Sunday, May 7, 2023

My 5-day Stay at a Buddhist Forest Monastery in Sri Lanka

Buddhist Forest Monastery Sri Lanka

After five months in a popular surf destination in Sri Lanka, I decided to move into a remote Buddhist forest monastery to practice meditation.  I had been dreaming about meditating in a cave for months, but I wasn't sure if the forest-dwelling monks would allow me to stay.

My stay in Arugam Bay

As usual, I had a great time in Arugam Bay, on the East Coast of Sri Lanka. My days would start with meditation, then surfing for two or three hours, and then the rest of the day I would be editing videos almost non-stop.

surfing in Arugam Bay

I was editing a four-video series of an adventure trip I did in India to discover a surf spot in Kolkata.  You can watch the playlist right here.

I loved my daily routine. But by mid-October, the season was coming to an end. Shops and restaurants were closing, people were leaving and I couldn't surf anymore because of a knee injury.

Obviously, this was the perfect moment to change the routine and do something completely different.

So as soon as I finished editing all the videos I had on my to-do list, I packed my bags, called my tuk-tuk driver, and asked him to pick me up. It was time to finally make that dream a reality.

Would I be allowed to stay at the monastery?

The monastery is almost an hour away from Arugam Bay. It is in a very isolated and remote area, right at the edge of the Yala National Park. It is quite a ride to get there.

drive to monastery

I don't know if I was going to be the first foreigner to stay at this place but no one around Arugam Bay seemed to know much about it.

My tuk-tuk driver was a bit worried. He kept asking, “Marco, did you call them? Do they have a room for you? Where will you stay?”

To be honest I had no idea.  

A couple of months earlier, after a surf trip with some friends, we briefly stop by the monastery.  

During that visit, we were very lucky to meet the head monk.  He invited us inside the main hall to give us a talk on happiness.  That was priceless.  Such an unexpected moment.   

After his talk, I asked him if it was possible to stay in the monastery.  He simply said, “We have caves for serious and dedicated practitioners who want to meditate.”  

But now that I wanted to go back, I had no way to contact him in advance, so I didn't know if I would be allowed to stay. Would I be considered a serious and dedicated meditation practitioner?  Who knows.

So I had no other option. I had to go there and hope for the best.

What did he mean by a cave?

The monastery is located on the top of a rocky hill surrounded by a dense forest.  My tuk-tuk driver dropped me at the base of the hill. From there I continued on foot.

hike to monastery

As I was walking up to the monastery, with all my bags, I started to ask myself what type of accommodation I could find there. I had no idea what the monk meant by a cave. 

Would there be a shower? A toilet? Do they have power? What about mosquito nets? 

That was my main concern.  I wouldn't be able to survive one night without mosquito nets.

In short, I didn't know anything about this place at all. I didn't even know if they would offer me food or not.

The monks had to call the abbot

Finally, after a hot fifteen minutes uphill walk, I reached the monastery.  As soon as I saw a couple of monks, I asked right away if I could stay.   

They were all a bit confused by my presence there. The head monk with whom I had talked before was not there, and the monk in charge didn't speak any English at all.

So I had to wait for a while until they reached the abbot by phone.

waiting for a room

Luckily, about fifteen minutes later, they were ready to show me my kuti, my meditation cave. The abbot remembered the conversation we had two months earlier, so he authorized my stay.

My meditation cave was perfect

I was happily surprised when they showed me my kuti.  It was perfect, a real meditation cave, but properly adapted for a stay.  Small, clean, and most important, it had mosquito nets.  And yes, there was also a bathroom outside and even a power outlet.

My meditation cave

I couldn't wait to spend a few hours in my new kuti sitting quietly in meditation.  But first I needed to get some lunch.  I had not eaten anything the whole morning, and it was already midday.

The monks told me to walk all the way back down, to the base of the hill.  I was supposed to find some lunch there.  

I was again happily surprised.  

The food was so good.  One of the best Sri Lankan rice and curries I had ever had.  A bit too spicy though.  

Lunch at the monastery

The monastery's daily schedule

They have only two meals a day.  Breakfast at 6:30 am and lunch at 11:30.  That's why I had a very big lunch.  I knew I would have to wait till the following morning for my next meal.

After lunch, I went back to my kuti for a brief meditation session.  

meditating in my cave

Of course, I got sleepy almost right away.  So I decided to then go for a walk.

Where is everybody?

As I was walking around I asked myself, “Where is everybody?!”

I was a bit intrigued by this monastery. After breakfast and lunch, all the monks would disappear. I had no idea where they would go.  

There are no lectures or any activities in the monastery.  The only program during the day was a daily puja at around 5 pm, in the main and only hall, but there was only one monk leading the ceremony. Nobody else would come.

The main temple

I did enjoy the daily puja though.  I was there every day without fail. It would start with some rituals, offerings to lord Buddha's statue, long prayers, and then we would sit quietly in meditation for at least forty-five minutes I think.

How the days would end

The puja would end around 6:45 pm.  Right after I had to go straight back to my kuti.  And that was pretty much the end of the day.  

The monks told me to not go out at all because it is quite dangerous.  There are leopards, wild bears, wild elephants, snakes, and who knows what else.

So I spent the evening doing some reading and sitting in meditation until I was ready to fall asleep.

I loved sleeping in my cave.  

After turning the lights off I couldn't even see my hands.  It was pitch black.  And the only sounds I could hear were the sounds of the jungle.  Amazing.

One night though, I got a bit scared.  I heard some weird noises.  It felt like a large animal was trying to break into my kuti.  But by the time I got the courage to get up and check it out, it was gone.  Fortunately. 

It was a walking-in-nature retreat

The next morning after breakfast I was planning to do some reading but to my surprise, these two monks showed up at my kuti and invited me to go for a walk.

Buddhist monks

Of course, I said “YES!” right away.

They had been monks for already 10 years. They were so friendly and welcoming. We talked a lot about meditation and Buddhism during our walk.

That's when I heard for the first time the word ”arahant,” a person who has attained enlightenment.  From the way my two monk friends talked about it, I realized that this is the highest ideal in their tradition.  

They told me stories of these arahants, or realized masters, having mystic powers.  It is said that they could fly through the forest.

“Why not?” I thought to myself.

And this is how this retreat, more than a quiet sitting meditation retreat, became a walking-in-nature retreat. The next five days I spent most of the day walking around this beautiful place.

I was delighted to walk in areas that I had never seen before, and even in areas that most visitors wouldn't have access to.

Of course. I would do two or three sitting meditation sessions in the evening and before breakfast. But the rest of the day I was mindful walking almost non-stop.

And what a place to do mindful walking.


Although the monastery is situated at the border of the National Park it feels as if it was right in the center. 

Path towards kuti

The nature surrounding this place is incredible, the landscapes are breathtaking and the animals are abundant.

Monk holding caterpillar

Every day this monk would tell me "Very danger, very danger. Don't go out at night." 

Birthday is not a happy day

On another day another monk invited me for a walk.  He wanted to show me a nearby lake.

As we were walking through the beautiful forest he reminded me that visitors are not allowed to walk in this area.  The only reason I was allowed to be there was because I was with him. 

I felt so fortunate.  The landscape was mesmerizing. 

Monk and lake

Later during our walk, we realized that we were both the same age.  

His birthday was on the 22nd of October.  That was just a few days before, so I said right away “Happy Birthday!” But then I added, “You don't celebrate birthdays, right?”

He said, 

“No no.  We never celebrate.  Any monks don't celebrate birthdays.  Birthday is very sad [laughing].  We try stop birthday, again and again.”

I love his answer. 

The reason why they have given up this material life and become monks is to escape the cycle of death and rebirth, to escape saṁsāra, and to attain nibbana, complete liberation.  In other words, the idea is not to be reborn again

So for a monk, one's birthday is not a day to celebrate, it's not a happy day. Instead, it's a sad day.

Not just a monastery

As we continue to walk deep into the forest we passed by a couple of kutis.  I was shocked to realize how isolated they were.  

Isolated kuti

We were probably 20 minutes away from the main monastery area.  There was nothing around.  They were literally in the middle of nowhere.

monks kuti

I finally started to understand what was really going on here.

This is not just a monastery but a meditation cave retreat which have been used for centuries by Buddhist monks. Actually, it is believed that it was first used more than 2000 years ago.

All the monks who stay in this monastery, about ten monks perhaps, live in isolation in their own remote kutis, spread around the jungle. That's why they are called forest-dwelling monks.  And the monasteries are known as forest monasteries.

Remote kuti

The monks come to the main temple area only twice a day, for meal times, but the rest of the day they spent their time alone doing different forms of meditation, including of course mindful walks in nature.

But their main meditation practice is anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing, following the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Sri Lanka.

The highlight of my stay

After our walk, this same monk asked for my help.   He needed to transfer data from his phone sim to another sim.  So he invited me to come to his kuti the next day. 

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go to his kuti (something very rare I guess) and give him a hand. 

All the technology that he had was a very old and basic Nokia-type of phone.  But with my laptop, I could easily transfer all his mp3 recordings from one sim to another.  

I think this was one of the highlights of my stay. His kuti was very deep into the jungle, and I got the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with him talking about Buddhism and meditation while helping him transfer his files.  

Yes, it took two hours.  It was a lot of data!  He had gigabytes and gigabytes of nothing but dhamma talks, Buddhist lectures.

And his kuti was the most beautiful kuti I had seen. During the year and a half, he had been living there he made so many improvements to it although he knows that he won't stay there permanently.

monks kuti

He even made a beautiful sink with materials that he could easily find around. Not surprisingly, he was an interior designer before becoming a monk.

The sink

He also showed me a small book he had created while working on a previous monastery.  It was a collection of brief stories, to spread the teachings of Buddha, with the most beautiful handmade illustrations.  

He is a real artist. I'm sure if he would publish his little book, it would be a success.   

On our way back to the main monastery area, I asked him if he walks that path during the night.  He said, 

“No, no.  Because daytime we use the jungle, nighttime is animal's time.”

No, I won't become a monk

And so after five days, it was time to leave this paradise. This was probably one of the best things I've done in Sri Lanka since my first visit back in 2014.

Before leaving, the head monk told me that I could stay as long as I want. He even suggested that I could become a monk.

I am fascinated by the monk lifestyle, but I know that's not my path.

As soon as I was back in Arugam Bay I went to a shop where the owner owed me some money. When he refused to pay back the full amount, I lost all the peace and serenity I had gained at the monastery, in a second, and it was just a few rupees.

So yes, I have a lot of self-work to do still and the "real world" is my training ground. But I will definitely do other meditation retreats in the future. It is important for recharging the batteries I think.

Walking with Monks:  My 5-day Buddhist Monastery Stay in Sri Lanka

I also made a vlog version of this story.  The story is shorter, but it also includes things that are not mentioned here.  I think the blog and vlog complement each other.  If you are interested in watching it just tap on the thumbnail below.

Other similar stories

How to reach the monastery

I purposely didn't mention the name of the monastery or its exact location. The monks treasure their isolation and I want to honor that.  

But it is not difficult to find.  You have plenty of information in this blog and in the vlog version.  If you really want to go there you'll have to do the same thing I did.  Consider it an adventure.  

Theruwan Saranai.  May the blessings of the three jewels (the Buddha, dharma, and sangha) be with you.  

I have to thank all those who commented on my YouTube video explaining what Theruwan Saranai means.  Thank you!


  1. What a lovely story. Magical and dreamlike but earthy, too,

  2. As for saying that birthday is a sad day, some monks are actually misguided about Buddha's teachings. Buddha valued human life very much- it is a fortunate thing to be born a human. A human life is the gateway to Nirvaana too - the enlightenment and eternal escape from suffering. It is a sin to take one's life (suicide) in Buddhism so we need to remind even some monks to be positive about humanity.

    1. Hi, I think the monk took 'birthday" as a keyword to comment: That the goal of buddhas teaching is actually to create no further birth-(day).

  3. What a lovely experience this must have been though scary hearing of the wild animals and the loud noise once outside your room

  4. Amazing. Is there a way to contact this monastery?