As part of Tricycle’s weeklong event series, The Buddhism and Ecology Summit, we’ll be featuring a series of conversations with Buddhist teachers, writers, environmental activists and psychologists on transforming eco-anxiety into awakened action. Learn more and sign up here.
Once a month, Tricycle features an article from Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984–2015 and now has a growing number of back issues archived at inquiringmind.com. This selection is a series of essays and interviews on the interaction between dharma and indigenous traditions, including perspectives from John Travis, Eduardo Duran, Fred Wahpepah, Lorain Fox Davis, Tsultrim Allione, Susan Murphy. The article first appeared as “Indigenous Dharma: Native American and Buddhist Voices” in the Fall 2005 issue of Inquiring Mind. Be sure to check out related articles in the archive, like “Dharma Roots” by Wendy Johnson and “Make Your Body a Sundial” by Susan Moon. If you feel so inclined, consider making a donation to help Inquiring Mind continue adding articles to its archive!
Susan Murphy is an Australian Zen teacher in the lineages of Robert Aitken and John Tarrant. She teaches in Zen Open Circle in Sydney, the Melbourne Zen Group and at her rural retreat center, Cloud Mountain. Inquiring Mind asked her to write the introduction to this series of essays and interviews on Indigenous Dharma.
“When you know the place where you are, practice begins,” says Zen master Dogen. One could say that every stage of Buddhist practice, including realization itself, forms and deepens a covenant with the Earth. We bear witness to the Earth by learning to really be here, and when reality breaks through and shakes us to the core, it is the Earth reciprocating that intimate gesture of custodianship. It is one elemental act of kindness being met by another. The testimonies that follow from Native American and Buddhist teachers bring to light some of the affinities of Buddhist practice with native traditions and their protocols for creating and maintaining good relations with the Earth, the source of life.
In my own practice as a Zen teacher in Australia, it has felt increasingly important to seek out Aboriginal Law holders. I explore the affinities and resonance between Aboriginal and Zen spiritualities as they meet in the place where I am. It will not be the first time that Buddhism has been received, enlarged, and refined by the more ancient spirituality that awaits it in a particular place. The dharma is wanting to learn to stand up here in olive-gray saltbush and red earth, gray kangaroos and satin bowerbirds. It is never complete, and it is the Earth that constantly completes it.
Our human conversation with the Earth has a chance to resume when we grow quiet and still and do some listening, some asking and a bit of thanking. Meditation itself is a ritual action of respect, literally, “looking again,” with patience and forbearance. Respect structures the spiritual authority through which both Native American and Buddhist teachings are offered and transmitted; and respect—a kind of nameless gratitude—marks every mindful gesture and breath, gradually maturing into a conscious minding of the universe.
Eduardo Duran (Apache/Tewa) is a psychologist who has been working in Indian country for all of his professional career. He presently lives in the forest east of Colfax, California. He has been involved in Buddhist and traditional Native practices for many years. He is the author of Buddha in Redface (Writers Club Press, 2003), a story that deals with these traditions as well as our karmic relationship to the Earth.
There is some troublesome karma connected to the land of my ancestors. The trouble is this: the land that we were promised in perpetuity by President Teddy Roosevelt is where you now find Los Alamos, New Mexico, the hometown of the atomic bomb. We were supposed to have claim to that land forever; but one day in the mid 1930s my grandfather came home and all the cattle had been shot, there were Army people swarming everywhere, and my family was escorted off the land at gunpoint. It is interesting that the area chosen by the government to build the atomic bomb is known as Sipapu, which is understood by the original people of that land to be a place of energy.
I understand that a few years ago, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama sent some lamas to place packets of incense in and around Los Alamos to try to neutralize the energy in that area. I was very excited to hear that because it resonates with the Indian way of purification. It’s a shamanistic approach to dealing with evil forces that are the result of negative mind-states. I think the Buddha understood that kind of energetic power, which led him to advise his monks to use lovingkindness, metta, as a way to cope with the fear of ghosts and vicious animals that were troubling them in the forest.
I see the Buddha as a tribal person. I find that revealed in his deliberate action just before he became enlightened, when he reached down and touched the Earth, saying, “The Earth is my witness.” The Buddha was keenly aware that the Earth has consciousness and can even bear witness to karma.
My sense is that Westerners somehow stay separated from a deep connection to the Earth. I’ve been going to Buddhist meditation retreats for 20 years now, and I think there is profound wisdom being taught and wonderful benefit for people. But I sense that the Western psyche, with its grounding in the Cartesian worldview, somehow stays separated from nature. People go inside themselves and dissolve themselves, but they don’t connect with natural processes.
Native people use ritual and offerings to bring themselves into relationship with the Earth. I went on a backpacking meditation retreat with vipassana teacher Eric Kolvig on the Rainbow Trail on Navajo land in Arizona, and along the way we engaged in some ceremonies for the Earth. One participant asked, “How do we acknowledge the Earth?” Since it was almost Mother’s Day, I asked, “What are you going to do for your mom on Mother’s Day?” The answer was, “I’m going to give her a present and send her lovingkindness.” I said, “Just so, you can do the same for the Earth. Give her a gift and send her lovingkindness, and those acts will bring you into relationship with the Earth.”
When I go to meditation retreats I always do some Native ceremonies on my own. I usually take a pipe and make tobacco offerings, asking the land’s permission for us to be there for this purpose of meditation. Often I do this in secret because I don’t want to disturb anyone. Meanwhile, I’ve brought Buddha’s mindfulness into my Native rituals and ceremonies, which themselves are skillful means to focus the mind. When you add mindfulness to a four-day fasting ceremony, you’ve got a powerful tool for liberation. When I’m doing ceremonial dances I try to maintain mindfulness by repeating the mantra, “Dancing, he knows he’s dancing.”
Lately I’ve been practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which I feel is closer to the Native way. The Tibetans hold a lot of ceremonies that are similar to ours, relating to Earth, the elements, and different energetic conditions. I think the Tibetans are basically Natives, just from a different tribe. They even have similar beliefs and customs. Eighth-century Buddhist master Padmasambhava’s prophecy is that the teachings of the Buddha would someday be revealed in the land of the red face, and here they are.
I recently attended a special retreat for Native Americans, taught by vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein. Most of the Natives were doing meditation for the first time, and afterward, Joseph said he was astounded at how steady and still the people were when they sat. We have ceremonies where we are required to sit still for long periods, so we don’t seem to have a problem with sitting, at least not physically. Native ceremonies foster profound levels of concentration, and many of them are practices of generating metta for all beings, including the Earth. We would be willing to teach some of these practices to Westerners if they want to learn them.
I like to think of the Buddha as my great-grandpa. This way of thinking helps to remove the perception of separateness that usually occurs with those who have become spiritual icons. If I imagine him as one of us, then I can believe that liberation is possible for me as well. The Native relationship to nature is revealed in Native hunting and food-growing practices. It is believed that the animals we hunt, whom we view as our relatives, offer themselves to us as an act of metta. In return, the hunter has to do something for the animal—for instance, a deer dance or buffalo dance—to thank the animal and pray for regeneration of the animal’s family. When it comes to the food that we grow, we have dances and seasonal fertility rituals, which are ceremonies that bring us into direct relationship with the spirit of plants and Earth consciousness.
I see the whole Native way as realizing our relationship to everything and ourselves as an integral part of all things, which in turn causes us to treat the Earth and other forms of life with respect, as part of our family. Western civilization is finally recognizing that relationship. Suddenly people are saying that the Earth is alive and talking about Gaia and holistic worldviews and systems theory. Native people are basically saying, “Yes, welcome home.”
Aho! All are my relatives.
Lorain Fox Davis & Tsultrim Allione
Lorain Fox Davis (Cree/Blackfeet) is an adjunct faculty member for the American Indian Studies Program and member of the advisory council for the Environmental Studies Department at Naropa University. She is founder/director of Rediscovery Four Corners, a nonprofit organization that serves Native American youth and elders. Tsultrim Allione spent several years in the Himalayas as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She later disrobed and wrote Women of Wisdom (Penguin Books, 1984), a groundbreaking book on women in Buddhism. In 1993 she founded Tara Mandala, a retreat center in Colorado.
Tsultrim Allione (TA): I’ve always felt it’s crucial for American Buddhists to relate to the spirits of this new homeland of dharma. It was not until Padmasambhava had connected with the local spirits of Tibet that Buddhism was able to take root there. For us, the Native Americans are the people who hold this relationship with the spirits of the land and the elementals.
My connection with Native American people goes back to my childhood in New Hampshire. My family lived in a house that had been previously owned by a Lakota man, Charles Eastman, who was educated at Dartmouth College and was the doctor at the battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. He was a mythic presence in my childhood. Years later, while I was living on the East Coast, I began participating in many Native American sweats and vision quests.
Tara Mandala, the Tibetan Buddhist retreat center I started in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, adjoins Ute land. When we first arrived in 1994, Bertha Grove, a Ute medicine grandmother, came to conduct ceremonies. Over the years Grove and other Ute elders—as well as Lakota teachers like Arvol Looking Horse, Nineteenth-Generation Holder of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe—have continued to do ceremonies connecting to energies of our land. The Tibetan lamas who have come to Tara Mandala have been very interested in meeting the Native American elders.
Lorain Fox Davis (LFD): My path spans both Native American and Tibetan spirituality. On my mother’s side, I’m Cree from Canada and Blackfeet from Montana. I studied for many years with a traditional Lakota teacher, Irma Bear Stops. While it is rare for women to sun dance, Irma was a very respected sun dancer. Although I wasn’t Lakota, she introduced me to Lakota spirituality, and I was honored to dance by her side for seven years at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. My husband and our oldest son also danced there. My son and one of our daughters have returned to our Blackfeet ways, and they sun dance in Montana. It is a challenging and humbling, yet deeply harmonious, way of life to follow these traditions based in nature and the elements. We all need to come back in balance with our ancient connections with Mother Earth.
I was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism over 30 years ago, and my primary Tibetan Buddhist teacher is Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, who married my husband and me when he came to Crestone, Colorado, in 1981. We were living in Santa Fe at the time and were invited to join his traveling entourage. He was a great teacher of gentle compassion and wisdom. Since that time we have lived here in Crestone, where several Buddhist centers have been founded in the past few years.
There is a great similarity between Native American spirituality and the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of compassion and respect for every living creature. This respect for all life is what I learned from my Cree grandmother when I was a child. There are many Tibetan teachers who come through here, and I try to attend their sessions. They are grounded in the environment, and they have ceremonies similar to ours of burning cedar to invite and honor the spirits—the spirits of the mountains and of the water, the Elemental Beings and the great Thunderbird who brings the rains of purification and regeneration. The spiritual power of thunder and lightning is central to both Native and Buddhist traditions. These ancient traditions hold that Thunder Beings are the spiritual and physical manifestations of Spirit.
TA: Some of the Tibetan Buddhist practices and most of the Native American ones are grounded in relationship to the elements and all beings. The Tibetans have a smoke-offering ceremony called Sang in which you make a fire and then put in juniper branches and other offerings like grains, honey, and milk products to make smoke. The Native Americans also use smoke from cedar and sage for purification.
For me, the sweat lodge, or stone people’s lodge, is a bit like the Tibetan Buddhist mandala. The mandala is a template of the enlightened mind based on the center and the four directions. In the lodge there are four directions and four rounds (sessions of prayer), and each round has a different meaning. During the sweat, you go through a process of death and rebirth. When you enter the lodge, you shed everything, and then during the four rounds in your praying you touch in on every aspect of your being. When you come out, you are symbolically reborn. Both the mandala and the sweat lodge ceremony are centered in a physical mandala of the universe; both are deeply transformative architectures for the psyche.
The stone people’s lodge and Tibetan Buddhism both include teachings of the integration of masculine and feminine. The sweat lodge symbolizes the feminine womb of rebirth, and the fire outside the masculine. Rocks are heated in the fire and then brought into a pit in the center of the lodge. In Tantric Buddhism, one of the primary symbols is the union of the masculine, representing skillful means, and the feminine, representing wisdom. Their sexual union represents the nondual state, like the union of the fire and the womb in the lodge.
LFD: The underlying theme in Native American spirituality, as well as most indigenous spirituality, is to honor the sacredness of the great circle of life. Sacred circles, medicine wheels, and mandalas are images that direct us to the center of our being, to the truth of who we are. Within the sacred circle of “everything that is,” we begin to remember our relationship with all life. We recognize our relationship with Father Sun and Mother Earth and the Great Spirit, Creator. It becomes obvious that we are all related brothers and sisters in one great family, not just our human family. The Indian elders say, “We must remember also the four-footed, those who swim and those who fly, those who crawl and those who move very slowly like the stone people, and all the green and growing things.” Within this sacred circle, we are one. What we do affects everyone, everything. These great teachings remind us of our responsibility to care for all life. In our pursuit of progress and comfort, we have separated ourselves from our place in this great circle. Earth traditions bring us back into harmony and balance within the circle.
The Sun Dance of the Plains Indians is the center of our spiritual traditions. It is a ceremony of sacrifice and thanksgiving honoring the sacredness of the circle of life. From sunup to sundown for four days, the participants dance and fast, without water. Each day, the four major races of people are prayed for—children, adolescents, adults, and elders—along with beings who swim, fly, and crawl; the green and growing things and the stone people; each of the four sacred directions and the powers of those directions; and the elements. Everything is brought together in the circle; all living things are danced and sung for. In the center of the circle is the Tree of Life, the axis mundi, which connects the heavens and earth. The people dance around her. They dance and sing and focus on “all our relations and our humble place in the circle of life.” For four days, the dancers pray for all of creation first, before they include themselves. The Lakota end all prayers with “O Mitakuye Oyasin,” meaning “I do this for all my relations (or all sentient beings).”
TA: Like the ceremonies of Tibetan Buddhism, the Native American ceremonies open to an experience of nonduality, but the methods for accessing this experience are different. The Indians get there through a direct relationship with Earth, sun, moon and the Great Spirit. Dualism happens when egocentricity develops, creating a split with nature, each other, and all life. When I was departing for a yearlong retreat in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I told the medicine woman Bertha Grove, “I’ll be alone for a long time.” She replied, “You’re not going to be alone. When you go outside and look around, you won’t feel alone at all. You’ll be completely accompanied by the trees, the plants, the birds, and the animals.” For many years, I had learned about nonduality and the teachings of integration, but Grove’s way of saying it was like a direct transmission.
In both the Tibetan and Native American traditions, inside and outside are ultimately not experienced as separate. You form a truly interactive relationship with the environment. For example, you’re walking outside and you have a question in your mind. Then a raven flies over and crows three times. For most Americans that event would have no meaning; but for a Native American person that would be understood as a direct answer to the question because of his or her experience of the interconnected world. In other words, there’s no “out there” out there.
The Tibetans also have an interpretive relationship with the phenomenal world that stems from insight into the interdependence of all phenomena, called tendrel. When the world is perceived in this way, things that happen are seen as “signs.” Take the example of the raven flying and crowing three times. In Tibet, there’s a whole divination system based on the calls of the ravens, how many times they call and from which direction they’re flying. You’re actually living in a world that is responding to you and to which you are constantly responding, rather than one in which there’s a “you” who is alive and then everything else is more or less irrelevant and unresponsive. One aspect of awakening in Buddhism is an experience of this dynamic interdependence.
Fred Wahpepah & John Travis
Fred Wahpepah conducts sweat lodge and pipe ceremonies and leads traditional vision quests. He is founder of Seven Circles Foundation in Richmond, California (www.sevencircles.org). John Travis teaches vipassana retreats throughout the country. He is founder of Mountain Stream Meditation Center, located in the Sierra Mountains of California (www.mtstream.org).
John Travis (JT): If you follow the history of Buddhism as it has spread to different countries, you see that it has incorporated some of the nature-based Native practices from Taoism, Shintoism, Shamanism, and the Tibetan Bon religion. As Buddhism comes to America, we need to support and acknowledge the original Earth-based practices that were here before us. Four generations back on my father’s side of my family, I am part Cherokee. So I’ve had a particular interest in honoring Native practices and integrating them into the teaching of Buddhism. For over ten years, I’ve been teaching retreats at Spirit Rock Meditation Center with the Kickapoo/Sac-and-Fox elder Fred Wahpepah, incorporating the purification practice of the sweat lodge.
Fred Wahpepah (FW): I was born in 1930 in Indian country in Oklahoma. My dad was Kickapoo, my mom half Irish and half Sac-and-Fox. I’ve done a lot of living. I spent ten years in the military, and I fought in the Korean War. For 20 years, I drank hard, and now I’ve been sober for 30. In 1975, an Ojibwe elder I happened to meet led me to my first sweat lodge. On the fourth sweat—four is a significant number in our culture—I came out with a very bad headache. I went to my camp, lay on the fender of my friend’s car, and had my first grown-up cry. The sweat lodge is a purification lodge. So much anger and disappointment and anxiety were washed out with those tears.
A man I met at a Sun Dance ceremony, Shinzen Young, introduced me to Buddhism. He’s a teacher of vipassana meditation, but he calls me his mentor. I have to smile at that. I sponsored him to be a sun dancer, and he brought me and my son Wolf to Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Soon I initiated the first sweat lodges there, and we put teenagers out on vision quests up in the high rolling hills. It was a beautiful sight to see a trail of teenagers walking up into the hills and then coming down with their experience.
The sweat lodge ceremony is based in earth, air, fire, and water, as are all Native ceremonies. A lodge is constructed of willows and covered in blankets. When you enter, you bring in hot rocks, what we call the stone people—our oldest living relatives. These are the ribs of Mother Earth. You pour water on them to create a steam effect; the steam gets into your psyche. Then you take care of business. You’re sitting there in the dark, so you can let it all hang out and just be real. Everybody has an opportunity to pray. When you come out, you realize that something significant has happened. And a lot of friendships are made. It’s a two-part ceremony. You go into the womb of Mother Earth to be reborn, and you are purified mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Then you are nurtured by Mother Earth by going in again with food and feasting together.
JT: The sweat lodge has many of the same goals as Buddhist practice, relying on the intuitive insights that come as a result of purification of mind/heart/spirit. In the extreme heat and the dark, the sweat lodge is a place to pray without being seen. There’s a sense of privacy and at the same time community with others. The heat and the darkness allow a sense of fortitude internally. You are forced into your body through what is called “constructive suffering,” which moves you into the universal.
In the sweat lodge, what is being purified are the difficult emotions. When people speak about anger, death, and conflict with loved ones, they bring those emotions into community and let them go, let them be pulled away with the heat and steam. Those difficult emotions separate you from the Earth. Through constructive suffering in this womb of Mother Earth you remake that connection.
FW: You come out more conscious, with a sense of direction. If you notice there’s something amiss, there’s a longing to fix it. And you can fix it, but not necessarily directly. You do it by being, like the Buddhist elder from the East, Ajahn Jumnien. I did a sweat with him and some other Buddhist teachers from Spirit Rock. He reminds me of elders in the Indian community; they’re very childlike, and you relax when you’re with them. Being relaxed goes a long way in nurturing everybody around you. When I get close to Ajahn Jumnien, I experience his natural, wonderful self. He doesn’t have a thing to lose, and he doesn’t really have anything to gain. He just is, and there’s a lot of power in that. When you just are, you contribute—without even realizing it—to the ecology of Mother Earth.
[This article was first published on October 16, 2019]
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.