3 Buddhist-Inspired Universities

What’s it like to study at a Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired university in America? Lindsay Kyte on University of the West, Naropa University, and the Institute of Buddhist Studies.

Lindsay Kyte
18 January 2024
Photo of Naropa University by Sofia Drobinskaya

University is often associated with big campuses, competitive grades, and an individual drive to succeed. Yet there are other universities—ones grounded in the dharma—that have an additional priority: wisdom and compassion.

“Every institution provides the academic aspect, but at a Buddhist university, we also want students to harbor a sense of kindness, character, and who they are as a human being,” explains Minh-Hoa Ta, president of University of the West in Rosemead, California. “Students need to see that we’re living in a community where we’re connected to one another and what we do affects other people.”

University of the West (UWest), Naropa University, and the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS) are three of the accredited Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired universities in the United States.

The students, staff, and faculty at these three institutions believe that there’s value in braiding Buddhist wisdom into the curriculum. As David Matsumoto, president of IBS puts it, “We live in a world of strife, division, and oppression. Buddhism offers a point of view that’s not entrenched in these conflicts, but seeks to see through them into the very cause of why we continue to have strife and division, and to transcend and transform them.”

UWest is perched on a hill overlooking the San Gabriel Valley. The campus is lush with roses and birds-of-paradise, loquat trees and Italian cypress. In pride of place there’s a bronze statue of the late Chinese monk Venerable Master Hsing Yun who was the founder of Fo Guang Shan (Buddha’s Light Mountain) order, one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the world. 

UWest was founded by Venerable Master Hsing Yun (1927–2023). He’s considered one of the most influential teachers of modern Taiwanese Buddhism. Photo courtesy of University of the West 

Hsing Yun felt strongly that education was the only sound basis for social change and a major steppingstone to enlightenment. UWest, which was originally called Hsi Lai University, was incorporated by Hsing Yun in 1990. By 2007, it was accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

This private, nonprofit university offers a liberal arts curriculum from bachelor’s degrees through to the doctoral level that blends Buddhist wisdom with Western academic traditions and new technology, covering a range of academic majors, including religious studies, business, history, psychology, Buddhist chaplaincy, and English. 

UWest is known for its Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon, an ambitious, groundbreaking project to preserve the intellectual and spiritual heritage of Buddhism by gathering and digitizing the original Sanskrit scriptures of the Buddhist tradition. The texts are being organized into a complete and comprehensive Sanskrit Buddhist canon that may be freely accessed online.

UWest students aren’t required to be Buddhists or to take classes on Buddhism, and the faculty can likewise be of any faith. Yet in all it offers, UWest weaves in the principles of Humanistic Buddhism, which originated in China at the beginning of the twentieth century. (Fo Guang Shan is a widely practiced form of it.) 

“Humanistic Buddhism is built upon actualizing theories,” Minh-Hoa Ta explains. “Hsing Yun believed that Buddhism should be put into action and not just involve empty discussion. What the world needs is bodhisattva practitioners who can propagate and actualize Buddhist teachings in society.”

This mission, of course, must include service in the community. “We encourage students to participate in what we call ‘service learning,’” says Ta. “We have outreach fairs and provide senior care, whether it’s giving someone a cup of tea or visiting and listening for twenty minutes. Our students also volunteer with the homeless and in hospitals.”

UWest has begun new programs to bring Buddhist values into other areas of education. “We just launched a criminal justice program in which we hope to train individuals who go into law enforcement with a sense of compassion and mindfulness,” says Ta. “We want to emphasize thinking twice about how we could talk someone out of a violent situation rather than using violence to deal with violence. And then with our business program, we emphasize the ethical ways of doing business. We also have the only doctorate of Buddhist chaplaincy in the country.”

UWest’s student body features people from forty-four countries, leading to the slogan that UWest is “the entire globe on eleven acres.” At UWest, the goal is to provide a whole-person education in a context informed by Buddhist wisdom and values, and to facilitate cultural understanding and appreciation between East and West. 

“Most universities in this country were originally founded by Christians to train ministers and propagate Christianity,” says Ta. “As the U.S. became more inclusive, education evolved to welcome people of all religious backgrounds. A Buddhist university is part of what this country is all about—a patchwork nation with many different fabrics woven together.”

Describing itself as “the birthplace of the modern mindfulness movement,” Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, started as a summer institute in the 1970s, with Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche as its founder. Now Naropa offers both undergraduate and master degrees dedicated to advancing contemplative education.

President Chuck Lief says Naropa isn’t a Buddhist university, but rather “Buddhist-inspired,” as a large percentage of their students and faculty do not self-identify as Buddhist.

In addition to its graduate degree programs, IBS offers online and in-person certificate programs, such as Certificate in Buddhism and Contemporary Psychology.  Photo by Institute of Buddhist Studies

“At Naropa, we’ve successfully navigated through the last five decades so as to not water down what we mean by ‘contemplative education,’” Lief says. “We have a rigorous set of contemplative offerings—whether that’s Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism, early contemplative Christianity, or Judaism.”

Naropa’s programs include degrees in the arts, education, environmental leadership, psychology, and religious studies.

“We’re a sort of upside-down university as our graduate program is bigger than the undergraduate program at the moment,” says Lief. Some of Naropa’s more unique offerings include studies in mindfulness-based transpersonal counseling, somatic counseling, dance therapy, art therapy, transpersonal wilderness therapy, performing arts, and an MA in yoga studies, which is one of the very few programs of its kind in the U.S. 

“We are also developing a new area of study in psychedelic-assisted therapy,” says Lief. “We’re training postgraduate clinicians, social workers, clinical psychologists, nurses, doctors, chaplains. If it stays on schedule, by the fall of 2025, we will launch a BA and an MA concentration in psychedelic therapy. We’re very excited about this emerging healing profession.”

 “What’s unique about Naropa is that it came out of the counterculture movement that occurred in the United States as a response to a conventional society that really wasn’t working for people,” says professor Amelia Hall. 

Today, Naropa is still outside the box. It is, Hall continues, “a place where you can examine the best and worst of yourself in a container.”

“I feel brave here,” says Moudi Sbeity, a student in the mental health counseling program. “There’s room to explore yourself and grow roots into the ground of your being without the fear of being judged. It’s important to know that we have permission to be human, which means accepting our fallibilities, even praising them, as learning opportunities. It also means learning how to make peace with our impermanence and the necessity of leaning on each other. This is a radical departure from how the majority of us have been raised and taught to see the world as a competitive race toward accomplishment.” At Naropa, Sbeity concludes, “I’m learning how to move away from a perspective of ‘I.’” 

Hall says it’s possible to develop the “whole person” at Naropa because it’s a small university. “With these smaller classes, you know what’s going on with all of your students. The faculty can work together to say, ‘Where is this person academically, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually? How are we going to get this student further on their path?’”

The students at Naropa are, at their core, innovators, says Hall. “So, we’re trying to equip and nourish them to go out and benefit society by bringing out their unique talents and gifts. It isn’t about producing cookie-cutter, assembly-line students. It’s about getting the best out of a student and then sending them out to do their own amazing, unique version of what it is they’re meant to be doing. The Buddha taught us to be a light on our own path and investigate direct experience for ourselves, not just rely on what somebody else has said or what is conventionally accepted. We want our students to be authentically themselves.” 

Sbeity feels this support as a Naropa student. “By practicing the ground of our belonging, we can give that support to others,” he says.

“As a Buddhist university, we are able to play a role in assisting individuals, organizations, and societies to embrace the goals, values, and practices of the Buddhist tradition,” says David Matsumoto, president of IBS.

The roots of IBS reach back to the 1930s and 1940s when American Jodo Shinshu Buddhists began educational and training programs for those wishing to become ordained in Japan and serve in American communities. But it was not until 1969 that these programs were incorporated as the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California.

Today, IBS offers programs in Buddhist studies, divinity, chaplaincy, psychology, and more. It does not feature an undergraduate program.  

 At IBS, says Matsumoto, “We value scholastic rigor, academic freedom, and critical thinking. At the same time, we’re grounded in a tradition.” The curriculum and student life go beyond the standard, objective, rationalistic approach to education; there’s a spiritual quality. 

 “Our students naturally support each other and become very close, which leads to their individual and group spiritual development,” says Matsumoto. 

In 2021, IBS became a member school of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), a consortium of private, independent American theological schools, centers, and affiliates. It’s the first non-Christian institute to do so. IBS collaborates with GTU to offer their master of arts program for students who have an interreligious focus.

Professor Nancy Lin says having Buddhists of many different lineages studying together leads to interesting thought encounters and encourages new paths of spiritual belonging. “Just to have those conversations about the diversity among Buddhists, that’s valuable. When you have a common base and proceed from there, you can go deeper into the dharma.”

Though it is Buddhist, IBS welcomes students of all backgrounds. “We have students who cross-register from the GTU. That partnership leads to an openness to not only ‘what are different traditions of Buddhism and let’s learn about that together,’ but also ‘let’s be in dialogue with Jews, Christians, Muslims as our classmates and professors,’” says Lin. “So there’s this opportunity for interreligious learning.”

Josefina McAuliffe-Rocha, an IBS student, says although she studies many subjects, she feels everything she learns leads to a deeper understanding of living the dharma, causing her to contemplate questions such as, “What is this life that we’re living? How do I make sense of violence and oppression? How do I understand suffering in my own life and in the world at large? What are the roles of compassion, loving-kindness, emptiness, and joy on this path?”

McAuliffe-Rocha says, “Attending IBS not only prepares me for a professional life of service, but in a more important and personal way, it helps me become more intimate with this life and guides my engagement and action in the world.”

Lin says she tries to cultivate an open, inclusive, supportive space in her classroom. “I used to teach in the [conventional] academic world, and it felt like there was a culture of ‘performing’ for your grade. This is a really different space, where you can bring your whole self to the classroom.”

David Matsumoto feels that all Buddhist and Buddhist-inspired universities today are descendants of Nalanda. Indeed, in 2008, one UWest PhD student of IBS told Lion’s Roar, “We are hoping that we’ll become the Nalanda of the West.”

Located in Bihar, India, Nalanda was one of the first great universities in the world. It was founded in 427 CE and flourished for almost eight hundred years, serving not just as a place to learn Buddhist practice and philosophy, but also secular subjects, such as astronomy, medicine, and art. A Buddhist monastic university, it was where much of what we know today as Buddhism was developed.

Nalanda and the other ancient Buddhist universities of India were definitely a model for Naropa, Amelia Hall says. “Our programs involve academic rigor, but also experiential contemplative practice, deep study of the mind of emotions, and the exploration of what it means to be human and what is reality.”

In the same way that Nalanda played a pivotal role in deepening and broadening the Buddhist tradition in the ancient world, today’s Buddhist and Buddhist-inspired universities are aiming to do the same in a modern context.

According to Hall, more conventional universities are starting to see the benefits of mindfulness practices and contemplative education, so dharma-based universities are serving as a good model for a different way of educating. 

“By promoting dharmic learning at the highest levels,” says Matsumoto, “Buddhist universities play an important role in fostering living Buddhist traditions throughout the world.” 

To those who may be considering attending a Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired university, IBS student McAuliffe-Rocha has this to offer: “I encourage you to reach out and speak with the amazing staff, faculty, and students, whether you’re in the process of discernment or ready to jump right in. Not only is this a rewarding intellectual home, attending an institution made up of individuals who live the buddhadhamma is transformative. Every step of the way I’ve been supported, encouraged, academically challenged, and received. I invite you to join us.”

Lindsay Kyte

Lindsay Kyte

Lindsay Kyte works as a freelance journalist, playwright, and performer.