The teacher returns

This is Soryu.

Soryu is the head teacher at the Monastic Academy. He is an American-born economist who has spent several decades of his life doing intensive contemplative practice across Asia, and founded the Monastic Academy in 2013 as a training ground to bring together traditional contemplative wisdom with effective worldly action.

Soryu is the reason I keep coming back here.

I’m not really one for idols or mentors. I want them, but it’s rare that I find someone whom I actively look up to, or whose advice I actively and repeatedly desire. Somehow Soryu has become that person.

I don’t agree with everything he says, nor do I wish to follow in his footsteps and renounce the pleasures of everyday life and become a monk. But there is an intensity and care and intentionality to everything he does, on a level I have never seen before. He was the only person able to provide satisfying answers to my skepticisms about meditation. He is able to cut through to the core of conversations, able to give direct and harsh feedback while beaming with kindness, able to push people hard, relentlessly, unyieldingly, while holding them up with love and compassion. I have never met someone so dedicated to human growth.

Soryu has been on a solo cabin retreat for the past few weeks. This means that he is doing his own intensive practice, away from the rest of the residents and guests. I saw him once, as he cross-country-ski’d across the grounds back to his cabin during an exercise period, but aside from that I have had no exposure to him during this stay so far.

Yesterday morning I got to participate in the ceremony to bring him out of retreat.

I wrote the following shortly after the ceremony, and as such it is mostly written in present tense.

The welcoming

At 8:30am, when we have finished with the morning schedule, we meet in front of the main building and prepare to walk to the cabin. It is bitingly cold, but the sun is shining and everyone is in good spirits. There are several new guests today, and Peter Park, who has been the head teacher in Soryu’s absence, explains how the ceremony will go.

Peter will lead the way, with Danny behind him as drum master, leading the chant. The rest of us will follow behind in a single file line. “It should be relatively organized,” Peter says, “but don’t worry about being militaristic about it. But don’t be all libertarian and wander off into the forest, either.” We chuckle lightheartedly, and he turns to lead the way.

Danny begins to drum, and after a few beats the residents’ voices join to sing. I don’t know the words; Peter says to not worry about it, that we’ll be able to pick them up after a few runs through the chant. As soon as I begin to hear the voices around me rising in song, my eyes start to well up with tears. This isn’t too unusual – after 18 days here, my emotions are coming to me much more readily. I don’t always know why, but I don’t suppose I need to, at least not in this moment. I do know that I feel happy.

We walk down the snow-covered path to the cabin, and I slowly try to make out the words. The chant itself is a Lakota song of gratitude; Soryu’s teachings are heavily influenced by his experience with Native American spirituality. He has lived and trained with the Lakota, Diné (Navajo), and Abenaki traditions, and the grounds of the Monastic Academy even have a Sweat Lodge – the only place on the property that I wasn’t allowed to photograph.

I don’t know what the words are, but they are beautiful, and by the time we are at the cabin I am managing to sing along with everyone. The forest around us is silent save for the rustling of the trees, giving even more intensity to the sound of the voices and the beating of the drum. In writing this, I wonder if the neighbours down the mountain could hear the chant; in the moment, I only think how loving this experience must be, having your friends, your community, join together to bring you out of retreat.

We form a line in front of the cabin, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and continue to chant. Through the window I can see the movement of a hand – he is folding his blanket. He must have been sitting in meditation as he waited for us to collect him. Somehow, it all starts to feel more real now. This is it. This is the transition.

After a few moments, he opens the door and steps onto the porch.

He is not heavily dressed – this is a common theme among the monks here. Part of the training is in learning to be comfortable in the cold. I wear more clothing indoors than he is currently wearing in the -11°F/-24°C weather, but his face is beaming as the sunlight hits it.

In his hands he’s holding… a tupperware?

Is that sprinkles? Does he have a tupperware of sprinkles? I’m pretty sure he does. They’re small and pastel-coloured, and I think they’re star-shaped. Is he bringing us star-shaped sprinkles?


Sing your song. Be in this moment. You’ll find out about the sprinkles later.

Very odd.

But, how beautiful it is to be here. To watch it, to experience it.

The song ends, and Peter speaks welcoming words to Soryu. I wish I could recall them now, but I’m still somewhat fixated on the sprinkles. Soryu hands the tupperware to Peter, and I get a slightly closer look. I’m not sure if they’re star-shaped.

Soryu leads the way back, with the rest of us following behind in single file, and Danny starts drumming again. At this point, the words are coming naturally and I sing with ease.

The teacher is returning. The next stage starts now.

When we make it back inside the main building, we hang up our outer layers and stand in a circle facing each other. Soryu is still beaming. I forgot that he is around my height. Somehow my memories always make him more grand.

Once we are all settled, Peter speaks again. “Soryu brought us candy,” he says, gesturing to the tupperware in his hand. “Feel free to take some as we go around the circle saying our welcomes.”

We go around, one by one, each person sharing their gratitudes and well-wishes for Soryu’s return. He looks at each person as they speak, his attention never wavering from the speaker’s face. Sometimes his face is soft. Sometimes he smiles. Sometimes he looks sorrowful, like he is taking on the speaker’s difficult emotions and sharing in them.

One by one, each person takes a small handful of candy and then passes the tupperware to the next speaker. Some speak briefly and straightforwardly. Some are emotional. Some start straightforwardly and are surprised by their emotions.

When it comes to me, I stare down into the tupperware and try to think of my words. The candy is not sprinkles, but is colourful fruity pebbles. I don’t have much time to think on that though, now that I’m trying to find my words.

I start to sniffle.

I tell him how grateful I am for the space that he has created here, and for the work that he has put into growing this community and what he is trying to do in the world. I tell him how overwhelmed and confused I have felt at times in the past year, and how glad I was to know exactly where to go, exactly who to surround myself with, to cultivate the clarity I have been lacking. I tell him how helpful he has been to me, both in the conversations we have had in person in the past, and the ones we have had in my mind. He chuckles at that.

I bow my head and take a small handful of candy and pass the tupperware to the next person. I haven’t seen anyone eat their candy yet, so I hold it in my hand as I wait for the welcoming circle to finish. Oh gosh. It’s going to melt.

The resident after me is quiet for a while, and my body feels like it’s buzzing with energy. I wonder what that is.

The final few residents share their well-wishes and gratitudes, and then it’s Soryu’s turn to speak. He doesn’t say much – a simple gratitude to everyone for being there, for keeping the space and the practice going. He talks about the difficulty of his retreat, and of working through the difficulty. Then, he looks at Peter and cheerfully asks what the plan is now.

We bow softly, and just like that the ceremony is over and our normal day continues, unglamorous, underwhelming. Soryu walks into a meeting room with Peter. Jango gathers the new guests to explain monastery logistics. I walk towards to kitchen to continue breakfast clean-up, throwing the candy into my mouth as I walk.

It’s chocolate-covered nuts with a candy coating. Go figure – all of my wondering only served to take me away from the experience of the ceremony, and in the end I gained nothing from my guesses.

I throw another handful of candy into my mouth and pick up a dish sponge, ready to start the responsibilities of the day.

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