After attendees chanted the Heart Sutra to the beat of a drum, Reverend Dai En Wiley Burch of the Hollow Bones Rinzai Zen school dedicated the space with these words: “May this Buddhist sanctuary spread the dharma like a great Bodhi tree, sheltering the cadets and airmen of the United States Air Force from storms of ignorance and the suffering of war.”
Burch, a graduate of the first class of the Air Force Academy in 1959, is largely responsible for garnering the grants to help renovate the 274-square-foot hall, where the twenty-six cadets who currently practice Buddhism will finally have a decent space for their practice.
The improved dharma hall will be a bright spot for the Academy, which has taken its share of blows in the press. Scandals including lawsuits over religious discrimination, sexual assault, cheating, and drug abuse have sullied the Academy’s reputation in recent years. Most recently, questions have been raised about recruiting practices and the lack of diversity in the student body.
It is a conservative institution in a conservative city. Colorado Springs, Colorado, just an hour’s drive south of Denver along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, is flanked by the Air Force Academy to the north, Peterson Air Force Base and the Army’s Fort Carson to the south, with Schriever Air Force Base just ten miles east of Peterson. The city is also home to a large number of religious organizations and churches like Focus on the Family and New Life Church, founded by the recently disgraced minister Ted Haggard.
Tenzin Kacho, the first Buddhist instructor to be hired by the Academy, admitted she was initially hesitant to move to the city because “I’d heard it was a very strong conservative community, that they had a stronghold with Focus on the Family and New Life Church. But I found that the people in town were very accepting. As a Buddhist nun, I couldn’t be incognito very well.”
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