Mondo Zen Blog

A Letter from the Air Force Academy Buddhist Program Leader

Saturday, July 30, 2011

2010-2011 - A progress report

It’s 1900 on a Friday evening in Jack’s Valley.  It’s been a 90+ degree day. Cadets in Basic Training have been running the Assault Course, the Obstacle Course, and others, and they have had people in their faces, yelling, since very early morning. They are tired. Fifteen of them come walking up the dirt road to the tent that serves as the Buddhist Chapel in the camp. A tarp is spread over the concrete floor, and this evening there are just enough cushions for two leaders and the 15 cadets who take off their boots and packs at the entry. Several approach the altar to offer incense. Rays from the low sun stream the length of the tent, and suffuse the quiet that takes hold immediately. We sing refuge: “I take refuge in Awakening; I take refuge in the Way; I take refuge in my Companions.”

Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are present. After 20 minutes of meditation, with just a few words dropped into the silence, a leader introduces walking meditation: see what it’s like if you walk as one body. And they do.  There’s some time for discussion, and immediately the power of the meditation itself is spoken. One speaks of the sense that “everything belongs.” Another says he was suddenly keenly aware of connection: a sensation that he and everything else are connected. Someone expresses awe at the countless phenomena that appear in each moment---the largeness and largesse of each instant. One cadet speaks of the intimacy of sound during the meditation. One woman speaks of how hard it was not to have service last Sunday, when violent storms caused a cancellation. 

At the end of our time, one quiet voice says, “It’s hard to leave here and go back out there.”  And yet, there’s a keen awareness that leaving here and going back out there, taking this light and stillness with you, is exactly the practice. We sing Boundless Vows, hand out pocket editions of the Dhammapada, and close.  As boots are laced up, one young man takes me aside and asks if it’s okay for someone from another faith tradition to attend regularly during the academic year. We speak of the many teachers and practitioners of Buddhism who are Christian, or Jewish, or other.

Once the academic year begins, it’s much harder for cadets to keep attending on a regular basis. During the 2010-2011 academic year our numbers have once again been small for regular weekly services (over-all average of 6 or so).  At the same time, the sangha continues to mature and develop.

The regular schedule that has evolved is this - SPIRE (Special Programs in Religious Education) meets on Monday evenings:

These meetings include some time for meditation and then discussion of a reading, or a talk by a visiting teacher. This year, for example, we had talks by the following:

  • Dr. Victor Bradford, a Vipassana teacher who is a retired Air Force dentist.
  • Ellie Coriell, a teacher of  Qigong
  • Dr. Dave Levy, a professor at USAFA who is also a very skilled leader of Big    Mind workshops, and who offers several annually for cadets
  • Chaplain Darlene Avery, our SPIRE volunteer leader, a Christian who is very  thoroughly engaged with Buddhist practice,  and her husband, Chaplain  Derek Krehbiel, who led discussion of Sacred Hoops.
  • Andrew Palmer, Sensei, from Springs Mountain Sangha

    Cadets were also invited to attend Monday evening talks in Colorado Springs by Joan Sutherland, Roshi and by Richard Baker, Roshi

Meditation and Dharma Talk on Thursday evening:

Starting with the second semester of this year, the cadet Schedule of Calls changed, allowing us to hold our second service of the week on Thursday evening, a night with far fewer scheduling conflicts and homework assignments than our previous Wednesday evening time. This change was very helpful.  It may have come about in part because our Cadet in Charge spoke up very assertively in a Religious Respect conference about the need for some protected time for Buddhist services.  Hi Fu Roshi has generously met with the group when he has been in town, offering talks and discussion with cadets.

Sunday morning services:

Every Sunday we hold a 10:00 service that includes one period of meditation, a sutra service, and then time for a brief talk and discussion, often over brunch.  This is the most formal service of the week.  As one might expect, some cadets prefer this and some prefer the simpler evening services. Visitors and members of the wider community come to both the Thursday and Sunday services, but more often Sunday.  The addition of this service seems to have been a good idea, and we will continue it. Two cadets are now able to lead sutra services, and this year we will add two more.

Ceremonies and Celebrations:

 This year, we held more additional gatherings than we have done in the

      On August 24, a Tuesday, we held a service for Ullambana (sometimes called  
      Parents’ Day or Ancestor Day), with 14 attending. 
      December 8 we held a Rohatsu Ceremony and dinner, with 15 attending. 
      May 17 we held a Wesak service and dinner, with 23 attending. 
      We also held a Baccalaureate service this year, with 11 attending.

Other Gatherings:

In the Fall of this year, all fourteen cadets listed as Buddhist were invited to attend a dinner to discuss their needs and how the Buddhist Program might best support their religious practice. Nine people attended; four of these were among the listed Buddhist cadets.

In September we hiked up Stanley Canyon to a nearby reservoir, held a sutra service and had breakfast up there and then hiked down.

In April, twelve of us attended the Hanamatsuri service at the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple (Jodo Shinshu), and then had lunch together.

We also held a number of simply social gatherings, for community building.

Three Retreats:

September 24-26 we held a Doolie retreat in the mountains. This included some introduction to meditation and Buddhist practice, but also a lot of time for the new cadets to form as a community. Eleven attended, and among those, seven ethnic groups were represented!

January 29-30 we held a meditation retreat, which was small (7) but let the cadets begin to have the experience of a longer stretch of meditation.

March 4-6 nine of us held a meditation retreat in the Black Forest, fully silent and with Oryoki meals. This was our strongest sesshin yet. The cadets participated fully and sat very strongly.  Major Stuart Lloyd, an active duty Air Force member who used to teach at the Academy, came to serve as Head of Practice, and Darlene Avery served as Tenzo. 

Other events and service:

Last Spring, in May of 2010, I performed the wedding of two former cadets, in Kansas City, MO. In the Fall, one of them was deployed to Afghanistan. His friend made him a camouflage rakusu (he had previously taken refuge). I took it with me to my Rohatsu sesshin and wrote on it, and then we sent it to him.  He is one of several graduates who have written very moving notes about the importance of their meditation practice and continued study during their deployments.  One cadet, who when she left the Academy found her spiritual home in the Catholicism of her family, wrote from Iraq asking for readings, instruction and support for starting a  small meditation group there.

In January, 2011 I was asked to speak on a three-person interfaith panel in the OASIS (fellowship lounge operated by Chapel Staff) on the topic, “What is the source of your values in your religious tradition?”

In February, I gave a reading (Shantideva’s Prayer) at a National Prayer Luncheon.

In May of 2011, I gave the invocation for the retirement ceremony of a Master Sergeant, a member of our sangha.

I have not been able to establish regular “office hours,” but have frequently done some individual spiritual direction in the evenings, after our services.

Occasionally a cadet or two will come home with me for Sunday afternoon, just to have some time away.

I am unable to attend every Chapel Staff meeting, but I do get to at least half of them, and keep developing a better understanding of the way things work at the Academy.

The Dharma Hall Itself

The Dharma Hall, a Buddhist Chapel within the Cadet Chapel, is itself an important presence. Cadets do come to sit, and sometimes to leave dedications on the altar. Thousands of tourists come through, and it’s very interesting to be around when they are there. Many are just curious, but some come in to sit, ask for some instruction or discussion, leave dedications, and sometimes ask for a prayer. Most seem to be touched by the beauty, warmth and calm of the Hall, and by the presence of so many faiths in one building.

Our library is still very small, but each year there are a couple of cadets or recent grads who seem to go through it, reading almost every book we have.

The Cadet Interfaith Council

Two Buddhist cadets are representatives to the Cadet Interfaith Council.  The Council is becoming more and more a meaningful body, and our two Buddhist cadets have done a lot to increase awareness of our presence at the Academy. This year, one of them plans to coordinate a weekly service day.  That’s an ambitious project, because Saturday afternoon is generally the only time cadets have to go off campus and volunteer, and calls on their time are many and heavy.  But if she can manage to put together 3 such days per semester, that will be a significant success.

Plans and Questions:

How to best serve cadets who come from Buddhist countries remains a question. Some of them participate with the sangha (more this past year than before), but others do not. They participate most when there is a special ceremony or a social event like a dinner, so we will continue to offer these and hope to build from there. Trips to visit other temples are helpful, but hard to arrange given cadet schedules.

How to provide for the differing needs and interests of this transient population also remains a question. Some are more interested in community, others in meditation, others in study; they enter at different times, and with differing degrees of preparation and interest. This year, I plan to offer more content in classes, and assume that cadets will rise to the challenge of doing some reading. I also think they can be challenged more in their meditation practice, and will work hard to find times for individual meetings.

Ongoing Needs:

Some items needed but currently unfunded are:

  •  a bookshelf (designed, not yet purchased) to allow expansion of the library
  •  a temple bell and stand
  •  a han

An ongoing need that we have tried to address every year, still without success, is for a place outside of the Chapel where cadets could go for meditation when the Chapel is closed (it is open only from 9 to 5).  We will continue to work on the scheduling problems involved in inviting nationally and internationally known speakers.

Our heartfelt thanks!

We are keenly aware that without the generous support of the Lenz Foundation and the Friends of Zen, especially the support of Dai En Hi Fu Roshi, we would still be meeting in a corner room with cinderblock walls and industrial carpet; and we would not have been able to develop the program that is becoming better and better established at the Academy.

In addition, your support to me as leader of the program has been extremely welcome and helpful this year. Please accept my deep thanks for this.


Sarah Bender, Sensei
Cadet Chapel Buddhist Program Leader
2348 Sijan Drive, Suite 100
USAF Academy, CO 80840-8280
DSN: 333-2636
Cell: 719 964-1797


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