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Delta Beta Om: Buddha Comes To San Diego's Greek System

You might think there would be a major clash between the party-hard reputation of the Greek system and the tranquility associated with Buddhism. But a group at San Diego State University says they're trying to strike a balance by starting a Buddhist fraternity and sorority.

"We're not monks or anything like that. We're college students learning about the philosophies and teachings of the Buddha."

When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he realized the Four Noble Truths that explain the human condition. And the first truth is that all life is suffering.

For sophomore Caitlynne Leary, that applies to college life: "Every single part of college is suffering — you're stressed out all of the time," she says.

Leary has been exploring Buddhism since she took a class on it last semester. Now she's working with other students to establish the fraternity and sorority — Delta Beta Tau and Delta Beta Theta — and she's planning to pledge.

"We're not monks or anything like that," she says. "We're college students learning about the philosophies and teachings of the Buddha."

Including those Noble Truths. The second and third truths are that suffering is caused by desire, and that, to end suffering, one must end desire.

"You want things: You want that boy to like you back, you want that new purse. But if you stop expecting so much out of everything, you're just so much happier," Leary says.

Greek Activities, With Mindfulness Mixed In

Pledges to the Buddhist fraternity and sorority won't have to pass any kind of Buddhist tests and likely won't have been raised Buddhist — although this is Southern California, so you never know.

The houses aren't set up yet, so students currently gather near campus for meditation on Saturday mornings, sitting cross-legged in a dimly lit room with a statue of the Buddha facing them.

Once they are set up, says organizer Jeff Zlotnik, members will continue the regular meditation, and they'll have house rules based on Buddhist teachings of compassion.

But they'll also have normal Greek activities, like "date dashes and formals and parties — but hopefully with some mindful behavior and mindful activities and mindful action," Zlotnik says.

What would a mindful mixer look like?

"I'm not sure yet," he says. "Come back to me in about two years and we'll tell you that."

Seeking A 'Brotherhood Based On Ideals'

The idea for the Buddhist houses wasn't surprising to the school's Interfraternity Council.

"It's kind of in line with things — Greek organizations are usually values-based," says council president Blake King, and he's eager to see the idea become reality. "You intermingle them, it provides an overall benefit, kind of a better-than-a-sum-of-our-parts type of deal."

But while there have been Buddhist dorms at schools like Wesleyan University in Connecticut, San Diego State will have the first official Buddhist Greek organizations in the nation.

San Diego State senior Matt Sheldon says he wanted something more than a Buddhist club, which might wane as students graduated or lost interest. He wanted "a brotherhood based on, like, ideals and based on practices that are constructive," he says.

Sheldon originally pledged a fraternity that got kicked off campus for partying and underage drinking. Now he recognizes the Buddha's Fourth Noble Truth: To end desire, you must follow the Eightfold Path. That involves moral actions, thoughtful speech, and mindfulness — being present in the current moment.

"I see people freaking out in classes," he says, "and you just don't have that rooted attachment that causes the stress and the anger and all the other issues, because you have that practice of meditation to center yourself."

Sheldon hopes that, through the fraternity and sorority, students at San Diego State can learn to better handle college and prepare for the next steps on their own paths.

Copyright 2021 KPBS Radio. To see more, visit KPBS Radio.

Claire Trageser
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