Homestead - South Dade

Children explore Buddhism and Thai culture in the Redland

Thirteen students walk single file, their heads bent down, staring at their bare feet as they move silently around a bright red carpet.

Leading them is a monk, a spare man dressed in an orange robe, his head shaved, his voice quietly chanting.

This is an example of a walking meditation that occurs every morning at a youth summer camp run by the Wat Buddharangsi.

The Wat is South Miami-Dade's sole Buddhist temple, nestled among Redland mango and lychee groves.

From June to August, children -- many from neighboring homes and farms -- come to learn about Thai language and culture and Theravada Buddhism. It is the oldest, most traditional form of the worldwide faith, whose main tenets focus on people living a series of lives, each influenced by their previous incarnations.

The temple's free summer camp has flown under the radar for a decade, but has been a boon to Thais and non-Thais alike. Children learn the ways of another land. And they learn from teachers who have first-hand knowledge of Thailand -- and the ancient Theravada faith.

Phramaha Surachett Boonnom, the abbot of Wat Buddharangsi, came from Thailand in the 1980s to minister to the Thai community, which bought a five-acre property at 15200 SW 240th St. in 1986.

A decade later, members broke ground on a beautiful temple after they won support from county commissioners.

Inside the temple is the Phra Buddha Thammachinnaraj, a 23-foot, five-ton gold-leafed image of Buddha, which came from Thailand. It's a godly image, which the children have come to respect.

"My father said this was the place with the largest Buddha. He wanted to take us here," said Xiao Parks, of Redland. The 9-year-old waited for her turn to jump between two bamboo poles during a rhythmic Thai dance called rumlaokratobmai.

"It's a lot of fun and not a lot of work," she said.

The abbot said it was his idea to start the summer camp a decade ago as a way of instilling Buddhist principles, Thai culture and language to Thai children.

Even though there are no Thai youth participating this year, Phramaha Surachett Boonnom said he is proud of those who have joined the camp this summer. The students range in age from 8 to 15 years old.

"The children are our future," the abbot said. "We need children to be around here, to learn about Buddhism and life."

He invited Thanyarad Chanplang and Jintana Suksumran, two women professors who came from Bangkok, Thailand, to instruct the children.

"Our aim is to share, to invite everyone to the temple and let them know about Thai culture," said Chanplang.

An assistant professor at Chandrakasem Rajabhat University, she is teaching at the Wat for the first time thanks to a partnership between the temple and the university.

A typical day at summer camp lasts from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Blocks of time are set aside for prayer, chanting, exercise, lunch, classroom instruction and games.

The teachers are gentle but strict. They tap students on the shoulder to sit up properly or to bow during chanting and prayers. And they remind students to pay attention to the monks when they are teaching.

The discipline is something that the children become accustomed to over time, said Khanya Moolsiri, secretary of the temple. The students have become quieter and better mannered, she noted.

"One of the reasons parents like the camp is because it teaches Thai manners, how to show respect to adults, parents and teachers," Moolsiri said.

But the instructors balance the rituals that demand proper form and deference with games and dance that provide an outlet for free expression.

During a recent visit to the classroom, Suksumran led the students in a game akin to ‘‘Simon Says." She pointed to her nose and eyes and fingers to teach the students Thai words for the different parts of the body.

Chanplang led the children in another game, similar to "Duck Duck Goose," where the children sat in a circle as one of their peers walked around a circle and dropped a rag behind one of the kids, which led to a short chase.

The summer camp class will graduate next Sunday9, a day that coincides with Queen Sirikit's birthday and Thai Mother's Day. The temple will host a celebration and a meditation that day starting at 9 a.m. The public is invited to attend.

The children will offer white jasmine flowers to their own mothers as a sign of respect and gratitude, said Chanplang.