Professors practice Buddhism, have zendo for community practice

Kaitlin Thoresen/Staff Photographer Don Socha listens to Mount Pleasant resident, Brain Cronkite talk about his views on Buddhism. Cronkite is just beginning formally practicing Buddhism.

Practicing Buddhism is more of a lifestyle than a religion for Don Socha and Brigitte Bechtold.

Socha, a lecturer at Central Michigan University, has been formally practicing Buddhism since 2000. He said he met a monk who taught in CMU’s Spanish department who introduced him to groups in Montreal where he went for meditation sessions.

He was ordained Bodhisattva in 2002. He said a Bodhisattva is someone who has devoted his or her life to the Buddhist precepts, such as not stealing and not lying.

“In a sense, we’re trying to alleviate suffering in the world. It’s one of the Four Noble Truths,” he said. “The idea is that we don’t go to heaven until the last person’s suffering has been eased. (The Bodhisattvas) will go through hell for others if we have to. And that’s a real thing. We don’t deny reality.”

He said Bechtold, his wife and chairwoman of the sociology, anthropology, and social work department, started practicing Buddhism after he did.

“She watched me meditate for about a year,” he said.


Brigitte Bechtold and Don Socha do the Kusen reading after meditation. "My wife and I will switch off who runs the sitting," said Socha. Both are ordained Bodhisattvas. (Kaitlin Thoresen/Staff Photographer)

The meditation sessions are about ritual, consistency in practice methods and the awakening of senses, Socha said.

“The whole purpose is to sit without a goal,” Socha said. “We’re always looking for a goal and meditation is about accepting reality on its own terms,”

Socha and Bechtold have a zendo behind their garage open for meditation, and Socha said they try to encourage different people to practice with them.

“We like to think of the zendo as a sacred space,” Socha said. “We practice mindfulness there. Every gesture and move has meaning when practicing Zen.”

There are benefits to practicing with others, Bechtold said.

“Practicing Buddhism with a group adds strength to the practice,” she said.

Bechtold said practitioners used to meditate in a space they could occupy on campus in what was the Wesley Foundation, but eventually that fell through and the university would not lend them another large space to occupy for the time they needed to practice.

“We had a room behind the garage that was a storage room, and we cleaned it out,” she said. “Eventually, we decided to renovate it for the community and insulate and heat it.”

Bechtold said she does not talk to her students about her religious preference. She said she thinks although the university is secular, it would be good to have students know there is a place to practice.

“We’re pretty much the only people who have a dojo in the major vicinity. We get practitioners from long distances, sometimes as far as Midland and Saginaw,” Bechtold said. “We have a few regulars.”

Bechtold said sometimes groups of people or students who study Buddhism will participate in meditation, but often do not stick with it.

“It’s not easy to do meditation and Zen,” she said,

There is a Facebook page called the Central Michigan Sangha, as well as information about the zendo on Buddhist websites for those interested.

Socha said it is hard to practice formally because of busy schedules, but they do it at 7 p.m. on Thursdays and noon on Sundays.

Bechtold said meditation is something that happens even when not practicing in a group.

“There are aspects of meditation such as reading, studying and living that practitioners do on a moment-to-moment basis,” Bechtold said. “You don’t just have to practice Buddhism in a monastery. It’s an all-day kind of thing. We practice compassion with people who are suffering because of their attachments. We have lots of belief in redemption; every moment is a new moment.”


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