This article originally appeared on Buddhistdoor Global | 2016-02-19
By Caitlin Dwyer
Small-town Nebraska is about as far from India as a person can get, but for Buddhist scholar and acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, who grew up there, that faraway place always had a particular draw. Located in the Midwest of the United States, Nebraska has wide swaths of flat farmland sliced by paths for pickup trucks, wind plucking through the fields of corn.
“As a child, I had tremendous religious and spiritual curiosity,” recalls Simmer-Brown, the daughter of a Methodist minister. “I asked a lot of people, I read biographies . . . I started a methodical prayer practice. I feel like I had some kind of past-life affinity for meditation.”
That curiosity has carried Simmer-Brown through a lifetime of religious study—leading her to India, where she was first exposed to meditation, to an early devotion to Zen, to a doctorate in Buddhism, and eventually, to a position as an acharya, or senior Dharma teacher, in the Shambhala lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and to a teaching role at Naropa University in Colorado. Curious and questioning, her spiritual intellect has driven her to embody a unique position bridging the divide between the practice of Dharma and the analytical study of religion.
As an acharya, she represents the first generation of women empowered into the Shambhala lineage in the West. As Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa (founded by Chögyam Trungpa in 1974), she is a leader in Buddhist scholarship and a thoughtful advocate for the academic study of Buddhism—a role that has traditionally been filled by men. Her study of the dakini, a symbol of wisdom and emptiness usually represented in female form, has modernized scholarship on that topic. By showing how the dakini is essential to Tibetan Buddhism and exploring its nuances, she finds empowerment for female practitioners as well as providing a wider perspective on this oft-appropriated symbol of feminism.
Before becoming a respected Buddhist teacher, Simmer-Brown lived a double life. In the early 1970s, she began studying Zen with Shunryu Suzuki; at the time, she was also teaching Religion at Western Washington University. Her Zen teachers discouraged study; her PhD program shunned religious observance as subjective and non-academic. “So I had a complete split between my practice life and study life,” she says. “That was a real challenge for me. I felt in my gut that I wanted to unify those two sides of my life.”
Simmer-Brown found that unity at Naropa, where she became a student of Chögyam Trungpa, the charismatic and controversial Tibetan teacher. “It was an environment where practice and study went together very naturally,” Simmer-Brown recalls. Encouraged by her new teacher, she was later invited to join the faculty and began teaching at Naropa in 1978. She has remained there ever since.
The coexistence of these two dimensions to Simmer-Brown’s life—a lived Buddhist practice and a rigorous academic career—makes her unique as a teacher. “Her integration of contemplative and academic modes of inquiry produces insights that are unpredictable and fresh,” wrote Dr. Susan Burggraf, professor of contemplative psychology at Naropa, in an email. “She embodies feminine wisdom and fierce academic passion with a deep and engaged commitment.” Her commitment to inquiry makes her a demanding teacher: “She expects her students to show up,” says T. J. DeZauche, an adjunct professor at Naropa who is also Simmer-Brown’s administrative assistant. “She can be sharp in a classroom, but those expectations come from a deep confidence that her students are capable.”
Simmer-Brown is also the founder and Senior Faculty Advisor to the Center for the Advancement of Contemplative Education (CACE), which is hosting a conference March 18-21, 2016 on Mindfulness in Higher Education. Learn more about the conference here.