THE BLOG
07/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Dalai Lama: Ultimate Camp Counselor

Every August from second grade to freshman year of high school, Mom and Dad packed my cedar trunk into the Plymouth Voyager and drove me northeast across the Virginia state line to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. A summer time ritual as sure as hikes and calamine lotion, lightening bugs and mayonnaise jars, the last part of my summers were always spent at Camp Tockwogh learning how to sail, make friends, and find independence. (I also learned how to do a mean French-braid, but that's proven less useful, especially since I don't play adult-league softball. I'm just saying.)

Last week I wrote about the spirituality summer affords more than winter, spring and fall, but this week I was inspired to write about this season's most sacred gift: The Summer Camp.

Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, focus on self-preservation, healing, and discovery. Summer camps seem to adhere to the same principles, only they disguise them, respectively, with pseudonyms like "all-camp dance," "homesickness," and "challenge course." Maybe I'm giving too much credit to the traditional American sleep-away camp, but I'm pretty sure these ethics are applicable, if not intentional. You can't be happy where you are until you're happy with who you are, and no better way to find yourself than living with strangers in a strange place with strange rules.

That self-discovery isn't always enjoyable, though. As we waded out in the choppy Chesapeake through jellyfish and bay-weed, I can remember a counselor once yelling "This is sailing camp! No one said this was going to be fun!" I was old enough at the time to get the joke, but she had a point.

I read an example once that explained the idea of Buddhist self-salvation in a very simple way: If shot with an arrow, don't lay there and demand to know who shot you or the make and model of the weapon; focus instead on how life is now, and learn from this direct and personal experience. Useful advice for those who love camp (or new experiences) and equally useful for those who don't. It may not always be painless, but it's important.

Buddhism also teaches that each man suffers the consequence of his own acts, and prayer will not prevent an effect from following its cause. That information would've been useful fifteen years ago as I lay on the top bunk, praying that the counselors wouldn't find the contraband Reese's cups hidden in my trunk. But I guess that's just another Buddhist lesson camp taught: pray all you want, but mice don't discriminate, and they happen to love peanut-butter.

Can we delve even deeper into Buddhist philosophy and summer camp customs? Can summer camp put kids on the path toward enlightenment and eternal harmony? Maybe, maybe not, but as a camper and a counselor, I've seen children find their own Eightfold path from unbearable homesickness to Right Understanding, Thought, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration and end up crying when it's time to leave, having been effectively cut-off from reaching Nirvana, or getting one more shot at winning the regatta, or perfecting those tie-dye designs.

I can remember sinking as the Plymouth Voyager pulled down the dirt road, and there I stood: an 8-year-old watching her only protectors and providers drive away. Suddenly I felt that arrow slice open my heart and spill young guts and vulnerability down my Hyper-Color t-shirt, Umbros, and Sambas. And no, it wasn't a rogue archery novice getting a little over-zealous on his first day of camp; it was my earliest lesson in Buddhism. I had been given the chance to protect myself, own myself, and control my destiny for the first time.

And they said camp was all fun and games. Enlighten up.