From time to time, it is delicious to walk in church with bare feet. It is Thursday night in Battell Chapel, and the three of us are removing the fossil casings of our shoes, the skins of our socks, and beginning to crawl forward, slow invaders of a sacred space.
Is it a kind of worship, of luxurious praise, this feeling of wood under the thick leaves of our soles? We are working with the Buddhist chaplain. His name is Bruce Blair, but he doesn’t claim it, and we prefer addressing him with nods and beckonings, a dance he follows easily. He is here every night to lead Stillness and Light, a meditation service, and twice a week he arrives thirty minutes early to pass out bound pamphlets and to intone lines of text he knows well. On this night, we are here to chant with him.
Bruce tells us we are giving the chapel a gift. We are stripping it of decades of bootblack markings, ladies’ pumps, Mary Janes. His glasses are rimless circles levitating above the pleasant oval of his face. He moves lithely; he makes no right angles no matter how his elbows pivot.
When we arrived, we saw in his arms a cardboard box whose contents he began to unravel: a bowl the color of ore, a matching wand to strike it, a wooden screen and a Buddha statue to stand guard in front of it. Then he turned to us and asked: “Would you mind taking off your shoes?”
We didn’t even nod or share our names. The process of unfurling began and ended. And now that we are barefoot, Bruce points to the mats and cushions pressed to the bottom of the box.
“I find there’s a ritual to setting up that’s very soothing,” he explains in a voice like cotton. “If you wouldn’t mind helping?”
The chaplain places the wooden screen over the chapel’s cross, sets the Buddha in front. Red and gold felt carpets the statue’s base and gives the diorama an air of defiant permanence. He offers the statue a bell bowl, a tray of roasted tea leaves, and an incense burner. Emblems of the East: familiar, recovered objects, the kind we’d be glad to see in a dream, or just upon waking.
Battell is familiar ground for Bruce. He chuckles and presses a wrist to his forehead before admitting: “Sometimes I feel like I never leave this place; cleaning Battell Chapel for Sunday service was my job in college.” It was no small task. Organ pipes cascade down the center wall and multiply on both balconies, the first ones impossibly tall, the next ones shorter and shorter as they move through the scale.
The space he swept in those years is ours now. Beneath the chapel dome, on the stage where ceremonies are held, we drop down onto the black cushions. We fold our legs as we learned to do on the first day in the first year of school, feet crossed and tucked under thighs. The chaplain’s feet, I notice, are folded differently. They are clasped under his hip bones, making each leg resemble a wedge of squeezed lemon.
His back is held with the attention of a springboard. Before he passes out the texts that will help us voice each syllable, he nods to the side and begins to speak.
The Greeks gave Buddha his robe, he tells us, because they couldn’t stand looking at a naked foreign god. And Buddhism itself is a term coined by the British in the 19th century. They were suspicious of this mute religion that felt no need to be named; they wanted even the exotic to be orthodox. Now the West lends its chapels for chants. Has a bridge grown between continents?
Battell Chapel is thawing, opening up: “Last year after the tsunami we held a vigil for 10 hours here with students rotating in and out,” he says. “We chanted the entire time. Some slept on the pews and would wake up chanting…”
In Sri Lanka, one of those students told him, it is believed that those who suffer a painful death remain anguished, their souls planted in a purgatory not unlike Dante’s. Chanting, for them, soothes the suffering of the dead, animates what cannot be spoken in plain rhythms.
“That night there was a blizzard. We invited monks and nuns from Korea. Their flight was late and they arrived in the worst of it, on the backs of open jeeps, orange robes trailing in the snow. After we chanted they rode back again, with blankets this time, starting back home.” Like a family of orange swans, knowing when to alight and when to depart.
Chanting is a way of inhabiting the world, coming to understand it. A nurse Bruce knew who worked in a hospice and saw people through death said it was terrible when the last look on someone’s face was: “Did I miss something?”
Outside traffic has the musty sound of dreams. The chaplain remembers his brother, whose watch fell off when he tossed his son into the air and dove for the watch instead of the child. Someone opens the door: a puff of wind hits my cheek. The deep ring of the bowl as he strikes it stretches the tightrope in my stomach.
Chanting, the chaplain insists, empties us “to perceive the sounds of the world — with our ears, our eyes, our nose, our hands, our tongues.” It is a renewal, as when the world announces itself to us after a deep sleep. He recalls a monk who moved to Rhode Island and made a living fixing washing machines before starting a temple. As the monk grew ill, he calmed his two apprentices by saying: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who die sooner, and those who die later.” Chanting is a way of claiming a home, here, while it lasts and matters.
As I chant, I feel the syllables climb up the rungs of my throat and dart out of my mouth. The chaplain’s voice recalls monasteries set deep in hills, hands turning perpetual wheels. As the last verse trails off, we wake. We take note of this place, its architecture, its body. The rise and fall of the pews, their simple wood. The bowl-bell, the empty space inside that gives it form. It’s as if we are able to see objects without assigning them names. We linger and then disperse, but some force drives me back without the others. The chapel feels vacant, sealed off, like an underground ballroom. Its lights are smothered except for some thin glowworms still in their cages.
Bruce emerges from a side door. He has cleared the mats from the stage and placed them below the steps in a whole circle; small candles in glass cups bloom in the middle. He carries a pot of barley tea. We drink from bowls cupped in our hands, and I learn the origins of “Battell”: a Hebrew word for the place where Jacob once slept. The annals record him setting out on a long journey; he grows tired and stops when night reaches him. Unknown boulders and the impending dark circle him. He feels wilderness around him, must use a stone for a pillow. That night Jacob dreams of angels ascending a ladder to heaven, and he is following, climbing the rungs they’ve just scaled, and he manages to catch a tangle of a robe before it flies away from him. He wakes up jubilant and upends his stone in the ground for a marker. That is why steeples point towards the sky — straining upwards, they remember.
Jacob’s story speaks to Siddhartha under the bodi tree, circling its base for days upon days because his feet could not find the right place to stop. When he finally sat down, earthquakes rolled through the world. Siddhartha dreamt, as Jacob did, and woke in the night. He felt the roots swelling the ground under him, saw the tree above him. The tree was stretching towards the sky, and Siddhartha followed its trunk up to see a star whose name he did not know and he said: “Everything is already complete. Each thing has it.” Nothing here needs our work. n