Buddhist life still in flux

JenniferCheung_IndigoBlue-36
Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

This topic was previously covered here, here and here.

Earlier last month, a group of students walked through a wooden door to a dimly lit room at the base of Harkness Tower. Arranged in the middle of the room was a circle of cushions, placed next to an altar with Buddha statues on top.

After the students sat cross-legged on the pillows, Paul Bloom, one of Yale’s Buddhist Advisors, led them in 10 minutes of silent meditation.

Bloom then started a discussion on “Zen in Everyday Life,” speaking about the ways in which aspects of Buddhist practice, particularly Zen practice, can help individuals become more present in their daily lives and more able to overcome challenges.

The event, which took place on Oct. 21, was the third in a series of regular “dharma talks” sponsored every semester by the Chaplain’s Office as part of their new programming for Buddhist students on campus.

Buddhist life at Yale has undergone profound changes since last October, when the University abruptly terminated its nine-year relationship with Indigo Blue. A non-profit organization led by former Buddhist Chaplain Bruce Blair  ’81, Indigo Blue had been the primary center for Buddhist life at Yale for almost a decade, providing a vast range of programs — from daily candle-lit meditation sessions in Battell Chapel to Buddhist chanting and ceremonies.

After severing ties with Blair and Indigo Blue last fall, the Chaplain’s Office fell under student criticism for not providing any immediate substitute services in the wake of the group’s closure, leaving many students without a way to practice for several weeks. In response to widespread student complaints, the Chaplain’s Office has collaborated with the New Haven Zen Center — one of the primary venues for Zen Buddhist practice in New Haven — to develop a range of new services and spaces for Buddhist students on campus.

“[The Chaplain’s Office] has put together a fabulous program, especially because it’s difficult for non-Buddhists to put on a program for Buddhists,” Bloom said.

As the University has attempted to accommodate the spiritual needs of Yale’s Buddhist community, student feedback on the programming has ranged from appreciation for the Chaplain’s Office’s efforts to disappointment with the new services currently offered.

AN ABRUPT DEPARTURE

A year ago, on Oct. 22, students coming to Battell Chapel for the nightly meditation sessions were greeted by a note on the door: “This event has been cancelled. For questions or concerns contact the Chaplain’s Office.” Soon, rumors began to spread on campus that Indigo Blue, the nonprofit organization that provided programming for Buddhist life at Yale, had been shut down and its leader, Blair, forced to step down from his position. A week later, after many student inquiries, University Chaplain Sharon Kugler sent a university-wide email confirming that the Chaplain’s Office had discontinued its affiliation with Indigo Blue, adding that the decision had been “carefully thought-out” and that the University was “deeply committed to creating a new and expansive program for Buddhist life at Yale.”

Indigo Blue began its relationship with the university in 2003, when Blair was appointed Yale’s first Buddhist Chaplain. As the first non-sectarian Buddhist Chaplaincy on a college campus, Indigo Blue established a shrine space under Harkness Tower, which was open daily from morning until night, with Blair leading chanting practice in the evenings. As the organization attracted an increasing number of students, Blair also invited visiting monks, nuns and other Buddhist leaders from communities all around the globe, including Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. In addition, the organization held celebrations for various Buddhist holidays — from Lunar New Year to Buddha’s Birthday to Vesak — as well as formal meditations sessions on Saturdays and discussions on Wednesday nights. Its most widely known program, however, was its Stillness and Light meditation sessions — widely attended both by Buddhist and non-Buddhist students — every night from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. in Battell Chapel.

“I liked that it was open late,” said Kimberly Fabian ’15, a student formerly involved in Indigo Blue. “I started going when I was a freshman on Old Campus, so it was really easy. It always centered me.”

As Kugler’s email refused to disclose the reasons behind Indigo Blue’s departure, many students expressed their frustration at the Chaplain’s Office, sparking conversation on campus about the administration’s lack of transparency.

One of them was Heshika Deegahawathura ’14, who then served as president of the former Buddhist Student Advisory Board, an undergraduate organization that assisted Blair in running Indigo Blue. For Deegahawathura, the Chaplain’s Office failed to understand how significant Indigo Blue and, in particular, the Stillness and Light program was to the many Yale students who attended the nightly meditation sessions.

Even more frustrating to some students, though, was the absence of an immediate substitute program to replace Blair and Indigo Blue. In particular, the shrine in Harkness Tower was immediately dismantled and remained closed until Dec. 10, leaving many Buddhist students unable to practice for over a month — a situation that caused many Buddhist students to feel overlooked by the Chaplain’s Office.

“I didn’t think it was appropriate for the Chaplain’s Office to shut it down and not replace it immediately,” said Amaris Olguin ’15. “I felt like [I] and the entire community had been dismissed. If this had been the Catholic community, there would have been riots.”

While the shrine in Harkness was not reopened for daily practice until December, the Chaplain’s Office started offering alternative programs as early as one week after Indigo Blue’s closure. The Chaplain’s Office directed its efforts towards establishing hourly meditation sessions on Wednesday afternoons in Welch Hall’s Breathing Space room, which were met with mixed reactions by students.

Soon, though, the Chaplain’s Office started collaborating with the New Haven Zen Center to bring a range of new Buddhist programs back to the Yale campus, spending the next twelve months “trying to figure things out,” according to Bloom.

Bloom, who is a teacher at the New Haven Zen Center, began to give monthly dharma talks and lead monthly or bimonthly meditation practice last spring. However, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2013-’14 academic year that the Chaplain’s Office instituted a regular set of programs, Bloom said.

Currently, Bloom and the two other Buddhist advisors from the New Haven Zen Center hold office hours once a week in the Breathing Space room and organize dharma talks once or twice a month. Their efforts are complemented by the presence of an Interim Buddhist Chaplain, Steve Kanji Ruhl, who comes to Yale once a month to give a dharma talk.

Despite the challenges of creating new venues for Buddhist life at Yale, the Chaplain’s office has established what they describe as a set of programs that are “truly responsive and supportive to the needs of everyone who take part in Buddhist life at Yale,” said Maytal Satiel, assistant University Chaplain for Special Services.

“Buddhist life at Yale is thriving,” said Satiel, who currently oversees the programming for Buddhist students. “The current Buddhist program — in both structure and content — has been very positively welcomed by the members of the Yale Buddhist community.”

BUDDHISM ACROSS THE IVIES

When Indigo Blue was founded at Yale in 2003, Buddhist life was only beginning to take shape at other universities nationwide. Today, Buddhism has become a stronger presence in many of Yale’s peer institutions, where Buddhist students are offered a series of programs specifically dedicated to supporting their practice.

For instance, Harvard University currently houses two part-time Buddhist chaplains, who belong to nearby Buddhist centers in the Boston area.

Dokuro Jaeckel, one of Harvard’s two Buddhist chaplains, said his role is not limited to Buddhist believers in Cambridge: In addition to overseeing biweekly meditation groups and traditional ceremonies, he serves as a spiritual counselor for students, faculty, and staff, regardless of their religious affiliation.

At Princeton University, Buddhist life centers on the Princeton Buddhist Students’ Group, an undergraduate organization that holds daily meditation sessions, weekly dinner discussions and occasional talks with guest speakers.

“We’re the only religious group [at Princeton] without a chaplain, partially because we’re a smaller group and a lot of people who come meditate are not necessarily Buddhist,” said Rebecca Smaya, who serves as president of the group. She also said that a full-time chaplain would not do justice to the diversity of Buddhist traditions.

“If we got someone who [follows] a particular type of Buddhism, it would change the community,” Smaya said. “For example, if we got a Thai monk, it would bring in a lot of Thai students who are Buddhist but maybe aren’t interested in meditation.”

She added that it is a challenge to provide programming for students who are more “culturally Buddhist,” which she defined as a group of individuals who grew up with certain religious festivals and ceremonial practices, but are not interested in meditation, which is the focus of Westernized versions of Buddhism.

Columbia University has also strived to establish Buddhist life on its New York campus: every week, a part-time Buddhist advisor, Doyeon Lee, leads the meetings of the Columbia Undergraduate Buddhist Association, where local teachers from different Buddhist traditions come to interact with students. According to Lee, the presence of a Buddhist chaplain is essential to support the expansion of Buddhist life on college campuses.

“Buddhism is one of the biggest religions and most people don’t know about it.” Lee said. “At universities of higher education, Buddhism should be well-represented.”

MOVING FORWARD

When she first arrived on campus this August, Wendy Chen ‘17 had never heard of Indigo Blue or Bruce Blair. As she entered Harkness Tower to find the carillon chamber, she also discovered the Buddhist shrine housed on the first floor of the tower.

“I wasn’t expecting to find a shrine there, and I liked it a lot,” said Chen, who has been a regular visitor at the shrine. “I wish it were open everyday, though.”

Chen’s words echo the sentiment of many students on campus, who are unhappy with the shrine’s limited opening hours. Currently, the Harkness shrine is open to the Yale community only Sunday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., when Chaplain’s Office student workers — many of whom are not Buddhist — oversee the space.

In the same room, the three Buddhist advisors hold meditation classes on Thursday nights and the dharma talks sponsored by the Chaplain’s Office.

For some students, like Kasimet Manakongtreecas heep ’17, this range of programs shows the Chaplain’s Office’s support for Buddhist life at Yale.

“The Chaplain’s Office is doing it right,” he said.

Others however — including those previously involved in Indigo Blue — have shown reluctance to participate in the current programming for Buddhist life on campus. For instance, Aman Richard ’14, a former member of Blair’s group, said the Chaplain’s Office’s treatment of Indigo Blue last fall was “so bizarre” that he decided not to be involved in the current programs. Shubo Yin ’14 said the newly established programs do not provide the same kinds of services as Indigo Blue did, adding that she believes the current programming is focused largely on Zen meditation practice.

“Indigo Blue really understood the practices of a variety of different kinds of Buddhist traditions. Monks and nuns from different traditions would come visit,” Yin said. “Right now, it seems like all the main advisors are from the Zen Center.”

In particular, Yin voiced the need for more extensive programming that includes types of practices besides meditation: depending on the Buddhist tradition, chanting, rituals and other cultural aspects of Buddhism can be “more essential” than meditation, she said.

For other students, the main issue lies in the absence of a full-time chaplain to oversee the daily operation of the shrine and provide spiritual counseling to students. Deegahawathura and Richard, for instance, said they hope Kugler will hire a new full-time chaplain to take over Blair’s former responsibilities. Hiring a full-time chaplain would help engage students day-to-day needs, according to Bloom. He said that Seonjoon Soonim, another Buddhist advisor who declined to comment, has some of those capabilities but that this aspect of Buddhist life is still “trying to work itself out.”

“Bruce always got down to the nitty gritty of your problems and it was nice to know there was a chaplain there,” Richard said, adding that other major religious groups on campus currently benefit from having a full-time chaplain.

However, when asked if the Chaplain’s Office plans to hire a new full-time Buddhist chaplain, Kugler said there are no plans to change the current makeup of the Buddhist program, adding that “students and other community members … seem to be quite satisfied.”

As the Chaplain’s Office continues to expand its services dedicated to the Buddhist community, Bloom agreed with students that other Buddhist traditions, in addition to Zen Buddhism, need to be brought in to further enrich Buddhist life at Yale.

“We’d like to see this more energetically engaged, but that’s not really our area,” Bloom said. “The ball is in the Chaplain’s Office’s court.”

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