Dharma Rain Zen Center - Dharma Camp
What makes it Buddhist?
What makes it Summer Camp?
Mandala on the Mountain is a weeklong summer camp, for kids aged nine
through eighteen who are interested in Buddhism. Dharma Rain Zen Center
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
schools of Buddhism. The 2013 camp runs July 14-20, and the registration
fee goes up after May 1.
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.
finds room for workshops like acting, juggling, wilderness survival,
kite-making and taiko drumming, not to mention water balloon fights, capture
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.
This is a challenging lifestyle for our campers and they enjoy bragging
having survived the difficulty of the practices.
We try to tailor the
rigors of camp to the age and experience of our kids and give them
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
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 that frightened
and aggressive energy into seeing a the ability to situation clearly, rather
than through a lens distorted by our own ego. Work period also happens in
buddha family groups, and 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 most 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 August at some rural location,
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,
basketball, 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 eat a steady diet of nothing but oatmeal, boiled cabbage
and tofu to ‘build character.’ We learn about nature doing scavenger
hunts, examining pond scum under microscopes, collecting spiders, picking
blackberries, getting sunburns, and with classes like Wilderness Survival
or Eat Your Prey… 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. Can you guess which sentence is false?
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
5-7 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, and California. 2006 was our
biggest year; with 45 kids (we had the same number in 2010). In 2003 we had
25. 44% were new to Mandala on the Mountain, and 33% had not been to our
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
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
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