Battle Creek

Good Karma in Battle Creek

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Karma House Wellness Center is building a community in Battle Creek on a foundation of mindfulness and wellness which are the underpinnings of the Buddhist Temple Monastery it’s affiliated with.
Seven years ago Karma House, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the nonprofit SokukoJi Monastery, opened in a building that housed the former Meyer’s Toy World which closed in 2014 after 67 years of operation. Located at 72 North Avenue, the nonprofit is in front of the Monastery at 33 Anderson Court.
The building was purchased by the Monastery, says Chiezan Tomczyk, a Buddhist Monk who is Spiritual Director at the Monastery and Program Coordinator for Karma House. He says the monastery covers the cost of operating Karma House. A fundraiser successfully paid off the mortgage on the building which has residents of the Monastery living in apartments on the upper floor.
“We did all of the renovations ourselves and with volunteer labor. It was a bit of a mess when we got it and we spent several years getting it to where it is now,” Tomczyk says.

Tomczyk Chiezan is the Prior, responsible under the direction of the Abbot, for the operations of Sokukoji Buddhist Temple Monastery in Battle Creek. The Monastery was founded by Kyoun Sokuzan, a transmitted priest in the Sōtō school of Japanese Zen Buddhism and the Monastery’s founding Abbott. He was born in Battle Creek in 1941 and worked in factories, owning a sign business at one point. For more than 10 years he lived in Minneapolis and found his way back to Battle Creek where he began leading meditation groups in the 197’s, Tomczyk says.

When the Monastery acquired the former Meyer’s Toy World building, he says they weren’t sure what they were going to do with it. His wife, a social worker, had been doing talk therapy and that weighed into the direction Karma House would take.
“We explored a lot of different directions and there was a time when we considered a commercial approach, but it didn’t fit with our fundamental approach to building community. We decided to offer free wellness subsidized programming.”
The programming includes a variety of Yoga and dance movement classes which are attended mostly by adults, in addition to mindfulness, wellness, and Yoga for youth that were offered free of charge during the school year in Willard Library’s Teen Center. The Teen Wellness Series, a partnership between Karma House and the library, was co-facilitated by Tomczyk, who is a certified meditation and yoga teacher, and Kelley Climie, a licensed mental health therapist and certified yoga instructor and Program Coordinator for Karma House.

Mental health mindfulness approaches have roots in Buddhism, but Climie says, “It doesn’t have to show up front and center” and is instead a helpful framework for practices.
Karma House is connected to SokukoJi in a secular aspect, Tomczyk says.
Karma House at Sokukoji Buddhist Temple Monastery in Battle Creek is located in the building which formerly housed Meyer's Toy World.“The Monastery is not proselytizing. We aren’t focused on how we can convert people and advertising to get more people,” he says. “We want them to do it because they’re inspired. In the Christian Bible you are called to spread the word, whereas in Buddhism, we don’t.”

Karma House tries to always have at least one no-cost and donation-based class option for the community. A $10 fee is charged for two of the Yoga classes. There is no cost to attend a Community Yoga class on Mondays at 6 p.m. and a Morning Movement class which incorporates dance at 9:30 a.m. on Saturdays.
The Monday and Saturday classes are donation-based, Climie says. She often co-teaches the donation-based Yoga classes to help people feel comfortable with the poses and movements.
When members of the community who are new to the Wellness Center come in, Climie says they are curious in a positive way and almost always ask what “karma” means. She makes a point of telling them that the emphasis is not on fitness.

The goal, Tomczyk says, is “trying to not have a traditional fitness model and something that’s more in line with all bodies. It’s all about inclusion. We’re trying to get people out of the intimidation they may have about moving with their body. That’s what differentiates us. We’re more of a holistic approach.”

“We noticed a lot of people having questions and needing examples of how to use the Yoga props, but there are also folks who may not want to incorporate these into their practice. We always have examples and options for them,” Climie says. “These classes are just another option for their wellness and if something is healthy or important, we’re offering options rather than focusing on fitness, weight loss, or keeping up in class. We adjust the class to who’s in the room.”
She says there are people of all ages taking the classes.
“We have parents and grandparents and people trying it out and I think that’s something that really adds to classes and the community feel. It’s really powerful when they get to have a practice together. There are so few opportunities for parents to play and relax with their kids.”
Kelley Climie, LMSW, maintains a counseling practice inside the Sokukoji Buddhist Temple Monastery’s Karma House in Battle Creek.The mission of the Wellness Center is to offer community classes and programs that contribute to the well-being of the body, mind, and spirit of our neighbors and the vision is “for Battle Creek to be a community that is empowered to train their minds, to support their bodies, and to be free of barriers that limit quality of life,” says information on the Karma House website.
To support these guiding principles, Climie offers Trauma-informed Yoga classes for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, individuals in various types of rehab, and older adults. She says this form of Yoga is less oriented to fitness and more focused on safely connecting to the body by offering plenty of options and choices as a way to connect individuals who share a common thread, adding that these classes like all of the others are open to anyone.
“I’m pretty heavy on the accessibility end. Anyone is welcome to come to any of the classes,” she says. “We emphasize beginners a little bit more who want to come to class. Karma House is that bridge of being available and to be an option. How can we engage with the mind and body and take that into your practice?”
In addition to her work as a yoga instructor, Climie is one of four therapists who work for Senshu LLC, a therapy practice that operates in another area of the Karma House building. Unlike the Wellness Center, Senshu is a for-profit that bills clients’ insurance companies or gives them a sliding fee scale option. Climie says the practice is currently not taking new clients and is a partner of the Wellness Center arm of Karma House.
The journey to SokukoJi and its deep roots in Battle Creek
Tomczyk moved from Grand Rapids to Battle Creek in 2012 to join the Monastery after he graduated from Aquinas College. He studied with Kyoun Sokuzan, the Monastery’s Abbott.
Climie was a theorist and yoga teacher at the YWCA of Central Michigan located in Grand Rapids and the founder of Move With GR which is focused on mindfulness and yoga for anyone who has experienced intimate partner sexual violence or partner assault. She says the nonprofit partners with entities including the YWCA and Sheldon House and groups or individuals to offer movement and mindfulness instruction.
The front room inside the Sokukoji Buddhist Temple Monastery’s Karma House is where yoga classes are offeredLike Tomcyzk, she is also a student of Sokuzan’s and thought there was potential for a similar model of Move with GR at the Karma House Wellness Center. Sokuzan encouraged her to try and she moved from Grand Rapids to Battle Creek in January 2021.
“Sokuzan’s vision just takes on a direction with whoever shows up. Kelley shows up and we have the Karma House Community Wellness Center,” says Ondo Ziemke, Executive Director of the Monastery and Karma House Director.
Tomczyk, Climie, and Ziemke are among 14 monks and nine non-monks who are residents of the Monastery. They were all drawn to it because of Sokuzan.
SokukoJi, the name given to the Monastery, is a Japanese name that translates to “Temple of Immediate Light.”

SokukoJi traces its origins to a dharma study group in 1975 and officially took its current name, SokukoJi, in 2007. On November 18, 2020, Sokuzan formally established Sokukoji Buddhist Temple Monastery as a separate order known as the Order Of Immediate Light. This order acknowledges Sokuzan’s unique background and style of teaching, which emphasizes using various modalities to understand the nature of the mind. The Order of Immediate Light brings together elements of the Tibetan Kagyu tradition and the Sōtō Zen lineage of Japan, along with other methods of understanding consciousness.

As a spiritual meditation community, SokukoJi works to support the community. SokukoJi is particularly active in working with people in drug rehabilitation centers and volunteer work in Michigan Department of Corrections prisons, but also extends its support to whoever needs it, regardless of background or religious affiliation. Its guiding principles are Communication, Cooperation, and Collaboration in all that they do.
A list of classes and activities is available inside Karma House at Sokukoji Buddhist Temple Monastery in Battle CreekSokuzan and some of the resident monks live in the Monastery located at 33 Anderson Court. Other monks and non-resident monks live in houses owned by the Monastery at 78 North Avenue, 43 Anderson Court, and 26 Harvard Street. There are five other houses owned by practitioners who are monastery residents.
Tomczyk says, “When I showed up, there was one building and two of us,” about Sokuzan. “The first two years, I was the only stationery resident. Then people just kept moving here and staying. It developed very organically. There was no intention to have a monastery here.”
Those who stayed and became monks are employed, Ziemke says. Tomczyk is among the few exceptions because his wife’s job supports them.
“One is employed with Umami Ramen. We have some who work as counselors. One works at a factory in Kalamazoo, one works for Google, one works at Bakewell, and another is a nurse. We also have monks who work for Dominoes. There’s a lot of remote work,” Ziemke says.
Originally from West Michigan, she worked for the office furniture industry on the west coast before deciding in 2007 that she wanted to do something different.
Some of the books on Buddhism are in a book case at the Sokukoji Buddhist Temple Monastery’s Karma House in Battle Creek.“I got my Master’s of Divinity degree in Chicago and moved back to Michigan to work in addiction counseling. I moved to Battle Creek three years ago after meeting Sokazan,” Ziemke says.
The monks engage in four to six hours of meditation each day. The Monastery also hosts virtual Sanghas attended by people from all over the world. Ziemke says the Monastery has more than 1,000 followers on YouTube and Instagram and hosts people flying in from all over the United States.
“There are people flying to Battle Creek from other parts of the country to come here. Somebody just came in from Manhattan. We recently had people from Brooklyn, New Orleans, and Massachusetts. They hear about us through YouTube and Zoom. They come seeking to study with Sokazan or to study meditation with him,” Tomczyk says, adding that this increased when COVID hit.
While Tomczyk says anyone is welcome to “contact us and we’ll show them around,” Ziemke says the Monastery is a residence, not a gathering space. Part of that residence is transformed into Buddha Hall for meditation practices with resident monks.
“The Monastery is private because it doesn’t meet the building code for public assemblies, so we can’t just open to the public,” Tomczyk says. “We don’t have a sign in front of the building for this reason.”
But, there are virtual options for those wanting to attend a book study, meditation, or other programming offered there.
Working with the community with intention
Tomczyk says Karma House is intentionally located in “a particular area of Battle Creek that could use some attention. It is our strong intention to be a part of where we’re located.”

The area is diverse in terms of income levels, ages of residents, and housing stock.

A sign welcomes visitors to Karma House at Sokukoji Buddhist Temple Monastery in Battle Creek.In addition to Willard Library, Karma House has formed relationships with Early Childhood Connections, a group working with fathers and their children, and Youth for Truth.
“We are trying to meet as many of the nonprofits that are in line with our mission and see how we could support each other,” Tomczyk says.
He and his team also have been having conversations with area youth advisory councils to see what they want. These youth have told him that mental health services for them are lacking and that one of the biggest barriers is parent buy-in and getting parents to be in support of programs for youth.
As a result, Tomczyk says, “We’re looking at doing something complimentary to what we’re doing in the library’s Teen Room, something that could be done more intentionally and with the therapy practice we have with an option to run clinical groups. Our hope is that a few times a year, we’ll have clinical groups with mental health and mindfulness.”
Climie says the best part of working with Willard Library and the students is hearing “what they’re interested in and what may be appropriate in that setting and over here. It takes time to make relationships and have them be authentic and there are questions that come from the community. It takes a lot of skills and a lot of time.”
Overall, Tomczyk says everyone who has visited Karma House has been grateful.
“Our overarching experience has been very positive and our community partners have been very encouraging and supportive,” he says.

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.