Buddhism from the beginning had been monastic. I learnt so much, but I knew that if I wanted to carry on as a bhikkhu I would have to set up something of my own.

So after a year or so, I got in touch Seetha and Ramini and asked them to help me set up a Trust. I also asked Bryan Lester who had helped me ever since my return to England. It was through his work that we became a Charitable Business which makes a lot of legal stuff easier. And most important at the beginning was Anne Ashton, who was in charge of accounts at Gaia. She gave the new project a backbone. We failed to get trust status and had to hire a Chancery Lane lawyer. It was that one letter that did it. The £2,500 was worth it! Well, you have to pay for expertise.

Then began three years of fundraising. I left Gaia in ’05 and spent the next two year teaching here and there, while lodging with Bryan in happy Birmingham. Many thanks indeed to Bryan for offering one of my requisites. I have gone into the homeless life, but monastics still need shelter! (I did enjoy living in the city!) By the end of ‘06 we had the amount we needed to look for a property.

I was still harbouring the thought of a city meditation centre and thought to find a place close to a conurbation. I had lots of contacts in Birmingham and it is so well-placed for the rest of the country. But the prices were way beyond us. I struck out into wildest Shropshire and mid-Wales. I viewed some wonderful properties. By May 07, we had put an offer in for one, but we lost it. That was it for the summer. And frankly I needed break from trawling the websites!

Now on the very first day of my search that March I had viewed a property, but found it too small and the atmosphere was somehow wrong. Yet throughout the summer the prospectus for that property came coming into view! I had consciously dismissed it, yet it came coming back. Very strange! I phoned the owner in late August when I started to search again. The very first day of my new search I saw this same very place and knew immediately this was it.

It took seven months to get the ‘change of use’ into a Spiritual Training Centre through the Planning Department and sort out all the legal stuff for which so much gratitude is owed to Ernie Gunesekera who had joined the Trust a little time back.

Finally, we signed contracts at the end March and moved in on 2nd April, full moon day.

It had taken five years!

And then the work began