An Unlikely Heathen: Attending Naropa as a Non-Buddhist

From its name to its sitting cushions, Naropa University screams Buddhism.  Its instructors and students alike sport mala beads and singing bowls.  Its classes begin and end with a bow.  Even its somewhat tongue-in-cheek mascot, the “Bodhi Cheeta,” references the school’s religious leaning.

Which is understandable, given its beginnings.  Naropa’s history involves a solid background in Buddhist philosophy and meditation instruction, and its early psychology department was perhaps based more in religious studies than traditional psychology.  Granted, the school has evolved a lot, and there is now a wider range of voices and opinions that come together to make Naropa what it is.

Having said that, there are a few Buddhism-related things about this school that must be considered.  The undergraduate psychology program requires several “Buddhist Psychology” courses, which contain a fair dose of religious “dharma,” and the TCP program requires at least four credits of meditation classes that can only be waived if one has gone through the undergrad program.  Are these classes useful?  I would say yes, although I have run into people who were less than happy about their mandatory status.  Nevertheless, Buddhism is here to stay at Naropa, and the psychology programs here will never be fully separate from Buddhist philosophy.

Now, knowing that Buddhism is essential to Naropa’s academic philosophy may be a wonderful discovery for the hopeful Buddhist applicant to this school.  But what about those of us who aren’t?  What about those of us who are Jewish, Christian, Pagan, Atheist, etc.?  What about those of us who don’t really want another religion forced down our throats?

Well, there’s good news and bad news.  The good news is that it won’t be.  Unless you apply to the religious studies program, you can be sure that the Buddhist philosophies that are integrated into the programs here will be tied back into the subject of study.  As a psychology student, for example, you will learn about the four noble truths, and then you will learn how the real-life manifestations of this concept result in your clients having a really rough time of things.

But, as I mentioned, there’s bad news as well.  That bad news is that you will probably feel a little weird in this school, because there isn’t a particularly large degree of focus on the other religions present here.

I have met a fair number of Jewish people here, and there is some Jewish presence in the Religious Studies department.  But the Jewish religion is rarely brought up in Psychology courses.  Christianity is almost less discussed, even though there are a fair number of Christian students here as well.  And if you come from a western religion that is not Judeo-Christian in origin, prepare to be largely ignored.

Bear in mind, you won’t be unwelcome here.  It’s quite likely that people won’t particularly understand where you’re coming from spiritually, and if you’re a member of one of the more traditionally evangelical religious organizations, you may be met with awkward silence if your bring up your faith in class.  But from what I’ve seen, it seems to be fairly uncommon for people to be outright discriminated against for their religious beliefs.

However, it’s important to remember that people are people, even at Naropa.  Prejudice, fear, and judgment are qualities that all of us are hard pressed to quash out all (or even most) of the time.  I myself identify as Pagan, but I don’t generally go spreading it around.  On the rare occasion that I mention this fact, I rarely receive any notable interest or response.  I don’t know if they’re worried about offending me, or trying to maintain an air of nonjudgment, but I get the feeling if I mentioned practicing Hinduism, or even Sufism, I wouldn’t receive such blank stares.  I am involved in Naropa’s student group PAN (Pagans At Naropa), and I occasionally meet other people who identify similarly.  But I can’t remember having ever heard an instructor bring up a nature-based religion, aside from the occasional reference to some form of Native American spirituality, and I’ve been attending this school for about three years.

I’ve come to terms with this fact, and it doesn’t particularly bother me.  But what will this mean for you?  Ultimately, it means that this institution has its philosophical leanings, as most private institutions do.  I certainly wasn’t driven away by this issue, and in fact, I chose to return for my graduate studies.  Even if you’re not Buddhist, you’ll be fine.  If you’re worried about it, you can bet that someone else will be having the same misgivings you are, and you may even form a new friendship over this shared concern.  No one will expect you to be Buddhist, and no one will expect you to convert.

And even though the Buddhist concepts in these classes may be strange, unfamiliar, or may even clash with your own beliefs, know that it’s okay if you don’t buy into it.  Take what is useful to you, leave what is not.  Your experience as a Naropa student will be worthwhile, if you let it.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. hieronymusfaust
    Oct 29, 2012 @ 17:04:42

    It’s strange. As a Western Buddhist, I find it curious that some people are uncomfortable with Buddhism in tandem with their religious faith of choice. I personally see Buddhism as merely as a toolkit for self-reflection and reconciliation with the world as it is. A sometimes difficult-to-use, sometimes not-so-difficult-to-use set of tools. But a methodology and means towards that just the same.

    And that leaves so much room for a Christian or a Pagan or any other belief to remain who they are at their core.


    • Martha
      Oct 29, 2012 @ 22:25:43

      I think the Buddhist approach to everything at Naropa is more than a toolbox. I think that looking at it that way is doing it a little injustice. Similar to how many people believe that just doing a sweat lodge and knowing the basics of a medicine wheel is enough to be “showing respect” to native americans and their spiritual practices.


  2. Martha
    Oct 29, 2012 @ 22:28:36

    Perhaps I should add that I’m Jewish and my husband is Pagan/Druid. And that the Buddhist approach at Naropa doesn’t bother me, but at the same time, I don’t feel “accepted” here as as Jewish person for various reasons. It’s okay though because I don’t expect it.


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