Toward a Community that Teaches and Learns

Convocation Address Naropa University
August 26, 2004
Thomas B. Coburn

The last time we were all gathered together in a ceremonial context was at last May’s graduation.  For me, that ceremony was one of many highlights of the year and, in a broader context, was one of the most moving commencements I have ever attended.  It was a fitting counterpart to my first experience in teaching a course at Naropa last spring: as I acknowledged at commencement, while I had had individual students who brought a powerful balance of heart and head to their studies before, never before had I had a whole seminar of them.  Not surprisingly, there was also the characteristic Naropa unexpected twist to the commencement, as the joy and eagerness of the African drummers and dancers erupted before Reb Zalman’s blessing and the final ringing of the gong that was in our script: you may have noticed the two of us quickly conferring and agreeing that this was, indeed, joy abounding and that it would be both inappropriate and futile to try to reel it back in.  In retrospect, I’ve thought that that balance between orderliness and serendipity isn’t a bad way for a university to run, and that something quintessentially Naropa happens in the dialectic between the two.

I’ve also had another thought about the spirit that was abroad that day.   It was prompted by knowing that, along with wisdom, contemplative education has compassion at its heart, compassion arising from awareness of the universality of suffering.  This awareness is, of course, part of Naropa’s Buddhist heritage.  The most pointed application of this awareness to teaching that I’ve heard is actually Jewish and comes from the Talmud.  I first heard it nearly a decade ago from William Schultz, Executive Director of Amnesty International.  In the book of Deuteronomy, at the end of a short summary of pivotal Biblical teachings comes the phrase: “Place all these things upon your heart.”  In the Talmudic commentary a student asks a rabbi: “Why does the text say on the heart, and not in the heart?”  The rabbi replies: “[While we have direct access to the mind,] we do not have direct access to the inner workings of the heart.  What teachers do, therefore, is to put the teachings on the heart and let them lie there, so that later on, when the heart breaks, the teachings can pour in and become newly fresh and sensible.”  As the Naropa students crossed the stage and became alumni last May, I thought: “These women and men are more aware than any graduates in the country of the ache and suffering that are the lot of all sentient beings.  But this also makes them vividly aware and appreciative when suffering is temporarily in remission, as it is on graduation days, and so they can celebrate with a whole-hearted abandon that is quite unlike the ego-inflated rowdiness often associated with commencement ceremonies.”  There was a poignancy to the day’s joy, constructed, as it was, over an underlying bed of compassionate awareness of sorrow.  Here, as on so many other occasions over the year, Naropa took what is a conventional event or behavior and deepened it into a contemplative experience.

That commencement, of course, came at the end of an academic year and marked our farewell to those who had studied with us.  What might we wish to say now, what signal might we wish to send, to our students and to each other, here at the beginning of the academic year?  What message do I hope emerges here and in the days just ahead for our life together—faculty, staff, and students?  These first few days of the semester, in and out of the classroom, are important for launching us on the year on which we’re embarking.  What aspirations might we have for what lies ahead?

In suggesting an answer to that question, I want to take my cue from students.   In my welcoming remarks to new students and their families last week, I cited what I think is a truly extraordinary statistic.  It is one that we all should take to heart.  For a full 95% of our entering undergraduates, Naropa is their first choice in colleges.  A comparable figure applies to our graduate students.  There are very few, if any, colleges that can make that claim.  There are lots of reflections one could offer on this fact.  For instance, the nice article on Naropa that appeared in last week’s US News and World Report juxtaposes this figure with our comparably high acceptance rate to conclude that our applicants self-select.  They have found us out, or our admissions office has found them out, they have come to understand our mission, and they dearly want to come to Naropa, seeing it as an oasis in what many have experienced as the desert of higher education.  In talking with the parents of incoming students last week, it became apparent that for many of their offspring, Naropa was their only choice in schools.  (By the way, if you haven’t seen the USNWR article, you can see it in hard copy in the admissions and president’s office and in the library, and a copy of the text went by email to all faculty and staff last week.  It’s worth reading as a representative account of how we are viewed on the national scene.)

But I want to take my primary reflection this evening in a different direction.  The fact that 95% of our students have Naropa as their first choice means that, for all of their effervescent, creative, and often assertive individualism, they have something in common.   This is something that I know at first hand is missing at most other universities: they have an understanding of the institution’s specific mission that binds them together across their individual differences.  They understand, if only in part, what Naropa is aspiring to be and they have an anticipation of community, of like-minded and like-hearted people striving both to develop their individual potential and to think hard together about how to leave the world a better place than they find it now.  The word “community” comes trippingly off the tongues of students, both new and returning.  My hope for the weeks and months ahead is that we all—faculty, staff, and returning students—can help our new students create this community for which they yearn.  Notice I do not say help students “discover” community, for that would be too passive a characterization of what is involved.  Community-making is an active process, not a passive discovery.  To be successful, it requires very broad participation.  It implicates all of us.    

Before I suggest what might be involved in helping Naropa realize its potential as a community, let me offer three caveats.  First, as Susan Boyle notes in the USNWR article, we work hard during the admissions process to ensure that students do not develop unduly romanticized views of Naropa, with impossible expectations.  Romanticization is, of course, a real risk, since Naropa’s vision invites the interpretation that it is an oasis in the desert.  But, as Sakyong Mipham, Rinpoche said almost casually but with a wise smile, during his Turning the Mind into an Ally retreat up at the Shambhala Mountain Center this summer: “You know, working with people is really difficult!”   So there will always inevitably be scratchiness in Naropa’s daily life.  But, secondly, this should not deflect us from taking the student challenge to become a community with utmost seriousness.  From my perspective, one of the great strategic discoveries of last year, particularly during April’s Community Forum, was how passionate students are about their education at Naropa and what energy they bring to engaging our common issues.   As Naropa addresses the generic problem faced in all colleges and businesses of having limited resources, we would do well to draw on the resource that student energy represents.  Nowhere is that more true, I believe, than in responding to their call to realize the potential for becoming a community that lies within our vision for contemplative education.  Thirdly, I know there are physical impediments to a fully developed communal sense at Naropa, namely, the geographic dispersal of our three campuses.  As reported in my post-Board meeting memo, the Board of Trustees last May expressed its sense that Naropa would benefit from acquiring property contiguous with our current holdings and from aspiring to consolidate our properties into two campuses.  These are tall orders, and obviously complex.  Please know that we are continuously on the lookout for ways to accomplish these two goals.  In the meantime, the challenge is on us all to cultivate our sense of community, even if it is primarily right now only a virtual community.  In growing the sense of community at Naropa, we cannot wait for the arrival of the messiah, that is, having a single campus.

How can we help this happen?  How can we all be agents in deepening the  sense of community, the sense of belonging, the texture of our daily lives?  Let me offer three comments.

First, in the search profile that was developed through conversations on campus two years ago and that Naropa used to advertise the president’s position, note was taken of the desire to improve communication on campus.  Along with others, I have worked intentionally on this matter over the past year, with varying degrees of success.  Over this same year I have also noted to myself that a common feature in higher education—an underdeveloped sense of common purpose between faculty and staff members—has its own manifestation at Naropa.  This is, on the one hand, not surprising, given the differences in how faculty and staff spend their working hours and in their different professional competencies.  But, in meeting with Staff Council late last spring, I found myself issuing an invitation that, in retrospect, I think is onto something important: I invited staff members to think of themselves as teachers—not, of course, in the same way that faculty teach in the classroom, but as conduits of information and as role models for students in helping them understand what contemplative education means.  In working with students to help us realize the potential for community that lies implicit in our vision, both faculty and staff play critical roles.  But we never meet together to develop our sense of shared responsibility for working with students and helping us create that shared sense of community.  Just because we are geographically dispersed, it does not follow that we cannot come together to make common cause at a single time and place.  As we approached the beginning of this academic year and I reflected on the challenge to a sense of community that having three campuses presents, I also became aware of two large holes in our calendar: there is no time where we can welcome the newcomers into our community, faculty and staff; and there is no occasion during business hours for the president to speak to all who work here, faculty and staff, about matters affecting our common life together, where we have been, and where I think we are headed.  And so the first faculty meeting of this year will actually be a joint meeting of faculty and staff.  It will be held at Nalanda Campus during the regular Faculty Council meeting time, Wednesday September 8, with refirst-year studentsts at 9 a.m., followed by a program that will last much of the morning.   Administrative offices will be closed for that morning, but staff members will be paid as usual with the understanding that their attendance at the Faculty-Staff meeting is expected.  I anticipate that, as usual, most core faculty will attend this new variation on a Faculty Council meeting.  At this meeting I will speak about my aspirations for the year ahead, anticipating much that I will say to the board of trustees at their meeting the following week, Peter Hurst will speak about academic developments, and there will be structured opportunities to meet the newcomers among us—and perhaps to meet the oldcomers, since there are lots of not-so-new employees who, because of our dispersed campuses, are unknown to many of their colleagues.  We will begin rectifying this situation on September 8.  Stay tuned for how this will happen.  What I can say now is that word of this meeting will be in everyone’s—all faculty and staff—email inboxes by tomorrow morning, so that those who are not able to be here this evening are informed about this impending event.  This is an explicit effort on my part to help us head into the year ahead with a common understanding of what’s on our collective plate and to build a greater sense of common purpose between faculty and staff, so that our shared work with students builds an enriched awareness of community, for us and for them.  It is also an effort to be more intentional about the way we welcome new employees into our midst, and to have some fun along the way.  I’m much looking forward to what will doubtless be another mix of planned orderliness and serendipity.  That will be on the morning of September 8 at the regular meeting time for Faculty Council, 9 a.m., at Nalanda Campus, a joint Faculty-Staff meeting, the first, I believe, in many years.

My second comment on enriching our sense of community is this.  The concept of “contemplative education” is Naropa’s great gift to the world.  It is what drew me to Naropa, what made the institution appear to me like an oasis in the desert of higher education.  Appearances, of course, can deceive, which is why the word “mirage” is also associated with oases in the desert!  But after a year on the job, I have even more enthusiasm for Naropa’s vision than I did a year ago.  What I’ve gained is knowledge of the institution and its people.  What I’ve lost is inappropriate romanticization.  The concept of contemplative education originated way back in Naropa history, during Judy Lief’s presidency in 1982.  It has thus served as a guiding concept for the past two decades, and I believe it should continue to be the most succinct formulation of what we are about.  I suspect that “contemplative education” has served us well as our defining feature throughout the 20+ years that we have used it.  But I know that it is absolutely on target for today’s world of education, for today’s youth culture—and indeed for much of middle-aged culture as well.  My evidence for this is not just the nice things that get said about us, along with the qualifications, in the USNWR report.  It is not just the keen response I get when I talk about Naropa off-campus, a response that I know many of you get as well.  Systematic empirical evidence for the timeliness of contemplative education also lies in what today’s students say nationwide.  The gold standard for measuring the attitudes of contemporary students is the annual survey-based reports that have come out of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA for the past three decades.  Last fall the director, Sandy Astin, reported on a new survey administered the previous spring, inquiring into how the college experience affects students’ spiritual lives, and the results were widely reported in the media.  73% of those polled said their religious or spiritual beliefs help to develop their identity, 77% said they pray, and 70% believe people can grow spiritually without being religious.  But, at the same time, 62% reported that their teachers never encourage discussions of religious or spiritual issues, and 53% said what they learned in the classroom had no effect on their overall beliefs.  Astin commented: “Clearly, there is a misfit here.  The survey shows that students have deeply felt values and great interest in spirituality and religion, but their academic work and campus programs seem divorced from it.” This, of course, does not describe Naropa, either past or present.  That is why I think Naropa has so much to say to the on-going development of higher education in America.  It is also why Naropa’s incoming students this fall will, for the first time, participate in the broad-based HERI survey, on spirituality and other issues, so that we may understand more clearly how our students compare with their peers across the country.  “Contemplative education” is an idea that arrived 22 years ago, and it is an idea whose time has come even more today.

That said, I do not think that we at Naropa have yet fleshed out the concept of “contemplative education” with sufficient specificity to realize its potential, either on campus or in the broader world of higher education.  Crisper articulation of what we are about under this rubric will serve us well, both in increasing our sense of common purpose and community, of which it should be the cornerstone, and in articulating our mission to the world beyond Naropa.  Indeed, if we do not do this, our sense of community will remain no better than it currently is and—since all educators are now on notice about student interest in religion and spirituality--some other institution or some broader coalition will come along and, in Peter Hurst’s memorable phrase, “they will eat our lunch.” 

In making this claim, I immediately want to acknowledge something I have learned over the course of the past year.  It is not easy to define this Naropa thing called “contemplative education.”  I grant you that immediately.  In fact, long before I came to Naropa I knew from my own professional study how richly diverse the world’s contemplative traditions have been.  That is part of their power and importance, their fascination and charm.  But they are not, I know, infinitely diverse—and neither can be our understanding of contemplative education.  It is possible to circumscribe the world’s contemplative traditions, to say what they are not, how they are distinctive from non-contemplative forms of spirituality and from secular life.  I have myself come to think of the world’s contemplative traditions as having a kind of “family resemblance” between the various members, a relationship that allows for great but not infinite variety between them and that yet distinguishes them from other sorts of families.   The same, I propose, should be true for the way we think about contemplative education.  I know, of course, of the faculty’s on-going development of a statement on “The Role of Contemplative Practice in Education at Naropa University.”  I know of the soirees that the Contemplative Practice Committee has been hosting, and of the powerful personal statements that have emerged from this activity and others.  I know of many individual faculty articles and presentations.  I know that our staff has done something unique among college staffs by developing a theory for its work, in the document on “contemplative administration.”  I know of the conferences that Naropa has hosted, the Buddhist-Christian dialogues, and the 1997 Spirituality and Education Conference.  But here, as elsewhere in Naropa’s life, our initiatives have been centrifugal, spiraling away from the center, and diffuse.  As a result, the whole has here, as elsewhere, been less than the sum of the parts.  Part of our strategic thrust in the year ahead must be to become more articulate about precisely what we mean by contemplative education, using language that is intelligible to those who might not understand our traditional vocabulary, but who are aware in their own personal lives of the existential issues that contemplation and contemplative education can speak to.

In challenging us to become more cogent in how we articulate the meaning of contemplative education, I do not envision some new project, but a consolidation and focusing of existing resources.  There is therefore a parallel with what I have been urging with regard to our financial resources: we need to focus on the heart of the matter.  To help us in this task, I am pleased to announce that we are in the process of framing a “Contemplative Education Initiative” this fall that has as its ultimate aim the dissemination of 30 years of experience doing what no other university has done, namely, engaging in university level education with a contemplative base.  We will be working with individuals and committees like Contemplative Practice, to compile an archive of everything we can put our hands on that has been written or spoken on this topic, by faculty, staff, visiting teachers, the founder, Naropa leaders, and others.  We will use these materials in many ways, including internal faculty and staff development, and eventually as a basis for training faculty from other institutions in the ways of contemplative teaching, so that they may develop their own inner depth and skill and become resources for students on their campuses.  As part of this initiative we will also be developing one or more research projects on the effects of contemplative education at Naropa University, possibly including the study of necessary conditions to support contemplative education.  This is an exciting and strategic project, one that should help us in our internal conversations and in the way we talk to others about our core activity.  We will have more to say about this initiative in the weeks ahead.  

Finally, I want to note that I expect there will be implications of this project for improving our awareness of living in community.  It will help us in working with students to help build that community.  It will do so because, as we hone our ability to talk about contemplative education, we will be invited to ask ourselves, both individually and collectively, whether we walk that talk.  The language of contemplative education is admittedly compelling.  That’s why so many of us find it so easy to talk about it at such length!  But as we move to crisper articulation of our vision and our intent, I suspect we will find ourselves looking in a mirror, forced to interrogate our behavior, in and out of the classroom, in our interactions with students and in our interactions with one another, whether we be faculty or staff.  Do we walk the talk?  Do we embody the ideals of this compelling vision of contemplative education?  This is a question we will face, not just in our individual lives, but institutionally, in thinking about our policies and practices and how they help (or do not help) students in our shared task of creating the community that our vision promises.  Again, what I have in mind is not anything new.  It already runs through our language.  I think of the familiar Gandhian phrase, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  At graduation you heard me quote my favorite line from Robert Bellah: “Revolutionaries who do not in their own lives embody the future cannot bring it.”  Last spring, when Dennis Kucinich spoke here, he gave us the wonderful line: “We are the people we’ve been waiting for!”   In her powerful talk during this past summer’s Summer Writing Program, Sonia Sanchez challenged her audience: “Try not to turn your tongue against anyone for a whole week.”  And in his talk on the occasion of Naropa’s 30th anniversary last June, the Sakyong invited us to draw on our inspiration, which he linked to that of the Buddha himself: no matter what he was doing, the Sakyong suggested, if someone tapped the Buddha on the shoulder and asked—“What are you thinking about?”—he would answer: “Helping all sentient beings.”  That is walking the talk.

So, as we embark on the year ahead, if we can cultivate a commonality of purpose between faculty and staff, if we can become crisper in our talk about contemplative education, and if we can renew our individual and collective efforts to embody our aspirations, then we shall have taken major steps toward realizing the sense of community that our students are yearning for and challenging us to create with them.  Welcome, everyone, to this noblest of undertakings!

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