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Dan Jones

IT IS VERY HARD TO LEAVE SOMETHING THAT IS MUCH LOVED. The drive home from the Family Camp is always a bit fraught; when my girls were younger it invariably involved floods of tears. Then, after some years, a group of children developed a ritual (one of very many) of hanging around together by the main gate, even running after departing cars, squeezing out the last possible moments of contact with each other. Clothes and possessions would be left behind by the bagful, which often meant delays in leaving, or turning the car round and coming back, or later negotiation with poor beleaguered Retreat Centre Managers or Sangha to try to find lost items. And then, whatever age my girls were, they would sleep on that journey, to calm exhausted young bodies and to smooth the transition from the rather magical realm of the Family Camp back to ‘ordinary’ life.

All of this I feel now, as my children are growing up. As a parent who has come to the Family Events at Amaravati for 18 years, I find leaving this part of my life behind a poignant experience, and I try to reflect on what this love affair has been about. I think at the heart of the Family Camp has been the experience of community, both for parents and children. One of our precious Family Camp songs is We are all one family, and although this is ostensibly about the human race, it feels very much also about the extended family of families who come to spend time together at a Buddhist monastery.

Of course, when I first came I did not really know anyone and neither did my children, but I knew the monastery, and I felt a deep spiritual connection with the practice and great respect for the Sangha. It was natural for me to want to get involved in this unusual-seeming experiment, that had been running for a few years at that point, of bringing together children and family life with Theravadan Buddhist monasticism.

On the surface it can look as though the two really shouldn’t mix very well. Many is the time that I have worried (mostly pointlessly) over the disruption the Family Camp causes the calm of the monastery, only to be told repeatedly (and sometimes I could hear it) that the presence of children has been mostly a joy to the resident community. Although this does, of course, have its limits. The one year we tried to cope with the perennial problem of waiting lists and overbooking by having two week-long Family Camps, it really did seem too much for the Sangha, and the pattern settled into one week and two weekends through the year.

From the layperson’s perspective, I have sometimes felt there could be a reciprocal concern amongst some of the Sangha that they were not sure what they had to offer the Family Camp community because they had, by definition, left family life behind, and were often not used to relating to children. To which my answer as a parent has always been that they offer something incredibly valuable just by their presence and example, and allowing the children to see this and be close to it.

Although Theravadan Buddhism can look as though it’s premised on a particularly sharp dividing line between laypeople and Sangha, one of the beauties of this arrangement has been that the ordained form has a clarity that stands out for children (and for me); if I had to choose one image of the Family Camps that encapsulates the experience for me, it would probably be of a toddler being helped to put a cake in a nun’s bowl, and from this gesture of generosity so much else flows. As the Family Camp community developed over the years, I think it benefitted from including some parents who were ex-Sangha-members, and also from contact with some of the few of the Sangha who were also parents themselves.

There have also, of course, been Sangha members who have devoted themselves hugely and wholeheartedly to the Family Camps, taking on the overall responsibility and overseeing the schedule of activities, pouring immense creativity into pujas and plays and magazines and songs and all manner of games, all in the spirit of fun for children (and parents) and gentle pointing towards the truths of experience of Dhamma. This is not to say that the formal teaching of Dhamma has not also been integral to the Family Camps, but there has always been great debate about how much of this there should be, and how it should be done, and how compulsorily.

On the whole, there has been some relaxing of formality over the years (maybe connected with the broader evolution of Amaravati?); when I first went to the Family Camps the structure was more like an adult retreat with some concessions for children (like supper!), and with formal taught Dhamma Classes that were compulsory. This was very impressive but hard work, and maybe needed to lighten up. On the other hand, can the structure lighten up too far to become more like a holiday camp in a nice field in Hertfordshire with children coming away having had a good time, but not actually knowing much about Buddhism? Maybe much more important has been the ongoing debate about how to give children some taste of meditation. So, for example, when babies and toddlers inevitably start making a racket in Pujas, this makes it harder for older children to have the experience of silent meditation. Out of these threads grew the Young Persons’ Retreat.

My own two children have both been to the Camps since they were three, and are now seventeen and twenty. They have certainly learned a bit about Buddhism, and seem to feel some connection with the containment of a life lived within the holding of Precepts (whether monastic or lay), and also with the point of meditation. But I think their most obvious connection is with the friends they have made on the Camps, and this is what the monastery has meant to them more than anything else: the place where very special friendships were forged in the fun and freedom of the physical space of Amaravati – the excitement of dormitory life, the giant playground of the field. And all the time, in the background, was the sense (most of the time) of happy parents and benign other adults pleased to be with each other, and the special bald ones treated with special respect and embodying the atmosphere of peace and kindness.

The community that my children and their friends have made has extended beyond the Family Camps, and seems likely to continue. Geographically spread across the country, they keep in touch by computer and meet up when they can, and this is also true for me and my family-camp-parents-community. Like all friendship groups forged in shared good experience, especially over a number of years, there is a danger of this becoming a bit ‘cliquey,’ with the painful issues of in-groups and out-groups. Another thread to the discussions about the evolving Family Camps has always been around how to keep the community sufficiently open to newcomers and new ideas, while keeping enough continuity to build on the experience of how to make the most of families coming together in this unique environment.

The Camps have, of course, had their fair share of painful arguments and differences, sometimes based on high expectations based on previous good experiences. I learned some years ago to remind myself in the excitement of the days before a Camp, that I would also most likely feel hurt and upset at some point during the week, and in this respect it felt like going on retreat: that I just had to take it as I found it as it unfolded, however much I wanted it to be as good as last time. But, in a similar way, I could also leave feeling as though I had been on a retreat, even if I had had very little time for formal sitting meditation (which would often be the case, depending on the ages of my girls and my role in the running of things).

These experiences can help to build up a reservoir of emotional strength and resilience for hard times, but especially so in the formative years of childhood. I am sure that my children have internalized a sense of Amaravati as a good place that gives them a foundation in their minds, an internal refuge that connects them with the only real Refuges worth having.

I am not concerned whether this is expressed in Buddhist terms for them in adult life, although I was very touched by the fact that one of my daughters, on recently hitting a rough patch, decided that she wanted to spend some time at the monastery on her own.

And I am so enormously grateful to everyone involved that my children (and I) have had this experience. Thank you.

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