Naropa University: Where East Meets West and Sparks Fly
Naropa University: Where East Meets West and Sparks Fly
Bringing meditative discipline to modern education, Naropa University cultivates both intellect and the wisdom beyond words. On Naropa’s 25th anniversary, Stephen Foehr profiles a unique experiment in American higher education.
John Baker and Marvin Casper approached the old trailer, its red primer coat in high contrast to the surrounding pines of the Rocky Mountains. Waiting inside was the man whose approval they wanted for a plan to create a new institution different from anything else in American higher education.
They paused at the door, knocked, entered, and removed their shoes. Their teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, sat waiting in a low-slung Naugahyde chair. Baker and Casper sat respectfully on the floor at his feet and explained their idea for a college founded on the Buddhist principles of wisdom, compassion and enlightened action. Pointing his finger like a pistol, Trungpa Rinpoche said, “I’m pulling the trigger on the Naropa Institute.”
That summer of 1973 was the genesis of what is now Naropa University, located in Boulder, Colorado. In September of 1999, Naropa celebrated both its twenty-fifth anniversary and its official accreditation as a Buddhist-inspired university offering both undergraduate and master degrees.
“We were certainly aware that we were proposing a unique and radical departure from what higher education was like in America,” says Casper, a faculty member at Naropa, recalling that meeting in the trailer. “There was no school in America that focused on personal and spiritual development as the root of the educational program. The tradition in America was developing people through the intellect.”
Naropa started as a summer institute. Casper and Baker presented ideas to Trungpa Rinpoche, who approved, rejected or offered advice. “Marvin and I had this idea because we were inspired by and devoted to Trungpa Rinpoche,” Baker says, “and he always set the context by teaching us.”
Casper was the strategist and Baker the doer. They immediately started to gather a staff, invite teachers, and compile a catalogue for the first summer session in 1974. Ram Dass agreed to teach and they knew he would attract some out-there types who might rub the more staid Boulder residents the wrong way. To minimize contact, Baker rented a private canyon outside of town and established a free campground for Naropa students. Classroom space and accommodations had to be found. And money, what about money? That question would linger around Naropa for years, and the echo is still heard in the halls today.
A goal of five hundred participants was set for that first summer session. Two thousand people registered. Baker and the staff frantically worked to piece together facilities from whatever space they found available. The interior of a former bus garage was spray-painted white and ten thousand square feet of multi-striped carpet, as colorful as Jacob’s coat, was laid over the oil stains.
A month before classes were to begin, when chaos was the rule rather than the exception, Trungpa Rinpoche left for a vacation in the Caribbean. He called Baker and asked how things were going.
“I feel that this is a wild animal and I’m just trying to hold on to its back and not fall off,” Baker replied.
“You know, my whole life has been like that,” Trungpa Rinpoche said.
Trungpa Rinpoche returned in June for the formal opening of The Naropa Institute. In his speech to the two thousand students, he said, “We’re making hot chili.” It wasn’t to be a bland stew of traditions but something strong and spicy. A place “where East meets West and sparks will fly”—that was what Trungpa Rinpoche envisioned.
Naropa was named for an eleventh-century Buddhist teacher, one of the founders of the Kagyü school of tantric Buddhism. Before becoming a wandering yogi, Naropa was abbot of Nalanda University in India, the greatest institution of Buddhist learning of its day.
If you visit the ruins of Nalanda in India today, you can still feel its former grandeur. The Naropa campus in Boulder is a little more modest. The core 3.7-acre campus is cramped, or compact, or intricately fitted—depending on your sense of space. The centerpiece of the campus, fronting busy Arapahoe Avenue, is a former elementary school housing offices, classrooms, meeting rooms and meditation halls.
Tucked behind are three low buildings for performance spaces, classrooms, a bookstore, and a small kitchen with a take-out counter. The sign on the tip jar reads, “If you fear change, leave it here.” A Buddhist in-joke. Students eat lunch at wrought iron tables set on the lip of the asphalt parking lot. Six simple frame cottages clustered near the central building double as offices and classrooms. The Allen Ginsberg Library was dedicated in 1993.
Between the central building and the Ginsberg Library is a flower and vegetable garden, and in pleasant weather students lounge on the lawn at the edge of the garden. Naropa has nine hundred graduate and undergraduate students taught by forty-five full-time faculty members. Another sixty-eight students are enrolled in Naropa’s Masters in Liberal Arts program at the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California.
Courses at Naropa include a broad range of Western and Eastern disciplines: cultural anthropology, computer literacy, Western and Buddhist psychology, early childhood education, environmental studies, dance, theater, writing and literature, yoga, tai chi, meditation, music, managerial accounting, gerontology, long-term care management, and more.
So where’s the hot chili? To find the heat, you have to go into the classrooms and the meditation halls. The compact between the students and the teachers is that they will educate each other. The teachers prepare the meal and the students add the spice by not accepting their education passively. They stir the pot, and if they don’t, the teachers will hand them a spoon—or an idea, or a dance step, or an assumption—and say, “Stir with vigor.”
Naropa students are an eclectic lot. One recent day on campus I observed sitting at the tables near the cafe a gray-haired grandmother; a young redhead male in full dreadlocks; a mature woman, her worldly experiences etched on her face; two bearded intellectual types, and a vibrant twenty-year-old woman. At other tables were ordinary looking people, people with nose rings, males with long hair and women with shaven heads. Naropa appeals to a wide cross-section of America.
David Ludwig is a third year masters student in Buddhist studies. He graduated in philosophy from Sonoma State College. “My traditional education insisted on distancing me from what I was studying,” David explains. “Here you can’t get away with not integrating your self and your studies. Naropa practices what it preaches and as a student I’ve embodied what I learned. I have been trained for sane living, for surviving in a stressful world.”
Aura Fichbeck, an undergraduate in the interarts program, came to Naropa after high school. “I chose Naropa because it seemed to have a good balance of body, mind and spirit,” says the aspiring dancer. “There is an attention to awareness here, a holistic approach that has given me a good educational experience. I have been introduced to a lineage of people in the arts who have made awareness part of their artistic practice.”
“In a lot of ways the rigor at Naropa is looking at your own mind,” John Cobb explains. An attorney before joining Naropa as president seven years ago, Cobb settles into a wingback chair in his office to talk about Naropa’s unique approach to education.
“We ask people to hold a mirror up to their own mind. Meditation is as much a part of the education process here as reading a textbook. If you’re going to achieve any real understanding, you have to know how you filter what you perceive and how you project on the world what you want. Meditation practice is very valuable to that understanding.
“We can’t make everybody at Naropa meditate,” Cobb says, “but we can make the wisdom of meditation part of the curriculum and create an environment that helps support what meditation is getting at. Then we build on the meditation environment by having other contemplative disciplines—such as art forms and therapeutic training—that have roots in mindfulness-awareness.
“What we’re really about is training ourselves to be human beings, as opposed to training ourselves to be experts. For the past two hundred years or so, the intellect has been at the fore of academia. We’re trying to bring back a quality of nonconceptual understanding as being extremely important. To a certain extent Naropa is a throwback. The intellectual and spiritual have been forced apart in our educational system. We work to bring them together.”
Naropa’s early years were intoxicating, infuriating, inspiring and fun. “The spirit of Naropa was like a lot of cosmic dust coming into a form,” says Emily Hunter, who served on Naropa’s first board of trustees. “No one knew what the form was going to be, but there was a vortex, a real cauldron for ego development and destruction by working closely with Trungpa Rinpoche.”
The infamous poetry reading is a good example. I was there and I saw the sparks fly.
As an introduction to the community and as a fund raiser for the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center, Naropa arranged a poetry reading at the University of Colorado. Trungpa Rinpoche invited Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Robert Bly and Nanao Sakaki to read.
The 400-seat auditorium was SRO. The poets, including Trungpa Rinpoche, sat on meditation cushions in a straight line on the stage. Snyder and Bly were at one end, stage left; Ginsberg and Trungpa Rinpoche were at the other end, and Sakaki was in the center. Snyder and Bly shared a fifth of whiskey behind their backs during the reading; Trungpa Rinpoche sipped openly from a large bottle of sake, which could have been mistaken for a bottle of water.
As the reading progressed, Rinpoche weaved visibly on his cushion. He leaned over to Ginsberg and whispered; Ginsberg resolutely shook his head no and crossed his arms to emphasize his refusal. Bly recited a translation of the Diamond Sutra; Trungpa Rinpoche picked up a large brass bowl gong and inverted it over his head. The audience tittered and Bly looked up from his page. When Bly finished reading, Trungpa Rinpoche took the bowl off his head.
Ginsberg leaned over and admonished Trungpa Rinpoche. Ginsberg wrote later that he told him, “You shouldn’t do that, they’ve come here to do you a favor, you shouldn’t be carrying on like that,” and that Trungpa Rinpoche replied, “If you think I’m doing this because I’m drunk, you’re making a big mistake.”
When Snyder started to read, Rinpoche put the bowl on Ginsberg’s head. When the readings were over, Trungpa Rinpoche apologized repeatedly to the audience for inviting the poets who had laid their heavy trip on them. Later, Ginsberg asked Trungpa Rinpoche why he did the bowl-on-head thing. Trungpa Rinpoche replied, Ginsberg wrote, “that the people in the audience were his students and he didn’t want them to get the wrong idea of what was the ideal version of a poet.”
“There was a wild and free form of energy around Naropa that first summer,” recalls the poet Anne Waldman, who, with Ginsberg and Diane di Prima, came to teach. “Allen and I were students of Trungpa Rinpoche and we really believed that the poetic imagination could be informed by the buddhadharma. Allen saw Naropa as a ground of sanity, as a liberation. That artistic vision and the dharma vision of community and of helping others outside an academy setting attracted me to Naropa.”
That first summer, Waldman and Ginsberg formed the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. “We decided that naming what we were creating was a good way to contain all this wild energy and possibilities,” says Waldman, now a Distinguished Professor of Poetics at Naropa. “Allen felt that Kerouac had realized the First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering. I threw out the ‘disembodied’ as a kind of joke. Part of the humor was, here we were designing a school and we didn’t have a building, or space, a desk, telephone, anything tangible, or money. Many of the writers who we felt to be part of our lineage—from Sappho to Blake to Dante to William Carlos Williams—were not alive. They were disembodied, hovering around the place.”
The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics quickly became highly regarded, a harbinger of the reputation Naropa enjoys today. But during its first ten years, Naropa was a ramshackle construct. A Chinese restaurant, a former Masonic Lodge, a dance hall, and people’s garages became classrooms. The offices were above a book store. Money was like quicksilver—hard to get a hold of and harder yet to keep in hand. The payroll was a game of chance. Teachers worked for dharma dollars, their annual monetary pay between $8,000 and $10,000.
“Naropa was, and is, always riding along the edge of losing it, but that’s what makes it so interesting,” says Judy Lief, who served as dean of Naropa from 1980-85 and is now on the board of trustees. “How to have rigor, but also to have a gentle atmosphere that is willing to work with all sorts of different people? How to bring in traditions beyond the Buddhist tradition? How to have a real meeting ground and sparky quality? How to become a model that would spread to education more broadly, but at the same time keep some counter-cultural stance challenging the assumptions of the materialism-absorbed society? Those questions are, and continue to be, Naropa’s challenge.”
During Lief’s tenure as dean the opportunity came to buy the elementary school building. Naropa had no money but Lief and Barbara Dilley, then the school’s chancellor and later president following Trungpa Rinpoche’s death in 1987, found money. They called people they didn’t know, met with bankers, and shook every money tree in the forest until they closed the deal.
A small woman with spritely short hair, Dilley still teaches at Naropa. Trained in classical ballet, she worked with John Cage and Merce Cummingham, and her style is one of improvisation. “In the beginning, there was a lot of improvising at Naropa,” she says, “and it’s important to keep that element of spontaneous improvisation. Naropa always needs to keep open an arena for the experimental, for the unknown.”
“The basis of the creative process, and also the educational process, is the relationship to the unknown—to have tolerance for what isn’t seen or heard. It’s going to the edge to spontaneously improvise and evoke the inner spirit. One of Trungpa Rinpoche’s main slogans for Naropa was, ‘The question is the answer.’ In other words, hold your mind open to the possibilities. Then education, discovery, investigation and inquiry happen.”
To remain lively, Lief says, Naropa must “maintain a sense of distrust and a sense of the emptiness of the forms of higher education and credentials. People fall prey to seeing forms as solid, like a degree, instead of something you might make use of to benefit the world in some way.”
In the early 1980s, the issue of forms and credentials became a big issue at Naropa. Students pushed to have the school accredited so that their education would be recognized by potential employers. Some of the faculty resisted. They did not want Naropa judged by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and made to fit the mold of mainline education. The preciousness of Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision could not be confined to a conventional form, they argued.
The debate revolved around how to hold on to Trungpa Rinpoche’s original vision and also to accommodate growth. Growth and change threatened the original vision, argued one group. The idea of Naropa is not to hold and protect, argued another group, but to proclaim and encourage the wisdom and compassion that exist everywhere.
It was a defining moment for Naropa. They applied for accreditation and were twice refused. The accreditation board did not object to the education philosophy but doubted Naropa’s ability to sustain itself financially. But the resolution of the debate seemed to trigger an opening of Naropa to other traditions. During the 1980s, Naropa launched six annual Buddhist-Christian conferences, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was appointed to the newly established World Wisdom Seat. Finally in 1985 Naropa was granted full accreditation as a four-year college.
The issue of form remains a central question as Naropa enters the new millennium. President Cobb admits it gives him sleepless nights: “It scared me a little bit when we went from Naropa Institute to Naropa University,” he says. “It’s not just related to size but also to how we perceive ourselves. The word ‘university’ implies a huge institution, one where perhaps the form is more significant than the original aspiration and inspiration.
“That worries me. By using the word ‘university’ we join an important tradition, and that’s very healthy in many respects. But we need to cut constantly through forms and labels and get back to our own inspiration for being here.
“The objectives of our core curriculum are wisdom, compassion, and effective action,” Cobb continues. “There is plenty in educational theory that says unlearning is the birth of wisdom. At Naropa there is a quality of unlearning that is related to fully appreciating yourself as a human being, rather than as a professional or an expert in some field. When you work with nonconceptual understanding, you touch compassion in a way that creates a different understanding of why you are learning. Unless we look at people as whole humans and work to educate ourselves that way, we are going to be in worse trouble in every way—environmentally, socially, politically, economically.”
What type of person does Cobb hope will emerge from a Naropa education? “I hope that they put societal change ahead of their own self interest.” Cobb replies. “I hope that they are not too concerned about being experts, but are curious and able to walk unprotected into a situation. I would like them to be change agents—not only through problem-solving but through radiating a quality of stillness, openness and caring into the sphere around them.
“We’re trying to revive the idea that education can be a lot more than just the transmission of facts and data. Education can actually result in the transformation of the personal self.”
The historical Naropa left his prestigious post at Nalanda when he realized that he did not truly understand the meaning of what he was studying. Only after he met his teacher Tilopa did he transcend mere intellect and reach enlightenment.
“Naropa had to leave Nalanda to meet his guru and obtain enlightenment,” says William McKeever, a former vice-president. “We’d like to create a university that Naropa wouldn’t have left.”
Stephen Foehr is a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado.
"That's What a Teacher Does and I"m Going to be One"
"That’s What a Teacher Does and I’m Going to be One"
When I was an undergraduate I took an advanced English composition course from Professor Werner White, a fastidious man who held high, but often rigid, academic standards. One day while he was passing back graded papers, one of the students interrupted him.
“Sir,” he said. “There must be some mistake here. You have given me a C-.”
Professor White took the paper from the young man, glanced at it, then handed it back. “No, there’s no mistake, Mr. Bennett. That’s what the paper earned.”
“But this paper is an expression of everything I know! This paper is me. Are you telling me that all I am worth is a C-?”
“No, I’m telling you that you don’t know how to use the semi-colon and that you don’t know how to organize paragraphs.”
The student got even more indignant. “Oh, so that’s what this class is about—semi-colons and paragraphs? It’s not about honesty or truth or self-expression?”
“You’ve got it,” Professor White replied. “I don’t know what truth is, young man, but I do know what effective prose is. Look at me. I have no soul at all and yet people tell me I am an excellent writer.”
The student fell silent sorting out Professor White’s reply, and then he said, “In that case, Professor White, this paper is not a C- at all; it’s an F. And an F from a man like you, sir, would be an honor. Please change my grade.”
Professor White refused, and so the student stood up and ceremoniously marked an F on his own paper in large strokes and walked toward the door. But before he left, he turned to the rest of the class and said, “Who is coming with me? Are you going to let this man walk all over you?”
We were all silent. No one left with him.
“Have it your way, Sheep,” he said and then bounded out of the room.
All the rest of the students, myself included, breathed a collective sigh of relief. But we also held down our heads. A part of us was with him, a part of us resented our teacher’s niggardly preoccupation with formal integrity, and we longed for liberation.
The next quarter I decided I needed to loosen up a bit, and so I took a class on “British Romantic Poets” from Professor Molly Miller. She was a sixty-two-year-old woman with long gray hair and deep sea-green eyes who, unlike Professor White, had a reputation as a campus radical.
The first day of class the room was packed with over fifty students—many trying to add the course on to their schedules. When Molly walked in, the class quieted down. She began by reciting Wordsworth: “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky./So it was when I was young, so it shall be when I am old or let me die./The child is father to the man, and I would wish my days to be bound each to each in natural piety.”
No one spoke.
“Do you know what natural piety is?” she asked us. “Do you wish for it?”
Again, no one spoke.
“That is the last time I’m going to speak,” she concluded. “You carry on.”
After a long awkward silence that must have lasted all but two minutes, someone asked her if there was any room to add the course.
“Of course,” she said. “I’ll add until the room is full.”
“How do you grade?”
“Everyone gets an A in the course,” she said. “So if you’re here just for a grade, stay home. The Romantics teach us that there is nothing worse than false motives.”
It took the rest of the period for her to sign all the add forms, but, of course, the next day of class only six people showed up. The day after that, only three.
Molly was true to her word and didn’t speak much.
The discussions were dominated by a rather tiresome fellow in the front row. Molly would listen politely but passively, looking around at the rest of us, as if waiting for us to speak out, wondering when someone, anyone, would assert their natural piety. I never did and stopped going to class after the third week.
Later that quarter I was walking across campus and I saw Molly coming toward me.
“I see you’ve stopped coming to class,” she observed.
“Yeah, well, I was going to come. Grades aren’t that important to me, but that guy in the front row kept dominating the discussions.”
“Whose fault is that?” she asked.
“I guess I could have said something,” I admitted.
“Look,” Molly said, “Students will never learn anything until they take responsibility for their own education. As long as you rely on others to motivate you or pre-digest things for you, you will never learn. Many of the other professors want to make you over in their image. I want to set you free. But you’ve got to take up the challenge and accept the responsibility.”
I was too ashamed to go back to her class after that, and I know now that had I done so, it might have been one of the most important acts of my life. But I didn’t go, and though I have never forgotten her and I can still recite that poem by Wordsworth, I am still only beginning to understand her vision of the sublime pedagogy.
A year later I did graduate work at the University of Chicago, where I was a research assistant for a very famous professor who inspired me by his example of what it meant to live, not simply profess, the life of the mind.
I’d find books in the library for him, put together bibliographies, buy potato chips for his dinner parties, and drive assorted luminaries to and from his home.
One night my job was to drive a famous literary critic from the lecture hall to my professor’s house for a dinner party and then drive my professor’s cook home. When I came to pick up his cook, the guests were applauding her wonderful cuisine. She was a Black woman in her sixties, and she smiled and accepted their applause graciously. Then she walked up to the critic—herself a woman in her sixties—and admired her earrings. “My, my those are wonderful earrings. I bet they are very expensive. My, my, they are so beautiful.”
I wondered if she was being polite or making some sort of oblique social commentary. It was hard to say.
I told her I was there to drive her home.
“No, no, Sonny, no need to drive me home. I’ll just take the bus. . . although the other night those boys did bother me.”
I got the distinct impression this time that she was making social commentary.
“Come on,” I said. “Tell me how to get to your house.”
It wasn’t a long drive, maybe ten minutes through some very ominous urban territory. She made small talk about crime and the dangers of riding city buses. It was about eight o’clock when I dropped her off, and I could see the curtain part in the window on the second floor and a small child’s head duck back inside.
After she got out of the car and safely into her home, I locked the car door on her side and drove quickly back to my professor’s home. I felt vaguely unsettled. Why did she have so little when others, like me, had so much? Did it make sense for me to return to my resident hall to write my paper on Wallace Stevens so that someday I could be a professor, when right before my eyes hard-working women had been cut off from such possibilities? Saint Francis would have given the woman his coat. No, he would have given the woman the professor’s car, dropped out of graduate school, and lived a life of service in the street.
But I didn’t do that. I went back to my room and started typing away. . . “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”
But what did I know about emperors? What did I know about melting? I suddenly felt sheltered, protected, unreal. I wanted to call my professor and ask him, “How can we live with it? The injustices? Our comforts? Beautiful lives amid such struggle? How could Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive, dare to call himself a ‘connoisseur of chaos?’ And how dare I claim that I understood him?”
I was very young then, and when I went to bed that night, cuddled up in those clean dorm linens, I muttered the lines from Chekhov’s “Gooseberries”: “Lord, forgive us sinners!”
I wouldn’t say this was one of the defining moments of my life. We have all had many like it. Sudden and startling, momentary pangs of conscience. What is one to do with them? What are they telling us? Live responsibly? But how? Don’t forget the excluded? But is memory enough?
Years later I came to see what my Professor probably would have told me had I asked him at the time—that such moments meant for me “Become a teacher.” Not just a successful professional but a teacher who takes up their very life into speech.
But did I have the resources? Could I tell the stories? Could I own up to what life had made of me?
It wasn’t really a choice any longer; it was the only way left open to me.
Two years later, in 1981, I found myself teaching in a boy’s Catholic prep school with a sixty-seven-year-old Christian Brother who had spent time in a Zen monastery before entering the Order. He helped me to see how classroom teaching could become a way to enlightenment.
One afternoon I was walking down the hall after a particularly successful class when Brother Blake caught the confidence in my step.
“You must really be a great teacher,” he said. “I can tell by the way you are walking that you are really hot stuff.”
“Ah, Brother,” I pleaded. “Can’t I enjoy even one victory?”
“Well,” he said. “If you take credit for the good days, you are going to have to take credit for the bad ones too.”
I knew what he was getting at. One shouldn’t identify with one’s successes or failures; one had to remain detached. A teacher served, but couldn’t identify with the results. One day you served macaroni and cheese, the next day filet mignon, but they decide what they are going to eat.
Then he asked me, “Do the students seem better or worse to you now that you’ve been teaching here for a while?”
“Better,” I said.
“Wrong answer,” he replied.
“Worse,” I replied.
“Is there some third option I’m not aware of?”
“These students are both better and worse than you can imagine,” he said. “They possess capacities for goodness that you have yet to imagine and capacities for evil you have yet to comprehend.”
I looked at him, “The human heart is vast,” he said.
Blake showed me what he meant the following day.
I was having a particularly difficult time with my last period English class, and I asked Blake to help me.
My lesson was on fables and parables; I was trying to explain what an image was when Blake slipped silently into the room and sat in an empty desk in the corner. As I was speaking, Timmy Watson was tearing paper out of his notebook, wadding it up into paper wads, and throwing them as hard as he could against the wall.
I told him to stop and he said he would, but then a minute later, he was tearing the paper out again, wadding it up, and throwing it as hard as he could against the wall again.
I asked him to stop again, and he said he would. But a minute later he did it again. I was about to send him out of the room when Brother Blake rose and asked me if he could take over my class.
“Sure.” I said, thinking he could have it for the rest of his life if he wanted it.
Blake asked the class, “Why is it that Timmy is the only person in this class doing anything?”
“Timmy?” one student replied. “He’s not doing anything. He’s just throwing paper like he always does. Timmy’s an idiot.”
“No,” Blake said, “Timmy’s looking for power. The rest of you passive aggressives are just sitting here making Mr. Inchausti do all your work for you, but Timmy is doing something. He’s looking for power. The problem is that he is looking for power in the wrong place. He’s looking for it in paper, and there is no power in paper.”
Then he walked up to Timmy and told him to take some paper, wad it up, and throw it at him.
Timmy was astounded, “You mean I can bounce a paper wad off your head?”
“Go for it,” said Blake, “Make the biggest paper wad you can and throw it with all your might right at the center of my forehead.”
The class went crazy. Everyone passed paper back to Timmy, and he compacted it into the most lethal paper wad ever conceived.
“Now toss if off my head,” Blake told him.
Timmy took his time, wound up, and fired the paper wad directly between Blake’s eyes.
The paper hit the aging Brother on the forehead and fell unceremoniously to the floor. It was one of the most anti-climactic moments I have witnessed in my life.
“Now what just happened?” Blake asked.
Timmy was dumbfounded.
“You just threw the biggest paper wad that ever existed between my eyes, and I am still in control of this class and you are not. How did that happen?”
Timmy was still silent.
“Because I have word power,” Blake explained, “and you only have paper power. And word power beats paper power every time. Now how do you get word power?”
Timmy was listening. “You listen to Mr. Inchausti,” Blake explained. “You read the fables, you study the parables. If you don’t, you will be a paper-pushing paper boy, your entire life.”
Blake walked over to Timmy, put his arm around his shoulder and said, “You’ve really got to get your shit together, and to do that you need a good asshole. I am going to be your asshole this year, and after me, if you are lucky, you’ll meet another asshole, and another until your shit is packed so tight it coalesces into a fine powder. And then maybe you will be ready for the greatest asshole of them all.”
And with that Brother Blake stood back from the boy’s desk and pointed to the crucifix hanging above the blackboard just below the American flag.
The class gasped. It was at once the most sacrilegious and yet mystic moment many of them had ever experienced.
If Jesus was the greatest asshole, then maybe they had misunderstood everything about him. What did it mean to be an asshole anyway?
Brother Blake’s image had unleashed a moment of authentic teenage religious awe. This was not sixth grade catechism with its platitudes and trite moral rules. This was something that pulled away from school rooms and lesson books towards something more profound. Suddenly it was clear to all of us that there was nothing so secular that it could not be made sacred, and no life so lost that it could not be found.
“That’s what a teacher does,” I thought, “and I am going to be one.”
Robert Inchausti is the author of Spitwad Sutras: Classroom Teaching as Sublime Vocation (Bergin & Garvey 1993), The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People (SUNY, 1991) and Thomas Merton’s American Prophecy (SUNY, 1998). He is a Professor of English at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, California.
Bonded by Gunk and Styrofoam
Bonded by Gunk and StyrofoamBy: “I was a styrofoam tar baby. We laughed together about my appearance. My brother told me it was a thankless job and that I had done well. We made a link.”
Once I had a brother, Donald. He was oldest; I was youngest. Fifteen years my senior, he was of another generation. In my earliest memories he had already left our house for college and communes and Greenwich Village, so I never really knew him. In the summer of 1975, I would get to know him. I would get to know New York. I would get to know myself.
In 1975, I was a college freshman dripping wet behind the ears. Don was working as a cabinet maker and contractor in Manhattan. When I was growing up, New York was always the ancestral homeland, the place we had moved away from and the source of all that was great. In my first college summer, I was going to take it on, and maybe I would never come back. I signed on with Don as an all-around helper. In a family of carpenters, I was the one who had no skills whatsoever.
Don was highly intelligent but brooding and sphinx-like, the sort of person who gives you the impression he feels you’re clueless and ought to have caught on by now. He was an imposing presence. On my first day in the shop, he bellowed at me about how the machines were animals, like tigers or lions, who would sooner rip my arm off than look at me. Naturally, this put me at ease.
My first task was to build a frame; as Don put it, an essential carpentry skill. After nervously futzing with wood and various implements of joinery for more than a morning, I produced a wriggly, trapezoidal sort of thing. Disappointed and bemused, Don demoted me to sanding square table legs with a belt sander. My esteem was plunging. The day was not out and I had been demoted, and I was surrounded by a menagerie of roaring machines out to rip me apart. The “little” part of “little brother” could not have been littler.
At the blessed end of that first day, I dragged myself down MacDougall Street to the walk-up tenement that Don had set me up in. It was to have been his apartment, but through one circumstance and another, he ended up not using it and was stuck with the lease. It had three rooms and a kitchen and absolutely no furniture. I slept on a slender futon and read Zen literature under a bare bulb.
At the end of Day Two, Don came over to inspect the sanding I had been doing. He held the legs in his hand. Incredulous, his eyes bulged into saucers. “JEEESUS CHAAARIST, Barry. As carpenters, we take trees and we make them into furniture. You’re taking furniture and making it into trees.” Indeed, the legs I had been sanding had deep swells where I had let the belt sander linger too long. Their surface had a wavy, riverine look.
By the end of the first week, I knew that there would be no carpentry apprenticeship for me. I would be a Boy Friday. I retreated within, content to enjoy the city, walking sometimes fifty or more blocks and back in an evening, just drinking it all in.
Don had no wage plans for me. I simply had to let him know if I was running out of money and he would hand me a small wad. Even with this meager allotment, I felt independent. After all, I had my own apartment in the village. There wasn’t much in the fridge, though. In fact, one night I noticed something black sticking out from behind the seal on the refrigerator door, which I had had trouble shutting. I peeled back the rubber to reveal hundreds and hundreds of cockroaches. I shut the door. From then on, I mostly ate out.
I also had a few possessions, but whatever I did have was stolen from me in a series of break-ins, and all that remained was some clothes and a pair of shoes. With no more to lose, I felt secure. In defiance, I suppose, some thief shit in my sink. You don’t know humility until you have cleaned some strange intruder’s shit from your kitchen sink. I stopped hanging out there. It was a place to go to bed.
In mid-summer, Don discovered a job he thought suited to my skills. As part of a renovation of a very high class apartment on the Upper West Side, he was installing a wine closet. To do so, you first slather the walls, floor and ceiling with a water-resistant, very sticky black gunk. You then cut pieces of styrofoam to fit and paste them on all the surfaces. This was to be my job.
Don described the job to me, left me with the materials, and dashed off. I began to slather the gunk on the walls and ceilings. It quickly stuck to my hands. My hands touched my face, my hair, my clothes. The gunk was irritating. As I began to cut the styrofoam sheets, they became crumbly. Bits of styrofoam clung to all my surfaces. I was a styrofoam tar baby. When I misjudged sizes, there was no turning back. You can’t remove styrofoam once it has been gunked to a wall. I created a patchwork.
I became quite hungry, but I had neglected to tell Don that I was very low on money, and in any case I couldn’t venture out in my current condition. I decided to raid the larder. Gunk- and styrofoam-covered, I gingerly navigated my way through the apartment to the kitchen. Using Kleenex, I managed to pry open a cabinet and get to a box of Wheat Thins.
Somehow, by the time Don showed up, I had completed the job. We laughed together about my appearance. He told me it was a thankless job and that I had done well. We made a link.
Toward the end of the summer, we stayed in an apartment one night as we were doing an installation in the Thirties. We looked out a skylight together at the spire of the Empire State Building. For the first time, I told my brother that we didn’t know each other. We cried.
Many years later, I took my wife and daughters to visit Don and his wife at their townhouse in Brooklyn. The night before we were to leave, he came to say good night. We talked sitting on the stairs. He said he didn’t know how much longer he would be around and that he wanted me to know that he loved me. I told him that I always felt I had to earn his approval. He very pointedly and sweetly told me, “You have nothing to prove to me. That’s not what I’m really about. I love you and I am proud of you.” He died before we would speak again.
I performed his funeral. We are joined at the hip, with gunk and Styrofoam.
Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.
Strengthening the Will to Live
Strengthening the Will to Live
By “When we consider the will to live seriously, formulae such as ‘anger is bad, love is good’ become painfully simplistic,” says Rachel Naomi Remen. “What mobilizes the will to live in each of us is profoundly unique.”
While many people now believe that “positive” emotions have a role in the recovery of health, I have always found this idea disturbing, and perhaps even dangerous. Many people now seem to fear harboring “negative” or “wrong” attitudes and feelings in the same way people of a previous generation feared having evil thoughts. At best, the idea of “positive” emotions implies that there is a specific way to live, a right set of attitudes, that may guarantee survival. At worst, it can degenerate into self-tyranny, causing people to sit in judgment on their emotional life.
To avoid such repressive outcomes, we may need to go deeper into our thinking on such matters. Perhaps there is a healthy way to feel all emotions, for all emotions serve a purpose and are potentially life affirming. After twenty years of working with people with cancer, I cannot honestly say that any one emotion is harmful or bad for your health. Rather it seems that the only harmful feeling is a stuck feeling, a feeling that has become a way of life.
Take for example, anger, an emotion that surely gets a lot of bad press. My clinical experience suggests that many ill people may recover by initially becoming angry about their disease. For them, anger represents an affirmation of life, a demand for change, and an unwillingness to live under any but the best circumstances. It seems to me that such anger may be the first way we can express our life force when we are confronted with serious illness. Perhaps anger only really becomes a problem when we become fixed in this way of expressing our valuing of life.
Recently I asked several clinical colleagues if they could identify positive emotions in their patients, feelings they thought were directly associated with survival. There was no question that many of these physicians and psychologists liked certain emotions better than others, but the correlation between survival and emotional attitude was not clear to any of them, including the oncologists. All had worked with loving, cheerful people who died, grieving people who lived, angry people who never became ill, and humorous people who were unable to heal themselves. And yet they shared the clinical hunch that emotions do indeed affect healing. So we have here a bit of a mystery.
Perhaps there may be factors involved in illness and recovery that are deeper and closer to the core than emotion, and we might resolve this puzzle by looking further. Norman Cousins, in Anatomy Of An Illness, correlates recovery with what he calls a “passionate involvement with life.” This sort of passion may point to an older and more vitalistic concept, traditionally spoken of as the will to live. Difficult as this may be to document scientifically, clinically it is easy to appreciate. Over the years I have even come to wonder whether emotions seem to be associated with survival only because they trigger the will to live in us.
This line of thinking raises difficult and interesting questions. Is the will to live a theoretical construct or does it actually exist? Clinicians like myself who see many people who live despite overwhelming odds and who die for no known reason have come to wonder about it. And if the will to live is real, can it be evoked and strengthened?
When we consider the will to live seriously, established emotional formulae such as “anger is bad, love is good” become painfully simplistic. What enlivens us and mobilizes the will to live in each of us is profoundly unique. If the will to live exists, it may be deeply affected by core life issues, specifically questions of aspiration, goals, purposes and personal meaning. Victor Frankl, in his study of those who survived the concentration camps, notes that a sense of individual meaning altered people’s perception of external events and their ability to survive extremely difficult circumstances. So perhaps clinicians who wish to strengthen the will to live in their patients will need to support them and share with them the search for personal and individual meaning.
It is challenging to think that health professionals might befriend the will to live in each person much in the same way a gardener befriends the will to live in every plant. To do this we would need to study each person and help them to recognize and strengthen those things that may promote their survival. We would need to find ways to support people as they explore their personal mythology, hidden guilts and fears, sense of deserving to live and be well, and beliefs about entitlement to nurture and self-nurture. It would require taking as profound an interest in a person’s strengths as in the pathology of their disease.
This might radically affect the ways in which professionals talk with patients and the sorts of questions they ask. An important first question to ask people might be, “What do you believe has kept you alive until now? What keeps you going despite your difficulties?” This may be of course an important question for health professionals to ask themselves as well.
Befriending the will to live will require new professional training that strengthens and develops the intuitive and the creative as well as the cognitive in the health practitioner, and values our emotional and spiritual intelligence as much as our IQ. New health tools, which may not have been previously thought of as therapeutic—approaches such as music, color, dance and poetry and practices such as yoga, meditation and tai chi—may become a commonplace part of the physician’s black bag of recommendations and techniques.
Ultimately, such concepts as the will to live have the power to reinstate healing as the central concern of medicine and realign the profession of medicine with its higher purpose. This will require not only new technical expertise, but also a deeper and more poetic understanding of the workings of human nature.
Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. is a clinical professor at UCSF School Of Medicine and co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. She is the author of Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal and My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging.
Going at Our Own Pace on the Path of Meditation
Going at Our Own Pace on the Path of Meditation
Our mind is like hard ground that has not seen water for a long time, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. As meditation practitioners, we begin to till that ground so that we can grow the mind of enlightenment.
The Buddhist teachings are as vast as you can possibly imagine—and beyond that. At some point you might think you understand, but the reality is that the teachings are infinite. Even if you’re a bodhisattva on the fifth level, the person on the eighth level knows more. The dharma is like a huge mountain that we climb very slowly, taking little steps. But each step is profound; each step is amazing.
Practicing the dharma is traditionally said to be like walking through a heavy mist. It slowly, slowly enters into our bones; it slowly enters into who we are. People think of enlightenment as sudden transformation, like a light bulb that’s off one second and on the next: Prince Siddhartha is under the tree, you turn on the light, and he wakes up as the Buddha. But his enlightenment was not a sudden thing; he went through a process. He actually purified and transformed himself.
Many people have the idea that meditation means not thinking: the less we think, the better our meditation is. But meditation is really about changing our perception of the world. That is a scary idea, because we would like to follow the path to buddhahood but end up more or less the same person. We think, “I’m going to be enlightened and I’m going to be me. I’m gonna get all the goodies.” None of us thinks, “Maybe I’m going to be totally different. Maybe my process of engaging the world will be so different I won’t even recognize myself.”
Meditation helps us to do one particular thing: to change. Meditation changes how we relate to the world—that’s why we do contemplative practice. In a sense, we are re-educating ourselves—not in some esoteric spiritual sense, but just as human beings. Meditation is a practice through which we really become human. We become decent and workable. We have caught ourselves, our habitual selves, and we begin to change the way we look at things.
In meditation, we begin to learn about ourselves as basic human beings, and when we learn about ourselves, we learn how to change. Our mind is like hard ground that has not seen water for a long time. That ground is not capable of giving nourishment to anything. Whatever is planted in it dies. Nothing grows. As meditation practitioners, we begin to till our mind so that we can grow something, the mind of enlightenment. We’re trying to change.
The mind of enlightenment manifests as bodhicitta, which means that one is constantly and naturally thinking of the benefit of others. We could ask whether our own mind is like that. When we get up in the morning, is our immediate feeling one of warmth toward others and how we can benefit them? It could happen. But generally we think about ourselves. So how do we get from here to there?
Mindfulness, or shamatha meditation produces a mind that is able to settle. When we are doing spiritual practice, we have to have a mind that is able to stay in the moment, stay in the situation, long enough to absorb and understand. If we say, for example, “May the suffering of all sentient beings cease and may they enjoy happiness,” the mind that contemplates this has to be able to remain in the space of compassion long enough to be truly changed. If it can’t stay there, then bodhicitta will never develop; it will never take root.
There are said to be five aspects of the mind that are always present, no matter what we are doing. One of these aspects is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the aspect of conventional mind—the mind we have right now—that holds on to something. It is the ability of the mind to rest on a cup long enough to allow our hand to pick it up. It is the ability to hold an image in our mind or to stay on a spot long enough to understand what is going on.
In mindfulness practice, we are learning to extend this very basic quality of our mind. The project of training the mind in this way is much like the way we relate to children: when we’re teaching them what to do, we have to remind them again and again. We are training the mind in a similar way—bringing it back, bringing it back, bringing it back.
At this point, we aren’t even talking about Buddhism, really. The original texts that talk about mindfulness come from a meditative tradition that existed in India prior to the time of the Buddha. These teachings were incorporated into Buddhism because it was understood that if you wanted to train spiritually, you first needed to do this practice to stabilize the mind.
What is it that hinders mindfulness and the development of stable mind? In the course of meditation we begin to see that the mind is perpetually in motion. If we watch our mind, we realize it is always in turmoil—not necessarily in a dramatic way, but always moving, like waves on the ocean. We see this movement as thoughts.
When we do mindfulness practice, we learn to recognize this movement of mind and to separate out the many levels of thought. We do this by using the breath or other object of meditation to get some perspective on what is going on. When mindfulness is stabilized with the breath, we are in the immediate moment and awareness is right there, just seeing. As soon as we go off and start thinking about something, awareness will bring us back.
According to a famous Zen saying, bringing Buddhism to a new culture is like taking a flower and holding it next to a rock. Hopefully the flower will take root, but it takes a long time. Our minds are like the rock, and the dharma is a beautiful flower. How long is it going to take for this flower to take root in us?
Change is not going to happen instantly; it is a natural evolution that takes time. The more you learn about the so-called high level teachings, the more you understand the importance of patience. Patience means dealing very literally with every kind of situation in our lives. As each thought and situation arises, we can slow down and begin to train ourselves, little by little. Ironically, the quickest way to understand the great nature of mind is to have this mundane patience. We are not content with our neurosis, but we are content that we will go at our own pace.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Buddhist and Shambhala lineages of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He received training from many of the great Buddhist teachers of this century, including Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Penor Rinpoche and his father Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995, he was recognized as the incarnation of the nineteenth-century Buddhist master Mipham Rinpoche.
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