Naropa University is a private liberal arts college in Boulder, Colorado. Founded in 1974 by Tibetan Buddhist teacher and Oxford University scholar Chögyam Trungpa, it is named for the eleventh-century Indian Buddhist sage Naropa, an abbot of Nalanda.
Naropa describes itself as Buddhist-inspired, ecumenical and nonsectarian rather than Buddhist. Naropa promotes non-traditional activities like meditation to supplement traditional learning approaches.
Naropa was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools in 1988, making it the first Buddhist, or Buddhist-inspired, academic institution to receive United States regional accreditation. It remains one of only a handful of such schools.
Naropa is noteworthy for having hosted a number of Beat poets under the auspices of its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
Naropa University was founded by Chögyam Trungpa, an exiled Tibetan tulku who was a Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineage holder, and scholar of comparative religion at Oxford University in England. Trungpa entered the USA in 1970, established the Vajradhatu organization in 1973, and then in 1974, established Naropa Institute under the Nalanda Foundation. Initially, the Nalanda Foundation and Vajradhatu were closely linked, having nearly identical boards of directors. In subsequent years they differentiated into more independent institutions.
Trungpa asked poets Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, John Cage and Diane di Prima to found a poetics department at Naropa during the first summer session. Ginsberg and Waldman, who roomed together that first summer, came up with the name for the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
Naropa's first formal degree programs were offered in 1975-76. These included a BA in Buddhist studies and visual art, MA in psychology, MFA in visual art, and expressive arts certificates in dance, theater and poetics.
The MA in psychology was originally designed as an extension of Trungpa's Maitri program—a 16-week meditation course held in Connecticut, and based on Vajrayana teachings on esoteric energy patterns within the mind and body. Trungpa asked Marvin Casper to restructure the Maitri program for use at Naropa as a full-fledged graduate degree program in contemplative psychology. Casper went on to chair that department and edit two of Trungpa’s books. Initially for the degree, students were required to attend three of the institute’s summer sessions, take two Maitri programs in Connecticut and complete a six-month independent project.
In 1977, at Trungpa's urging, Naropa's administration made the decision to seek regional accreditation. Evaluation visits continued through 1986 and, in 1988, Naropa Institute received accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. In the mid-1980s, Naropa's president, Barbara Dilley, asked Lucien Wulsin to chair the board of directors. One of Wulsin's first acts was to formally separate Naropa from Vajradhatu. Ties with Vajradhatu were further weakened with the physical relocation of Vajradhatu's main center to Halifax, and then by Trungpa's death in 1987.
In 1991 Naropa's board of trustees hired John Cobb, a Harvard-educated lawyer and practicing Buddhist, as president. Thomas B. Coburn served in this role from 2003–2009, succeeded by Stuart C. Lord in July 2009.1 Naropa denotes Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham as its current lineage holder.
Naropa promotes contemplative education—a term used primarily by teachers associated with Naropa University or Shambhala Buddhist organizations—including activities such as meditation, the Japanese tea ceremony, taijiquan, Christian labyrinth, ikebana, and neo-pagan ritual. Robert Goss comments that
Goss goes on to note that as with many U.S. Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities, Naropa has faced pressure to establish independence from its associated religious organization, Shambhala International; but unlike many such institutions, it has avoided relegating religion to the periphery of university life.
Naropa's description of contemplative education makes liberal use of Buddhist language and concepts. For example, its catalogue speaks of "students wholeheartedly engag[ing] in mindfulness awareness practices in order to cultivate being present in the moment"..."the development of openness, self-awareness and insight"...and "interior work" as "preparation for compassionate and transformative work in the world."
As of 2008, contemplative education requirements include: All undergraduate students must select three semester hours of "Body-Mind Practice" such as taijiquan or African dance as well as three hours of "World Wisdom Traditions" which may include a religion course. In addition certain majors, such as psychology and religious studies, specialized courses in meditation are required. In the psychology program, the type of meditation required is specific to Shambhala Buddhism. Besides these requirements, a number of Naropa's professors incorporate a contemplative element into their classroom teaching or course requirements, such as beginning with a bow or a moment of silence or asking students to consider how to integrate their studies into their lives.
For one day each semester, Naropa University holds a "Community Practice Day," during which regular classes are not held and offices are closed. On this day members of the Naropa community—students, faculty, staff, and others—are invited to participate in group sitting meditation practice during the morning. Other contemplative disciplines are offered throughout the day. Panel discussions, departmental lunches, and community service projects are often offered in the afternoon. The stated object of the day is to cultivate togetherness in the Naropa community and to emphasize the importance of leading a mindful, aware life rather than a high-speed, cluttered one.
In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that a finance department employee had embezzled roughly $450,000 from Naropa University over a two year period. Three Naropa employees, two of them being administrators, were terminated from their positions according to (then) president, Stewart Lord. Proper financial control was not established and that is why two of the employees, Suree Chounlamountry (the comptroller) and Sue Evans (the Chief Financial Officer), were terminated.