Bruce Blair ’81 is Yale’s Buddhist Chaplain and director of Indigo Blue: A Center for Buddhist Life at Yale. After graduating from Yale, Blair studied with Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn of New Haven, who later introduced him to Maha Ghosananda, the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, and consequently His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Kind, soft spoken, and always looking to lend his time to troubled souls, you can find Blair walking across Old Campus from his office in Welch B-01 to the Indigo Blue Temple in Harkness Tower. He glows with tranquility.
Q: When was your first encounter with Buddhism, and when did you start personally practicing it?
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A: I was an exchange student in high school in Japan, and in a very real way that was my introduction into Buddhist life, not necessarily Buddhist religion. I would get in a pickup truck with my host father, who owned a bicycle shop up in the mountains. It was always an excuse to get out and go climb the mountains around the city and visit the many temples. But it was as much about spending time with him as learning to go and show homage or reverence to these temples. There was a very basic kind of reverence that I could share with him when going there, but it wasn’t about philosophy or theory. It was about going and having tea afterwards at a cousin or friend’s house. Or we’d find some monk at one of these temples and we’d just sit around and talk as much about the differences between Japan and America as anything having to do with Buddhism. So, when I returned to the States I had an interesting Buddhism, but I also had calibrated my sense of what was legitimate or real in a Japanese culture where Buddhism was as basic as Congregationalism was in the towns where I grew up, in New England. And so, there was a lot of stuff that was sort of very popular here in the States, but it didn’t ring true.
Q: How did you continue to develop your Buddhism back in the United States?
A: In my freshman year at Yale, there happened to be a place nearby where I encountered a Zen master from Korea, who basically changed my life. I never really felt like I would end up not being a Christian, as I grew up a preacher’s son. It’s that I just found these other practices deeply compelling and useful, and they supported and sustained my life for many years, primarily working with the homeless in different capacities in the New Haven area. So eventually, I have to laugh sometimes, after working with the homeless for many years, I noticed there seemed to be more suffering at Yale than there was in the New Haven community. I think there’s far more love and balm and charity and generosity of heart and spirit in New Haven than sometimes many of us can find at Yale. And so, in the same ways that the Slifka Center had been created and Saint Thomas More, there are different groups where people could find refuge and welcome in terms that were more akin to their spiritual roots than they might find in the default culture here at Yale — a default culture, meanwhile, that I had been brought up in and was quite familiar with.
Q:Did you have a significant mentor that guided your spiritul development?
A: I encountered this very dear friend of the Zen master I had studied with, who was a patriarch in Korea by this point. His friend was Maha Ghosananda, the supreme patriarch of Cambodia who was nominated for the Nobel prize for his work. As it turns out, the only person you honor more than your teacher is your teacher’s friend. I wanted to do whatever I could for him, and so, over the years I worked with him as well. There’s a way in which the schooling was very practical, where daily practice in the temple meant that you get up in the morning and do your bows, then you go off and find housing for homeless families or you go and do enforcement actions for the Department of Environmental Protection. There were different things that I did along the way. It was the kind of thing where the baseline practice wasn’t something odd or unusual; it was quite normal in my life.
Q: What does the name “Indigo Blue” mean?
A: It’s very easy for us not to know the critical value and importance of spaces where the habits of heart and mind can be honored and recognized as fully legitimate in their own right without need for any kind of change. “Indigo Blue” actually harkens to that notion. When Shakyamuni Buddha, according to tradition, saw the morning star, he looked up and the sky was indigo blue. It’s the color of the sky at dawn, which is blue with just a hint of purple, that shade where there is only the morning star left just before the sun rises, just that moment of change. The sense of wonder and that sense of completeness that the name “Indigo Blue” harkens to in terms of seeing the star, is in a very real way the same kind of space that we try to offer students. Both a space where you can find your own star in the sky, but more, a space where people can be honored as complete and known as to who they are and how we can be helpful.
Q: What sort of daily or weekly activities does Indigo Blue put on for the Yale Community?
A: We have on a daily basis, Peace and Quiet for undergraduates, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Harkness Tower. We also have evening practice there between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., and that includes some open time where people can come and offer incense or sit quietly or what have you. There is also a formal memorial ceremony every night, regular chanting and then sitting at around 8:30 or so that morphs into Stillness and Light. There’s flex to all of this. Part of what’s funny is the actual framework of the practice ends up being scaffolding for the chaplain to sort of be around and available for any number of different kinds of conversations and all kinds of spontaneous fellowship that can spin off into anything. It oftentimes provides the framework for people having one on one conversations or small group discussions.
Q: What would you say is the best way for a newcomer to get involved with Indigo Blue?
A: Well, we’re all newcomers, at least if we stay fresh, right? I think the most broad entry point is to come to Stillness and Light one night. If one comes from a devout background or has particular concerns about practice, then send the chaplain an e-mail and we’ll have tea or get together and talk sometime. There is such diversity of life practices in the world of Buddhism that it is probably helpful to talk to the chaplain or to talk members of our advisory whom you might connect with. It can be very daunting walking into Battell Chapel or Harkness, but that’s part of the world we live in here at Yale. But if this story can do anything, it’s to communicate that when people arrive, they will be welcome. Now that welcome isn’t necessarily very sweet or very loud and it doesn’t usually have a whole lot of bells and whistles attached to it, but you’re welcome. Not much will be made of your coming and going, but sometimes that’s what we really want.
Q: Yale is a very stressful environment. How do you think Buddhism and Indigo Blue in particular can benefit the Yale student?
A: [Long pause.] By providing both social and physical spaces for fellowship, where people can remember or come to know who they are in ways that are open-hearted. I want to say that it’s a place where people can come to know that they are already complete; that life, their success, and happiness can be fueled by delight and humor and love and affection for others and genuine sense of caring about this planet and the people and other sentient beings that populate it; that it needn’t be jargon; that it can be real. There are places where, in silence, these things can be honored. And here, it’s safe to really find one’s own destiny — and that needn’t be some old song lyric. If anything, I sense it’s a whole lot more challenging to risk giving ourselves to anything, most especially the present, to actually being where you are, but if you can learn to do anything completely in the present, you can do anything. I’m going to stop; this all sounds far too poetic.