A place to find peace

By Erin Emery, The Denver Post, Oct 30, 2007

Air Force Academy dedicates Buddhist space in chapel

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, CO (USA) -- With incense burning, a small crowd of shoeless people gathered Monday to dedicate a Buddhist Chapel in the iconic Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel.

The Vast Refuge Dharma Hall Chapel, a 300-square-foot room where a growing number of cadet Buddhists meditate, is believed to be the first space in a federal facility dedicated to Buddhism.

"Cadets are different. Cadets don't fit into one mold, and that includes religion, and I think it is a great way to expand our minds and our hearts and to show that as cadets, we want to prepare ourselves in a holistic way," said cadet Leah Pound, 22, a senior from Parsons, Kan.

Among the academy's 4,500 cadets, 26 consider themselves Buddhists. The academy had established a Sangha, a spiritual community, seven years ago. Three years ago, the Rev. Dai En Hannya Hi Fu Wiley Burch, a graduate of the academy's first Class of 1959, asked that a multipurpose room in the lower level of the cadet chapel be transformed into a Buddhist Chapel.

Despite criticism two years ago that the academy favored evangelical Christianity over other religions, Burch said the academy met his idea with open arms.

"I understood there was a possibility or a place for Buddhism in the military," said Burch. "I understand the culture very well, and I understand the diversity of it. From that place, rather than being hard and coming in against, I came in willing to accept all. That's a Buddhist teaching, not to set yourself up against things so much as to just be, we say, like clouds and like water, just flow."

The $85,000 to construct the space, and an additional $10,000 a year for the next five years to operate the chapel, was provided by The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism and Friends of Zen. No tax dollars were used on construction.

While many practicing Buddhism are pacifists, Burch said the Buddhist mind-set helps bring compassion to conflicts.

"Without compassion, war is nothing but criminal activity," Burch said. "It is necessary sometimes to take life, but we never take it for granted."

Cadet Melissa Hughes, 22, a senior from Jupiter, Fla., said cadets who practice Buddhism have spent hours talking about their beliefs and war.

"We realize that war is certainly a thing that we don't want to have to do, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary, and it requires compassion for your country, your family, the people that you are protecting. I think Buddhism definitely has a place there," Hughes said.

Noel Trew, 22, a senior from Fort Pierce, Fla., said he considers himself Christian, though he likes the Buddhist mind-set.

"It brings the meditative aspects. It's sit down and see what happens," Trew said. "That's kind of the core behind the practice. ... The core part is sitting down and trying to make your mind be quiet for a little while."

At the academy, with its rigorous academic, military and athletic curriculum, being quiet can be challenging.

"Every once in a while, we'll be sitting there in the meditative state and you'll hear ... bugle calls going off in the background. Our sensei just tells us, take that up and use that as part of the meditation," Trew said.
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