© Brienne Boortz
© Brienne Boortz
 The U.S. Air Force Academy’s Protestant Chapel, home of the Vast Refuge Dharma Hall Chapel.
 ON A MONDAY morning in late October 2007, six United States Air Force Academy cadets gathered in a small room below the iconic aluminum spires of the Academy’s Protestant Chapel to arrange incense, flowers, votive candles, and bowls of pure water for the coming ceremony.Soon, two dozen attendees to the dedication of the Vast Refuge Dharma Hall Chapel, the first space on an American military base dedicated solely to meditation, would remove their shoes to avoid scuffing the floor and enter humbly, speaking in hushed tones—the beauty of the room calling for a certain solemnity.
The $85,000 hall, situated in the Air Force Academy Chapel’s basement, was built with donations from Friends of Zen, a nonprofit that supports the development of Rinzai Zen sanghas, and from the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism. The space features a meticulous attention to detail: matte green walls, recessed lighting, a beautiful and intricate altar, and on the floor and walls the hand-planed finish of rare Port Orford Cedar (actually a misnomer since the tree is a cypress belonging to the same family as Japanese Hinoki, used in many Japanese temples). It’s hard to believe that only three months ago this same room was so aesthetically unpleasant that the door was kept locked so visitors to the chapel would not see it.

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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