Camp is a Pure Land

At the beginning of this month, I had the chance to take my wife and children to the camp I grew up going to and worked at during summer breaks during college. The camp is called Cedarkirk and it’s loosely Scottish for “church in the trees.” A lot of my friends from my hometown church, and my camp days were coming back to join me, and introduce their families to Cedarkirk. It was a remarkable homecoming.
Initially, I was a little apprehensive about how much my wife would enjoy it. When given the choice, there was never a debate with her about whether to “rough it” or choose air conditioning and a hot shower. Her susceptibility to bug bites and the quarter-sized welts they leave for days convinced me not to push the extreme camping adventure with her any time soon.    
But at the first night at camp, we met in a hallway after getting the kids to bed. We embraced and she told me, “I get it. I understand why. There is no ego here.”   


Walking down the trails of the camp with my friends, we would each remark about how incredible it was just to simply be there. I kept saying, “It’s not magic. That’s too cheap of a word. Magic is like a trick. This isn’t a trick. But there is a resonance, or a deep divine hum, or as Rob Bell likes to say, a ‘bass note’ that is always there, underneath everything in this place.”

During my first set of treatments, I read through Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, mostly in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices.  A couple of passages in this book really fit well with our recent Cedarkirk experience.

Thomas Merton wrote about monastic culture. A monastery or practice center is a place where insight is transformed into action. The monastery should be an expression of our insight, our peace, and our joy, a place where peace and beauty are possible. The way the monks and nuns there walk, eat, and work express their insight and their joy.   
When someone from the city arrives in a monastery compound, just seeing the trees and gardens and hearing the sounds of the bell can calm him down. When he meets a monk walking peacefully, his tension may wash away. The environment, the sights, and the sounds of the monastery begin to work in him for healing and transformation, even before he listens to any liturgy or teaching. Through their true practice and genuine insight, those who live in monasteries, temples, and practice centers offer us a way to obtain peace, joy, and freedom.   
 …When you practice with others, it is much easier to obtain stability, joy, and freedom. If you have a chance to visit a retreat center, I hope you enjoy your time there sitting, walking, breathing, praying, and doing everything in mindfulness. The seeds are being watered, and the fruit, transformation, will reveal itself.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ

I don’t think “monastic culture” would be the first thing to come to mind when most people thinking of Cedarkirk– a kids church camp. But it does create an environment where ego has no room to exist. And with no room for ego, we walk around as our True Selves. There are no cell phones, you don’t see your car keys for a week, your diet is limited to whatever the kitchen is making for that meal, and you walk everywhere. Your biggest concern is “Will my bathing suit be dry for afternoon canoeing? Because we just went swimming this morning.”

This camp is special to so many people for so many reasons. While I was there, a story was shared with us about a camper named Kevin (not his real name). Kevin, like me, is a cancer survivor. He also had some complications due to his treatment. But camp is his place, where he is his True Self and gets to experience fellowship with others being their True Selves.

Camp at Cedarkirk is very important to Kevin because he has had a lot of issues with his peers in school and in other social activities, since he is delayed from the chemotherapy treatments. He has a difficult time relating to his peers, and it hurts him emotionally. He becomes sad and withdrawn on occasion because he doesn’t always fit in. He works very hard at trying to compensate for his difficulties. He wants to be normal. He wants to make friends. At camp, Kevin blossoms and matures. The kids there to not treat him like he is behind. The staff treats him with respect. He learns what it is to be loved by people, and what it is like to have friends. Kevin needs camp to help him with his everyday stress of being different from the other kids. At camp, he is not different. At camp, he is just Kevin. He is not The Cancer Kid. He is not The Dumb One. He is not The Weird Kid. At camp, he is just like everyone else. 

Despite the obstacles Kevin has had to overcome from chemo and treatments to obstacles such as a learning disability, anxiety, emotional delay, developmental delays, fine motor skills impairment, processing delay, chemo-related ADHD, and most recently, a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Kevin works very hard and does his best in school, in Boy Scouts, and in church. Kevin has become a wonderful person with a heart as large as the world. Thanks to the positive influences and outstanding leadership he has received from previous programs like Cedarkirk, Kevin believes that God has lad his hands on his own heart and asked him to love people. So Kevin has decided that he does adore helping people and being involved with loving people. He has decided he wants to become a chaplain when he grows up. He is already a Chaplain’s assistant in his Boy Scout troop. He has chosen Chaplain specifically, because he says he wants to be able to LOVE ALL PEOPLE and not have to choose a religion. What a heart of gold!

Kevin’s Mother

Thich Nhat Hanh writes a passage about Pure Lands that makes me think of Cedarkirk and its effect on the people that experience time there. Hanh describes a Pure Land as a “practice center,” and that, through time, everyone becomes excited about setting up their own Pure Land. The passage is below, and please, don’t get hung up on the Buddha language. The book it’s taken from is called Living Buddha, Living Christ so if the Buddha language gets in the way for you, replace it with Christ.

…A Pure Land is a land, perhaps in space and time, perhaps in our consciousness, where violence, hatred, craving, and discrimination have been reduced to a minimum because many people are practicing understanding and loving-kindness under the guidance of Buddha and several bodhisattvas. Every practitioner of Buddha’s way is, sooner or later, motivated by the desire to set up a Pure Land where he or she can share his or her joy, happiness, and practice with others. I myself have several times tried to set up a small Pure Land to share the practice of joy and peace with friends and students. In Vietnam it was Phuong Boi in the central highlands, and in France it is our Plum Village practice center. An ashram, such as the Community of the Arch in France, is also a Pure Land. A Great Enlightened Being should be able to establish a great Pure Land. Others of us make the effort to begin a mini-Pure Land. This is only a natural tendency to share happiness.   
A Pure Land is an ideal place for you to go to practice until you are fully enlightened…During the time of practice, they dwell in a kind of refuge in that Buddha. They are close to him, and they also water the seed of Buddhahood in themselves. But Pure Lands are impermanent. In Christianity, the Kingdom of God is the place you will go for eternity. But in Buddhism, the Pure Land is a kind of university where you practice with a teacher for a while, graduate, and then come back here to continue. Eventually, you discover that the Pure Land is in your own heart, than you do not need to go to a faraway place. You can set up your own mini-Pure Land, a Sangha of practice, right here, right now. But many people need to go away before they realize they do not have to go anywhere.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ


Cedarkirk is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise funds to build a new 250 seat single-level dining hall with various other improvements to occur around the camp as well. This will help with capacity and other ADA challenges that the current facilities grapple with yearly. Details about it can be found here:
https://cedarkirk.org/support/campaign/
If you feel moved to donate, you can do so through this link:
https://cedarkirk.org/support/donate/
I don’t “monetize” this site or make anything from it. Writing these weekly posts is something I feel driven to do, if anything, just to prove to myself that I can do it. If you’ve ever felt inclined to pitch in on a cause that I feel close to, then I would ask that you donate to Cedarkirk.

Author: johncatoe

Recovering from brain surgery. Dealing with metastatic melanoma. Hoping to build some community and maybe help people out in someway.

2 thoughts on “Camp is a Pure Land”

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