It’s pitch black—a black so deep that when I close my eyes I can’t tell the difference. Forty minutes of darkness this deep does something to your boundaries. You can’t distinguish between inside and outside. No wonder sweat lodge participants often report seeing spirits. I’m seeing spirits, too. Or I’m feeling them, anyway. The ghost of Roshi, my dead Zen teacher. He appeared to me in a dream a few nights ago. He was holding a book with his thumb and index finger. It had a light blue cover. That was it. No title, author, or image, but I knew it was Single White Monk, which I wrote (and he never read, fortunately). I kept waiting for him to speak. I even shouted, “Use your words!” This is what my youngest sister tells her toddler when he’s being stubborn.
My dream journal from the following morning reads, Have I been lost since Roshi died? Or am I just finding my own way? I can’t always tell the difference. And so I’ve come to this sweat lodge for answers.
A voice cuts through the darkness. “They’re here with us now. All the old people, our ancestors,” Delbert Charging Crow says.
There are eight of us. We’re packed inside a claustrophobic hemisphere in Delbert’s backyard. The frame for this enclosure is made from bent willow branches. Several layers of heavy tarps cover the top and sides. We’re sealed in tomb-tight. Drumming, chanting, singing.
Hey ya ya ya Hey ya ya ya . . .
Thump-thump-thump . . .
I can’t see the hole in the earth before us. It’s filled with sixteen “grandfathers,” stones heated earlier in the campfire outside. Delbert Charging Crow splashes medicine water on the grandfathers. Steam pours forth, like when you take the lid off the vegetables on the stovetop and your face gets blasted. But times fifty. I’m turning into water. I’m drying out. I’m sitting on a towel. I reach under it. I claw the earth’s coolness. I throw the towel over my head, drop my head between my knees. But you can’t fight heat like this.
Years ago at the monastery I was driving our Tacoma down the icy switchbacks when I lost control. Then I remembered my Zen mentor’s advice: Always turn into the slide. Here in the lodge his advice translates as Go with the heat. I open my mouth and inhale. The voices, the drums crawl inside me. Do their work. I chant and sing too. It feels like I’m breathing fire.
Delbert Charging Crow, an Oglala Lakota Sioux and former dental assistant, is leading the sweat lodge. He was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His great-great-great-grandfather battled bravely, headfirst, against the Crow Indians. Delbert bears his surname.
He chuckles. “You’re being boiled alive by an Indian.”
How can you not like this guy? Late sixties, long gray hair, big belly, jean shorts. You can feel his warmth when he talks; you sidle up. He is one of those people who wants nothing from you, yet he has something to give. But he doesn’t make a big deal out of giving it. He is a lineage holder, a medicine man; he’s just doing his job.
Prior to the lodge, Delbert took my girlfriend Toni and me into his office with its dirt floor and fake oak paneling for walls. He lined up seven of the hand-carved stone fetishes for which he is locally famous. I pointed to the turning bear and gave him forty dollars.
“Turning bear’s good if you need to turn your life away from a bad path. It guides you,” he said before handing it over.
I’m clutching my turning bear like a mofo when the singing stops.
Now it’s time to go around in a circle and offer our prayers.
The dark is both flat and bottomless. I glance up. Specks of light spark above me like stars on a desert night. It’s 3:00 on a Sunday afternoon in Waterford, Wisconsin, but we are in another dimension of reality.
These people know how to pray.
The Mexican-American youth beside me lets one rip for the whole planet. I can feel his soul unfurling, we are flying side by side like storm clouds in fast-forward, pouring our blessings down upon Mother Earth and her troubled borders. Helena, a single mother of six boys, sobs her prayer. She needs help. She knows she must help herself, but she doesn’t know where to begin. Her plea ends without an end, and we move on to the pretty blonde InstaShaman sitting by the tent flap. She too asks the spirits for guidance. I can feel her grievances and regrets transforming into gratitude and hope.
A teacher can sing a song and show you some moves, but ultimately the dance belongs to you. A good teacher gets out of your way, and in this regard a flawed but honest teacher is often the best teacher.
I don’t remember the prayers of the remaining participants. But I do remember Delbert’s prayer. It closes the circle and follows mine.
My prayer is pretty basic. But I’m honest. This new Zen book I’m working on, I’m scared I can’t finish it, that I’ve been cursed by my ordained peers for leaving them four years ago without saying goodbye. And my parents—my parents! Seniors now. Just divorced. Suffering. A lifetime of karma catching up with them right when they’re too old to change. I’ve been down this road before, with Roshi during his final years. His life force contracted, collapsed inward, fell backward into a darkness similar to the one in which I am now sweating like a beast. I was at his deathbed. He couldn’t speak, so his eyes spoke for him. Those eyes flash at me through black steam now. I remember how strong he was. How stubborn. How that stubbornness was an active ingredient in the poison that killed our community as he passed away.
Delbert’s prayer begins with a story. In 2018 a drug dealer accused Delbert’s son of breaking into his car. The dealer was apoplectic. He threatened to kill Delbert’s son. Here’s what Delbert did. You can read about it online, though Delbert’s story differs from the one outlined in the first-degree intentional homicide charges pending against him. Delbert lured the drug dealer into a garage, and then he swung a machete into the man’s face. Three-inch-deep lacerations. The guy stumbled away, spilling blood all over the pavement.
“I wanted to protect my son from a violent man.”
The State of Wisconsin remains unclear about what they wish to do with Delbert. He hasn’t gone to trial yet. He may never. It’s been three years now. His prayer is that he asks us to pray for him.
“I’ll accept my fate no matter what. I just need to know what it is. Ah ho!”
He opens the tent flap. We sip the cool breeze. “That was a rough round. My granddaddy once told me, ‘You suffer a bit, then you gain something.’”
He shuts the flap and begins his final song. I can feel my heart dancing, but it’s not dancing with Delbert, not exactly. A teacher can sing a song and show you some moves, but ultimately the dance belongs to you. A good teacher gets out of your way, and in this regard a flawed but honest teacher is often the best teacher.
I guess I like these flawed teachers. Partly criminal. Partly saint. Tough and straightforward. People I can’t quite figure out. I know they’re good, but I know that that’s not all there is to them, not by a far cry.
I used to be in the game. I led Zen retreats in Southern California, the alpha guru capital of the world. You have no idea how easy it is to be a smooth and polished spiritual teacher whose talent for organization and charisma bombs can turn even the truest seeker into a lemming. All you have to do is make the right mouth noises and be shameless. Shamelessly position yourself as speaking the word of God or Buddha or Allah or whomever.
As a spiritual seeker you pay a price either way, but I cast my lot with the Delberts. At least I know what I’m getting. Or I don’t know what I’m getting. So I stay on my toes. I don’t play follow the leader. Trust yourself, but take help where you can get it, that’s my motto. And if they start asking for too much money or they touch your tits, run for the hills.
We close the lodge outside the tent, our half-naked bodies steaming. Delbert passes around a ceremonial wooden pipe filled with tobacco.
“Don’t inhale, just take it in your mouth. Puff puff puff.”
This is the summer of the monarch butterfly. They’re everywhere, like the bottom of heaven dropped out and its smallest, brightest angels fell through. Bundles of them fluttering jerkily from sunflowers to treetops to mailboxes. I saw one in the mall. It was trying to get the hell out, zigging wildly above the toothsome pianist in the food court.
This one has the wingspan of a coffee cup saucer. We’ve formed a circle and it lands in the dirt before us, bends its antennae like hmmm, then floats away.
Delbert puffs long and deep on the pipe. “Who set the first butterfly in motion?” he asks.
And then we’re done.
I brought shrimp cocktail, corn chips, and Gatorade. Everyone brought a dish to pass. We picnic beneath a maple tree behind Delbert’s art shack. I shake his hand and wish him luck. We have different ideas about how to hug. Right side to right side, right? But he comes at me from the left. Arms open, juking oppositely, we dance the dance of awkwardness.
“Heart-to-heart,” he says, grabbing me at last. “The Lakota way.”
For the next week I will suffer from a low-grade fever. I almost take a Covid test, but they’re too expensive, plus I’m triple vaccinated. I gut it out. Headaches, a sting in my left side, I sleep until ten. I just can’t get going. Anytime we were sick at the monastery, we would joke that we were undergoing a “healing crisis,” as though even physical ailments had spiritual roots.
But really. Is this a healing crisis?
Am I healing from the despair I felt ten years ago at the height of my teacher’s sex scandal? From the bitterness I felt after failing to convince my peers that we could throw out the dirty bathwater—the top-down power structure we were so used to—while keeping our teacher’s precious teachings? From the guilt I felt after writing a chapter for Single White Monk that could have been titled “Let’s Don’t Turn Our Sangha into a Personality Cult”? Defending me to our fellow priests, my Zen mentor said, “Everything he wrote is true. Every word.” But are you not allowed to tell the truth if it casts your teacher in the wrong light? Better, as one Zen priest told me, to just stay quiet about the character of another man?
These are not rhetorical questions.
Delbert reminds me a lot of my Zen teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi; both of them big turning bears who arguably took detours down their own bad paths.
Finally, after a week, my body cools off. Toni is back in Europe where we live. We Zoom. She shares her insights about the lodge: “We feel so left behind in the West. We have no real religion or myth. We’re guided by values of profit and efficiency, but the deepest human need is for spirituality, connection, transcendence of everyday experience and self. Who’s going to help us? We are alone in our suffering. But then we come together and we pray, we sing, we tell our stories and we share our burdens with each other. We do these rituals and our personal suffering becomes universal. Can we have this experience without all the gods and gurus and groupthink?”
If a butterfly is not spiritual truth in motion, I don’t know what is.
I think so, yes. But it’s rare. People like to ossify a good thing. We build up institutions around it. We create nonprofits. We hire staff and run up bills. The spiritual teacher lodged inside this airtight structure starts to feel trapped. Or burned out. Or greedy. Or all-powerful. Or just distracted. Then what? Who turns the turning bears when they stray from the path?
These days I’m a spiritual free agent. I have no team. I have no coach. It’s lonely but liberating. At some point you can overtrain: thirteen years at a monastery taught me this. Then you have to step back. You’re done. You are what you are. Does this mean giving up on enlightenment? I hope not. I would call it a brave step inward. No one can save you now. Exactly the things you hate most about yourself, those flaws you took up your spiritual practice to change, along with your humble gifts and unique point of view, not to mention the world around you, your very life—these are your teachers now.
You institutionalize a good thing, a Zen practice, a sweat lodge, a prayer group, and strange things start happening. That butterfly—disappearing from a tree branch, reappearing on a deck chair, its wings paper-thin slits through which heaven flutters—gets pinned to a board or sealed under glass. And if a butterfly is not spiritual truth in motion, I don’t know what is.
Zen Buddhism teaches that truth, the dharma, is always only ever in motion. It’s a great dance partner. It moves as you move. It never stands still. You just can’t capture it. Not on boards—boards of directors or pinboards. Not in organizations. Not in teachers.
And especially not in words.