|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1991|
'Mixing up the ages in a wholesome atmosphere, free from all the innuendo games we normally play - the children respond to that as well - that's the best part about coming here.' Secretary and co-ordinator Keith Errey was talking about his feelings on this year's Family Dhamma Camp at Amaravati Buddhist Centre in August.
'There's a lot of activity for the children which at first they don't think they'll like, but as soon as they sign up, they love it. Undoubtedly, the aspect of all people having to muck in and help in the spirit of dana is what makes it. You could get these services at Butlins [a commercial holiday camp for families], but with an entirely different result.
'The presence of the Sangha, and the fact that we are within a monastery, is the key. There's a sense of gratitude in being offered a share in the facilities of the monastery: the sala, the library, the space.' Keith, a scientist from Oxford, was a good reminder of dana to everyone during the week, dealing with endless questions each day with easy-going, smiling patience. He and his wife Lynn, who taught a packed early-morning yoga class, brought their two daughters, Olivia and Jessie (who played the title role of Prince Vessantara in the play the children performed.)
This play was a re-working of a much-loved Jataka tale: the story of the Buddha's previous life as Prince Vessantara. The Prince's faith in the practice of dana was so great he gave away his entire kingdom, his beloved wife and children, and his magic white elephant. Eventually they are returned to him. The play formed a natural climax to the week, and all the gifted adults involved in helping, the children, and the audience enjoyed the build-up of excitement and the fun of the performance with its dazzling colours, masks, music and flowing costumes.
This was the sixth annual camp for families who want to explore ways of living, teaching and sharing the Dhamma, in the peaceful setting of Amaravati. Some camped in tents, others were housed indoors. Days were divided into unique Dhamma teachings for the children (each class taken by a different nun or monk), morning and evening chanting and pujas, meditation, art, crafts, lots of different workshops, and - throughout the day and evening, with everyone down to the small children joining in harmoniously - the cleaning and kitchen jobs.
We all thought puja would be boring, but it isn't - the chanting makes you calm and peaceful.
There were camp fires with toasted marshmallows under a full moon. Venerable Shingo, a visiting Zen monk from Japan, ran classes in calligraphy. There were 'tribes' meetings in the afternoon in the huge marquee and, on three unforgettable evenings, Apahn Sucitro's extraordinary accounts of his travels in India, full of insight, modesty and humour. These bedtime stories made an impression on everyone, cropping up in discussion nearly every day.
The theme of this year's camp was the Paramitas, the ten powers of goodness which are cultivated on the path to enlightenment by all living beings. The spirit of the paramitas ran through everything, from the Dhamma explanations after morning puja to recreation and workshops.
'I've enjoyed the Dhamma classes more and more, and feel I need even more of them. So do lots of us older ones,' says Manita, who is a 16-year-old ballet student. 'The monks and nuns told us things about Buddhism we hadn't heard before, and everything we heard seemed to be directed at us personally.'
For Sujata, aged 13 from Manchester, this was her first camp. 'A lot of us used to be really shy talking to the nuns and monks, and now it's not so bad. We saw that many of them were shy of us, too. They seem to really understand what it's like to be our age. We all thought puja would be boring, but it isn't - the chanting makes you calm and peaceful.'
'Usually you think of religion as dead serious and boring,' said 14-year- old Kikhil from Wigan, 'but the Dhamma classes are put across in such an interesting way. It's loads of fun.'
Sister Cintamani worked out a perfect day's walk half-way through the week: several miles of changing terrain, a hot countryside of baking cornfields changing with dark, pungent forests, culminating in a sensational view over Ivinghoe Beacon. Nine members of the Sangha joined us, and added their gift to the day by taking and blessing lunch with us on the hill-side, where an impromptu shrine was assembled by the children, who brought special offerings to lay on it.
Not everyone had a family with them, but Julie-Ann from Manchester - who ran the juggling classes - thought it was good to be in a family context. 'The meaning of the family has become quite different. I liked working the paramita theme into the juggling, and discussing patience, determination and energy with the children. Best of all, I liked getting to know the Sangha better, finding out how the life of the monastery can help a lay person. There were lots of little things in my mind which have come up and been cleared.'
Tony Bruni, who looked after the bookings and finance, brought his daughter Francesca along. 'The best part of the week for me was sitting with the Sangha in the morning at 4.30. I was teaching T'ai Chi three times a day; funnily enough, I didn't get tired. It was a very tight schedule, but if I found I was losing my relaxation, I got out a bit, then came back in later.'
The organisation ran like clock-work. Medhina, co-ordinating the activities and timetable, always had time to help anyone who needed her (I saw her running up a rota on her word processor at 5.30 one morning). Sally cooked delicious, imaginative wholefood meals, three times a day, for over a hundred people; and Beryl was a skillful housekeeper. For Venerable Sobhano and Sister Cintamani, it was the fruition of hours of work, running the camp so very well, yet allowing their monastic lives - concerned at this time of year with the Vassa retreat - to remain as undisturbed as possible.
Today is the first day
of a new life.
Not yet overfilled with personhood.
softer than the breath of sleep.
Two priceless eyes that look for the first time
A pure mirror for our stale seeing
A blessing of light, human
B E I N G
'We had a lot of preparation for this week, and we both did a lot of our own personal preparation,' said Venerable Sobhano. 'The camp isn't considered to be a threat to us, but something to open to. All the monks felt that they have learned a lot, having to teach the children. Also, it happens within the context of our discipline, which develops the strength to contain this kind of energy without our being overwhelmed by it. Take the noise, for instance. Children aren't trained to be still and sensitive, so their parents like to bring them into contact with the Sangha, so they can see how to be composed and still be happy. It is important for young children to feel there is something in their life which is sacred - something to revere - otherwise, the world becomes a drab place.'
There is a subtle distance between the Sangha and ourselves, which over the week is woven together into a fabric. Whenever a lay person 'connects' with a monk or nun in discussion, that sense of separation dissolves. Afterwards - with infinite delicacy - the distance is re-erected, but in a way which makes that encounter even more acute and precious.
One morning, passing a carpentry group who were outside in the sunshine painting some shelves for the camp toilets, I overheard two boys discussing metta. Chetan, aged 11, explained: 'We painted the back of the shelves, and the others (Heather and Anne, 13-year-old twins) asked us, "Who is going to see that?" 'Nine- year-old Edwin chipped in: 'We said, "The wall sees it. Loving-kindness to the wall! That's metta!" '
After breakfast on the last day of the week, when everyone was scurrying to do their dishes, my 12-year-old daughter Georgia stopped me in mid-flight, saying: 'Mum, there's a Dhamma class I want to tell you about.' It was the first time she'd commented directly on anything in the week, so we sat down again, and she told me this:
'Sister Abhassara was telling us about when she became a nun. She had with her this beautiful porcelain statue of the Chinese goddess of compassion*. In her hands was a bottle of sweet dew, which she sprinkles like rain over all beings, out of compassion for their suffering.' Then Georgia related the story of a tragic death which occurred at that vital moment in Sister Abhassara's life. I don't want to go into it here, as it was Sister Abhassara's own story, meant only for her Dhamma class.
*Kwan Yin, from Mahayana Buddhism.
However, Georgia went on to say: 'After the accident, Sister Abhassara was sitting with the Sangha, desperately trying to compose herself and make sense of it all. After a long time, the monks suddenly started to chant a blessing on loving-kindness and compassion. The sound was so piercing and sweet, that it made Sister Abhassara think of the goddess of compassion. She had never heard anything like it.
'And Mum, afterwards she sang it to us, and I just can't describe it, it is so lovely. And then it started to pour with rain; it just teemed down.' We sat there amid the dirty breakfast plates and looked at each other. And nothing more needed to be said.