How Cornell transformed a life

Alicia's JSB 2In 1966 while on a junior year Cornell study abroad program at a Gandhian ashram college in Ahmedabad, India, I joined my Gujarati classmates for hours each day, sitting on a little prayer rug in a huge meditation hall dominated by a large cutout representation of Mahatma Gandhi. I asked, what is meditation? They could not answer—they said, just sit and spin on your charkha, or spinning wheel.
The thread of this question carried through my life after college, into graduate school at Columbia University, and into a zendo hall at San Francisco Zen Center. I found mindful awareness and compassion practices settled my jangled body and mind, clarified my intellect, and brought simple contentment and joy. I committed to these practices as the cornerstone of my personal and academic life.

In late 1977 I came to teach religious studies with a specialty in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, the pioneer of merging mindfulness with western academic and artistic disciplines. Naropa was a start-up in those years, breathtaking and edgy, joining Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and scientists like Buckminster Fuller with Buddhist meditation masters like Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. I became one of the founders of the year-round programs, and have been here ever since. My academic friends thought I was crazy. My Buddhist friends thought me impossibly nerdy. As for me, I knew I had found a home.

Naropa became the incubator for a new kind of education; one that fosters first-person inquiry as a way to ground learning in direct experience. I teach Sanskrit Buddhist texts and meditation and Tibetan tantra, with a specialty in the dakini, the elusive feminine goddess symbol of esoteric wisdom. I also teach interreligious dialogue, compassion meditation and neuroscience, Buddhist theology, and contemplative pedagogy workshops for faculty.

All of this began at Cornell College, a place that fostered curiosity, the adventure of learning about myself and the world, and encouraged me to explore, question, and deepen my trust in our fundamental humanity. In this time of increased anxiety about alumni employment, student debt, and the survival of small liberal arts colleges, Cornell has an important role in cultivating this trust in our fragile world. Only then can we, together, find the creative solutions that will build global community and peace.

Cornell has been my family’s college. My parents Blanche Gabrielson Simmer ’44 and Bill Simmer ’44 fell in love while leading the International Relations Club in the ’40s, when Dad—on a ministerial deferment—was one of the only men left on campus during the war. I was the first among my siblings to attend, followed the next year by my brother Steve Simmer ’69, and a few years later by my brother Scott Simmer ’73. They have both gone on to do exceptionally creative work in psychotherapy and law. Scott is now a Cornell Trustee. I often think of my life beginning the day I arrived on campus, straight from Nebraska—with the combined magic of tight-knit community, the love of learning, engaging course offerings, and study abroad.

Now, as I teach at another small liberal arts college, I consider myself continuing Cornell’s legacy, but adding the first-person inquiry dimension that mindful awareness and compassion practices from the Buddhist tradition bring.

Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is an Acharya (senior dharma teacher) of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage of Naropa University’s founder. She lectures and writes on Tibetan Buddhism, American Buddhism, women and Buddhism, interreligious dialogue, and contemplative education. She teaches contemplative pedagogy workshops to college and university faculty nationally. Her books are “Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism” (Shambhala 2001) and, with Fran Grace, an edited collection of articles called “Meditation and the Classroom: Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies” (Religious Studies Series, SUNY, 2010). She was a William Fletcher King scholar at Cornell College, where she was a double major in history and religion. She is married to Richard Brown, a Naropa professor, and they have two adult children and three grandchildren.