Mandala on the Mountain
DharmaCamp 2019 will be held July 7th – 13th at Molalla Retreat. Registration is open now for current Dharma School participants and former campers. Registration will be open March 1st for all other applicants.
Mandala on the Mountain is a weeklong summer camp, for kids aged nine through eighteen who are interested in Buddhism. Dharma Rain Zen Center has been running these camps since 1994. Campers come from a variety of traditions and have different levels of familiarity with Buddhism but are willing to try it out. Most of the forms we use derive from Soto Zen, but we include teachings from different schools of Buddhism.
About the Camp
Every day there are traditional camp activities like swimming, crafts, sports, pillow fights and a campfire, as well as Buddhist practices like meditation, a chanting service, silent breakfast and mindful work practice. We meet in small groups to discuss mandalas and the five Buddha families, learning about aspects of our selves and interdependence.
The schedule finds room for special activities like acting, juggling, wilderness survival, kite-making and taiko drumming, not to mention water balloon fights, capture the flag and lots of time to hang out and get to know other kids who are interested in spiritual practice.
Besides the Dharma of the mandala, and a few of the basics of retreat life, we learn values of caring for things and people, not wasting, accepting what is offered, and generally maintaining a safe and supportive social environment.
We try to tailor the rigors of camp to the age and experience of our kids and give them challenges that encourage them to discover their inner resources. Keeping the teaching appropriate for young people makes a big difference in how well it is received and how much is truly usable by the student.
What makes it Buddhist?
Practice elements include meditation, chanting, the disciplines of keeping a period of silence, of taking only what you need, of working in community, and of eating everything on your plate. This is a very challenging lifestyle for our campers and they enjoy bragging about having survived the difficulty of the practices.
There are two ‘class’ times a day. The first is a discussion time, broken up into age groups, ie., all the high school students are together, the middle school students are together, and the juniors are together. This is a time to talk about life in a peer group, and relate it to the teaching theme of camp, which is mandalas and the five buddha families. In discussion we use the mandala concept to express the interdependence of all beings, and at the same time, wholeness inside us as a reflection of the network of interdependence. This teaching bridges the gap between the physical and the spiritual in a beautiful way that is very open to interpretation, so the kids can hear a layer of meaning that fits their own level of comfort and experience. We try to make this personal and relevant, using lots of examples from daily life; if my mind is represented by a mandala, the picture is not complete until it has greed, hate, and delusion as well charity, friendliness, and sympathy. If our camp is represented by a mandala, our picture must represent everyone.
The second ‘class’ time in the day is when we break up into buddha families. Each camper is assigned a color (representing one of the five buddha families) for the week, and meets with other campers and counselors of that color over the course of the week. We try to get a range of ages and genders in each group; for example, the Blue family group might have one counselor, one assistant, two high schoolers, two middle schoolers and a junior, and this group would meet together every day. This time is more structured, although sometimes we are doing activities, rather than sitting and talking. The emphasis here is on getting all the kids to get to know each other, and learning about one particular pattern of manifesting wisdom and delusion in life. For example, the Blue family learns about anger. Over the course of the week they might explore how to transform the frightened and aggressive energy of anger into the ability to see a situation clearly – rather than through a lens distorted by ego. At the end of the week each buddha family puts on their own skit to express what they’ve learned.
Besides the Dharma of the mandala and buddha families, and a few of the basics of retreat life, we are trying to instill in them some values of caring for things and people, not wasting, and politely accepting what is offered (gratitude encouraged but not demanded). Because many of the kids have been in Dharma School with us and the staff are Zen students, we already have a set of values in place that are expressed more through actions and modes of being. We rarely have to make a rule about acceptable speech to keep the kids from engaging in the trash talk that happens in many schools. We do strive to keep the atmosphere friendly, safe and supportive, but this tends to happen implicitly by modeling and creating a container rather than by setting up lots of boundaries.
What makes it Summer Camp?
Well, actually, just getting that many kids in one place sort of creates its own momentum, and if it is the middle of July at some rural location, in English we call that momentum “summer camp.” That being said, all the basics of any summer camp are part of Mandala on the Mountain.
We get our exercise playing ultimate frisbee, swimming, capture the flag, an ever-escalating water fight, and playing in “The Pit.” We build community during the day with Special Activities like taiko drumming, building a tower, juggling, shaping and pit firing clay rattles, and harvesting plants to dye t-shirts, and during campfire with skits, songs, and much laughter. We form friendships over origami and beading, going on walks through the woods, hanging out with new people, and having long conversations under the stars after campfire. There is plenty of free time during the day for campers to make camp into what they need it to be; taking naps, bouncing off walls, having more personal conversations, writing a letter or in a journal, putting the ‘final touches’ on an art project, or finding some space by themselves.
We learn a lot about each other in the course of a week. The bonds that form in this time are felt year after year for those coming from farther away just for camp, and, for Portland-area kids involved in Dharma School, carry into the school year. Camp becomes quite a close community in just seven days and goodbyes are difficult. We also learn something about who we really are, and often, by the end of the week the counselors can see changes in how the kids are taking care of themselves and others.
All the staff involved with Mandala on the Mountain are volunteers recruited from members of either Dharma Rain Zen Center or Great Vow Zen Monastery. All come with the recommendation of the teachers at the two Zen Centers. New staff members act in assistant roles for a year or two to become familiar with the system and culture of this camp. Some staff are counselors and some function in supportive roles — cooking, music, administrative…
One of the ways we can hold the structure of the camp without being overbearing is by having a good camper to staff ratio — we typically have about 2.5 kids per staff member. This allows us to rotate a bit, keeping those in direct contact with kids fresh and attentive, and permits kids a large degree of freedom while staying under somebody’s supervision.
Primarily we draw from kids whose parents or families participate in a Buddhist sangha of some sort in the northern Oregon and southern Washington area. Many are fairly new to Buddhism, while others have been raised Buddhist their entire lives. We have had a few campers with no prior experience with Buddhist practice, but this is not usually recommended.
We have had campers from Minnesota, Montana, Missouri, Louisiana, Florida and California. The number of campers has grown steadily over the years. 2015 was our biggest year; with 59 kids. In 2016, we capped registration at 55 children. Most years, the age range is from 9 to 18 years old, 20-25% of campers are ethnic minorities, and we have a fairly even mix of male and female campers. Many had spent time away from home before, but not all.
One group that does not attend is parents. Mandala on the Mountain is not a family camp; it is specifically for the children. Dharma Rain Zen Center has other activities that the whole family is part of, but we find that it is important to enforce this boundary during camp. Mandala on the Mountain is a challenging, intensive situation, and not having parents around helps in building trust and intimacy within the group of peers and counselors. We do invite parents, siblings and extended family on the last day, when the camp performs skits and songs and there is a celebratory luncheon for all.
We started with an overnight at the center one weekend one January with a few of the girls who seemed to be ready for something more than Sunday school. For their overnight, they joined the Center residents for dinner and learned something of the formalities of our “informal” meals. Then after dinner they were part of the clean-up crew and got a lesson on what would happen for morning practice: wake-up bell, silence, silent passing of the oatmeal, chanting, eating everything in your bowl, etc. After the lesson they watched a video and ate popcorn just like at a slumber party. In the morning, they followed the routine with very little prompting and were very proud of themselves when they got through it all.
They were so pleased with themselves that we started to think summer camp might be possible. Our aim was to invent a schedule that included some of the important elements of a retreat and had the effect of making the children stretch, but also would leave them feeling as if they had had fun. Those kids have all graduated from high school now, but the tradition they pioneered has flourished.
Our first Dharma camp was in 1994, with six campers. The first weeklong Dharma Camp was 1997, with fourteen campers. During the academic year, the biweekly Dharma School now has around 80 regular attendees in six different age groups.