Convocation 2007: Birds of a Feather | President Emeritus | Naropa University

Naropa University Convocation
August 29, 2007
Thomas B. Coburn

Three epigraphs:

1. "All composite things pass away.  Work out your own liberation with diligence."

--The last words of the Buddha

2.  "Transitions are like doorways. When we open a door, we think we know what we will find on the other side, but we can never be sure. We do not know with certainty whether we will find a friend or an enemy, an obstacle or an opportunity. Without actually opening the door and walking through, we have no way of knowing. When we face such a door, we feel uncertain, vulnerable, exposed. Our usual strategies do not hold. We are in no-man's land. Transitions make us uncomfortable, and they are often accompanied by some degree of pain, but at the same time, they open us to new possibilities."    

--Judith Lief, Naropa trustee and former president
       Making Friends with Death

3. "As my Zen teacher Bernie Glassman says, 'I'm addicted to myself.' Funny thing about being addicted to oneself- it's hard to see that 'self' is not the key to enlightenment.  Just the apparent opposite- community is the key to enlightenment.  You are the key to me."

--Mark Miller, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education

It is once again my great pleasure and honor to welcome you all—trustees, faculty, staff, students, and friends—to this opening of the school year, Naropa's 34 th.   In the early years of Naropa, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, Naropa's founder, said that Naropa was "a hundred year project," which, if we take him literally, means we're now a third of the way there.  Those of you who have been here for many years have seen the extraordinary growth as his vision has taken root, and even those of us who have been here a shorter time are able to see the ways in which the labors of many are nurturing and continually transforming the institution.  A single example is the way in which the faculty's deliberations that began the day after 9/11 have now produced a fully accredited Peace Studies program.  It is hard for me to imagine a better symbol of Naropa's aspirations to change the world for the better.  The energy that is abroad in our midst will, of course, continue to manifest in a great variety of ways, and I suspect that Rinpoche did not actually mean literally one hundred years.  Rather, I suspect he meant it in the same spirit as the building of Camelot took place, as I noted four years ago in my inauguration address: "They are building still, seeing the city is built to music, therefore never built at all and therefore built forever."  That's us, building still—and building forever.  

As we pause here at the beginning of the year, let me begin with a personal story.  A little over a year ago, I received an email from a former student from whom I hadn't heard since she graduated from college 28 years ago.  The email said: "Dr. Coburn, I don't know if you remember me, but I was a biology major who took an elective course on Asian religions from you my senior spring.  I wanted to write to say that this past summer, in an art museum on Martha's Vineyard, I finally figured out what it was that I was trying to say in that term paper I wrote for you 28 years ago!"  She then went on to tell me the details of that specific insight.  I share this story not because it shows anything distinctive about my own teaching—I know that every faculty member who has taught for a while and takes their profession seriously has a similar story.  Rather I recount this story because of the way it points to the deep mystery that lies at the heart of the teaching and the learning that we do together.  In raising up that mystery, I do not for a moment wish to deny the reality of transformative learning that happens on a shorter time cycle: students don't always have to wait 28 years to get it!  Nor do I wish to ignore the importance of our documenting the outcomes of our contemplative kind of education more thoroughly.  Educational assessment is in the air, in Washington, DC, in national accreditation bodies, and in virtually every school and university in the country.  We at Naropa are not exempt from this trend, so the assessment work that we have begun under Suzanne Benally's leadership will be quickening, especially in anticipation of our next re-accreditation visit two years hence.  We will learn a lot in the course of this self-examination, and we must also deepen our understanding of our alumni, the carriers of the long-term effects of a Naropa education.  Here, too, we will learn a lot.

But for the moment I want to reflect on the mystery that lies at the heart of teaching and learning at Naropa, in the transactions between faculty and students, between students and staff, between faculty and staff, between students and students.  Let me offer three reflections.

First, I want to pause over the results of an informal survey I did some years ago, when I asked faculty why they stay at Naropa.  To a person, they answered: Because of the students.  Who, then, are these students?

Part of our recent efforts to understand ourselves better has entailed participating in formal national surveys, to learn how our students are similar to and different from those at other institutions.  Here are some selective results from last year's administration of the HERI (Higher Education Research Institute) questionnaire to our entering undergraduates that I think are generalizable to Naropa students as a whole. 

Under reasons for going to college:

82% of Naropa students said gaining general education and appreciation of ideas was very important.  The national norm was 67%.

75% of Naropa students said becoming a more cultured person was very important.  The national norm was 46%.

98 % of Naropa students said learning more about subjects of interest was very important.  The national norm was 79%.

45% of Naropa students expected to participate in volunteer or community service work.  The national norm was 30%.

34% of Naropa students anticipated they would participate in student protests or demonstrations.  The national norm was 8%.

Under educational objectives considered essential or very important:

40% of Naropa students cited becoming accomplished in one of the performing arts.  The national norm was 19%.

56% of Naropa students cited creating artistic work as essential or very important.  The national norm was 22%.

57% of Naropa students cited influencing the political structure.  The national norm was 25%.

81% of Naropa students cited influencing social values.  The national norm was 44%.

54% of Naropa students cited becoming a community leader as essential or very important.  The national norm was 35%.

87% of Naropa students cited helping others who are in difficulty.  The national norm was 67%.

50% of Naropa students cited helping to promote racial understanding.  The national norm was 37%.

57% of Naropa students cited involvement in programs to clean up the environment.  The national norm was 25%. 

87% of Naropa students cited improving understanding of other countries and cultures.  The national norm was 54%.

In comparison with students elsewhere, Naropa students rated themselves significantly higher in academic ability, creativity, artistic ability, writing ability, self-understanding, understanding of others, and spirituality.

Do you know these students?  I do, and here at the beginning of the school year I think it is fitting for us to pause to appreciate the unusual qualities and gifts our students bring as their input into the mystery of teaching and learning.

This brief sketch is not, of course, the complete story, and there are various measures on which Naropa students rank lower than national averages, such as interest in mathematics.  Last week we administered this year's HERI survey to our entering students, and, when they become available, we will be discussing the results in various faculty and staff settings.  For now, I would simply ask us to marvel at the real uniqueness and distinctiveness of our students as we begin our work with them.  Could I ask students who are present please to rise?  [applause]

My second point is to note that, in many ways, where we are right now, here at the beginning of the school year, is a microcosm of where Naropa is as a whole, institutionally.  We are in transition.  Judy Lief, former president and current trustee of Naropa, captures the qualities of transitions nicely in the quotation that in the second epigraph at the beginning of this talk.  Transitions are scary, even as they open out onto new opportunities.  In exploring these phenomena, I am struck here by the two meanings of the word "apprehension."  On the one hand, it refers to "anticipation of adversity, dread or fear of coming evil."   It is utterly natural that, as we stand poised on the edge of the year ahead, we are a bit nervous, worried about what may come our way, individually or in a particular course, or in discharging our professional responsibilities.  We don't know what lies ahead for us, individually or institutionally.  But, on the other hand, "apprehension" means "the faculty or act of understanding, esp. intuitive understanding; perception on a direct and immediate level." It is in these liminal, transitional moments that we see more clearly and crisply, when a fresh perspective becomes open to us, whether those moments occur at the beginning of the academic year or in the longer range trajectory of institutional change and growth. 

In the face of these transitional times, two facts of university life give me cause for optimism.  One is that we are in the midst of a very robust strategic planning process.  At present it currently involves nearly a hundred faculty, staff, and students at work in eleven action committees.  There remain additional opportunities to become involved in this work and if you are interested, please send an e-mail to  The significance of this work lies in its positioning us as agents in moving through the transitions that are inevitably upon us, given the tumultuous, challenging nature of life in the 21 st century.  We are agents, not patients or fatalists, in working out our institutional destiny, embodying the overt choice-making that the Buddha saw as central to what it means to be human.  My second cause for optimism is that the Council of Elders, a gathering of trusted faculty and staff, and now a student, which last year increasingly took its seat as a source of wisdom for the university, will be offering "listening circles" for faculty and staff throughout the year.  Building on the very positive response that these circles elicited last year, this expanded initiative will provide a context for individuals to delve deeply into the implications of our being in transition, individually and collectively.  Please stay tuned for further communication from the Council of Elders.   

Through all of these transitions, I am buoyed up by a wonderful line from the Dalai Lama, who has known more than his share of transitions.  When I first met him 25 years ago at Syracuse University, at the end of his talk, he took several questions from the audience and then he received one that asked: "Your Holiness, I see from your remarks and response to previous questions that you are a hopeful man.  Can you tell me, please, what is the basis of hope?"  His Holiness paused for a moment, looked off into space, and then came back with that marvelous smile and twinkle in his eyes and said: "Hope is the basis of hope."  It is this same posture toward the world that I think Emily Dickenson had in mind when she wrote: "Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all, And sweetest in the gale is heard; And sore must be the storm That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm."

My final point is a reflection on the way in which we are all in this together, implicated in one another's lives.  Mark Miller captured this wonderfully last week in his remarks for entering B. A. students on the relationship between the contemplative education and diversity seminars, of which the key lines appear in your program.  This provocative formulation reminds me of what Pema Chodron, one of Trungpa, Rinpoche's foremost students, has said about life within the abbey where she makes her home.  Many people, she says, project onto life in the abbey a naïve romanticism, imagining that all must be sweetness and light, with happy, cheerful, like-minded people, their days bathed in meditation and savoring the natural beauty.  On the contrary, she says, monastic life is hard, in large part because you can't get away from the people you have been thrown together with.  They and their foibles become unavoidable.   They are, so to speak, continually in your face.

No doubt we will be reminded of this from time to time in the course of the year ahead, albeit in a more diluted form than what happens in monastic life.  It is for this reason, Mark wisely observed, that diversity work is so central to our life together, helping us work constructively through the points of difference as they become apparent to us.

The promise here is huge, so I will close with another story, this one a great vision of what this kind of communal contemplative quest can produce.  This is the vision of the great 12 th century Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din Attar, in his fable, The Conference of the Birds.  The story tells of how a vast number of birds, of different species and different dispositions, were invited to journey forth to meet their king, who is called the Simurgh.   Many of them make excuses about why they can't make the journey—family obligations, business deals, illness, and the like.  But a hardy band does set out and comes across many hardships, both physical and emotional.  Many fall by the wayside, but finally thirty birds arrive in the hall of the Simurgh.  The story concludes this way:

"Then the Chamberlain, having tested them, opened the door; and as he drew aside a hundred curtains, one after another, a new world beyond the veil was revealed.  Now was the light of lights manifested, and all of them sat down on . . . the seat of the Majesty and Glory.  They were given a writing which they were told to read through; and reading this, and pondering, they were able to understand their state. When they were completely at peace and detached from all things they became aware that the Simurgh was there with them, and a new life began for them in the Simurgh. All that they had done previously was washed away. The sun of majesty sent forth his rays, and in the reflection of each other's faces these thirty birds (Persian: si-murgh) of the outer world, contemplated the face of the Simurgh of the inner world. This so astonished them that they did not know if they were still themselves or if they had become the Simurgh.  At last, in a state of contemplation, they realized that they were the Simurgh and that the Simurgh was the thirty birds.  When they gazed at the Simurgh, they saw that it was truly the Simurgh who was there, and when they turned their eyes toward themselves they saw that they themselves were the Simurgh.  And perceiving both at once, themselves and Him, they realized that they and the Simurgh were one and the same being.  No one in the world has ever heard of anything to equal it."

And so, my non-feathered friends, let us set out on the journey that lies ahead of us this year, during which we will discover a lot about ourselves and about each other.  It will doubtless be filled with obstacles and transitions of various sorts, but also with a promise quite unlike anything we have seen before.  It is a joy to be with you and to welcome you on this journey.