Enlightenment for kids Three-day Family Camp retreat teaches the basic tenets of Buddhism

Bev Gwyn, far left, instructs the oldest campers - the Wisdom Warriors - at Vajrapani Institute's summer camp on the technique of significance of making a travel altar in Boulder Creek, California. The camp allows members the opportunity to gain a better understanding of Tibetan Buddhist teachings. (Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel/MCT)

BOULDER CREEK, Calif. — Inside the large meditation room, 10 children are circled around their teacher, alternatively squirming and listening as she explains the significance of the offerings on the altar behind her.

The water bowls, Bev Gwyn says, represent generosity; the flowers, happiness; the string of colored lights and small candles, illumination.

And she talks about the abundance of gifts and “stuff” the children already have, and how seeing their friends wearing something new or getting a new toy often prompts feelings of envy.

People love to get things, she concedes, but “that doesn’t really help our lives much.”

“That just makes us crave and want and feel greedy and jealous and upset if we don’t get what we want,” she adds.

“That’s not helpful for our minds. So at the altar, we practice giving and being generous.”

At Family Camp, a three-day retreat for adults and children ages 5-12, groups separated by age spend their days engaged in activities to gain a better understanding of Tibetan Buddhist teachings and their nights sleeping in dormitory-like buildings or camping in the forest.

Outside, a group of children is seated at picnic tables, quietly working on various crafts: coloring in drawings of Buddha.

The children use watercolors and glitter to animate small plaster statues and use string to connect scraps of paper to plastic cups.

The cups are used to catch and release bugs rather than killing them.

Yet another group, this one made up of adults, slowly circles around a larger-than-life statue of Buddha, with elephants, peacocks and horses carved into its base, water bowls balanced at each of the four corners.

The Enlightenment Stupa was built to celebrate the life of Tibetan monk Lama Yeshe, whose followers founded the 75-acre Vajrapani Institute in 1975, in a tucked-away corner of Boulder Creek off Kings Creek Road.

Camp participants also take nature walks and perform rituals such as fire pujas, where they set afire sesame seeds that represent undesirable aspects of their personalities.

Vajrapani’s operated the family camps for 19 years, with each having its own theme. This year’s is “Compassion in Action,” and the roughly 50 children and adults are learning how to be compassionate with themselves and others.

Some families already practice Buddhism, a way of life that emphasizes peace, kindness and helping others. Others just want to learn how to be better parents and have more “mindfulness in their parenting,” said Giselle Tsering, who’s been operating the camp since the late 1990s.

Family Camp, and the presence of children in general, is an aberration at Vajrapani, a “sister center” to the better-known Land of Medicine Buddha in Soquel, Calif. Both are operated by the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, said Fabienne Pradelle, who’s served as director of Vajrapani since 2004.

The institute provides a place for weekend workshops and retreats, and even short, personal withdrawals from the busyness of everyday life, said Sharon Gross, one of the institute’s initial founders.

Clara Chiu, a 13-year-old Palo Alto resident, has been coming to the camp since she was 5 and is now a “teen helper,” assisting other children with their projects.

In the hectic pace of everyday life, she says, it’s hard to remember to slow down, meditate and practice other principles of Buddhism.

Attending the camp is always something she looks forward to, she says, adding, “It’s nice to be able to refresh yourself.”

For information, go to www.vajrapani.org.