Naropa Magazine Spring 2014
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Naropa Institute Lincoln BuildingPhotos: Naropa Archives.

Naropa & Boulder: A Love Story

by Lisa Birman, MFA

The 1970s were a time of countercultural revolution in the United States, and Boulder was right at the forefront. The city council was divided into progressive and conservative factions, protests against the war in Vietnam disrupted traffic on US 36, and a local ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual preference (the first in the country) resulted in a recall election. In the midst of this burgeoning change, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche chose the beautiful and eclectic mountain town as the site for his revolution in education, merging intellect and intuition, mind and body.

Trungpa and Ram Dass in 1974On June 10, 1974, the opening night of The Naropa Institute, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche welcomed more than 1,300 students, faculty, and staff to CU's Macky Auditorium, with many Boulder locals in attendance. "The Naropa Institute developed from the idea of working with what exists in this country and also with traditions from around the world....We could re-ignite our pilot light by respecting, trusting, and acknowledging the tradition in which we have grown up."

The multicultural appeal was not lost on Boulder's Deputy Mayor Karen Paget. In her remarks welcoming Naropa to Boulder, she alluded to the special connection between the concepts espoused by Naropa and the community of Boulder. "The climate and our people are truly conducive to an experiment like Naropa," she said, going on to paraphrase Chögyam Trungpa in what has become Naropa's unofficial motto: 'When the East meets West, sparks fly!'

That first summer was a hit, with estimates of 2,500 students flocking to Boulder to attend two five-week sessions. Classes were held all over town, from fraternity and sorority houses, to the old bus depot, the Public Service Building, the Buddhist center, Boulder High, offices, and parks. Students could be seen trekking around town with their meditation cushions, and the parking lot of the Public Service Building became an impromptu bazaar. With more than one hundred classes and countless special events (not to mention the parties), the spiritual and energetic center was firmly located in the nightly classes alternately taught by Chögyam Trungpa and Ram Dass.

Boulder Theater marqueeWith Boulder already home to avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage and poets Jack Collom and Reed Bye, the artists and thought leaders of Naropa found themselves right at home. Towards the end of the second session, Chögyam Trungpa, himself a poet, further cemented the artistic connection between Boulder and Naropa by inviting Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Diane diPrima, John Cage, and others to create a poetics department. Ginsberg described it as "a way of educating poets about sanity; of teaching meditators about the golden mouth and poets about the golden mind." Writing and poetics remains one of Naropa's most popular and unique degree programs, known as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

The combination of Naropa and Boulder was electric. A September 1974 East-West Journal article reported, "Almost overnight, Boulder has become a magnet of learning and excitement and promise... The student body is made up of an astonishing assortment of college students, dropouts, scholars, artists, therapists, dancers, heads of departments, musicians, housewives, and on and on."

As that first summer drew to a close, students were eager for more offerings. The school was not yet year-round, but by January some classes were created for Boulder locals and summer students who had stuck around town. After a second successful summer in 1975, Naropa offered its first group of degree programs in 1976, and was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools in 1986.

From those early days, Chögyam Trungpa presented Naropa as a five-hundred-year project "at least." On the occasion of President Chuck Lief's inauguration in 2012, Boulder's Mayor Matthew Appelbaum called Naropa "one of the city's most treasured institutions ... a thriving example of our community's strong commitment to combining learning with service for others." With contemplative practices increasingly recognized as valuable in personal, social, and corporate realms, Naropa faculty, staff, and students regularly collaborate with local non-profits and service providers. Our graduates have established a reputation as entrepreneurs invested in social change and ethical innovation.

Throughout the years, Boulder culture and Naropa culture have evolved along parallel progressive paths. You only have to walk or bike around Boulder to see the city's dedication to healthy mind and healthy body, echoing the very symbiosis that Chögyam Trungpa envisioned for the university. From alternative transportation to green space, there's an unflagging commitment to caring for the environment. Top notch free-trade, organic, gluten-free, and vegan restaurants, as well as countless yoga studios and hiking trails, also make it easy to care for the body; independent bookstores and nightly poetry readings and open mics provide infinite outlets for creativity.

With "at least" 460 more years to go on the five-hundred-year project, the Naropa-Boulder romance is as strong as ever. As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, not just as a place of learning, but as a part of Boulder, there couldn't be a more auspicious place to take spirituality off the cushions and into the streets.

Stay up to date on 40th anniversary celebrations by joining our mailing list. Learn more about Naropa's history and learn about upcoming events related to our 40th anniversary