Though many a Buddhist might disagree, I am not a Buddhist. My religious practice and spiritual well-being were in no direct way hindered by the eviction of Indigo Blue from Yale. I am, however, a deeply religious Jewish undergraduate, and I am very concerned by what transpired with the sudden termination of the Indigo Blue Buddhist Program at Yale.
The dismissal of Buddhist Chaplain Bruce Blair involved an immediate and unannounced closure of the Buddha Shrine in Harkness Tower. This is unconscionable. One does not deconstruct synagogues, churches or temples just because one takes issue with their clergy or practices — nor should one, for those same reasons, move them to the basement of Welch. There should be no situation at Yale wherein a group of religious students one day has a worship space and the next day does not.
Chaplains and clergy members may be hired and dismissed appropriately or inappropriately, yet none of these political dealings should result in the closure of religious spaces or the dissolution of religious communities. Students persistently demand the creation of safe spaces for reflection and discussion on our campus — and our religious spaces should be the safest of safe spaces, permanent and immovable.
Without well-established religious institutions, it would be impossible for me to attend Yale. As a junior in high school looking towards college, my list contained only schools with kosher food, daily Orthodox prayer services, rigorous Torah study opportunities and a Shabbat-observant community. To put myself in the shoes of my Buddhist counterparts, it would be impossible for me to imagine waking up one morning to find the Slifka Center shut down, the clergy dismissed and the cogs of Jewish life disassembled.
I see two problematic areas in what I know of this incident (reserving judgment on any allegations involved), and both might just as easily affect any religious group on campus. The first element is a structural one, the second a confusion in priorities.
First, had Yale’s relationship to Indigo Blue been structurally different, much of the present hurt may have been avoided. The relationship between individual religious organizations and Yale might be best characterized as sketchy. Yale provides, often, use of space and a modest amount of financial support. Mostly, though, these organizations fundraise significantly on their own, owning their own sacred objects, prayer books and accoutrements.
This situation, in fair weather, fares well, and all parties involved benefit from the end result: The community’s needs are often mostly met. Here, however, we have witnessed an example of a hurricane. When an organization providing crucial services to students is suddenly cut off, the systemic flaws of this loose structure between Yale and religious institutions become readily apparent.
When Yale decides to sever ties with a religious organization, the funds and ritual items provided by that organization disappear. In the case of Buddhism, and most other religions, those items are crucial to the practice of a religion.
In the future, funding for programming and the salary of clergy may continue to come to Yale’s campus through outside organizations. But Yale itself should own the objects and provide the spaces necessary for its students’ religious practice, so that no student faces the loss of crucial religious services in the future.
Second, the confusion in priorities here is the same one spoken about openly and painfully by Buddhist students. Chaplaincy at Yale exists in order to “support the flourishing of religious and spiritual communities,” as stated on the Chaplain’s Office website. Decisions made regarding dramatic changes in the chaplaincy’s relationship with a specific community ought to be supportive ones, and they ought to be presented as such. The first priority should not have been to rid the campus of Indigo Blue, it should have been to protect and foster the Buddhist student community on campus.
Perhaps breaking ties with Indigo Blue was a necessary part of protecting that community, but if so, the process utterly failed to send that message. Had the student religious community been the first priority, their religious practices and needs would have been attended to first. Buddhist student leaders, with a knowledgeable eye to the needs of their own community, would have been included in the process.
Moving forward, I hope our administration takes every measure to ensure that our religious spaces become and remain the safest spaces on campus. Let’s hope that this discussion prompts us to have other conversations about how religious life at Yale in general is conducted, and how we can build better collaboration between students and administrators to ensure that nothing like this happens again.
Leah Sarna is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .