Buddhist Values Take Root in Naropa U. Gardens

Benjamin Rasmussen

Costen Aytes, Naropa U.'s landscape manager, waters a Buddhist-inspired garden he designed. The flags represent the "five wisdoms."
December 12, 2010

Some people, and I know I'm one of them, can be skeptical when confronted with anything unfamiliar, whether it be a recording, a recipe, or a religion. So I was a little worried when I stopped by Naropa University—which describes itself as "Buddhist-inspired" and says it is "dedicated to advancing contemplative education"—and people started talking to me earnestly about consciousness. To be honest, I was afraid my eyes might glaze over, the way they do when people try to talk to me earnestly about, say, football or rap music.

It was Costen Aytes, Na­ropa's friendly, plainspoken landscape manager, who came to my rescue, taking me on a tour that started with the main campus's tidy sandstone paths, towering sycamores, quiet nooks, and busy bike-lending shack—a tour that explained Naropa in terms I'm a lot more familiar with. By the time we had visited the university's two other campuses nearby, I found myself thinking that Mr. Aytes's work embodies the university's values almost as perfectly as a poem might capture happiness or disappointment.

Naropa, as it happens, has a strong connection to poetry. What's now the university was founded in the early 1970s by Chögyam Trungpa, an exiled Tibetan lama who chanced to meet the poet Allen Ginsberg in New York—while the two of them were trying to hail a cab on the same street, the story goes. Ginsberg, along with the poet Anne Waldman and the composer John Cage, helped organize Naropa's first summer workshop, out of which grew the university's best-known program, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The name was Ginsberg's doing, of course.

Now, though, the writing program is only one of the university's offerings, which also include a full undergraduate curriculum and a well-respected psychology program. All rely to some degree on meditation, people told me. As one administrator put it: "You must be willing to go into yourself and see what you discover."

With Mr. Aytes as my guide, I went instead into the lovely quadrangle behind the university's main building, a 1903 elementary school. The 15-acre main campus on Arapahoe Avenue, tucked away between a huge University of Colorado housing complex and the Boulder Creek Quality Inn and Suites, is in the creek's floodplain, Mr. Aytes said, and it has some of the best soil in Boulder. "As a gardener, it's really easy to grow things here," he said. The location may also account for Naropa's being home to Colorado's three largest sycamores, one of them right in front of the Allen Ginsberg Library. At 98 feet tall, it's the state champion.

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At the far end of the quadrangle is an awkward little hillside sloping down toward a fence that separates Naropa's campus from the University of Colorado's. Mr. Aytes said the hillside was about to become a kitchen garden for Naropa's cramped, popular cafe. That is in keeping, he said, with an increasing emphasis on sustainability—on local food, on native plants, and on making sure the grounds don't require more water than the climate would normally provide. "All our gardening is organic," he added, noting that this makes Naropa a haven for people sensitive to pesticides. He also pointed out a sign put up by the University of Colorado noting that nudity is prohibited on its campus, which Naropa students are otherwise welcome to visit.

Gardening Harmony

Mr. Aytes, 35, worked as a landscaper for the City of Boulder and later started his own firm, but he found that he spent too many evenings and weekends meeting clients and doing paperwork. What he likes about working at Naropa, he told me, is that the institution has "almost no bureaucracy—I come in and do what I see needs to be done." He also likes being a member of the Naropa chorus and taking part in a student's thesis project, which he described as "musical dramady burlesque sexcapade." He says he practices meditation regularly and believes in "the basic goodness of all humans, but I don't know if that makes me a Buddhist." In any event, he said, he doesn't identify himself as such.

But when he designed a new garden to occupy 8,000 square feet of former parking lot on the university's Paramita campus—the name, he said, means "the land between two shores"­—he added a series of Buddhist motifs. Five tall, narrow, colored flags represent the five wisdoms, he told me, readily translating the wisdoms as service, richness, heart, spaciousness or openness, and quality of mind or meditation. A dharma wheel he set in stone by the entry gate points toward true north, rather than magnetic north, as a reminder that "you should consider your own true path rather than the magnetic pull of societal norms." A path for meditating while walking winds around a lawn, passing benches and boulders.

"I tried not to be overtly Japanese" in the design, Mr. Aytes said, walking me past a leaning tower of stacked rocks that he included as a humorous touch. Unseen is the subsurface irrigation system, which is regulated by a high-tech on-site weather station. Japanese or not, the garden is a delight, especially considering that it was a parking lot just a couple of years ago. The Paramita campus, by the way, houses the university's psychology programs.

Mr. Aytes took me next to the Nalanda campus, which houses arts programs and is named for an ancient university city in India, to show me a much smaller garden he's been working on: In a triangle of earth surrounded by sidewalks, he has represented four kinds of Colorado landscape. He has also contributed to a much bigger project there, a sacred-geometry installation in which buried stacks of rocks describe a rectangle around the campus, creating, as a description puts it, "a megalithic monument in weight and purpose." The project's details were lost on me—they involve geomancy and lunar quadrilaterals, and I'm only an English major—but I got the main point, which was to create a "harmonized energy field."

What wasn't lost on me were the prairie-dog holes dotting a swath of the harmonious field in front of the Nalanda building, and the prairie dogs sitting up beside them. In fact, there were prairie dogs everywhere I looked, and Mr. Aytes said they had popped up "in every traffic island in the parking lot." They're a "cornerstone species" in Colorado, he said, and in any case Buddhism's tradition of respecting all living things means Naropa would never consider trying to exterminate them.

Still, they're a nuisance, creating holes in which campus visitors could twist an ankle or worse. So, harmonious energy field or not, the prairie dogs may have to be trapped and moved elsewhere, he said.

By the time Mr. Aytes dropped me off back on Arapahoe Avenue, I was pretty sure I understood more about Naropa from seeing how its landscapes embody its values than I'd ever have picked up otherwise. And no trace of skepticism remained.