Bringing meditative discipline to modern education, Naropa University cultivates both intellect and the wisdom beyond words. On Naropa’s 25th anniversary, Stephen Foehr profiles a unique experiment in American higher education.
John Baker and Marvin Casper approached the old trailer, its red primer coat in high contrast to the surrounding pines of the Rocky Mountains. Waiting inside was the man whose approval they wanted for a plan to create a new institution different from anything else in American higher education.
They paused at the door, knocked, entered, and removed their shoes. Their teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, sat waiting in a low-slung Naugahyde chair. Baker and Casper sat respectfully on the floor at his feet and explained their idea for a college founded on the Buddhist principles of wisdom, compassion and enlightened action. Pointing his finger like a pistol, Trungpa Rinpoche said, “I’m pulling the trigger on the Naropa Institute.”
That summer of 1973 was the genesis of what is now Naropa University, located in Boulder, Colorado. In September of 1999, Naropa celebrated both its twenty-fifth anniversary and its official accreditation as a Buddhist-inspired university offering both undergraduate and master degrees.
“We were certainly aware that we were proposing a unique and radical departure from what higher education was like in America,” says Casper, a faculty member at Naropa, recalling that meeting in the trailer. “There was no school in America that focused on personal and spiritual development as the root of the educational program. The tradition in America was developing people through the intellect.”
Naropa started as a summer institute. Casper and Baker presented ideas to Trungpa Rinpoche, who approved, rejected or offered advice. “Marvin and I had this idea because we were inspired by and devoted to Trungpa Rinpoche,” Baker says, “and he always set the context by teaching us.”
Casper was the strategist and Baker the doer. They immediately started to gather a staff, invite teachers, and compile a catalogue for the first summer session in 1974. Ram Dass agreed to teach and they knew he would attract some out-there types who might rub the more staid Boulder residents the wrong way. To minimize contact, Baker rented a private canyon outside of town and established a free campground for Naropa students. Classroom space and accommodations had to be found. And money, what about money? That question would linger around Naropa for years, and the echo is still heard in the halls today.
A goal of five hundred participants was set for that first summer session. Two thousand people registered. Baker and the staff frantically worked to piece together facilities from whatever space they found available. The interior of a former bus garage was spray-painted white and ten thousand square feet of multi-striped carpet, as colorful as Jacob’s coat, was laid over the oil stains.
A month before classes were to begin, when chaos was the rule rather than the exception, Trungpa Rinpoche left for a vacation in the Caribbean. He called Baker and asked how things were going.
“I feel that this is a wild animal and I’m just trying to hold on to its back and not fall off,” Baker replied.
“You know, my whole life has been like that,” Trungpa Rinpoche said.
Trungpa Rinpoche returned in June for the formal opening of The Naropa Institute. In his speech to the two thousand students, he said, “We’re making hot chili.” It wasn’t to be a bland stew of traditions but something strong and spicy. A place “where East meets West and sparks will fly”—that was what Trungpa Rinpoche envisioned.
Naropa was named for an eleventh-century Buddhist teacher, one of the founders of the Kagyü school of tantric Buddhism. Before becoming a wandering yogi, Naropa was abbot of Nalanda University in India, the greatest institution of Buddhist learning of its day.
If you visit the ruins of Nalanda in India today, you can still feel its former grandeur. The Naropa campus in Boulder is a little more modest. The core 3.7-acre campus is cramped, or compact, or intricately fitted—depending on your sense of space. The centerpiece of the campus, fronting busy Arapahoe Avenue, is a former elementary school housing offices, classrooms, meeting rooms and meditation halls.
Tucked behind are three low buildings for performance spaces, classrooms, a bookstore, and a small kitchen with a take-out counter. The sign on the tip jar reads, “If you fear change, leave it here.” A Buddhist in-joke. Students eat lunch at wrought iron tables set on the lip of the asphalt parking lot. Six simple frame cottages clustered near the central building double as offices and classrooms. The Allen Ginsberg Library was dedicated in 1993.
Between the central building and the Ginsberg Library is a flower and vegetable garden, and in pleasant weather students lounge on the lawn at the edge of the garden. Naropa has nine hundred graduate and undergraduate students taught by forty-five full-time faculty members. Another sixty-eight students are enrolled in Naropa’s Masters in Liberal Arts program at the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California.
Courses at Naropa include a broad range of Western and Eastern disciplines: cultural anthropology, computer literacy, Western and Buddhist psychology, early childhood education, environmental studies, dance, theater, writing and literature, yoga, tai chi, meditation, music, managerial accounting, gerontology, long-term care management, and more.
So where’s the hot chili? To find the heat, you have to go into the classrooms and the meditation halls. The compact between the students and the teachers is that they will educate each other. The teachers prepare the meal and the students add the spice by not accepting their education passively. They stir the pot, and if they don’t, the teachers will hand them a spoon—or an idea, or a dance step, or an assumption—and say, “Stir with vigour.”
Naropa students are an eclectic lot. One recent day on campus I observed sitting at the tables near the cafe a gray-haired grandmother; a young redhead male in full dreadlocks; a mature woman, her worldly experiences etched on her face; two bearded intellectual types, and a vibrant twenty-year-old woman. At other tables were ordinary looking people, people with nose rings, males with long hair and women with shaven heads. Naropa appeals to a wide cross-section of America.
David Ludwig is a third year masters student in Buddhist studies. He graduated in philosophy from Sonoma State College. “My traditional education insisted on distancing me from what I was studying,” David explains. “Here you can’t get away with not integrating your self and your studies. Naropa practices what it preaches and as a student I’ve embodied what I learned. I have been trained for sane living, for surviving in a stressful world.”
Aura Fichbeck, an undergraduate in the interarts program, came to Naropa after high school. “I chose Naropa because it seemed to have a good balance of body, mind and spirit,” says the aspiring dancer. “There is an attention to awareness here, a holistic approach that has given me a good educational experience. I have been introduced to a lineage of people in the arts who have made awareness part of their artistic practice.”
“In a lot of ways the rigor at Naropa is looking at your own mind,” John Cobb explains. An attorney before joining Naropa as president seven years ago, Cobb settles into a wingback chair in his office to talk about Naropa’s unique approach to education.
“We ask people to hold a mirror up to their own mind. Meditation is as much a part of the education process here as reading a textbook. If you’re going to achieve any real understanding, you have to know how you filter what you perceive and how you project on the world what you want. Meditation practice is very valuable to that understanding.
“We can’t make everybody at Naropa meditate,” Cobb says, “but we can make the wisdom of meditation part of the curriculum and create an environment that helps support what meditation is getting at. Then we build on the meditation environment by having other contemplative disciplines—such as art forms and therapeutic training—that have roots in mindfulness-awareness.
“What we’re really about is training ourselves to be human beings, as opposed to training ourselves to be experts. For the past two hundred years or so, the intellect has been at the fore of academia. We’re trying to bring back a quality of nonconceptual understanding as being extremely important. To a certain extent Naropa is a throwback. The intellectual and spiritual have been forced apart in our educational system. We work to bring them together.”
Naropa’s early years were intoxicating, infuriating, inspiring and fun. “The spirit of Naropa was like a lot of cosmic dust coming into a form,” says Emily Hunter, who served on Naropa’s first board of trustees. “No one knew what the form was going to be, but there was a vortex, a real cauldron for ego development and destruction by working closely with Trungpa Rinpoche.”
The infamous poetry reading is a good example. I was there and I saw the sparks fly.
As an introduction to the community and as a fund raiser for the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center, Naropa arranged a poetry reading at the University of Colorado. Trungpa Rinpoche invited Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Robert Bly and Nanao Sakaki to read.
The 400-seat auditorium was SRO. The poets, including Trungpa Rinpoche, sat on meditation cushions in a straight line on the stage. Snyder and Bly were at one end, stage left; Ginsberg and Trungpa Rinpoche were at the other end, and Sakaki was in the center. Snyder and Bly shared a fifth of whiskey behind their backs during the reading; Trungpa Rinpoche sipped openly from a large bottle of sake, which could have been mistaken for a bottle of water.
As the reading progressed, Rinpoche weaved visibly on his cushion. He leaned over to Ginsberg and whispered; Ginsberg resolutely shook his head no and crossed his arms to emphasize his refusal. Bly recited a translation of the Diamond Sutra; Trungpa Rinpoche picked up a large brass bowl gong and inverted it over his head. The audience tittered and Bly looked up from his page. When Bly finished reading, Trungpa Rinpoche took the bowl off his head.
Ginsberg leaned over and admonished Trungpa Rinpoche. Ginsberg wrote later that he told him, “You shouldn’t do that, they’ve come here to do you a favor, you shouldn’t be carrying on like that,” and that Trungpa Rinpoche replied, “If you think I’m doing this because I’m drunk, you’re making a big mistake.”
When Snyder started to read, Rinpoche put the bowl on Ginsberg’s head. When the readings were over, Trungpa Rinpoche apologized repeatedly to the audience for inviting the poets who had laid their heavy trip on them. Later, Ginsberg asked Trungpa Rinpoche why he did the bowl-on-head thing. Trungpa Rinpoche replied, Ginsberg wrote, “that the people in the audience were his students and he didn’t want them to get the wrong idea of what was the ideal version of a poet.”
“There was a wild and free form of energy around Naropa that first summer,” recalls the poet Anne Waldman, who, with Ginsberg and Diane di Prima, came to teach. “Allen and I were students of Trungpa Rinpoche and we really believed that the poetic imagination could be informed by the buddhadharma. Allen saw Naropa as a ground of sanity, as a liberation. That artistic vision and the dharma vision of community and of helping others outside an academy setting attracted me to Naropa.”
That first summer, Waldman and Ginsberg formed the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. “We decided that naming what we were creating was a good way to contain all this wild energy and possibilities,” says Waldman, now a Distinguished Professor of Poetics at Naropa. “Allen felt that Kerouac had realized the First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering. I threw out the ‘disembodied’ as a kind of joke. Part of the humor was, here we were designing a school and we didn’t have a building, or space, a desk, telephone, anything tangible, or money. Many of the writers who we felt to be part of our lineage—from Sappho to Blake to Dante to William Carlos Williams—were not alive. They were disembodied, hovering around the place.”
The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics quickly became highly regarded, a harbinger of the reputation Naropa enjoys today. But during its first ten years, Naropa was a ramshackle construct. A Chinese restaurant, a former Masonic Lodge, a dance hall, and people’s garages became classrooms. The offices were above a book store. Money was like quicksilver—hard to get a hold of and harder yet to keep in hand. The payroll was a game of chance. Teachers worked for dharma dollars, their annual monetary pay between $8,000 and $10,000.
“Naropa was, and is, always riding along the edge of losing it, but that’s what makes it so interesting,” says Judy Lief, who served as dean of Naropa from 1980-85 and is now on the board of trustees. “How to have rigor, but also to have a gentle atmosphere that is willing to work with all sorts of different people? How to bring in traditions beyond the Buddhist tradition? How to have a real meeting ground and sparky quality? How to become a model that would spread to education more broadly, but at the same time keep some counter-cultural stance challenging the assumptions of the materialism-absorbed society? Those questions are, and continue to be, Naropa’s challenge.”
During Lief’s tenure as dean the opportunity came to buy the elementary school building. Naropa had no money but Lief and Barbara Dilley, then the school’s chancellor and later president following Trungpa Rinpoche’s death in 1987, found money. They called people they didn’t know, met with bankers, and shook every money tree in the forest until they closed the deal.
A small woman with spritely short hair, Dilley still teaches at Naropa. Trained in classical ballet, she worked with John Cage and Merce Cummingham, and her style is one of improvisation. “In the beginning, there was a lot of improvising at Naropa,” she says, “and it’s important to keep that element of spontaneous improvisation. Naropa always needs to keep open an arena for the experimental, for the unknown.”
“The basis of the creative process, and also the educational process, is the relationship to the unknown—to have tolerance for what isn’t seen or heard. It’s going to the edge to spontaneously improvise and evoke the inner spirit. One of Trungpa Rinpoche’s main slogans for Naropa was, ‘The question is the answer.’ In other words, hold your mind open to the possibilities. Then education, discovery, investigation and inquiry happen.”
To remain lively, Lief says, Naropa must “maintain a sense of distrust and a sense of the emptiness of the forms of higher education and credentials. People fall prey to seeing forms as solid, like a degree, instead of something you might make use of to benefit the world in some way.”
In the early 1980s, the issue of forms and credentials became a big issue at Naropa. Students pushed to have the school accredited so that their education would be recognized by potential employers. Some of the faculty resisted. They did not want Naropa judged by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and made to fit the mold of mainline education. The preciousness of Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision could not be confined to a conventional form, they argued.
The debate revolved around how to hold on to Trungpa Rinpoche’s original vision and also to accommodate growth. Growth and change threatened the original vision, argued one group. The idea of Naropa is not to hold and protect, argued another group, but to proclaim and encourage the wisdom and compassion that exist everywhere.
It was a defining moment for Naropa. They applied for accreditation and were twice refused. The accreditation board did not object to the education philosophy but doubted Naropa’s ability to sustain itself financially. But the resolution of the debate seemed to trigger an opening of Naropa to other traditions. During the 1980s, Naropa launched six annual Buddhist-Christian conferences, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was appointed to the newly established World Wisdom Seat. Finally in 1985 Naropa was granted full accreditation as a four-year college.
The issue of form remains a central question as Naropa enters the new millennium. President Cobb admits it gives him sleepless nights: “It scared me a little bit when we went from Naropa Institute to Naropa University,” he says. “It’s not just related to size but also to how we perceive ourselves. The word ‘university’ implies a huge institution, one where perhaps the form is more significant than the original aspiration and inspiration.
“That worries me. By using the word ‘university’ we join an important tradition, and that’s very healthy in many respects. But we need to cut constantly through forms and labels and get back to our own inspiration for being here.
“The objectives of our core curriculum are wisdom, compassion, and effective action,” Cobb continues. “There is plenty in educational theory that says unlearning is the birth of wisdom. At Naropa there is a quality of unlearning that is related to fully appreciating yourself as a human being, rather than as a professional or an expert in some field. When you work with nonconceptual understanding, you touch compassion in a way that creates a different understanding of why you are learning. Unless we look at people as whole humans and work to educate ourselves that way, we are going to be in worse trouble in every way—environmentally, socially, politically, economically.”
What type of person does Cobb hope will emerge from a Naropa education? “I hope that they put societal change ahead of their own self interest.” Cobb replies. “I hope that they are not too concerned about being experts, but are curious and able to walk unprotected into a situation. I would like them to be change agents—not only through problem-solving but through radiating a quality of stillness, openness and caring into the sphere around them.
“We’re trying to revive the idea that education can be a lot more than just the transmission of facts and data. Education can actually result in the transformation of the personal self.”
The historical Naropa left his prestigious post at Nalanda when he realized that he did not truly understand the meaning of what he was studying. Only after he met his teacher Tilopa did he transcend mere intellect and reach enlightenment.
“Naropa had to leave Nalanda to meet his guru and obtain enlightenment,” says William McKeever, a former vice-president. “We’d like to create a university that Naropa wouldn’t have left.”