Delta Beta Tau at San Diego State University: The Nation’s First Buddhist Fraternity

Post-initiation photo, with members holding their certificates. Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Kassidy Evans is executive assistant of Dharma Bum Temple. She is an alumnus of San Diego State University and a former president of Delta Beta Tau.

When you hear the word “fraternity,” mindfulness might not be the first thing that comes to mind. When you hear the word “meditation,” the first people who come to mind probably aren’t college students either, that is unless you’re discussing the non-sectarian Buddhist fraternity at San Diego State University, Delta Beta Tau (DBT). DBT was co-founded in September 2015 by Jeffrey Zlotnik as a program operating out of both the university and the Dharma Bum Temple. After creating a meditation space in the back of the local gift shop, Buddha for You, Zlotnik noticed the lack of mindful spaces available to college students, so he set out to create one.

The responsibilities and expectations for college students nowadays are more demanding than ever. On top of juggling classes and schoolwork, students are typically expected to join extracurriculars, have paying jobs, find internships that align with their career goals, and somehow maintain good health and social lives. My college experience was not typical for many reasons; a global pandemic arising in the midst of it being one of them. This was just another stressor that has made Delta Beta Tau more necessary for students in recent years.

In an immensely high-stress environment defined by unpredictability and expectations, DBT provides students with a safe and welcoming place to sit, breathe, share, listen, and learn. Built upon the values of Buddhist learning, community, and service, DBT had humble beginnings. However, what began as a small group of students meditating in the library quickly transformed into a sizable student organization with multiple meetings, group meditations, and community service events each week. Through this program, Buddhism has become accessible to young people who likely never would have encountered it elsewhere.

Most college campuses in the US follow the tradition of what is called “Greek Life,” or the sorority and fraternity system. Historically, fraternities have been all male, and sororities exclusively female, but they both operate in similar ways. They are tight-knit groups of college students who attend social and formal events, and often live with one another in large dorm-style houses. The primary goal of these groups is to create social bonds among students, and much of that is accomplished through attending parties, using intoxicants, and engaging in other activities that one might equate with the classic American college experience. In order to join one of these groups, students must go through a process in which they present themselves to members, who then decide who is the right fit for their organization based on personality, character, and sometimes additional factors such as style and appearance. Although many students have positive experiences in these groups, the selection process can be harsh, and students often have to deal with feelings of rejection after not being selected by the group they wanted to join. Sometimes, students don’t get chosen by any sororities or fraternities, and this can be an immensely isolating experience for young people in search of connection.

A pledge to connection and compassion

I began my freshman year at San Diego State University knowing nobody, and I did not feel comfortable putting myself in the position to be judged and potentially rejected by groups of my peers. I had not yet heard of DBT, and as a result I spent much of my first semester wandering aimlessly in search of a community that felt inviting. I desperately wanted to make friends, but I struggled to form genuine bonds. Eventually I began to believe that I would never find a community, and that I had made the wrong decision when I chose to attend SDSU. Toward the end of the semester, I met a friendly face on campus who told me about the co-ed Buddhist fraternity with which she was involved. A few weeks later when the application opened up for students to join in the following semester, I was the first person to sign up!

Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Delta Beta Tau has a “pledge program” for new members, which consists of weekly meetings, four retreats, and a minimum of 10 hours of community service over the course of a semester. Pledges are led by active members who have previously completed the program. As a pledge class, students can bond with one another while delving into Buddhist practice and applying what they’ve learned to their own lives in real time. Once they have completed this pledge process, students are officially members of the organization. They may then continue to attend events as usual or join the leadership team, where they can work with other leaders to help coordinate the program and lead meditations for future generations of DBT!

Unlike traditional fraternities, DBT does not have a house, nor does it require members to pay dues to attend events. DBT is open to all students from any and every religious background, no matter their race, class, disability status, gender, sexuality, interests, or other affiliations. The one thing that everybody in DBT has in common is that they are all interested in the practice of meditation and want to learn what it means to be truly generous, compassionate, and mindful in their day-to-day lives. Members of the DBT sangha naturally come to know one another in a space that allows for vulnerability and the practice of kindness. There is also no element of partying, as DBT has strict rules that prohibit the use of intoxicants at their events. The intention when students enter any DBT space is always to grow, connect, and create genuine bonds with one another with clear and constructive minds. As a result, many lifelong friendships have begun in these spaces, and organization leaders ensure that everyone feels welcomed and safe at all events.

Throughout my time in college, I remained very involved as a member and leader in DBT. In my second year, I became a pledge educator for incoming members. What made this experience especially unique was that it was the first fully virtual academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not easy to create strong bonds with people through a screen, so leaders such as myself had to put in more effort than ever before to empower students. In order to ensure that new members felt both seen and valued despite not sharing a physical space, myself and the other leaders went out of our ways to personalize the virtual pledgeship experience.

We put together DBT-themed care packages with candles, books, affirmation cards, journals, and other items to make them feel a little more connected to the rest of the group. Although we were meeting virtually from across the country, we also made sure that each week everybody talked one-on-one about whatever Buddhist philosophy they were learning that week with somebody that they had never spoken to prior. These conversations allowed students joining virtually to really get to know one another in meaningful ways despite the obstacles that the pandemic posed.

Returning to campus

The transition back to in-person classes and social interactions once the pandemic began to subside was just as tricky. Many young people had developed significant anxiety after being in isolation for so long, and were intimidated by the idea of anything unfamiliar to them. Nonetheless, the inviting format of the DBT program made students a little more comfortable with trying something new. DBT is a judgment-free zone whose doors remain open to anybody who wants to give meditation and mindfulness practice a chance.

Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Most notably, Delta Beta Tau holds weekly meditations on campus, which are open to all students at SDSU, not only members. Over the years, these meditations have increased in popularity and attracted students of different backgrounds. These meetings allow students from all corners of the campus to regularly come together to meditate and discuss Buddhist teachings. After a guided meditation and a short lecture on a specific topic, students reflect and share their thoughts on how the evening’s topic relates to their own experiences. These weekly meditations create a space that is open, honest, and allows for genuine reflection. Students are offered a chance to recognize their imperfections through a lens of compassion while talking through their struggles with like-minded individuals, in order to grow individually and interpersonally. For many students, their first time trying meditation has been at one of these weekly meetings.

In my senior year, I stepped into the role of president at this co-ed fraternity. I led most of the weekly meditations and some of the most impactful things I witnessed were the personal transformations of freshmen and new members at these weekly gatherings. I can recall asking first-time meditators to introduce themselves to the group, and most were typically a bit nervous to do so. They’d usually sit through their first meditation and discussion without saying much else. Throughout the next few weeks, many new faces would continue showing up and often begin to share their reflections and feelings with the group. Eventually, many of them began bringing journals or books that spoke to them and the discussions we were having, while others grew into amazing meditators and leaders themselves. Through new understandings of different teachings each week, I could watch countless hesitant students blossom into committed, confident, and passionate practitioners. There is not much more I could ever ask for.

Over the years, DBT leaders have utilized a very specific and simple format in order to introduce students—most of whom have little to no background in Buddhism—to the Dharma. Through speakers, students learn about and discuss the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Six Paramitas, and the Three Poisons. DBT does not specifically study or practice one tradition of Buddhism, but rather focuses their studies on the foundational principles of Buddhist thought. Nonetheless, by attending retreats at nearby Buddhist temples and monasteries, students are able to practice with spiritual leaders and gain a glimpse of the more cultural aspects of different Buddhist practices.

I was introduced to meditation in DBT spaces, but it was a retreat at Metta Forest Monastery that helped me to recognize how life-changing a commitment to the practice can truly be. Years later, I can still clearly recall how I felt as I walked back to my car and drove home at the end of the day, my mind clearer than it had ever been before. For the first time, I truly understood what it meant to be in the present moment; I mindfully and non-judgmentally experienced all of the external and internal conditions that were present at the time. More importantly, I wasn’t the only one from the group that felt this way. Pledges and active members continue to attend this retreat as well as many others each year, strengthening every participant’s individual practice.

Fall 2023 Pledge Class Meditation. Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

In addition to learning about the Dharma through retreats and meetings, the motto of Delta Beta Tau is: “For the Benefit of Others.” and members are expected to live up to this concept both within and outside of DBT spaces. In order for students to truly understand the Dharma, DBT leaders ensure that it remains a space of giving and selflessness. Community service is mandatory for both members and pledges, and as a result, students’ practices go far beyond benefiting only themselves. As well as building connections with local charities and organizations, DBT has worked to create their own service events that benefit students and the larger San Diego community. For example, Delta Beta Tau members and pledges meet a few times a month to make sandwiches and create care packages with food and water to pass out to the homeless community throughout San Diego. Students recognize the importance of giving without expecting anything in return, but the feelings of contentment that they attain continue to inspire them to keep showing up for the benefit of others.

 Delta Beta Tau is uniquely straightforward in its approach to sharing the Buddhist teachings on a college campus filled with diverse students, and it has single-handedly made Buddhism accessible to young Americans in ways that it had never been before. To people with no previous knowledge of Buddhism, it may often appear inaccessible and intimidating, but Delta Beta Tau has given hundreds of students the opportunity to learn the Buddha’s foundational teachings. Not only this, but the mindfulness practices students are introduced to at DBT events often transform into useful tools that they take into the real world and utilize throughout their everyday lives. Their understanding of Buddhism is not abstract, but rather comes to them as a logical practice to help them cope with very real and common struggles.

One of the first teachings students often learn about at DBT meditations is impermanence and the practice of non-attachment. As young adults, college students often tend to grasp at anything that might bring them a feeling of comfort and consistency. This is ultimately unattainable, as the nature of life is ever changing and uncertain. Despite being an intimidating realization, once most students understand the nature of impermanence, they often experience a tangible feeling of relief, which opens them up to future teachings and practices. The most revolutionary practice I have personally taken out of DBT is the act of separating my ego from the sense of “self.” As a young person, I have often found myself obsessed with the labels that I think define me, as well as my assumptions about how other people see me. I have forced actions and repressed emotions in order to project an ego-driven image of myself. Once I began the practice of letting go of my ego, my world opened up in immeasurable ways, and for that reason I am forever grateful for my exposure to the Dharma through DBT.

For many years now students have been expressing how life-changing DBT has been for them. Many students have discovered friendships and formed bonds unlike anything they have ever experienced before. Others, such as myself, have discovered teachings and practices that have revolutionized the ways in which we interact with the world. Because of DBT, so many young people have discovered new methods of practicing mindfulness within the chaos of life.

It is very likely that without DBT, many of these students never would have had the opportunity to explore Buddhist practice in the first place. It is the simple format and openness of this fraternity that has made Buddhism so accessible to students at San Diego State University. Now, a large number of young people—both students and alumni—are equipped with the tools to not only be mindful and generous, but also to educate those around them about the fundamental teachings of Buddhism. They also have an incredibly strong foundation of knowledge in which they can utilize in order to continue meditating, learning, and practicing on their own. Co-founder Jeffrey Zlotnik recognized a need for meditation and Buddhist practice on college campuses, and DBT has transformed into a place that exposes secularized young people of all different backgrounds to the Dharma.

In the summer of 2023, DBT officially became its own 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization. In the next few years, program leaders are planning to establish chapters on additional college campuses in the hope that it might eventually become a nationwide program. Thus, college students everywhere will be able to foster community through practicing meditation, mindfulness, and compassion, ultimately shaping a new wave of Buddhism in America. The goal of this expansion is to help create a world in which young people are patient, mindful, and generous.

We live in a fast-paced and self-interested world. Young people are often conditioned to put their wants before the needs of others, and this is ultimately unsustainable. If DBT can begin to help young people unlearn the tendencies to act from their anger, ignorance, and greed and replace that conditioning with compassion, wisdom, and generosity, the potential for progress is boundless. As a previous member and leader, I have full confidence that Delta Beta Tau will continue to revolutionize college campuses. Just thinking about how far the organization has come in only a few years is telling enough. What began as a small group of students meditating together at San Diego State University is now an ever-growing non-profit organization which will continue to shape an entirely new generation of young Buddhist practitioners in the West.

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