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Coburn: Contemplative education is part science, part art

Naropa University President Thomas Coburn spoke at Lehigh Feb. 12.

Thomas Coburn, president of Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., challenged educators during a Lehigh visit to inspire young students by training both the mind and the heart through a blend of Eastern contemplative teachings and Western liberal arts tradition.

Coburn, who heads up the 1,100-student university that was founded in 1974 by a Tibetan scholar, spoke on Feb. 12 in Sinclair Auditorium before roughly 100 members of the Lehigh community. His talk was part of a series of events leading up to the historic visit to Lehigh by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in July.

“Contemplative education occupies that in-between space,” said Coburn of the learning philosophy that combines the wisdom of the revered educational traditions of Classical Greece and Classical India. “It picks up where a traditional liberal arts education leaves off … in the creative zone between boredom and terror. And that is the challenge for the teacher: to find that place where optimal learning occurs, where you have those teachable moments.”

Coburn traced his personal journey to Naropa after encountering an increasing number of students who were drawn to non-traditional paths in their university experience.

“As the 1990s unfolded, we were meeting more students who didn’t want to join a fraternity or a sorority, who didn’t want to join a sports team or attend competitions,” he said. “They were artistic, creative, morally fervent, but not dogmatic. They cared about saving the world – particularly the environment – and they tended to be very skeptical of authority.

“I fell in love with these students,” said Coburn, formerly the vice president and dean of academic affairs at St. Lawrence University. “And now I have a whole school of them.”

“Serendipitous eruptions of chaos”

Coburn discussed "contemplative education."

At the heart of the educational experience embraced at Naropa is, he said, “the flip side of speaking, or, simply, listening.”

“It’s not surprising that, in an argument culture, listening requires real discipline to listen to one’s self and one’s heart. In a world where differences between us are fractious and contentious, deep listening offers a glimpse of what could be attained if we instead celebrated the differences between us.”

The single greatest challenge we face as a culture, he said, was learning how to engage constituencies unlike ourselves.

Drawing on his training as a historian of religions, he contrasted the extreme ends of the spectrum of religious thought, as embodied by the recluse, or hermit, who removed himself from society to refine his philosophy, and the activist who deeply engaged himself in transforming the world to embrace ideals of peace and justice.

“Our assignment is to introduce students to this broad range of possibilities and to help them see that sometimes, we need to withdraw in order to nurture our inner resources,” he said.

The paradox woven into contemplative education is the struggle between a disciplined mind and one that is open to spontaneous, chaotic inspiration. Discipline, Coburn said, is often a prerequisite for the inner growth many students are seeking through their educational experience.

“Sometimes,” Coburn said, “teachable moments come about without warning. In this respect, they resemble a transformative, mystical experience. The moral is: Pay attention to discipline, but have your radar out for serendipitous eruptions of chaos.”

Capturing and embracing contrasts and contradictions

As with other forms of learning, he added, “contemplative education is part science, part art, and we need to be open to both.”

To illustrate his point, Coburn placed two images in front of his audience, challenging the students to contemplate the subtle details of each. The first, the iconic image of the Hand of God giving life to Adam that was painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, was later juxtaposed against that of sculpted Hindu warrior goddess.

Members of the audience shared their observations and impressions, taking note of details such as the enigmatic expression on the carved face of the powerful goddess, or the sense of disengagement on the face of a supine Adam.

Coburn used the responses to underscore the elliptical nature of contemplative education, which captures—and embraces—contrasts and contradictions.

“It’s East and West, god and goddess, teacher and student, discipline and chaos,” he said. “It’s the outer world and the inner world, the intellect and emotion, the body and the mind. It is, according to Zen Buddhists, where words fall away and where all distinctions disappear.”

His message resonated with the students in the audience, some drawn by the topic and some by a message of active listening.

Louis K. Yako, a graduate student from Iraq, was most interested in Coburn’s views on nonviolence.

“I’m very interested in that philosophy and came here thinking that he would have something useful to say about listening to one another,” Yako said. “He did a great job with that, pointing out that very often, we only listen to hear our own voice.”

Lilia R. Stefaniwsky, a first year student in the College of Arts and Sciences, didn’t even know Naropa University existed, but was interested in learning more about Buddhism.
“I think it’s very interesting to see how they are able to weave Buddhism into the educational experience,” she said. “It seems to make it a deeper, richer experience.”

The Dalai Lama’s visit will include a series of teachings as well as a sold-out, half-day public lecture on July 13. The five-and-a-half days of teachings, sponsored by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Washington, N.J., will take place July 10-15.
All of the events will take place in Stabler Arena on the Goodman Campus.

For the latest information on the Dalai Lama’s visit, check out Lehigh’s Dalai Lama Web site.

Photos by Douglas Benedict

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, February 14, 2008

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