Chris Ricca ’06 first walked into Battell Chapel knowing nothing about meditation. A pool of candles faintly illuminated the circle of pillows at the front of the chapel. It was silent. But he said he felt he was not interrupting anything by entering.
Buddhist Chaplain and Divinity School Professor Bruce Blair ’81 said letting students come and go without hindrance is his aim with “Silence, Candlelight & Tea,” Buddhist meditation in Battell nightly from midnight to 2 a.m. Indigo Blue, Yale’s new Buddhist Chaplaincy, sponsors the program.
Blair said he encourages those who are interested to come an stay as long as they like, as often as they like. People come for a variety of reasons, Blair said — because they want to practice meditation, they want to relax after a long day or they want to engage in quiet reflection. Ricca said he goes to let things that have troubled him during the day “wash away.”
Blair said with “Silence, Candlelight & Tea,” he hopes to share with students the teaching he has received and the direction that he had been given as an undergraduate. Over the years, he has come to know both undergraduates and fellow alumni who are either culturally Buddhist or have “just realized that they didn’t fit in.”
In an effort to establish a rich Buddhist religious scene, Blair has tried to bring various Buddhist masters to campus. But he said it is one thing to bring “religious superstars” and another to provide daily opportunities for interested students to practice Buddhism.
“One reason that I went was because I am taking ‘History of Traditional China [to 1600].’ We study Buddhism academically and I was interested in finding out about the spiritual aspect of it,” Kaitlyn Trigger ’06 said.
Blair said academic Buddhism and Buddhist practice differ.
Yale students’ inclination to drink even on some weeknights gave a group of representatives of different religions the idea to create the midnight vigil, Blair said. After the group posed the idea, he offered to take on the responsibility.
He said even students who have been partying until midnight or later are welcome at the vigil if it will help them relax and forget the troubles of their days. But he said much more inspired the program than “recreational intoxication.” After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Dwight Chapel was open at night to students who needed a space where they could light candles in memory of those lost and grieve in collective silence. Blair said students tended to come after midnight — hence, “Silence, Candlelight & Tea’s” late hours.
Blair acknowledged that some parents might be concerned that their children would convert.
“You can’t convert. There is nothing to convert to,” he said. He explained that Buddhism is not so much a religion as a way of life — there is not even a word for “Buddhism” in Japanese. In fact, he said, some people come to the vigil and cross themselves.
Blair said his goal is not to convert students but to incite them to question their environment.
“Religion brings a lot of suffering to the world because so often religion is an opinion, a tightly held opinion,” said Blair. “The ability to question is the ability to wonder, to let go of what we know — our opinions, our ideas — and really see things for ourselves. Hopefully this will be a doorway for people to deepen their own beliefs in.”
Ricca said he thinks Battell becomes a “neutral space” during the midnight meditation sessions.
“Any person from any religion can enter that space,” said Ricca, who said he was brought up as a Christian.
The son of a Congregational preacher, Blair said he sees no contradiction in his own life.
“It is not about how I identify myself but about how I am identified by others,” Blair said.
Blair said his practicing Buddhism has deepened his relationship with his father. He said he finds in mediation and chanting what his father finds in services and Christian hymns. Blair said he found Zen meditation sustained him while he worked with the homeless in the New Haven and for the Department of Environmental Protection, and decided to pursue it further by training with a Zen master.
Blair said for him, meditation is about silence and learning how to listen. He distinguished between different kinds of silence.
“Open, safe silence that is chosen freely is an unusual thing to find,” he said. “Listening I consider to be a very unusual gift — to perceive the sounds of the world with all of our senses is identified with compassion.”
Blair will begin a practical seminar introducing traditional forms of Zen meditation next Monday.