30/30 Vision: Reflections on the Trajectory of Liberal Education and Religious LifeJune 28, 2004
Thomas B. Coburn
For those of us who lived through it, the summer of 1974 was a memorable time. It was the time when the Watergate scandal that had been brewing for two years reached its crescendo on August 8 with the resignation of President Nixon. It was the time when a planned gathering of several hundred poets and artists in Boulder, Colorado attracted several thousand participants from all walks of life, launching the Naropa Institute, which was to mature into the Naropa University of today. At the time, the East-West Journal wrote: "Almost overnight Boulder has become a magnet of learning and excitement and promise . . . . The student body is made up of an astonishing assortment of college students, dropouts, scholars, scientists, artists, therapists, dancers, heads of departments, musicians, housewives, and on and on. The whole first week seems filled with a sort of joyous incredulity that Naropa is really happening."1 That same summer thirty years ago, an aspiring teacher-scholar of Asian religion left the womb of graduate school, drove a U-Haul from Boston over the Adirondacks, and began a teaching career at a liberal arts college in upstate New York. He was the first Asia specialist in the Religious Studies department, and his assignment was to develop courses on Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Chinese religions. Early on he used Chogyam Trungpa's book, Born in Tibet, to exemplify the vibrancy of the Buddhist tradition today. Concerned that he might be mistaken for a student, he eventually grew a beard. He went by the name of Coburn. The mood of America in 1974 was, of course, deeply affected by the massive social, cultural, and spiritual upheaval that had begun in the 1960s. Those were revolutionary times, filled with ambitions for a better world-and also filled with slogans. One of those slogans was "Never trust anyone over thirty." At the time that phrase had a wonderful, simple ring to it, a declaration of youthful self-importance and self-righteousness, a call to arms against the moribund institutions and behaviors of our elders. Those were, indeed, heady times.
But time, of course, passes. Those of us who were then not yet or were just turning thirty are now twice that age. And the institution that is Naropa, which in 1974 was just a twinkle in the eye of its brilliant founder, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, has now, as of this month, itself been in existence for thirty years. There is surely a cause for celebration, and we will do just that later this week, with a campus visit from the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, son of the founder; with a campus barbeque and party; with recognition of those who have helped us successfully complete our first, $10 million capital campaign; and with the conclusion of our thirtieth consecutive Summer Writing Program, which has once again brought to campus some of today's most stimulating poets and writers. All kinds of good things are happening at Naropa today and, from my perspective, our future, while not without its challenges, looks very bright indeed. But still the revolutionary calls from those days of our shared youth ring in my ears-beware of all institutions, and never trust anyone over thirty. Has Naropa, by virtue of having crossed that deadly threshold of age, lost the grounds for trustworthiness? I would not last year have accepted the invitation to become Naropa's president if I thought that were the case: I did the math and knew the 30th was coming! And, contrary to being skeptical about the corrosiveness of age, I think Naropa preserves an idealism that was central to our youthful world in 1974 and that the world needs even more sorely now in 2004. I think Naropa today has, in a unique way, cut the idealism of the '60's and '70's free from the follies and excesses that were often part of our youth.
But the sense that something is lost with age is not a trivial
concern. How does an institution retain its trustworthiness as the
years pass? How does it keep the faith? In his remarks at Naropa's
opening convocation in June of 1974, the founder used a wonderful
"Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you agree with me that this particular continent is in search of something. There is [an] enormous problem, something is not quite right. There is enormous energy [,] of course, fantastic energy. But something doesn't quite click. It is as if we missed the pilot light, while the stove is burning. Now it is time to do something about it.
"We could relate with all those problems. We could reeducate ourselves within the existing framework, within our educational system. We could re-ignite our pilot light by respecting, trusting, and acknowledging the tradition in which we have grown up. Whether it is Eastern or Western does not really matter . . . . But at the same time we also have to bend ourselves into a particular discipline, which is enormously important."2 This last line refers, I believe, to the fact that contemplative practice must accompany study. What evidence, then, is there that the pilot light, engaging different traditions, illuminating all traditions, still burns with comparable brightness today? That is the question I'd like to speak to this evening. That is the question that clamors to be answered as Naropa crosses the threshold into its fourth decade.
To this question, I'd like to offer two answers. One consists of a reflection on what I see happening at Naropa today, based on my first year in the president's office. How does our educational culture today compare to what I know of Naropa's founding? The second answer consists of a reflection arising from my professional training as an historian of religion. It requires a longer range view, for the significance of what is happening at Naropa cannot, in my judgment, be fully understood simply on the basis of what has happened these past thirty years. We need to dip briefly into history. Finally, I'll return to Naropa today and offer a model for thinking about where we've been and where I think we're heading.
My presidential reflection actually begins with the search process. I had previously declined invitations to enter presidential searches, thinking a president's office was too far removed from my first love of teaching and working with young people. But there were many things that drew me to Naropa, including the sense that teaching and learning were understood more deeply at Naropa than at most places. In an early conversation with the board of trustees I indicated that one of my attractions to Naropa was that the institution seemed to be situated at a critical transitional moment in its history, a transition that is faced by all organizations, particularly educational and religious ones, as they move beyond the lifetime of a charismatic founder or inaugural leader. One of the fathers of the discipline of sociology, Max Weber, called the challenge that is faced by the second generation the challenge of the "routinization of charisma," the "making routine" of charisma. How shall we move beyond the inspiration embodied in a particular person to norms and patterns of behavior that are no longer centered on the person of the founder, but woven into the fabric of organizational life? This is a challenge that had to be addressed by early generations of Buddhists, of Christians, of Muslims, and by revolutionary movements of all stripes, East and West, throughout history. Naropa's challenge, I suggested to the board, was its own version of this generic problem: where does the charisma go after the death of the founder? I was immediately asked by a board member: "Where do you think that that charisma has gone at Naropa?" I replied immediately and intuitively: "It's gone to the faculty." I then paused to think about what I'd said, and I explained that when all colleges ask their alumni, often years after they have graduated, what they remember most about their college experience, they find that, more than the adventures and the misadventures and the friends and the particular courses, it is the faculty whose influence stays with them, often in ways they never anticipated at the time they graduated. They may not even remember what the subject matter of the course was, but they remember how they were transformed by particular, distinctive, memorable individuals. So it was, I suggested, at Naropa. But I added that I thought the faculty here carried the additional legacy of contemplative and spiritual transformation that was unique to Naropa's founder and that sets the teaching and learning experience at Naropa apart from what happens at more conventional educational institutions. There is a kind of "double whammy" in the teaching and learning process at Naropa by virtue of its dual legacy from the liberal arts and from contemplative practice.
As I have noted, my assessment here was early on in my understanding of Naropa, when the search was still under way, and it was an intuitive one. But eighteen months later, I will now stand by it analytically, and I'll go further. At a fundamental level, I think there is an absolute continuity between the Naropa that was established in the summer of 1974 and the Naropa of today. That continuity lies in the transformative magic that is worked between faculty and students. (Notice that I say the magic is worked between faculty and students. The preposition "between" is a pregnant word for my final point this evening. I'll come back to it at the end. So, "Naropa's transformative magic is worked between faculty and students.") It's important to remember that, just as there is a dynamic, unpredictable, engaging quality in every class where real learning and growth are taking place, so did this very quality animate the founding of Naropa itself. According to one of his earliest students, Sherab Chodzin, ever since Chogyam Trungpa came to the west in 1963, "he definitely seemed to have some idea of a college, or institution of higher learning . . . . But whatever it would be, it was to be discovered in the midst of the mud. It is not like he had a blueprint."3 Another of Trungpa's early students, Marvin Casper, puts it this way: "We didn't have any great master plans in terms of how Naropa could evolve over time . . . . The basic idea was an institute that would create an interface, a dialogue between Buddhism and the highest intellectual culture of the West, as well as with other spiritual traditions. That was the pearl of the idea. I remember at some point Rinpoche talked about creating sparks, by juxtaposing different traditions. The idea was that if you looked at things from different perspectives, you can get the essence of it. If people from different traditions challenged and compared their approaches, they could go beyond conceptual mind to new perspectives, and express what they've learned in fresh ways because they're in dialogue with something different."4 The magic between students and teachers in the summer of 1974 was worked by the likes of Trungpa, Ram Dass, Gregory Bateson, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Stanislav Gros, Joan Halifax, Herbert Guenther, Agehananda Bharati, Theodore Roszack, and Jerry Granelli. That magic was recapitulated the following summer, then developed into a year-round program and came subsequently to run through the much-expanded curriculum that is Naropa today. Based now on my firsthand experience of it, I would call this quality that lies between faculty and students an ever-present invitation to ever-greater openness, to become more than you are in the deepest sense. It applies to both faculty and students, that is, to both poles of the educational transaction. Both are invited to open to each other, and to the world, in unprecedented ways. It is this quality that reached out and began expanding me (and my wife) during the presidential interview process. It is this quality that ran through the course I taught this past spring, where I found that Naropa students, beyond having the big, open hearts and discerning intuitions that I expected, have analytic and verbal skills to match. There is a connection of head and heart in Naropa students that I have seen occasionally in other individual students, but never before in 30 years of college teaching have I had a seminar full of them. It is this same quality that prompted the executor of Allen Ginsberg's literary estate, with whom I had lunch last fall, to say that, prior to Naropa's coming into existence, Allen was a great poet. But it was the Naropa experience that made him into a great teacher.
That is my first assessment of whether Naropa has kept faith with the time of its founding, of whether this 30 year old institution remains trustworthy today, has kept the magic of what lies between teachers and students. There is a wonderful phrase in the Wiccan tradition that says, "The Goddess is alive and magic is afoot." Both in spite of, and because of, the dramatic expansion of our programs and curricula over the past 30 years, the same can be said of what transpires in and around Naropa's classrooms. The magic remains afoot.
I want to take us now to a faraway time and place. I want to do so because, in my inauguration speech last fall, I used a metaphor to describe the historical context in which Naropa was founded, a metaphor that has subsequently become widely used on campus and that I think can be expanded to understand more deeply the importance and the integrity of our current work. The metaphor I used suggested that Naropa was living at the confluence of two rivers. One of those rivers has its headwaters in classical India, in the experience of the Buddha, "the awake one." Known as the Buddhist tradition, this river has through the years flowed over varied terrain, engaging creatively and dynamically with whatever cultural or religious tradition it encountered, inducing a contemplative dimension into even as unpromising a tradition as the martial tradition of Japan. That river now flows through Boulder, Colorado. The other river has its headwaters in the eastern Mediterranean at a slightly later date, not in the experience of a particular individual, but in the amazingly creative matrix that was classical Greece. The tradition that was born there we know as the liberal arts tradition, and it, too, has flowed over varied terrain, accommodating itself to time and place. Its dynamism has been particularly apparent over the past century and a half, with the decline of the classical curriculum and the growth of new disciplines like economics and psychology. This river, too, has now come to flow through Boulder, Colorado.
I'd now like to look at one episode in the flow of these rivers in a bit more detail, with an eye toward illuminating the dynamics of Naropa's experience today.
Part of what Naropa is about is the cross-cultural movement of Buddhism, its movement into America. Chogyam Trungpa did not start this movement, of course, for ethnic migration of Buddhists into America goes back to the mid-1800s, and Western seekers began to be drawn to Buddhism only slightly later. But Trungpa is today increasingly being recognized as one of foremost figures in the rapprochement between Americans and Buddhism in the latter half of the 20th century and the question-how Buddhist should Naropa be?-is a question that recurs throughout Naropa's institutional history, past and present. (Interestingly, Trungpa himself, because of his own emphasis on non-conceptual, enlightened mind, regardless of the tradition in which it originates, and drawing on the non-sectarian Rime movement in Tibet, was much less exercised about this issue than many of his followers.5 I will come back to this in my conclusion.) Under these circumstances, it may useful to look at another instance of Buddhism's cross-cultural migration. While we may be inclined to think of globalization and intercultural transactions as uniquely modern phenomena, they have actually being going on for millennia, and it is only their breadth and rapidity that is new.
Consider, for instance, what happened in China. There, as in most other cases, it was itinerant monks, in this case wandering over the silk routes of central Asia, who were the agents of Buddhism's spread outside of India. Eventually, of course, the Buddhist worldview and practice became intelligible to the Chinese in a variety of ways, to the extent that it became common to speak of the "Three Teachings," that is, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. But the odds against this happening were formidable, for China had a cultural tradition that was more than a thousand years old by the time those wandering monks began to arrive in China in the early centuries of the Christian era. It is impossible to imagine a contrast between any two cultures anytime and anywhere that is greater than the contrast between the Chinese and the Indian. Buddhism's entry into America looks easy in comparison. Here is how the historian, Arthur Wright, puts the matter:
"In their attitudes toward the individual the two traditions were poles apart . . . . The Chinese had shown little disposition to analyze the personality into its components, while India had a highly developed science of psychological analysis. In concepts of time and space there were also striking differences. The Chinese tended to think of both as finite and to reckon time in life-spans, generations, or political eras; the Indians, on the other hand, conceived of time and space as infinite and tended to think of cosmic eons rather than units of terrestrial life.
"The two traditions diverged most critically in their social and political values. Familism [a focus on the family] and particularistic ethics continued to be influential among the Chinese even in an age of cataclysmic change, while Mahayana Buddhism taught a universal ethic and a doctrine of salvation outside the family. Whereas Chinese thinkers had long concentrated their efforts on formulas for the good society, Indian . . . thought had laid particular stress upon the pursuit of other-worldly goals."6
What it meant to be Chinese and what it meant to be Buddhist under these circumstances was not an easy question. There was no generic answer, just healthy dialectical discussion, and particular, circumstantial conclusions, balancing the two traditions in one way or another, in this way or that, creating new options in ritual, in contemplative practice, in textual study. Sometimes there were political resolutions, such as the governmental suppression of Buddhism in the mid-ninth century, from which Buddhism never fully recovered. But even then the debt of subsequent Chinese cultural creativity to Buddhist inspiration is obvious, particularly in the arts. There is even a school of Neo-Confucianism, a philosophy that emphasizes the indigenous Chinese cultural tradition, which so emphasizes mind, moral intuition, and action that it becomes known as the "Wildcat Ch'an School," that is, as a virtual form of Ch'an or Zen Buddhism!7
Apart from the intrinsic interest that this Chinese encounter with Buddhism-this Buddhist encounter with China-holds, and apart from its testimony to the brilliance of countless translators-translators not just of language, but of cultural practice-there are two points that I would make for our life at Naropa today.
The first is that within the Buddhist tradition and within the Chinese tradition, indeed within every religious and cultural tradition, there is an ongoing discussion about what the boundaries of the tradition are, or indeed whether there are boundaries. If I frame the question as-"What does it mean to be an American?"-you will see my point immediately. There is a great range of plausible, defensible interpretations, with widely varying implications for commitment and action. The genius of any lasting religious or cultural or national or institutional or educational tradition is that it provides a kind of umbrella under which a diversity of orientations and behaviors can find a home. Or, better, such a tradition provides a kind of home in which various family members can live in reasonable harmony most of the time. Like human families, the members are not always of the same mind and sometimes there may be sharp differences of opinion. But, at least in functional families, there is an underlying recognition of common heritage. I need to expand this metaphor to accommodate the reality of intercultural dynamics, such as we have seen in China, by saying that some families adopt new members, who come to participate every bit as much in the shared life of the family as those who belong genetically. The modern site of Bodh Gaya, site of the Buddha's enlightenment, provides a vivid symbol of this unity in diversity as dozens of temples and monasteries, each from a different Buddhist country, each with its own distinctive art and architecture, line the road to the central shrine encompassing the Bodhi tree, the tree of Enlightenment. The implication that I would draw for Naropa today is this. Precisely because we are a vibrant educational institution that is home to a rich array of faculty and students, who swim at varying places in the now common river formed by the Buddhist tributary and the liberal arts tributary, some along one bank, some along the other, and some in the middle, we need to celebrate that diversity of swimmers, with their diversity of views about the relative importance of the two rivers. It is that diversity that is our heritage from 1974 and, more broadly, our heritage from the way the Buddhist tradition has accommodated itself to different times and places, from China and Tibet in times long past to France and America today. Naropa affirms this aspiration in its mission statement by saying that it is aspires "to exemplify the principles grounded in Naropa University's Buddhist educational heritage," and "to encourage the integration of world wisdom traditions with modern culture," and "to be non-sectarian and open to all." The breadth of these aspirations, and the internal tensions between them, strike me not just as inevitable, but as essential for an institution with a heritage that spans the globe in the way that Naropa's does.
The second conclusion that I would draw from this venture into Buddhist history is this. There are some who say that, for centuries, the West has romanticized the Orient, projecting upon it a spirituality that contrasts with the West's own secularity and that does not correspond to the realities of Asian life. That, in a nutshell, is what Edward Said has argued is Orientalism, the Western effort to assert power over Asia by constructing a false image of Asia and then acting on it. The simplest rebuttal of this claim, one I've not seen mentioned in discussions of Said's work, is found in the very episode we have been considering, the Chinese encounter with Indian Buddhism. The results of that encounter did not play themselves out just in east Asia, in China. Rather, from at least the 4th century onward, there was a steady flow of Buddhist pilgrims in the opposite direction, from China to India. Eager to know more of the extraordinary spirituality of India and the sacred sites of Buddhism, and the monastic life of places like Nalanda, these pilgrims spent years, often decades, exploring the religious riches of south Asia. The sense that India and Tibet have something to offer spiritual seekers is therefore not something that begins in modern times in the West, with Western imperialist ambitions. It has been apparent to others long before us, who approached Buddhism and south Asia from a very different geographic angle than we do. What we are about at Naropa, then, is part of an effort that is both very old and very new: the recognition that once upon a time something unique happened in south Asia in the life of the Buddha-and that that "something" is relevant to all humans, indeed to all sentient beings, in every time and place. What we are doing at Naropa, then, is bringing that distinctive south Asian insight into conversation with other similar insights from different times and places. The goal is a contemplative education that is based on resources from around the world, east and west, past and present, internal and external-a new kind of "global education." There is nothing, to my mind, that the 21st century needs more.
Let me come back now to Naropa today, and do so by returning to the founder's wonderful image of the pilot light. The key lines in my earlier quotation from his remarks at the opening Convocation are these. ". . . . This continent is in search of something . . . . There is enormous energy . . ., fantastic energy. But something doesn't quite click. It is as if we missed the pilot light, while the stove is burning . . . . We could reeducate ourselves within the existing framework, within our educational system. We could re-ignite our pilot light by respecting, trusting, and acknowledging the tradition in which we have grown up. Whether it is Eastern or Western does not really matter." And the key to that re-ignition is discipline, contemplative practice. The usual way that I have heard this diagnosis explained is in relation to the world's religious traditions, with the pilot light of discipline igniting the combustible potential in whatever tradition an individual grew up in. This is certainly consistent with the non-sectarian, ecumenical thrust of Chogyam Trungpa's vision for Naropa . What I'd like to do here is to take a somewhat different tack by looking at various aspects of mainstream liberal education today and seeing if and how the pilot light of Naropa ignites their potential in new ways. This is by way of answering the question I posed at the outset: has Naropa kept faith with its origins? Does it remain trustworthy, in spite of turning thirty? This tack will also let me develop my sense that contemplative education at Naropa addresses questions that are raised, but not fully answered by conventional liberal education, which does not draw upon our inner resources-resources that Naropa knows so well. Let me touch briefly on five examples.
First, there is service or community-based learning. For roughly the past 20 years, this dimension of liberal education has grown enormously, and it is now rare to find a college campus where students are not given structured, pedagogically intentional opportunities to engage with the world beyond the campus, to their mutual benefit. Student involvement in such activities often begins in secondary school, and many colleges are finding that more applicants are involved in service learning projects than in the traditional extracurricular activities of athletics, or the arts, or student government. There is a deep resonance between today's youth and the desire to be of service, a resonance that is value-based and far deeper than the desire simply to be a good citizen. All of this, in my judgment, is to be applauded. But note the following. "Two [recent] studies of the motivations and philosophies of . . . [adults] who have demonstrated long-term commitments to service note that spirituality . . . play[s] a key role in maintaining these commitments." In their study of moral exemplars titled Some Do Care, William Damon and Anne Colby report that "even though the nominating criteria did not include spirituality, 80 percent . . . attributed their core value commitments to their spiritual beliefs." Similarly, the authors of Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World report that "even though religion and spirituality were not one of the selection criteria, the study found that 82 percent of the leaders profiled said that religion or spirituality played an important part in their lives. Over half affiliated themselves with some form of religious community, and 25 percent classified themselves as unaffiliated but spiritual."8 Naropa knows this. It allows, indeed helps students see their will to serve as part of their own inner spiritual growth in ways that are rarely possible in conventional educational settings. This is why Naropa's community-based learning program is today flourishing in unprecedented ways. It is also why I have recently agreed to join the board of Colorado Campus Compact, our state affiliate of the national service-learning network.
A second example. There is no stronger or better known advocate for the liberal arts tradition today than Martha Nussbaum. She is currently the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, with concurrent appointments in philosophy, classics, and political science. Her recent book, Upheavals of Thoughts: The Intelligence of the Emotions, "presents a powerful argument for treating emotions not as alien forces but as highly discriminating responses to what is of value and importance." "We must be prepared," she argues, "to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and in so doing to learn what role these tumultuous experiences play in our thinking about the good and the just."9 Even more recently, in the Winter 2003 issue of Daedalus, writing on "Compassion and Terror," Nussbaum builds on classical and Enlightenment thought to develop a theory of critical compassion. She closes with a recommendation and an observation. The recommendation is that "an education in common human weakness and vulnerability should be a very profound part of the education of all children. Children should learn to be tragic spectators and to understand with subtlety and responsiveness the predicaments to which human life is prone. Through stories and dramas, they should learn to decode the suffering of others, and this decoding should deliberately lead them into lives, both near and far, including the lives of distant humans and the lives of animals." Her observation is that "the chances of success in this enterprise will be greater if the society in question does not overvalue external goods of the sort that cause envy and competition."10 Nussbaum is articulating an ideal for where liberal education should or might be headed. Based on what I know of contemplative education at Naropa, we are, I submit, already there.
Third, there is a wonderful little book that is popular these days among mainstream college faculty at institutions that prize the teaching of undergraduates. It is called Teaching with Your Mouth Shut.11 The author is Donald Finkel, a long-term faculty member at Evergreen State College, an institution that is kindred in many ways to Naropa. It includes chapters titled "Let the Books Do the Talking," "Let the Students Do the Talking," "Speaking with Your Mouth Shut: The Art of Writing," and "Refusing to 'Teach': Separating Power and Authority in the Classroom." Finkel's instincts are close to mine in sensing that students need help in escaping from what Deborah Tannen calls The Argument Culture. So pervasive is this culture that one well-known college sought to respond to student complaints about there being too much lecturing and wanting more discussion by systematically inquiring into what students meant by "discussion." It turns out they mean "the opportunity to talk so that I might persuade others of the rightness of my position." They do not mean "the opportunity to listen, so that I might change my own position."12 I believe that listening, along with reading, writing, and speaking, is one of the critical liberal arts skills-listening to others, and systematically listening to oneself. Although, as Finkel's book suggests, there are hints of this awareness in the mainstream, Naropa with its understanding of contemplative education again appears to be ahead of the curve, lighting the pilot light.
Fourth, there is the exciting decade-long work that is being done under the auspices of Adam Engle's Mind and Life Institute, with the blessing and keen interest of the Dalai Lama, bringing together recent findings of Western neuroscience and the brain structure of long-term meditators. As the Dalai Lama noted last year in an op-ed piece in The New York Times: It turns out that "mindfulness meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger. This raises the possibility that we have a way to create a kind of buffer between the brain's violent impulses and our actions . . . ." To respond to the slings and arrows of the world, large and small, he writes: "we need to be guided by more healthy states of mind, not just to avoid feeding the flames of hatred, but to respond skillfully. We would do well to remember that the war against hatred and terror can be waged on this, the internal front, too."13 Some of the scientific work that bears on this new, boundary-crossing research is being conducted in Naropa's Consciousness Laboratory by faculty member Peter Grossenbacher and his students. And, of course, the meditation side of the equation is woven into virtually all of the teaching and learning we do.
Finally, I think we have under our very noses a contemporary instance of how Buddhism moves cross-culturally and interacts creatively with the pre-existing American culture, a parallel to what we saw earlier in China. Let me suggest that the older, indigenous tradition in America is the quintessential culture described by, among others, Alexis De Tocqueville, a culture that is democratic, practical, free-wheeling, entrepreneurial, capitalist, decentralized, hyperbolic, prosaic, individualist, egalitarian, restless. What is happening in Naropa's Marpa Center for Business and Economics is the elicitation of a contemplative dimension in all of this. We don't have to start from scratch, of course, because there is already under way in the business world a lot of fresh thinking about management and values that converges with our own. As the Marpa Center's mission statement puts it, our aspiration is "to integrate Naropa's unique experience of contemplative liberal arts education with the contemporary world of business, economics and work to nurture the growing convergence between for-profit and non-profit realms, as businesses recognize the need to expand their missions to include social responsibility, and non-profits recognize the benefits of using for-profit strategies to accomplish social missions." As the work of the Marpa Center unfolds in the years ahead, it is my hope that it will come to have one foot planted in the undergraduate curriculum, as well as at the graduate level. This will enable us to help our students realize that there truly is no realm that is "other" to the contemplative life.
The conclusion that I draw from all this is that Naropa has indeed kept the faith with its founding vision, even as it has come of age and crosses the threshold of 30 years. The pilot light, I believe, continues to ignite both the interactions between students and teachers and the development of particular programs, of which I've given a handful of examples. But we should note how this trust has been kept, for it is not in any static or linear way. There is no simple thread of continuity between what the Naropa Institute was in the summer of 1974 and what Naropa University is in the summer of 2004. We need a more subtle and dynamic model for how Naropa has kindled the pilot light over the years. Suggesting such a model is my conclusion this evening.
In developing such a model, I want to use one of Chogyam Trungpa's most frequently quoted phrases for what was afoot in the creation of Naropa: "Let East meet West, and the sparks will fly!" By this he apparently referred both to the encounter of Western and Asian religious and cultural traditions, and to the location of Naropa here in Boulder, symbolically situated near the Continental Divide. Can we use this notion of two contrasting phenomena that strike sparks off one another, learning from the differences between them to go beyond conceptual mind, as Marvin Casper said earlier, in order to generate a visual image for Naropa's magic, for the continuity of its pilot light?
I believe we can, and I believe we find it in what we all learned in high school geometry. Do you remember the ellipse? The simplest way to understand an ellipse is in comparison with a circle. A circle is defined as the pattern that one point traces when it revolves around another point so that it is always equidistant from that point. The reference point, of course, is the circle's center, the point that is moving around it traces the circle's circumference, and the distance between them is the radius. An ellipse is only slightly more complex. An ellipse is defined as the pattern that one point traces when it revolves around two other points, so that the sum of the distances from those two points remains a constant. Those two reference points are known as the foci of the ellipse. It's that simple.
There are four reasons I like the ellipse as a model for Naropa's ongoing vitality.
First, it emphasizes the dynamism that lies at the heart of the institution. Unlike a circle with its single center, there is no simple "essence" to the place. Rather, what lies at the core is always moving, always characterized by one focus, one flint, striking sparks off the other. There is nothing static or linear about it.
Second, it allows for a variety of contrasting pairs to be placed on the two focal points, for instance: east and west, Buddhist river and liberal arts river, faculty and students, teaching and learning, graduate programs and undergraduate programs, intellect and intuition, Buddhist heritage and world wisdom/non-sectarian, inner and outer, wisdom and compassion, American entrepreneurial spirit and contemplative life, and so on. There are almost countless other pairs that can be imagined in this way of thinking about Naropa's on-going life. The crucial point is that Naropa does not have one single center. It is two foci in dynamic interaction, together defining the perimeter of what we are. To use the formulation I suggested at the beginning, each of the two foci is inviting the other into ever-greater openness and expansion.
Third, the electricity, the pilot light that lies at the heart of Naropa's life, happens in between the two foci, magically jumping between the two poles like an electric spark jumping from one terminal to the other. The energy eludes easy definition because it's always in the gaps, beyond the realm of conceptual analysis. One of Naropa's founding faculty members, Barbara Dilley, consistently reminds us that the magic of Naropa eludes simple definition because it lies in between our concepts, in between our efforts to grasp it. The ellipse, I think, captures something of that intuition.
Finally, I find the ellipse is something like a koan, like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon. What it points to, what it wants us to pay attention to, is somewhere else. What it wants us to attend to is non-dual, non-conceptual reality, emptiness, sunyata, the fully awakened mind. But we cannot capture that reality in the graphic representation of the ellipse, because it lies . . . where? in the movement, the awakening that occurs between the poles? outside the boundaries of the ellipse itself? beyond all spatial representation? Shunryu Suzuki captures the mystery and the paradox here quite wonderfully when he writes of the zazen meditation position: "When you sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh. When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and a left leg, they have become one. The position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one. This is the most important teaching: not two, and not one."14 The ellipse, I think, captures much of this critical insight into Naropa's identity.
Last July 1, at the welcoming reception on my first day as Naropa's president, I made a brief attempt to answer a question that several people had put to me: what is it like for a newcomer to become president of Naropa? I drew a parallel with my first long research trip to India, unaccompanied by family, where almost all the variables, from language to food to weather, were different from what I had known in upstate New York. It was as if I had simply been dropped into another lifetime. Under those circumstances, I became something of an anthropologist, whose role was to observe and eventually to come to feel at home and function effectively in the new culture. It was also to mirror back, through my personal interactions and my writing, something of what I saw to my colleagues in India and the west. What I've tried to provide tonight is therefore a kind of parallel report, an anthropologist's report on Naropa, on how the place looks to me one year later, on how I think the place should look to itself after 30 years of existence. Is the pilot light still bluish white and hot? You betcha! Is this cause for celebration? You betcha! Happy birthday, Naropa University, you middle-aged wonder!
1 Quoted in The Spark of Wisdom: 25 Years at the Naropa University, unpublished manuscript, 19-20.
2 Ibid., 20-21.
3 Ibid., 4.
4 Ibid., 6, 6-7.
5 Ibid., 2-3, 12-13.
6Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History, New York: Atheneum, 1967, 33-34.
7 Wm. Theodore de Bary, et al. (ed.), Sources of Chinese Tradition, New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1960, 514-516.
8 Kent Koth, "Spiritual Reflection in Service-Learning," About Campus (January-February 2003), 4.
9Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. I here cite from the front end-matter of the book.
10 Martha Nussbaum, "Compassion and Terror," Daedalus (Winter 2003), 24, 25.
11 Portsmouth, NH: Heineman-Boynton/Cook, 2000.
12 Carol Trosset, "Obstacles to Open Discussion and Critical Thinking," Change 30 #5 (September/October 1998), 44-50.
13 Tenzin Gyatso (The Dalai Lama), "The Monk in the Lab," The New York Times, April 26, 2003, A29.
14 Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1970, 25. I am indebted to Barbara Dilley for this quotation.