Many people question the compatibility of traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings, which were historically transmitted in monastic settings, and Western secular culture, so rife with busyness and worldly concerns. However, according to Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, a student of the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and professor of Religious Studies at Naropa University, the West is ready to incorporate Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism into regular, everyday life. The Vidyadhara, as students of Trungpa Rinpoche call him, discouraged Westerners from taking monastic robes and preached a vision of enlightened society in America, created by lay practitioners of Buddhism with spouses, children, and meaningful careers in the world.
Simmer-Brown is an example of this kind of Buddhist – she’s the mother of two children, wife to Richard Brown (also a professor at Naropa), author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism, and a senior teacher in the Shambhala meditation community. She follows the advice of her teacher to infuse daily life with practice, completing a personal month-long retreat every year, and also teaching a month-long retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center near Estes Park, only 2 hours from her home town of Boulder, Colorado.
Boulder, where the Vidhyadhara lived and founded Naropa University and Shambhala International, a network of Buddhist communities the world over, could exemplify the mindful society envisioned by Trungpa Rinpoche, says Simmer-Brown, since the town teems with socially responsible businesses such as Organic India Tea Company and prAna, families that incorporate spirituality into their daily lives, and schools practicing contemplative education.
Simmer-Brown is working on a book about the theological roots of Romantic Love and editing a collection of writings for college professors about contemplative education for Oxford University Press. Contemplative education has been a founding principle at Naropa University since it was created in 1974, when students of Trungpa Rinpoche began to work with each other to create models and methods for incorporating contemplative practices into higher education. Now the wider academic world is catching on, and interest in learning more about bringing practices for cultivating awareness, compassion, and justice to university classrooms has grown dramatically over the past ten years. Simmer-Brown is working with Arthur Zajonc, a physics professor at Amherst University and Academic Program Director at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a non-profit organization created to bring contemplative awareness to contemporary life. Simmer-Brown’s active spiritual, scholarly, and secular life is a testament to at least one Buddhist’s ability to bring traditional practice into chaotic, busy, materialistic American culture. The path she’s pioneered is an example for others interested in leading Western lives infused with the wisdom of the East.