Puget Sound Zen Center’s Family Retreat

For the second year in a row, Puget Sound Zen Center on Vashon Island, Washington conducted a Zen Family Retreat. Held at Vashon’s Camp Sealth the first weekend in May, the residential retreat offered children and parents together a chance to experience early rising, chanting, sitting and walking meditation, and work practice—as well as fun, games, stories, and plenty of snacks. One of the participants, Sissel Johannessen, compiled a report in collaboration with Soshin Lidunn Cain and Celina Yarkin.

Inspired by a mothers and kids retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center (in California), the 2008 family retreat took place on Mother’s Day weekend. In one of the adult discussion sessions last year, the leader asked everyone to talk about their mother and something for which they thank her. The result was quite powerful.

This year we were 24 people, about half kids. We had four families from the sangha here at the Puget Sound Zen Center, plus one family from Seattle with three kids, another Vashon family, and a father and son who came from New Mexico. In all there were 12 children, ranging in age from eleven to two.

We tried to aim for a regular schedule of meditation periods, work periods, and play or activities. During each meditation period, the kids were asked to sit for three to five minutes, when the bell would sound, then we all did walking kinhin together, then sat zazen again. The kids, after sitting a few minutes, could get up, bow, and leave for the "quiet room", an activity room where they were asked to play or draw quietly until the full zazen period was over. The kids also joined in chanting, took turns serving formal tea and offered incense at the altar if they wanted.

During both days there were also longer play periods, where an adult would lead the kids in some running-around game or project. Some were really thoughtful activities led by our activity guru, Celina Yarkin. For example, we all made a big sand Buddha on the beach and thought about the tide washing it away.

One of the favorite activities this year and last was nature journaling. Small groups of kids went off into the woods with an adult to observe and draw from nature. Camp Sealth offers several hundred acres of old fir and cedar forest, with mosses, ferns, salmonberry in bloom, and bright yellow slugs (always a big hit).

We had a few 15-minute work periods, when the kids would help clean or rake. They also all took turns, with adults alongside, helping in the kitchen, either cooking or cleaning up after meals. Our meals were traditional three-bowl meals and each person cleaned and re-wrapped his or her bowl set after each meal.

I was the cook, so worked with all the kids taking their turns in the kitchen. They all loved the cooking chores. They chopped vegetables, created sauces, and carried the serving dishes out to the tables. It is such a tactile job, involving smell and color and taste and texture, and such a tangible (and much appreciated) contribution to the whole group, as we sat down to eat together.

Despite wet weather on Saturday night, we were able to have our evening bonfire and marshmallow roast around a sheltered fireplace. We built up a big blaze and Celina told stories—the Geese-Dreamer and Trickster tales from the Southwest—with firelight on the kids' faces and rain pouring down on the roof.

Sunday came with bright sun—a good day for outside kinhin (walking meditation) and nature journaling and playing soccer. The adults had two discussion periods, one on the topic of non-violent communication, the other on family life with family practice.

This has been the second retreat for my daughter, who is nine. The kids have formed bonds and traditions after only two years. This year the eldest (eleven) and the youngest (two) became very attached and were observed walking and talking together, the elder holding out a hand to help with stairs occasionally. Another boy who participated last year asked me before this retreat, "Is Adri's mother going to tell stories by the fire again this year?"

It seems we have a tradition now in the kids' minds. We hope this tradition of eating and working together, running with a gang of friends under the trees, and sitting quietly—kids and adults together—with the smell of incense and the sparkle of sunlight on a wooden floor, will remain with them and become an inner resource.

For more information about Puget Sound Zen Center, please visit:

Contributors: Sissel Johanessen, Soshin Lidunn Cain, Celina Yarkin.
Photos: Copyright ©Jan Sonnenmair.