Bob Boese has been making the candles for Berkeley Zen Center’s altars for over forty years. It hasn’t been his habit to sit with us, but year after year, month after month, he made and delivered candles. I visited Bob last month. We stood in his workshop and he went through how he has made our candles and what that has meant to him as a spiritual practice. I noticed on his wall was thumbtacked a yellowed BZC phone directory from 1992. When I left, Bob gave me a folder with copies of fifty pages of correspondence about candles, with the lineage of BZC chidens since 1973. It was sweet to see the patient and careful work of a hidden benefactor.
In the past couple of years, Bob’s health has been inconsistent and he couldn’t be as reliable with the candles as he had been. I offered to take over that task. I had made candles as a childhood business. As an adult, I made pillar candles for Christmas presents. It is important to me to have someone personally make candles for the altar instead of purchasing them from a store. And if you believe in making merit, there’s no better way of leveraging one’s effort than making candles for Buddha.
When I started making candles for BZC, I tried to make them out of pure beeswax. I thought that was the best way to be consistent with our stated principles about chemical sensitivities and VOCs. But I had no experience making beeswax candles—I had always used paraffin. While Bob’s candles had a yellow appearance, they were actually made of paraffin, too, and he couldn’t help me with how to make beeswax candles. It took quite a bit of trial and error to succeed in making beeswax pillars, and even when I did, they didn’t burn well. I continued to experiment with different materials and methods. I have recently been making candles that are a mixture of beeswax and soy and I am pleased that they burn cleanly and well.
I am glad to have a little craft practice like this. I remember a Zen teacher declaiming that every Zen student should practice an art form as part of their training. If I was artistic, maybe I would be an artist. I am not, but I can make this thing with my hands, knowledge, and care. To add a little Zen, I periodically say the great bright mantra while making a batch. Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.
I daydream about developing a three-volume series of mysteries: The Temple Chandler, The Temple Chandler and the Case of the Missing Sake, and The Temple Chandler’s Apprentice. If anyone wants to workshop this, let’s talk.