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Ajahn Anandabodhi reflects on her own experience with the Family Camp in a Dhamma talk she gave to the monastic community at Amaravati at the end of last year’s Camp

TODAY THE FAMILY CAMP ENDED. A week ago, a mushrooming of tents appeared. I had been on solitary retreat, and just as it ended the Family Camp started. As I was moving from the yurt in the meadow where I spent my retreat to my room, along the way there was an eruption of colour and children, people, bonfires, music and singing. It was a lovely way to reemerge from my time alone.

This past week I’ve been receiving the meal dana from the Family Camp and having my breakfasts there. And I’ve been noticing the ‘teaching’ that the Family Camp has given me over the years. This year is the most involved I’ve been in it so far; in previous years I would look in a bit, maybe come to the bonfire once or twice, and not get too involved. That was because being in the presence of so many families as someone who’s renounced family life brings up a lot of different feelings.

Over the years I would hear critical voices in my mind. The Family Camp when I first came was quite organized, there were classes and you’d come to this and come to that. Gradually people realized that this is their holiday: the kids have that all the time in school, they have to come to class, they have to be accountable – and just maybe they want more freedom during their holidays. So there are still activities going on in the Camp these days, but it’s become more and more creative. People’s individual interests are what motivate them rather than being told now it’s time to learn this or time to do that. I’d notice how my mind would judge that: ‘There really should be more structure and they shouldn’t be allowed to just do what they want …’ It was like the voice of my conditioning towards myself that says you should do this and you shouldn’t do that. And I noticed that this year that voice did not arise once. How nice it is to be able to listen to the voices of conditioning without acting on them, enough times for them to eventually die away. Then there’s a sense of freedom to enjoy things as they are.

So I noticed this year with the Family Camp how there’s been a kind of healing in my own heart. There have been times I wouldn’t go to the Camp because I’d see all the little children, and the part of me that will never be a mother couldn’t quite cope with that. It was too strong, the sense of ‘This is what I’ve renounced.’ But I appreciate the fact that I can’t hide away in the monastery and never be confronted with the things I’ve chosen to give up. For a little time each year it all appears, and I can really look at: what is it that I’ve given up, what does it mean, what does it feel like, and do I really want to? This year there’s a feeling of being very happy to have done what I’ve done, happy in the life that I’ve chosen.

And I feel great mudita (joy in the good fortune of others) for the families who come here. I’ve known some of the young adults on the Camp since they were babies or little toddlers. They’ve had the good fortune to be born into Buddhist families in a country which is not Buddhist, so they’ve had contact with the Sangha and Buddhist teachings over the years, and many of them now come to the Young Persons’ Retreats and practise meditation. They are young people: creative, they wear their funky clothes and do the things teenagers do, but they also have a deep respect for the sacred and for the Sangha. Some of them have been on pilgrimage in India together and to other countries. Two of them had just been back in Britain for 11 days when the Family Camp started, and they spoke about how difficult it is to return to a society where the sense of the sacred is not present, and what a relief it is to come to Amaravati where people are living within the context of Dhamma; that how generally in society people are living within the context of consumerism and image and personality. So it’s heartening to see the organic process of the Family Camp over the years, which at times can look like it’s not really working. Something’s touching these people on a deep level, becoming part of their lives, and as they grow they take that into the world and their relationships with the people they meet.

In the experience of the Family Camp there’s the coming together of families and new members being born, but another aspect of the Camp is a reflection on death. On the last evening of the Camp, everyone there along with some of the Sangha go to the Buddha Grove together and circumambulate the little stupa there and offer incense. It’s become a time to reflect on death. This has been so since early on, when during the Camp one of the children died. It was such a shock for this baby, so full of life, to suddenly die. The infant was brought back to the monastery and his body laid out. The parents all got together and tried to work out how they were going to tell the children about this terrible thing that had happened. And while they were talking about it (‘How can we break it to them? What can we do?’) the children themselves just went and had a look at the little body. They were open to the fact of death, they weren’t traumatized or terrified by it. Because it is part of nature; they hadn’t yet learned that this is something to be feared. Society teaches us that. So the children just took it in, drawing pictures and writing messages to the baby who had died.

There are a number of people in the Family Camp who’ve had a suicide in the family, or a parent or child who has died. And last year, the day before the Camp ended, Alan died. Alan was one of our long-term lay residents and had many times been involved in the Camp, doing juggling and fire-breathing and Mr Clown acts, helping to entertain the children. He suffered from depression and last year didn’t get involved at all. The day before he died some of the parents had learned a song about how we’re all a river flowing back to the sea, and they stood outside his window and sung this song to him, bringing him a plate of cooked breakfast. The next day he took his life; he chose to leave. That evening the children drew pictures and wrote messages to Alan, and when we did the circumambulation in the Buddha Grove they brought these to the stupa, offering incense and also remembering others they’d known who had died.

Each year at the ending of the Family Camp it’s a time for recollecting death, and those who’ve died and moved on. Even though there’s almost never a quiet moment during the whole week of the Family Camp, even in the middle of meditations with just the parents (a child will come in who really really has to speak to Mum at this moment), at the time of the circumambulation everyone sits quietly, often for a long time, and takes in the fact of death and separation and loss. People sit together, the teenagers supporting each other, the friends of someone whose parent has died. People take care of each other, quietly.

I really appreciate this yearly visit of the families. I feel it keeps me in touch with people’s lives and from being too removed as a samana. We can have high ideals about how a Buddhist practitioner should be, how a samana should be, how someone who’s been practising for however many years should be. This can get in the way of being with the way things really are. I remember a woman on a retreat I was teaching who told me she didn’t know what to do because she kept grieving for her late mother and her husband was telling her she wasn’t practising correctly, she shouldn’t be still grieving, she should be equanimous. She was trying hard to be equanimous from an idea of how one should be as a Buddhist practitioner. I tried to point out that as long as we’re attached, as long as someone is dear to us, then we will naturally feel grief when we’re parted from them. The Buddha clearly points this out: where there is one who is dear to us there will be sorrow and suffering because we have to be parted from them. Knowing this intellectually is limited; it’s something we have to know deeply in the heart. It seems to me that the way we learn this is through life and death, through our direct experience of attachment, loving, separation and loss, and through knowing the pain of separation and loss directly. Then, not by bypassing it or trying to convince ourselves that we shouldn’t feel it, but by deeply experiencing that pain, this is how we can learn to let go.

The brahmaviharas, the four ‘divine abidings’, are aspects of love, of true love. Metta, being a sense of unconditional acceptance, applies to oneself as well as others. So as we experience our limitations and the reality which doesn’t live up to our ideals, then metta is very important, a sense of kindness and acceptance with awareness. Karuna, compassion, is an obvious aspect of love. When we’re not trying to defend ourselves, compassion is naturally present. Then mudita, joy for others’ well-being – you see a lot of mudita on the Family Camp: sharing an experience together or appreciating someone else’s drawings – and upekkha, equanimity, which is the highest form of love, at least this is how I understand it. It’s the love that doesn’t ask anything, but that accepts all things as they are.

In the monastic life we have to find a balance. If we have too much contact with family or with worldly conditions we can lose track of why we’ve come here and what we’re doing. But also if we protect ourselves too much we can lose connection with loving-kindness, compassion and mudita, and we don’t have the opportunity to develop equanimity in the particular areas awakened by that kind of contact with life. For myself, when entering the monastery there was a strong wish to get away from the life of suffering I had experienced before – and I could see the inherent suffering in looking for lasting happiness in the world. It was not that my life situations were so difficult but there was an inner disquiet that wouldn’t leave me. I experienced a strong vibhava tanha, wanting to get away from, not wanting to be associated with, not wanting to be reborn.

As samanas, even though we leave our family, go forth from home to homelessness, from family life to living as mendicants, there is still the kamma we made with our families. So I feel fortunate to have had the guidance and opportunity to unravel some of the complicated knots. The holding and the guidance and support given in the Sangha enable that work to be done, if we choose to look in that direction. It gives us a chance to look deeply, let go of our attachments and move on, and not to sidestep or override them with wonderful ideals. I’d like to express my gratitude to the Sangha, and to the families who have been coming for so many years, and keep coming, and to my family also. I wish that each of us delves deeply and pulls out those knots and disentangles them.

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