Peace Camp

10 Aug 2004

Paul R. Potts

Last week I took Grace’s advice and decided to take a mini-vacation, even in the midst of unemployment. I took Isaac to Peace Camp, a camp organized by the local Zen Buddhist temple. The camping was tent camping, and not terribly rustic (we had access to plumbing, including a shower), but the area was deeply wooded and humid, and we had several heavy rainstorms, so it “felt” more rustic than most of my previous camping experiences. The tent stayed fairly dry inside, but the air was very damp. Think dampness and slugs. Lots of slugs. In your sopping-wet sneakers.

It wasn’t relaxing in the traditional sense; I didn’t spend much time reading, or swimming. Instead, there was a lot to do: formal work practice groups with scheduled jobs, as well as the opportunity to jump in and help at just about any time. Most of the labor centered around meals and meal cleanup: meals were cooked primarily in an outdoor pavilion and served at tarp-sheltered picnic tables, but a kitchen was available across the street for the more challenging cooking jobs, such as making pancakes.

Almost my first act was to spill several gallons of hot water all over the entryway carpet in the Friends’ Center. I was attempting a labor-saving innovation to cart hot water to the dishwashing tables; it didn’t work out. I was rushing: always a recipe for disaster. Things got better after that and was able to jump in and do a lot of useful work: cooking and draining pasta, cooking scrambled eggs, cleaning up the cast-iron pans. I also got campfire duty, and aside from one abject failure when the whole carefully-laid fire was too damp to burn, the fires went well.

Being unemployed tends to make me feel quite useless; it is demoralizing to find no one who wants to put my skills to work. It was gratifying to do basic cooking and cleaning every day, even work as basic as hauling containers of water and sweeping outhouses. I think I also may have sweated off a few pounds. It was really nice to go to bed each night bone-tired.

I thought that it would be a good opportunity for some father-son bonding with Isaac, but he didn’t really feel the need; instead, he immediately joined up with a roving pack of kids, and spent most of the week playing card games and swimming. I’m assuming this is mostly a good sign; he is developing a lot of independence, and didn’t feel the need to cling. Isaac had a grand adventure of his own: he went off on the Famous Overnight, in which a group of campers canoed across the lake and hiked into the woods to spend a night under the stars, camping without tents, building shelters, and building a fire without matches. Naturally, there was a tremendous thunderstorm. He had a great time, although I was sleepless with worry while the lighning flickered and thunder roared. We had a big celebration with drums and recorders to welcome the campers as they returned from across the lake, rather sleep-deprived but exhilarated.

There were lots of songs to sing, meal prayers, a drumming class, a polarity therapy workshop, and dharma talks (seminar and workshop-style talks for the adults on Buddhist practice). I did chanting until my diaphragm was ready to give out. Sitting in a lotus was murder on my spine: I’ve become so accustomed to hunched sitting at a computer that the truly relaxed upright position caused me great pain for the first few sessions. My back finally did straighten up, though, and my posture is now better. I’m going to try to keep it that way by continuing to do sitting meditation. It has been many years since I’ve done it regularly.

I’d like to say that I got a great deal out of the sitting meditation, but I am out of practice; at best, after a few days I could slip into a relaxed sitting state easily, without much pain, and quiet the breathing and the mind a bit, but my practice was not up to snuff, and by the last two days I was also fighting sleepiness. The cushions worked wonders, but when I tried to do it on a carpet square, my legs would invariably go to sleep. When I was ninteen, I could sit in a full lotus comfortably for some time, but that was almost twenty years and seventy pounds ago. I did not manage to fully join the early-morning meditation even once, although I did get to a wonderful and intimate late-night chanting service. On several mornings I was up at the right time, but did not have a clock and was not cued in as to who was meditating where. If I return next year, my goal will be to do a little less work and a lot more practice.

I also know now what I want for my birthday: a zafu (round meditation cushion) filled with buckwheat hulls, along with a matching zabuton (square floor mat). Both should have washable zippered covers. I’m trying to decide between sets from or; the store offers organic cotton covers, although a set is a bit more expensive. Grace wants a set too in order to meditate with me, and Isaac will probably want to join us too… although I think we’d be lucky to get 5 minutes of peaceful, silent sitting out of him. Maybe we’ll get one set to start and see how it goes.

Postscript: when Peace Camp was over, it still wasn’t over! Grace and I took one of the campers, an Indian student named Sujit, back to Toledo. I found myself coming back the next morning to assist further with cleanup. I took all the recyclable materials back and got them dried out (no small task) and into the right bins. I have volunteered to be part of the organizing committee for next year, whether I’m here in town or can only contribute via e-mail.

But now, it is really over. Sujit gave me a book on Buddhism, and I picked up a couple more, including Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau, a book that I used to own, almost twenty years ago, and Old Path White Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh, from which some of the children’s stories came; we’re using these brief episodes from the life of Gautama Buddha as bedtime stories before our evening prayer. I also picked up Thubten Chodron’s Working with Anger; a good deal of the dharma discussion with Barbara Brodsky invited us to consider our experience of, and attachment to, anger. I’ve also been considering just how peace-making, in the context of my wife’s Interfaith Council work, must come from a place of peace. I’ve seen firsthand the results of individuals trying to bring about change not through open compassion and love but through angry criticism; it just doesn’t work.

So, am I more peaceful? I still had a wicked argument with Grace the other day, but I think that I am doing better; my posture is improved, my clarity of mind a bit better. The employment situation is still wearing at me; it is especially disheartening when a potential employer just drops the conversation, despite my followups. But I’ve been away from it just long enough to, I hope, gain a little perspective from the distance. I was also able to engage with many practicing Buddhists in conversations about right livelihood; that helped affirm my faith that a path will appear.

I’ll close by remembering (as best as I can) the meal meditations we used, as we began each meal in noble silence.

This meal comes from the labor of beings past and present With it our body-mind is nourished, our practice sustained. Gratefully we accept this meal.


Buddha was born in the Lumbini Garden He attained enlightenment at Bodghaya He set in motion the wheel of Dharma at Sarnath He entered into Paranirvana at Kushinara

We also used one or another variation on the Buddha’s Golden Chain of Love; this is the variation I prefer (with the phrase “not only my own happiness, but also the happiness of others” instead of “my happiness and misery.”)

I am a link in Lord Buddha’s Golden Chain of Love that stretches around the world. I must keep my link bright and strong. I will try to be kind and gentle to every living thing, and protect all who are weaker than myself. I will try to think pure and beautiful thoughts, to say pure and beautiful words, and to do pure and beautiful deeds, knowing that on what I do now depends not only my own happiness, but also the happiness of others. May every link in the Buddha’s golden chain of love become bright and strong, and may we all attain Perfect Peace.

I’ll spare you the lyrics to some of the silly songs. Maybe next time! My profound thanks to Haju (the leader of the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple), Yosim (who led some of the dharma instruction), Sujit, and all the other wonderful people I met at Peace Camp! May we all attain perfect peace.

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