Dancing in the Rivers

Inauguration Address, Naropa University
Thomas B. Coburn
November 1, 2003

Dr. Thomas B. Coburn was formally invested as President of Naropa University on November 1, 2003

Rinpoche, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Mayor, trustees, former presidents and leaders, faculty, alumni, students, family, and friends of Naropa, thank you for the wonderful welcome you have afforded me, beginning nearly a year ago and reaching new heights here today. My wife, Leigh, and I remain in awe at the warmth we have experienced at your hands, from your hearts, and we will be forever grateful. Thank you even more for joining today in what is the real focus of our celebration, the legacy and on-going vitality of this remarkable place that is Naropa. Forty years ago Naropa was only a twinkle in the eye of the founder, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. Thirty years ago that twinkle had grown, animating the work of a handful of planners, who could scarcely imagine what would happen in the following magical summer of 1974, the enormous, overwhelmingly enthusiastic public response to a new vision. Naropa then, and now, has its finger on the pulse of something vital, with roots stretching into the distant past and a future that stretches out of sight, over the far horizon, into the future. It is that vitality that really brings us together today and is the underlying cause for celebration. So thank you to each of you for joining with the rest of us like-minded, like-hearted folks in this great celebration.

Almost exactly thirty years ago, I was seated in a classroom in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was engaged in a ritual, common to most doctoral students, known as general examinations. This was the exam most dreaded by those in the comparative religion program. Its shadow fell across all our previous years of study. The exam question was known in advance, indeed from our very entry into the program. One walked into the examination room and on the blackboard there was the question: "Discuss the religious situation in the world at one of the following dates," and there would be three dates to choose from, always different from one year to the next. This was a wonderfully challenging question to prepare for, encouraging a synoptic view of human religious history, far larger than any courses one might have taken. It was also an appropriately humbling question, and I scrambled in the months leading up to the exam to fill in the blanks--those centuries or those geographic regions where my knowledge was thin or nonexistent. But that examination induced in me a perspective that has remained through all the ensuing years, even as the historical details have faded from memory. When the possibility of becoming Naropa's president first emerged a little over a year ago, it was that perspective, that synoptic view of human religious and cultural life, that first shaped my understanding of the issues involved. As I have come to know Naropa better over the past months, it is also this perspective that has produced a metaphor for describing the historical context where Naropa has lived over the past three decades. We are, I suggest, living at the confluence of two rivers, and the title I have put over these remarks is "Dancing in the Rivers."

One of those rivers has its headwaters in classical India, in the experience of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, "the awake one." This river, which we know as the Buddhist tradition, 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. And now the flow of that river has brought it here to Boulder, Colorado.

The other river also has its headwaters in a distant time and place. It originates in the eastern Mediterranean, not in the experience of a single 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 growth of new disciplines like economics and psychology. The so-called "culture wars" of the past twenty-five years, for all of their virulence, attest to the vitality of this tradition, to the on-going debate among thoughtful people about what it means to be an educated person in the late 20th and 21st century. This river of liberal arts education now finds itself in Boulder, Colorado, vital, alive and, for the past thirty years, merging with the Buddhist river into the experience of Naropa University. Naropa is living at the confluence of these two rivers, an event that is without historical precedent. Two traditions, both of which have a long history of geographic mobility and of enriching other cultures, have now encountered each other, with unique opportunities for cross-fertilization. Nothing like this particular convergence of rivers-producing a vision of contemplative education that is broader than either its Buddhist or its liberal arts tributaries-has ever happened before in human history. No wonder it is so exciting!

As I have tried out this metaphor on campus colleagues, I have found that, beyond whatever heuristic utility it may have, it, like other good metaphors, invites mischiefmaking (and after last night's faculty arts performance, I have no doubt that mischief will be made!)-observations like, "Those sure were challenging rapids back upstream," or "We're all in one boat now." I invite you to continue such mischief, testing the potential insights, and the limits, of the metaphor. What I would like to do here is to explore three implications of Naropa's life at the confluence of these two rivers. What have we learned in our nearly thirty years of experience living downstream from where they flowed together? One of Chogyam Trungpa's often quoted phrases from the time of Naropa's founding is "Let East meet West, and the sparks will fly." Certainly Naropa has known its share of sparks, struck by various flints, and that metaphor has often been appropriate. But we are now thirty years downstream, and I have suggested a different metaphor for our experience, one that is softer, subtler, more fluid, implies a gentler, more interpenetrating encounter of differences. Why do things appear this way to me?

My first evidence comes from two recent articles in popular media, dealing with meditation and the increasing attention it is commanding in both popular and scientific circles in America. While varying in substance and merit, the two articles-on Time Magazine 's cover and in the New York Times Magazine -appreciate that something revolutionary is afoot in the recent Western openness to what meditation offers. But both articles miss the larger historical significance of what is happening here. Our metaphor of the two rivers captures this significance. It notes that upstream in the liberal arts river, some three hundred years ago, some fateful deflections of river-flow took place. Known as the Enlightenment, with its understanding of human beings in terms of their rational thought processes, and the Scientific Revolution, with its emphasis on the empirical understanding and mastery of an objectified material world, these developments constituted a departure from the liberal arts aspiration to educate the whole person. They were a kind of artificially constructed channel that pushed the current in new directions, producing new possibilities that transformed Europe, then much of the rest of the world. What was ignored in the process was the disciplined inquiry into the inner world, an inquiry known to all the world's contemplative traditions, including the West's own traditions, that is every bit as empirical as the science produced by the Scientific Revolution. The difference is that the science of contemplation is directed inward, toward a deeper understanding of subjectivity, while most modern science has been directed outward, toward a deeper understanding of the objective world. What the growing popular attraction to meditation reflects, therefore, is a sense that intellect and materialism are insufficient for living a complete life, a hunger for a redressing of the balance, recapturing part of the West's own history, with a greater role for intuition and spirituality. Therefore, when Naropa speaks of balancing inner and outer in the education we offer, it is not just because it is the education best suited to the 21st century. It is also a restoration of liberal arts education to its aspiration to educate the whole human being. It is a corrective to some peculiar twists that the liberal arts river took many years ago. When Naropa describes itself as "a contemplative college and graduate school of the arts, humanities and social sciences," it means that contemplation is both a distinctive piece of the curriculum, one of the distribution requirements for all B.A. students, and a dimension of the entire curriculum, running through departmental requirements at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

But there is more. Just as Naropa's life at the confluence offers a corrective to what happened upstream in the liberal arts river, so, too, does it invite us to think afresh about familiar elements in the Buddhist river. It is a commonplace, for instance, that, for some, contemplative life entails withdrawal from the world, while, for others, withdrawal is but a prelude to transformative action within the world. David Loy, an American Zen Buddhist and scholar of Buddhism, invites us to think about both these inclinations in relationship to liberal education by reflecting on his own lineage during World War II: "... even deep Zen enlightenment is not enough . . . . It is also necessary to be educated, in the broadest sense of the term: that is, to be aware of what is happening in one's country and in the world, socially and historically, to ensure that one's concern for others is not distorted by . . . collective delusions such as nationalism and militarism [and] . . . today . . [by] consumerism . . . . This realization . . . strikes another blow at the view that if we Buddhists just face the wall and meditate, everything will automatically turn out all right." We need education, a liberal arts kind of education, about the world as well.

Naropa's aspiration, then, can be understood as the effort to conjoin the best of the liberal arts tradition's emphasis on the mastery of knowledge and the ability to think and speak persuasively, with the contemplative emphasis on the mastery of knowledge and the ability to feel and listen deeply.

There is a second reason why Naropa's experience over the past thirty years calls for the fluid, commingling model of confluent rivers. Globalization is happening at a mindboggling pace and will continue in ever more complex ways. Globalization is the calling card of the future. Those of us who are historians know that economic and cultural interchange has been much more a reality in centuries past, around the globe, than popular American thinking often realizes. But, regardless, the cross-cultural flow of people, of cultures, as well as of capital and markets is now undeniable. How we shall think about these processes is a huge challenge, because of their complexity. Within higher education, lively debates have explored the pros and cons of various conceptualizations. "Diversity education" and "multiculturalism" have had much to commend them, but they assume that the differences between peoples are more noteworthy than their commonalities. "International education" used to be a popular term, but it is now apparent that these crosscultural flows are as much a part of American life today as they are of life beyond our borders. At Naropa and in other colleges and universities today, the concept of "intercultural education" is now getting a lot of discussion because it acknowledges that all facets of today's world are dynamic and in flux, because it doesn't privilege either the similarities or the differences that exist cross-culturally, and because it captures the texture of life in Boulder and Boston as well as in Cairo and Bangkok. At Naropa, because we appreciate how religious and cultural diversity are intertwined, our discussion includes attention to what we call "cultural appropriation," that is, recognition that certain practices are sacred and therefore need to be protected from market pressure to become commodities; they ought never be available for a fee. Naropa's mission, and appreciation of the power that lies in religious forms, give it a special role to play in larger discussions of diversity, including the distinctively American stigma of racism. Our search for deeper understanding and for appropriate responses, both in and out of the curriculum, will continue on into the future. What is at stake, at Naropa and elsewhere, is nothing less than what I claimed at Convocation two months ago was the single most pressing educational question for the 21st century: how can we help our students, how can we help ourselves, learn to engage constructively with those who are not like ourselves? The task is urgent in our ever more interdependent, ever more confluent world.

The third and final implication for Naropa's life at the meeting of these rivers is to recognize that these interpenetrating influences and heritages do not simply apply to the world outside us. They are also taking place within each of us. In 1962, in his powerful novel of French colonial Africa, Ambiguous Adventure, Cheik Hamidou Kane has his tribal, Muslim protagonist, Samba Diallo, put the matter this way: "I am not a distinct country of the Diallobe facing a distinct Occident, and appreciating with a cool head what I must take from it and what I must leave with it by way of counterbalance. I have become the two. There is not a clear mind deciding between the two factors of a choice. There is a strange nature, in distress over not being two." Forty years have elapsed since Kane wrote those words, and in the interim Samba's world has become our world, in ways that are individual and unique to each of us. This world may seem strange to us, too, but some discerning teachers have begun to find words to describe it. Here is what Farid Esack says. "We are all comprised of multiple identities, depending on where we come from, what we believe in, where we are, and with whom we are interacting at a particular moment. Often we insist on identity as a fixed and unchanging category. A closer look, though, shows that we-and the way in which we view ourselves-are really ever changing. . . The truth is that there is no stable self nor a stable other. Every encounter of the self with the other contributes to the process of ongoing transformation. Intermarriages, linguistic crosspollination, migration, the Internet, McDonald's, CNN and the emergence of Christian atheists, Catholic Hindus, and Muslim Quakers, as well as Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu worshippers of the Market, are only the more obvious manifestations of the collapse of borders-if, indeed, there were ever borders." Esack then goes on to quote the famous novelist, Salman Rushdie: "We have come to understand our own selves as composites, often contradictory, even internally incompatible. We have understood that each of us is many people. . . The nineteenth century concept of integrated self has been replaced by this jostling crowd of 'I's. And yet, unless we are damaged or deranged, we usually have a relatively clear sense of who we are. I agree with my many selves to call all of them 'me.'" Esack then notes there are huge implications for all who teach, for "when we deal with students, we are dealing essentially with persons who [like ourselves] are really the carriers of multiple and ever-changing selves."

Thus, it is not just we at Naropa who these days live at the confluence of rivers, in different rivers with different histories. Those rivers flow within us, as well as in the world around us. In these circumstances, it is hard for me to imagine a liberal education that does not attend to the dynamics of our inner lives as well as to the outer world. It is hard for me to imagine a liberal education, adequate for the 21st century, that is not contemplative.

Finally, a word about dancing. The title for these remarks is "Dancing in the Rivers," and I have said a lot about rivers. But why "dancing"? The reason is because of the way the arts are woven into the fabric of our life at Naropa. This has been true from the beginning, where alongside instruction in meditation there was a poetics department which became the renowned Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The founder of Naropa was himself a man of extraordinary artistic versatility, in multiple media. Traditional Eastern Arts and Interarts Education have been staples of our curriculum from early on. Three of the eight categories of learning we now require of all B.A. students have something to do with the arts. This wonderful new facility and our new B.F.A. in performance reaffirm the importance of the arts in our institutional identity. And just last week we received word from the National Endowment of the Arts of a second major grant in support of our project to digitize the holdings of our writing and poetics archive, an award made under the Save America's Treasures program. What the arts have to do with Naropa is simple: like meditation and contemplation, they are vehicles for the expansion of consciousness, for going beyond conventional engagement of the world. They are an invitation to engage a larger reality. They also, of course, bring joy to both artist/performer and audience, and they do so, former president Barbara Dilley reminded us in a recent faculty meeting, not via some dour, Calvinist notion of discipline. Rather the arts, and teaching the arts, are concerned with "discipline and delight." What better image to capture what we are doing in our confluent rivers than dancing?

Naropa is fundamentally a place for teaching and learning, and so I close with a lesson from my life as a teacher. Good teachers, I have learned, must engage their students as they find them, as they present themselves, walking in the door. This means being conversant with youth culture and changes in student culture over time, and it also means coming to know each individual student, in his or her own uniqueness. But great teachers do not simply teach to students as they find them. They also teach to a higher horizon, to the ideal student that the teacher holds in mind's eye. The challenge over time is to engage and work through the empirical student who walked in the door and to help him or her rise to fulfill a potential that was originally only a glimmer in the teacher's imagination. Great teachers engage students in terms of what they are, and also in terms of what they can become.

The same, I think, holds true for institutions as a whole. Each of us has a sense of what Naropa has been and is today, the empirical Naropa. But what about the future? Can you see it, perhaps only dimly? Can you hear it, perhaps only faintly? I can, and with our help, we can draw Naropa closer to what lies there, over the horizon. So, please stay in touch with us over the weeks, the months, and the years ahead. Great things, portentous things for higher education and for the world, are happening here. And, as we give body to what draws us on, like artists everywhere we have to recall what once was said of those who were building the fabled city of Camelot: "They are building still, seeing the city is built to music, therefore never built at all and therefore built forever."

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