Dr Thomas Coburn: Responding to the Symposium Speeches

Dr Thomas Coburn, President, Naropa University Boulder, Colorado, USA

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this august gathering this afternoon. I have two introductory comments about the context in which I offer my remarks, and then two metaphors to describe what I think we are about.

The first setting of context comments are these: my training is as a historian of religion, and the simplest way to capture this meaning is to recall an examination that I took, some thirty-five years ago šC consisting of: walking into the room, and finding three dates on the chalkboard. The assignment was to discuss the religious situation in the world at one of the following dates. It was a terrifying exam to prepare for, but it also constructed in me a way of thinking about the world¡¯s religious history that has remained with me ever since.

The second context is that of serving, for the past four years, as the President of Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado [in the United States]. The former of those contexts has encouraged me to look for broader, sweeping patterns in the world¡¯s religious history. Some of those patterns are obvious to all of us. Things like the Axial Age [the era when many ancient religions were founded, from Plato, Gotama Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, Judaism, etc.] šC that produced the Buddhist religion that we know so well, but also produced other religions as well šC none of which had the broad historical sweep in the world, that the Buddhist religion had. But certainly, those centuries of the 5th-6th BCE were momentous, for the world as a whole.

That sweeping pattern enables us to look at movements like the western pattern of colonialism and the age of exploration, whose effects are still with us. Let me suggest that there is another sweeping movement that is underway that is part of what this conference is all about, an aspiration for a Buddhist consortium. I think there is evidence beyond this particular conference of course that I think clamors to be taken account of šC a colleague has just noted one of those. But as I look at the currents in higher education in the West, I see things like the movements for women¡¯s liberation, also apparent outside of the West, that has really changed the face of the academy in one single generation. Similarly, the environmental movement has more recently encouraged us to think about our experience as a whole šC about our relationship to nature.

I see today¡¯s, tomorrow¡¯s, and yesterday¡¯s events as part of that revolution of consciousness, that invites us to think about our own particular heritages, as part of something revolutionary, in a global context. So, what I see going on here, is something certainly Buddhist, but it is also larger than Buddhist. I see it as something that is educational, but also larger than educational.

The second setting that I see in which I find myself speaking, is that of the President of Naropa University. Rather than rehearse for you the features of that institution you should find on your desks some brief handouts dealing with that, including the mission statement that the board of trustees has revised, just within the last year or so.

The metaphor¡­ here is the first of my two metaphors. The metaphor that I started using to describe Naropa¡¯s work when I became President, four years ago, was that we find ourselves in this little institution in Boulder, Colorado, at the confluence of two rivers that had their origins deep in history. One of them is in the experience of Sidhattha Gotama, the Buddha, in India, 2500 years ago. That experience spawned a movement that each of you know across cultures, transforming every culture that it came into contact with šC it now finds itself flowing through Boulder, Colorado. There was also another Buddhist river, our institutional heritage šC that had its headwaters, not in classical India, but in the classical Mediterranean šC what we know as classical Greece and the birth of the liberal arts tradition. That tradition too has flowed over many cultures, always enrichening them. It too, now, finds itself flowing through Boulder, Colorado. Never before in human history has that confluence happened. It is that excitement that drew me there some years ago.

The institution was born in 1974, as the brain-child of our founder, Ch?gyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trumpta Rimpoche is one of the great founders, one of the great missionaries in bringing Buddhism to the West. It was understood as a Buddhist movement, but if you look at the mission statement that I have handed out, you will also see that it is broader than Buddhist. It is described as Buddhist inspired, ecumenical, and non-sectarian. The vision that Trungpa Rimpoche had was that what Naropa was exposing, exploring, was what happens when one draws upon the inner resources that every person in this room knows through meditation and contemplation into interaction with the disciplines of higher education šC the conventional liberal arts disciplines. His metaphor was that what Naropa was about in bringing that experiential component to bear was that it was re-igniting the pilot light in all contemplative traditions, all religious traditions, and all educational traditions that had often gone out. What I think he was referring to was that aberration that a number of people have referred to this afternoon that happened in the western understanding of education around the time of the ¡®enlightenment¡¯. The assumption that what defined a human being was what was in the head rather than what was in the heart; and it was defined as what was out there rather than what was in here. This afternoon, I have been reminded of the fundamental meaning of the word ¡®education¡¯ šC which is ¡®to draw out¡¯. How can it be, I ask myself, that we in the west have thought that what we are doing was drawing out the inner being, when all we were talking about was the head; and, much of what we were talking about was the objective world.

So, what I think we are about at Naropa, what I think that the appetite is that I sense is, in this room šC is for a more holistic, more rounded understanding of what it means to be human, that includes the whole-heart, as well as the head, intuition as well as intellect. What we are about, therefore, in this enterprise and at Naropa in particular, is the same kind of transformative effect that Buddhist had on Buddhism, on the previous cultures in China, and the previous cultures in Japan. What we are about is something that is Buddhist and therefore larger than Buddhist. Can you imagine Japanese art without Buddhism? What we are about is that kind of transformation of the world.

My second metaphor and my final comment will be to invite us to think about what we are here doing is having had a long out-breath of Buddhism for the last 2500 years, with the decentralization in the spread of Buddhism, what we are about here is the in-breath šC drawing ourselves into interaction with one another, engaging in our own particular ways in which I think is the most challenging episode in the 21st Century šC ¡°How do we get along with people who are not like ourselves?¡±

What we are involved in here, is drawing Buddhists of all natures, of all nations, to engage that issue of diversity, and it will have a spill-over effect, I believe, for: far outside educational institutions.

My last quotation would be, Naropa was privileged last fall to co-host the visit by the Dalai Lama to Denver, and at the very end of his talk, in response to questions about what one can do about the woe in the world, uniquely so in the 21st Century, he said: ¡°Education is the answer.¡±

That is us, folks.