Sesshin. Early morning. The great drum sounds dramatically while the Buddha offering is carried to the altar. The opening chant of oryoki comes to an end: “Now I open Buddha Tathagata’s eating bowls. May we be relieved from self clinging with all sentient beings.” The voices die in a falling tone. The zendo is solemn and silent. The sangha begins to unwrap their oryoki bowls with grace and precision. Suddenly, a loud clatter breaks the silence. A dropped bowl rolls into the center of the zendo. Then a small nervous giggle. Is it an inept or spaced out practitioner not being sufficiently focused and aware? No, it’s the seven-year-old sitting next to me at ZMM’s first (and only) family sesshin. A blushing parent retrieves the bowl, and oryoki continues.
Experimenting with a family sesshin is only one of the many ways ZMM has tried to incorporate families with children into a full-hearted Zen practice at the Monastery. Recounting some of the history of children at the Monastery is helpful as we go forward into the new millennium mindful of the fact that most practitioners here are lay students and that many have children.
From its beginning in 1980 ZMM had to confront the question of whether to include children in the practice and training matrix. Roshi himself had a young child, Asian, who at the time, was eight years old. He was incorporated into the sangha at informal meal times and those who came early on grew used to sitting zazen to the calls of his play activities heard through the halls or out the zendo windows. Soon, two women, both single parents, asked to move in with their children, one a boy about six and the other a girl about ten. They moved in, the children were registered at the local elementary school and the parents embarked on residential Zen training. They were soon followed by other parents and children. Over the first few years of the Monastery’s existence three babies were actually born while their mothers were in residence. The pregnant women often remarked on how peaceful it felt to do zazen while feeling the movements of their still unborn babies. One of the babies was born during sesshin in the guest room across the hall from the zendo. The child was delivered by Daido Roshi and the zendo monitor when the mother went into labor during dawn zazen while retreatants carried on with sesshin listening to the birth cries of both mother and child. The three babies in residence often accompanied their mothers into the zendo to sit and the sangha became familiar with their individual cries and the sucking sounds of their nursing during sitting. At the peak of its family activity the Monastery housed fourteen children and their various parents.
The children gave and received great affection from the many adult practitioners, both resident and nonresident, and it was often a joy to have these bubbly, naughty, delightful and exasperating sentient beings around. But they also made for a rowdy couple of years at the Monastery. After a while certain dif&fi;culties began to develop for the parents and children who lived here. Parents began to feel, at times, a conflict between the demands of the training schedule and the demands of child rearing. Various patterns of allowing time off the schedule for parenting depending on the age and needs of the child were tried, but in the end nothing really “worked” satisfactorily for everyone. Children often wanted more of their parents and resented the demands of the Monastery. Parents sometimes wanted more training and resented the demands of their children. At other times, as they were pulled and pushed by the training, parents resented the requirements of the schedule and felt them to be incompatible with their responsibilities as parents.
In the early years all the children who were in residence were either infants, toddlers, or of elementary school age. Later, however, several teenagers came into residence. Teens posed new difficulties for the sangha. Women practitioners found sharing the sparse bathroom facilities with two teenage girls getting ready for school in the mornings a challenge. Hair dryers and beautification clutter graced the bathroom counters. To these developing beauties monopolizing the mirrors felt like a necessity; but to busy practitioners trying to get to the caretaking meeting on time, it felt like an invasion. From the point of view of the young people wanting to fit in with their peers, the most difficult question was how to bring friends home to this weird place with baldheaded people, strange chanting, and exotic images. The isolation they felt because of these differences between them and their friends was often painful.
During this time the Monastery also tried other kinds of experiments to allow parents to practice intensely. One such experiment was the family sesshin mentioned earlier. About thirty people attended this sesshin, approximately half of them children, some of whom were in residence and some who had non-resident parents. Aside from joining the adults in the zendo for oryoki breakfast and lunch, the children also did all liturgy services, and participated in caretaking practice. Each child was assigned a simple job as part of a crew supervised by a grown up, but they were never on the same crew as their parents. When the adults were sitting zazen the children remained up the hill in one of the cabins, having a play and activity period supervised by several adults. The children — except for the smallest — were housed in a sleeping cabin, boys on one side, girls on the other, again with an adult counselor to supervise them at night. To accommodate families the sesshin schedule was modi&fi;ed by changing the afternoon schedule from a Dharma Discourse to a circle activity held outdoors. Daido Roshi addressed the group and adults and children responded. On the &fi;nal afternoon of the sesshin, Daido Roshi left the choice of the afternoon’s activity up to the children. They all voted to go swimming, which we did. At the end of this sesshin we did an evaluation and found that the kids loved it and the parents hated it, and never wanted to do it again. We never did. It seemed that for most parents the potent mixture of children and sesshin just didn’t blend smoothly.
The final result of these and many more experiments was that Daido Roshi and the senior students &fi;nally decided that having resident children didn’t work very well, either for the children, the parents, or the Monastery. Roshi had nightmares of spiritual orphans unattended while their parents “got enlightened.” Both children and parents too often felt conflicted about which imperative to respond to: family responsibilities or the requirements of Zen training. It became obvious that both residential Zen training and parenting were full time, intensive jobs which needed to be done wholeheartedly and therefore didn’t fit well in the same framework.
Thus, as time progressed we scaled down our expectations about practicing with children and offered Family Practice Weekends instead of week long sesshins. Most importantly, the weekends were carefully planned to keep the needs and interests of children central while also devoting some time to the religious training of their parents. Since there were quite a number of children of all ages at these weekends and the adult agenda was secondary, the Monastery was very flexible in allowing parents to put the needs of their children first, missing adult sessions and being with their children whenever it was necessary to keep the children happy and secure.
The first of these weekends stressed wilderness skills. Children and their parents camped out on the environmental studies site. Paddling a canoe, knot tying, campfire activities and many other outdoor activities were carried out. We have also had a storytelling family practice weekend which featured Jataka tales. Today these weekends are a successful and well attended part of our retreat schedule. The next family practice weekend which will take place July 9-11 is a Zen Arts retreat in which parents and children will share the joy of creating their own art projects together.
Despite the failure of the experiments of these early years we also had some less ambitious programs to include children in the practice. From the beginning parents with children, both resident and nonresident, wanted to be able to do the Sunday morning program, so in an informal way they arranged to take turns staying at the abbacy with all the children who showed up on Sunday morning. The Monastery provided a snack and the children played and watched cartoons on TV. This worked well as the older children helped with the younger and there were only five or six children altogether. This informal program run by parents but supported by the Monastery continued through an interim period when the program left the abbacy and moved into the Monastery’s library. About two years ago this informal program was formalized. It became the Zen Kids Program, named by the children themselves. Though basically a parent coop, Monastery staff is involved in running the program and a different parent helps each month. The program includes outdoor activities, drama, arts and crafts, and some short chanting and liturgy sessions. At this point the program is held only once a month rather than every Sunday, but is carefully structured around a theme of interest to children but with some relation to Buddhism.
Aside from these more extensive activities, children are also invited to take part in certain special holiday activities at the Monastery: Easter, Buddha’s Birthday, Thanksgiving, Summer Solstice Celebration, the Fourth of July, and Dana dinner, a Christmas dinner given for the community outside the Monastery in need of holiday cheer. There are also liturgy services inspired by the presence of children: a Newborn Ceremony and an Unborn Ceremony.
Lately ZMM has developed, at the request of teens children of the lay sangha, a program in which teenagers who wish to can receive precept training and then take part in a Coming of Age Ceremony at the Monastery. Thus far, three of our young people have participated in this ceremony. It is a formalized ceremony in the zendo, similar to Jukai, which involves the taking of five precepts.
The integration of children into Monastery life and practice is an ongoing project at ZMM. Trying experiments, evaluating them, staying open and changing what doesn’t work, staying with what does work; all these have been a part of the development of our work with children.
Despite all the difficulties, many joys result from the presence of children at ZMM. Many sangha children have been coming for so long they now know the gatha recited before meals by heart. Who can resist the fresh faces, hands palm to palm, and the childish voices piping — some with utmost seriousness, some with impish playfulness — “First seventy-two labors brought us this food….”