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Indigo blues

(Christine Mi/YH Staff)

(Christine Mi/YH Staff)

For nine years, every morning around 2 a.m., used ceramic cups would fill a basket in Battell Chapel, reminders of barley tea that students had poured for each other during the night. Candles would be snuffed and round meditation cushions put away by any remaining students, ready to be placed in a circle again the following night at the next session of Stillness and Light, as the meditation program was called. But on Mon., Oct. 22, no circle was formed, no candles were lit, and no tea was poured. Earlier that day, the Yale Chaplain’s Office had severed its relationship with Indigo Blue, the Buddhist chaplaincy, and its chaplain, Bruce Blair, TC ’81. That day, and each day since, students have found an empty space where they once went to meditate.

Indigo Blue’s absence was instantly felt in the wake of its sudden departure. “I felt crushed,” Kerri Lu, PC ’14, said. “It was so devastating, I think, to so many.” Students, having received no prior warning of the split, struggled to understand what had happened. Some regulars in the Buddhist community were told in person. Visitors to Battell Monday night learned of the chaplaincy’s end from a sign on the door: “The Indigo Blue Event Has Been Cancelled.” Still others were surprised when they visited Indigo Blue’s former website to find it taken offline, and their browsers redirected to the Chaplain’s Office website.

The sudden severing of ties between the University and Indigo Blue remains shrouded in mystery, with satisfactory explanations missing from both of the parties. “This change may feel sudden, but it was carefully thought out,” Sharon Kugler, the University Chaplain, wrote in an Oct. 30 email circulated among most Yale College students but originally addressed to “Members and Friends of the Yale Buddhist Community.” In the email, Kugler declined to elaborate on the reasons for the decision.

In an email sent that same day, addressed to “students, staff, faculty, family, and friends of Indigo Blue,” Blair, who has served as Buddhist chaplain since the post’s foundation in 2003, emphasized the sudden nature of the program’s removal: “Called to a meeting at the Chaplain’s Office, we were taken by surprise when told the relationship was ended, and I was—in effect—asked to immediately close our shrines, and move off-campus,” he wrote. The full text of the letter is available on www.indigoblue.org, the website Blair has created to replace the old Yale site. In the email, Blair cryptically referred to “allegations, mainly new, and neither detailed nor substantiated.” He wrote, “I am now seeking expert advice, and for the moment it is not appropriate to discuss in detail the issues Yale raised last Monday.”

Without access to the details of the split, students have found it difficult to draw conclusions from the situation. Alyssa Bilinski, CC ’13, said, “Everything still is confidential, so I can’t really make any judgment. I was very sad that it happened, even though Yale acted the way that it thought it was most appropriate.” Kim Fabian, DC ’15, said that she is still processing the shock by talking with “friends who are also struggling with this. [We are] hurt, confused, sad, going through a grieving process.

As they recover from the immediate shock of Indigo Blue’s discontinuation, students find themselves acutely aware of the ways in which the chaplaincy had served them in their time at Yale. “Indigo Blue had a very specific purpose, and now that purpose isn’t being filled. So there’s a void,” Shubo Yin, ES ’14, said. “In its absence, [I feel] lost.”

The administration has emphasized its plans to ensure that the Buddhist community at Yale does not suffer from this change. In an email to the Buddhist community on Tuesday, Sharon Kugler affirmed, “We are deeply committed to creating a new and expansive program for Buddhist life at Yale and are dedicating significant resources to it.” She has invited students to talk with her and to attend a Nov. 4 meeting, the first of four weekly discussions whose purpose, she wrote, is “to hear more suggestions and to put future plans for Buddhist practice in place.”

Many students believe that it is essential to reflect on the chaplaincy that is now gone. Simon Song, CC ’14, stated, “Even if we’re developing something new, it’s still important to look back.” A number of students and alumni have formed a group called Friends of Indigo Blue to recognize past traditions. Their website, FriendsOfIndigoBlue.wordpress.com, provides a forum for those positively affected by Indigo Blue to submit anonymous reflections on their experiences, which the group plans to show to the administration. Bilinski, who helped to develop the website, said, “I’ve been seeing a lot of the anecdotes come in, and it’s really amazing how [Indigo Blue] managed to touch the lives of so many Buddhist and non-Buddhist people.”

One consideration for a future Buddhist chaplaincy is the range of operations necessary to fulfill the varied needs of the community. The multiplicity of Indigo Blue’s programs reflected the diversity of students who worshipped there. “There were people who considered themselves Buddhist and who belonged to a large spectrum of sects—Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Sri Lankan—people who came from all around,” said Heshika Deegahawathura, PC ’14, president of Buddhist Advisory Board: undergraduate (BABu).

Many non-Buddhist students were also connected to Indigo Blue. As Bilinski said, “One of the nicest things about Indigo Blue was there was no pressure to identify as a Buddhist, not as a Buddhist, or anything.” Fabian, who is Christian, benefited from many events, as well as from talking personally with Blair: “My conversations with Bruce were always very enlightening,” she said. “I learned a lot from him in terms of serving others and what humility means, and how to deal with Yale’s atmosphere.”

Indigo Blue’s programs presented plenty of different opportunities for community involvement. Daily activities included midday time to pray or light incense, evening practice, a memorial ceremony, and chanting, followed by Stillness and Light. Prayer and practice was located in the base of Harkness Tower, which, until last week, was the Buddhist shrine, a sacred space maintained by Blair. A place of worship, it held statues and objects of importance to practitioners. Lu began regularly visiting between classes her sophomore year. “[It was] a space where I could offer incense to my grandparents and think about them,” she said, “just thinking about a loved one who passed away on a regular basis.”

Many students agree that a sacred physical space, icons, and a chaplain will be essential to the future of the Buddhist chaplaincy. “You can’t have an icon in any other space; it needs to be very specifically made in that way,” Deegahawathura said. According to Blair’s email, on Oct. 22, he was told to immediately clear the shrine of the sacred icons that Indigo Blue had provided and tended. When Harkness chapel is returned, as Kugler affirmed in the Tuesday email that it will be, students hope that it reflects their concerns for a space of Buddhist worship. “If my understanding of Buddhism is true, such a sacred space needs to be tended to,” explained Deegahawathura. “There are rituals that are in the Buddhist tradition that need to be implemented. You need to have someone who is authorized to do it by the tradition itself.”

Tending the shrine and leading prayer are typically the religious tasks carried out by a Buddhist chaplain; Blair performed the additional service of Stillness and Light. The program began as Indigo Blue’s response to the university’s requests for religious groups to host activities at night. Every night of the week during the academic year, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., any student could sit in open meditation. Blair was always present, and throughout those four hours, people were welcome to “come and go without hindrance”—a common refrain of Blair and students. Maddie Marino, PC ’15, went to Stillness and Light almost every night, often after midnight. “It was just a place that was protected from everything else,” she said. Patrick Cage, PC ’14, said, “It’s unique as a space where you can simultaneously be with sympathetic people and equally be very much on your own and have a sense of privacy.” Many students attended once a week or once a month, and yet more would come less regularly, seeking out its calm and comfort in times of particular need.

Stillness and Light started as a space for students to deal with Yale’s atmosphere, and ultimately became, for many students, one of the most important parts of Yale. Lu relied on Indigo Blue to help her with the many pressures of sophomore year—deciding on a major, coping with homesickness, and considering the place of religion in her life. “Stillness and Light was a great space not to have pressures about religion, just to go and be still,” she said. “Stillness and Light was a way that students could find help within themselves and reach out for help in a way that is much less formal, that feels much less like exposing themselves, in comparison to going to Walden counselors or checking in to Mental Health,” Cage remarks. For Fabian, the Buddhist chaplaincy was personally vital as she returned to Yale sophomore year: “I think that the reason I came back to Yale was partly because of the Christian community and because of Indigo Blue. Otherwise I wouldn’t have come back here.”

The impact of the chaplaincy’s termination cannot be easily determined. There is no way to know how many students entered and worshipped at the shrine in Harkness Tower or at Stillness and Light over the nine years. In his email, Blair reflected that “10,000 cups of tea [have been served] to hundreds of different students.”

A few opportunities remain for students wishing to practice mindful meditation. New Haven Insight, which is not affiliated with the Chaplain’s Office, offers insight meditation and loving kindness meditation for students, faculty, and community members in Dwight Chapel on Monday and Thursday evenings. Another organization, the student-run YMindful, is not religiously affiliated; its website describes it as “a community of Yalies who practice meditation together.” Students lead sitting meditation, as well as practice weekly eating meditation, in which students begin a meal together in 10 to 15 minutes of silence.

For now, just one Buddhist program has been implemented by the Chaplain’s Office to fill the gap left by Indigo Blue in this interim period. From 4 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Breathing Space in Welch Hall hosts Zen meditation led by Anne Dutton, a Yale Stress Center clinical staff member and meditation teacher with expertise in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. On its first session this Wednesday, three students attended.

But according to Marino, these groups are very different from Indigo Blue. They offer communities practicing set forms of meditation, while the open shrine at Battell Chapel and Stillness and Light were, for many students, more independent—an opportunity to worship or meditate on their own schedules, in their own ways. Fabian argued that this lack of structure was unique to Blair’s Buddhist chaplaincy: “It’s very different from most activities at Yale and in the world in that it’s not programmed. It’s just something that is there to serve.”

Right now, no cups of tea are being served, but students trust that this condition is not permanent. “This is giving us such a great opportunity to come together, to show how important Indigo Blue and Buddhism are in our lives,” Amaris Olguin, DC ’15, said. Bilinski emphasizes her hopes for a productive discourse about the community’s needs among students, administrators, and faculty: “I trust that everybody who cares a lot about this is going to work together to create the same kind of comforting spaces.” Students would be grateful to find comfort after such confusion and loss, and for these spaces to once again fill what is now just a void. In this time of transition, conversations are being held by members of a community that for the most part used to practice quietly.

 

CORRECTION: The print version of this article incorrectly attributed two quotes to Kerri Lu, PC ’14, instead of Heshika Deegahawathura, PC ’14.