FEATURES|COLUMNS|Buddhism in America

The Buddha Goes to College

By Harsha Menon
Buddhistdoor Global | 2015-12-11 |
Students of the first Buddhist co-ed fraternity in the United States. Photo by Buddha for YouStudents of the first Buddhist co-ed fraternity in the United States. Photo by Buddha for You

The Buddha established his monastic sangha some 2,500 years ago in order to purvey his wisdom to all beings, thereby to secure peace in their lives and to offer them a philosophy rooted in compassion. The knowledge that the Buddha distilled out of his practices, the Buddha-Dharma, consisted in acknowledging and finding the cause of the sorrows of life, as well as offering a prescription for their eradication. Forming part of this remedy—the Eightfold Noble Path—are the principles of correct living and correct understanding.

No philosophy can stand the rigors of time without ardent practitioners who can devote their lives to its principles, and it was on this basis that the Buddha founded the orders of nuns and monks—the oldest sorority and fraternity—who, through their dedication to the principles of the Path, enabled the lay population to pursue them to the extent they were able. Over the centuries, the Buddhist monastic order has kept the Buddha’s light of compassion alive into contemporary times.

Sarah Walsh is a third-year student studying journalism and new media at San Diego State University in California. She is also the president of the fraternity Delta Beta Tau and the sorority Delta Beta Theta, which together form the first Buddhist co-ed fraternity in the United States.

Fraternities and sororities form part of what is also known as the “Greek System” in American universities. Members meet to share and foster common goals, teach leadership skills, enjoy social events, and perform community services, among other activities, and some are also residential. San Diego State, a university in the State of California public school system with a student population of over 33,000, has 44 recognized fraternities and sororities, with over 2,600 members.

Often, for fraternity and sorority members, the bond forged at college continues and strengthens throughout life. But why a Buddhist co-ed fraternity? Sarah says she had been looking for Buddhist cohorts on her campus but had yet to connect with any. She had been attending bi-weekly meditation sessions at a local store near campus, but longed to connect with students her own age in the university setting to feel more supported on the Buddhist path.

The store, called Buddha For You, is owned by Buddhist practitioner and teacher Jeff Zlotnik who, along with Abby Cervantes, had been envisioning such an organization at SDSU. A local pre-school teacher, Abby had previously founded a sorority at an art school in San Francisco. Jeff had had a positive fraternity experience as a student and was looking for a way to introduce Buddhism into the Greek System. Abby and Jeff invited Sarah to join their efforts and to serve as the fraternity’s president.

Dr. Sandra Wawrytko, a philosophy professor and the director of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at SDSU, is the faculty adviser for Delta Beta Theta. Dr. Wawrytko started a class in Buddhist philosophy over six years ago at the school, and feels that infusing the SDSU Greek System with Buddhist values and principles is a form of Buddhist upaya (skill in means).

Dr. Wawrytko says that the interest in Buddhism among the students who attend her class is quite strong. She describes the students as very diverse. Some are from ethnically Buddhist backgrounds, some are “second- and third-generation Buddhists whose parents were American hippies,” and some are just attracted to learn more about what the Buddha had to say. “There is a lot of excitement,” she says.

SDSU Campus. Photo by Abigail CervantesSDSU Campus. Photo by Abigail Cervantes

Presently, the group meets on Wednesday nights at the campus library. “We meet at 9 p.m., after classes, after homework. We start with a meditation for about 20 minutes, have a discussion on the Buddha’s values and ideals, such as the Four Noble Truths or the Six Paramitas, and then we pick one aspect and discuss how it applies to our lives as college students, where we struggle, and how we can grow from it,” Sarah says.

She says she looks forward to the weekly meetings: “It’s my time to wind down, and you need that time to stay calm and centered. You come away from the meeting with a special feeling.” The meetings end with a “transfer of merit,” or the dedication of the positive energy created to others.

The fraternity has been meeting only since early October, but students note that they have already begun to feel the effects in their daily lives throughout the rest of the week. Christopher Czarnecki, a fourth-year psychology major, heard about the group at his yoga club and wanted to see what it was about. He “fell in love with it,” he says. “I didn’t foresee this at SDSU, but I am glad it’s here now, and people . . . say that it’s the highlight of their week.” He says that he makes time in his schedule to be there just because of how “enlightening” it is.

Christopher shares that he is especially intrigued by the idea of “transfer of merit.” He says what appeals to him is the concept of not doing something just to make yourself feel better, but to help all of humanity, which he feels is “the highest thing you can do.”

Every week new students come to try out the meetings. Christopher feels that as the co-ed fraternity grows, the community will increasingly experience the residual effects of the group practice: “Being from San Diego you notice a particular [fast] pace people have around here, but it’s really nice to have people from all sorts of backgrounds such as sports teams, engineers, marketing majors, psychology majors, come together. You can see a sense of unification there.” He feels that the group has created a very accepting and tolerant space for students of different races and genders, and for people in general, to come together and strengthen the community, and then to take that energy back out onto campus.

Delta Beta Tau and Delta Beta Theta are currently going through an approval process on campus, and once it is in place they will reach out more and begin to build a more solid foundation. They would like eventually to have separate residential buildings for both the fraternity and sorority. Other plans include reaching out to other campuses and hopefully creating a national charter that other schools can adopt. As Sarah says, “We want to bring [to other schools] that aspect of peace and friendliness and kindness and generosity, and everything that comes with Buddhist values.”

When I ask Sarah how other students who may not be familiar with Buddhism react to the idea of a Buddhist co-ed fraternity, she offers: “Once I describe what we do, how we work on calming ourselves and being present with where we are, I think that is something that everyone needs, so they see it’s not just a foreign concept.”

In a way, Delta Beta Tau and Delta Beta Theta appear as reincarnations of the ancient Buddhist monastic institution that transferred the merit of compassion to the lay. These contemporary vehicles for Buddhist thought, just like the original orders of Buddhist nuns and monks, are striving to convey the Buddhist way of life to the students of SDSU and beyond.

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