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Samanera Amaranatho describes his approach to running Amaravati Family Events

IMAGINE YOU'VE BEEN WORKING ALL DAY AT YOUR JOB, you pick up your children from school and drive along a busy motorway to Amaravati on a Friday afternoon. The Retreat Centre shrine room is full of mats on the floor, the Buddha-rupa glistening, words of encouragement on the walls, friends you can’t wait to meet again and new friends to make. The heaviness of the day starts to wear off as some 60–100 people of all ages come together for up to nine days to share in community life. You’ll be doing mostly the same things you do at home, wash, clean and cook, with added fun bits of singing, meditating, the odd video, a campfire and stories of the past. Imagine then lying down with all these people, old and young, and allowing the ground to support you while letting all those images float up and out, with Mother Earth to hold and witness you. So starts the Family Camp ....

Samanera Amaranatho and friends
Samanera Amaranatho and friends
Bonfire

Family Camps began at Amaravati soon after the monastery opened 25 years ago. As it’s grown, the path the Camp has taken has followed that of the community under the influence of Ajahn Sumedho’s teaching. I took over running the Camp after the very successful approach of Ajahn Kusalo, who many of the older teenagers still hold dear in their hearts. Following on from somebody can be difficult, and the Camp over the eight years I have run it has gone though some difficult times, which I think has helped us all grow in the Dhamma.

In addition to the main summer camp of nine days, we run various family events throughout the year: the Rainbows Weekend, which is used to create an online magazine; a weekend in June which provides an opportunity for new people to experience a family event; a Young Persons’ Retreat for 13–19 year-olds; and a Creative Weekend for those too old for the Young Persons’ Retreat, both interested parents and older young people interested in moving towards doing a silent retreat. We also run a long weekend in Ireland for Irish Buddhist families at the Sunyata Centre.

We usually begin each event with a welcoming puja and a way of introducing what’s going to happen over the weekend, from Precepts to how heating systems work, from the Child Protection Policy to bedtimes (ho ho). We introduce the monastic and lay helpers and the theme. From the beginning I felt it was important to have a nun present so that it mirrors family dynamics for the young people, providing a container that includes both male and female energy. After many years, Sister Cittapala and I have developed a style of working together where we can support each other and the Camp.

I have been deeply influenced by Ajahn Sumedho’s teaching of intuitive awareness, underpinned by psychotherapeutic models; and the more I run the Camp the deeper my understanding of how the two work together becomes. What we try to do in the Camp is share an exploration of awareness, from many different angles, using the Precepts as an agreement on how we’re going to act together. We also include the ‘shadow’: the opposite or unsaid about something. With any theme we try to include its shadow; for example, when we explored the theme Tradition, which is about structure, we also acknowledged the energy of chaos. Without doing this, the theme of tradition could have been lost and chaos taken over.

Tradition

We try also to facilitate an experience of awe or wonderment; to explore what the world is, or in the language of the Dhamma, what conditioned phenomena are. How do things arise and disappear? Each year Sister Cittapala and I select a theme for the family events, one which responds to the group. This year we will explore The Four Noble Truths. We determine the theme soon after the summer Camp and then use it ourselves for reflection during our personal retreats and the three-month monastic Winter Retreat. On the Family Camp website we provide an introduction to the theme, the suttas and commentaries from Buddhist teachers and anything else that might be useful, leaving it to the families to explore this before the Camp. I believe in not trying to teach Buddhism in an academic way, as there are many wonderful books on this; though at times we invite senior members of the community to give a reflection on the basics of Buddhism. Our approach is more a reflective one. Although we may not explicitly describe the scriptural background of a theme, we use that to inform discussions and activities. Sister Cittapala has been very good at developing contemplative guided meditations, and we use these during Puja.

In the stressed, over-stimulated society they live in, what many kids and young people lack is the opportunity just to freely play and find out who they are without outside pressures. Very few activities are compulsory, including Puja; this is a parental decision. So sometimes pujas look a bit of a mess: a game here, somebody playing their Game Boy, a baby walking all around, a quiet bit of meditation, songs and so on. What is important to us is that the environment supports an open inquiry into what is. Developing this attitude of noticing things as they are allows one to be aware with whatever is happening, and this is helpful in family life (or in anybody’s life).

Games

On the Family Camp, given the number, the age ranges and the length (a hundred people, nine days), we do have a structure, timetable and activities. Last year we even had enough German speakers to do the morning chanting in German. We also have had families from Germany, Poland, the US and teachers from the Thawsi school in Thailand.

Allowing young people the opportunity to explore gives them the space to learn about freedom and responsibility. If I stay up all night, I might miss breakfast. It also gives them perhaps the first opportunity in their lives to recognize that they are already peaceful. The Retreat Centre and monastery has such a good ambience that people attune to it. At the end of one Young Persons’ Retreat we asked what some of the young people who had chosen not to attend anything had done with their time. One replied she had done her homework, since it was easier for her to do it at Amaravati because the place is so peaceful. To the critical mind, this is wrong: she has come to a Young Persons’ Retreat and she should learn; whereas from my point view what she said was good enough.

Why? Because she recognized peace.

It’s also useful to have some knowledge of the developmental stages of children and young people, so that you can understand their response to a situation according to where they are. Nine year old boys generally need rough and tumble and that’s about all you are going to get. You can think, ‘They’re not learning anything, it’s a bit of a waste of time.’ A few years ago at the Young Persons’ Retreat we had a large group of teenagers from the Family Camp and an equally large group from various schools and friends of friends. And we thought, if they’re not attending anything they must know it. So we got the Family Camp young people to lead a puja and question and answer session – and it was amazing what they had picked up, about how to use the Precepts and live in a Western society and be a young Buddhist.

I don’t want to paint a picture of young people all sitting in a line meditating, focusing on their breath, getting up in the morning to meditate when they’re at home, even if this would be nice. What some can do is contemplate cause and effect, and try to be nice to one another and welcoming. We only see these young people for a maximum of about 20 days a year, and yet the impact of being in a compassionate space helps them. The young people are not frightened of the monastic helpers, they see the monastery as a place of refuge and peace, fun, joy and truthfulness, and this is hard to find these days.

Rainbows 2002

The Young Persons’ Retreat provides an opportunity to explore awareness and meditation in a deeper way. This year we had 42 young people (maybe 25 of whom had never before been to a monastery or practised meditation), eight helpers, a nurse, and much help from parents – some whose teens where too old to be there, and came anyway – in the kitchen. We just about got everybody into the Retreat Centre.

So we explore with the young people how to reflect on their thinking, using meditation and activities. This then gives them an opportunity to see they don’t have to just believe their thinking process, but can discover a deeper perspective.

  Samanera Amaranatho
Samanera Amaranatho
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