Black Elk and Buddha I
As some of you know, I spent several years working with Elmer Running, who, like Black Elk, was a teacher in the Lakota tradition.
A key symbol, both in the Lakota and Zen traditions, is the circle. In Lakota tradition, the circle is considered a sacred space, where people meditate or pray. Within the circle, they touch the earth, as Buddha did when he was first asked to describe his awakening. Since the circle includes all life, their prayers always include reaching out to all beings from within that circle. Here’s what Black Elk says:
“You have noticed that everything an Indian does is done in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.
In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance.”
This is very similar to the enso in Zen, a circle drawn with a single ink stroke as a symbol of the interbeing of all life. And then we have the way we end of all of our chants at Zen center, bowing and giving ourselves away to, “all beings, bodhisattvas, mahasattvas.”
Lakota people do something similar when they make an offering and wish well-being to all creatures as they repeat “all my relatives” at the beginning and end of each ritual. Similarly, we end each chant with, “All buddhas ten directions three times.” These ten directions include all conceivable directions in the universe, the ordinal, the cardinal, and the sky and earth.
Here is Black Elk again:
“Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.
But they [Whites] put us in these square boxes. Our power is gone: we are dying, for the power is not with us anymore.”
In the Zen tradition, while meditating we hold our hands in the cosmic mudra position, forming a circle; while in the Lakota tradition, the pipe with its circular bowl, is the central spiritual icon. When practitioners load the pipe with tobacco, each piece is considered to be a different species of life and when we smoke it, the heat and fire melts the separateness of each species as an acknowledgment of their interdependence. When I brought Elmer a pipe, which an aspirant does when he wants help from an elder, he said to me “if you take care of this pipe and treat it well, you will be able to help many Whites” and then we smoked the pipe together. When I had my first meeting with my Zen teacher, Suzuki Roshi, he showed me how to sit on a circular cushion with hands in the cosmic mudra.
When I did a hanblecya or “vision cry” under Elmer’s supervision, I was instructed to hold the pipe which was full of tobacco for four days and four nights, being careful to not allow any tobacco to spill out of its circular bowl, since each included a species that needed to be cared for or it might perish.
Continuing with this comparison, intensive meditative retreats are key components of Zen practice and vision cries are key components of Lakota practice. In Zen retreats, we meditate all day keeping our hands in the circular cosmic mudra. In Lakota vision cries, the aspirant holds the loaded pipe with its circular bowl upright for up to four days and four nights, being careful to not let any pieces fall out. When I did this under the tutelage of Elmer Running years ago, he instructed me to ask the Great Mystery, which we might call “circle of interbeing” in Buddhism, to enter my heart. In a similar vein, when I lead Zen retreats, I suggest to my students that if they sit quietly doing absolutely nothing for an entire day or more, keeping their hands in the cosmic mudra position, their mind will quiet naturally fall into their hearts, and they will open up to heart-mind or Buddha nature.
Finally, here’s a quote from Dogen, demonstrating further how important the circle is in Zen teaching:
“On the great road of buddhas and ancestors there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous and sustained. It forms the circle of the way and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap; continuous practice is the circle of the way.”
As you can see, both Black Elk and Buddha, as well as their followers, describe the path to awakening as an endless circle; a dynamic spiral which includes all life.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher