March 26, 2012

Ancient Nalanda & Modern Naropa University.

Photo: Wonderlane

The original inspiration of Naropa University was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s great appreciation for the University of Nalanda, in ancient India.

Not far from the Ganges River and Bodgaya in North West India, on a flat plain that used to be fertile, lies the ruins of Nalanda’s many classrooms, libraries, monasteries, stairways, and entrance gates, where once over 3,000 students and teachers from all over Asia lived.

Surrounded by a great wall, Nalanda was adorned with majestic towers and turrets, carved and ornamented red pillars, many balustrades, and beautiful tile roofs. The university was supported by generous endowments from Gupta kings, who, even though they were not Buddhist, considered Nalanda a source of cultural pride and a worthy way to gain spiritual merit.

Nalanda attracted students from Bengal, Ceylon, Java, Sumatra, China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea and Turkestan for over 700 years, and the monarchs of those kingdoms and empires also made gifts to support the mahavira or monastic university known for its superior scholarship. In modern terms Nalanda was like the Oxford of the East.

Entrance requirements to the University were high. A student desiring admission had to be well-versed in both Sanskrit and the buddhadharma. Entrance exams were taken at the gate, where learned gatekeepers like Naropa posed challenging questions. Only one in 10 students gained admission.

Once admitted, monks had to be fastidious with their study, discipline, and attention to detail—whether they were attending for two or for 20 years. Wake up was at dawn, bathing was done in outdoor ponds, and food was prepared in their cell-like rooms so that the rest of the day could be devoted to study.

All three yanas (different schools of the buddhadharma) were taught at Nalanda—Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. In fact, Nalanda is considered one of the birthplaces of Vajrayana. But also the Vedas and Upanishads were studied.

Because of its fine scholarship and cultural richness, early Tibetan institutions were modeled on this famed monastic university.

Sadly, Nalanda fell under attack from Muslim invaders in 1199 AD and was plundered. Most of its inhabitants—both students and teachers—were put to death.

Naropa University

Although on a more modest scale, Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado seems to have inherited the living spirit of Nalanda, for it is a place where East meets West, where both academic excellence and contemplative insight are fostered, and where there is the intention to educate the whole student.

Obviously Naropa is not monastic, although a few Buddhist monks and nuns have attended and graduated from programs at Naropa over its three decades. And though the contemplative aspect of the buddhadharma pervades the tone, if not the actual teaching in the classrooms, it is a more intimate student experience, as the student to teacher ratio is a luxurious 9:1.

The school started in 1974 as Naropa Institute, even the most faithful of Trungpa Rinpoche’s students could not have envisioned the almost overwhelming success of that opening summer. Students from all over the United States swarmed into Boulder for its inception. Even then, only a few shared Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision that Naropa could become a full-fledged university one day.

That day came in 1993 and now, these days Naropa has expanded into three campuses. Enrollment is up and the University is becoming more selective, its graduate programs more competitive. Naropa has received a $1.9 million title 3 grant.

Unless colleges have been blessed with huge endowments like Harvard, it is always a juggling act to balance so that it is affordable to students while paying all the bills. Naropa does offer scholarships, but out of necessity it has a high percentage of full paying undergraduate students. These students along with their faculty seem to be very committed to being at Naropa. In fact, there is very little faculty turnover over the years.

The current President of Naropa is John Cobb, a graduate of Harvard. It is actually his second time around as president, and it was under his first tenure that Naropa became a University. Under his leadership and tireless exertion Naropa seems to thrive.

Although I worked for Naropa in ’74 and in the mid-80’s taught writing skills and autobiography for three years while being an editor for Naropa, I am aware that things have changed, for I visited the main campus two years ago.

So I am curious, writing this from Nova Scotia—do students, graduates, faculty, friends and neighbors acquainted with Naropa feel that it is evolving toward, or already living up to Trungpa Rinpoche’s original inspiration?

Is Naropa University on its way to being, as Rinpoche put it, like Nalanda, “run with great efficiency, all-pervading discipline, and a sense of celebration”?


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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