SOS: In Search of the Sacred
It is called Noavosse, "The Good Mountain,"
by the Cheyenne and Mato Paha, "Bear Mountain"
by the Sioux. And Bear Butte by the United
States Department of the Interior. A sign
at the base of the mountain reads,
"Here through the centuries
the Plains Indians received spiritual
guidance from the creator.
Here the Cheyenne prophet, Sweet Medicine,
received the four sacred arrows, the
four commandments and a moral code.
Here the Sioux worshiped Wankan Tanka
and paid tribute to the Spiritual Ruler."
And here, I found myself before dawn on
the day after summer solstice, a man who
had spent the first half of his life living
at thirty-two feet above sea level with
little knowledge of mountains and less
knowledge of the sacred, ready to ascend.
I've come to know mountains better after
first living in the Sierra Nevadas and
now for the past twelve years in the Big
Horn Basin surrounded by the Big Horns
to the east, the Absarokas to the south
and west, the Beartooths and Pryors to
the northwest and north. Yet, I'm still
a novice when it comes to the sacred.
Mato Paha, Bear Butte is a place of prayer
and centering that is not just solitude
but a meditative, vital space. It is not
a place to merely relax or camp out. It
is not a place for fun, but an environment
in which to experience that rarest of
human feelings: rapture. It is a sensual
place, too, in the visionary sense of
fully listening, seeing, experiencing
with one's entire being. "Things" are
to be experienced differently than what
one experiences of life from one's front
window or favorite fishing hole.
And what is it exactly that one perceives?
Or, to phrase the question more accurately,
not what, but how does one experience
a difference, an intensification of one's
senses, of one's thoughts about the nature
of things, about one's life in the deepest
Standing at the base of Bear Butte, I
thought about Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux
holy man, who over a century earlier on
a mountain top fifty miles to the south
had his great vision of the world:
"And while I stood there I saw more than
I can tell and I understood more than
I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner
the shapes of all things in the spirit,
and the shape of all shapes as they must
live together like one being."
Visions by definition are an inquiry into
the larger questions, beliefs, and ideas
in life with regard to one's way of being
in the world, one's direction, one's knowledge,
one's relationship to others and to the
whole overall. Not that the little, everyday
life is ignored but it is to be seen through
a wider lens, in a sacred manner.
You can photograph the mountain from the
parking lot; you can camp out at Bear
Butte Lake two miles away. But to experience
the sacredness of the place you need to
climb. I decided to walk up just before
sunrise. It was a pristine summer morning
and my mood had already been enhanced
by the lingering atmosphere of religious
ceremonies conducted the previous four
days as part of a summer solstice celebration.
I was allowed to stay in the empty camp
at the base of the mountain. I pitched
my tent among abandoned sweat lodges and
communal fire pits with various "altars"
of stones, feathers, and prayer cloths--not
to mention the campsite of an old Lakota
man, who sang around midnight accompanied
by a drum.
I spent the night by a fire, listening
to him talking to some friends, low, good
friend talk, barely audible, no louder
than the occasional bird whistle, the
loon clarinet in the distance, the murmuring
creek, the slight breeze whispering through
So the hike itself was charged before
I took my first step. I was a mixture
of eagerness and slight apprehension.
Should I? Am I worthy? Can I do this right?
Friend Jenny's gift of prayer tobacco
was right and insurance--for or against
what I wasn't sure. The sun slowly appeared,
first as a mere lightening of the far
sky and then on the furthest plains, the
last long shadow of night shrinking its
way toward me at the foot of the mountain.
I began to walk up the mountain, keeping
the same pace as the retreating shadow,
eventually letting it overtake me, the
gray dark air becoming light, becoming
rocky incline, talus cracking under my
feet, becoming sweet scents of purple
and yellow flowers and especially the
white capped aroma (slightly sour at first
then sweet) of wild yarrow, becoming brightly
colored prayer cloths flapping from buffalo
berry bushes and ponderosa pine, becoming
mountain sparrows and robins and luminous
yellow gold finches to a butterfly planted
on a bush, wings opening and closing in
a slow, halting, silent applause. It is
a walk that also becomes a heaviness in
my thighs, a shortness in my breathing,
until I must pause, a respite, my hand
timidly on the burnt bark of a dead pine
(from the devastating fire of 1996).
Half way up the southern slope, with still
another 700 feet of hiking around to the
east and up to the peak, I look back down
and there spreads the Great Plains in
a series of sloping undulations of new
summer green, some places clotted with
stands of cottonwood trees, the rest grass--presently
green, but come the first full week of
rainless, wind scoured sunlight, it will
redden for a day or two gradually fading
to a brownless brown its natural, "Great
Plains" coloring. But for now: green space,
seemingly endless, that is somewhat shocking
from this first view a thousand feet up
and away from the flat stretch of highway.
A flicker of color nearby--a bird or flower
or prayer cloth alive in the wind, a spirit
reminding me of where I am, of what this
mountain has been all about, and personally,
what the task is before me.
Onward and upward, I march, not Boy Scout
style or as a strolling tourist with the
proverbial camera banging my chest. The
sign at the trail head suggested, "Whisper
when talking to others." I took this to
mean a deeper task for one alone such
as myself. For me, this meant trying to
hush my "monkey mind" as the Buddhists
call it, the incessant chatter in my head
of all that life I left back down the
hill. Like some kind of crazed short-wave
radio operator late at night who can't
just listen to one signal for more than
thirty seconds, my mind still "broadcasted"
snippets of conversations, some overheard,
some actually engaged in. They ranged
from the previous night to the day before
that, some a month old, some ten years
earlier-- an old argument replayed, a
mis-communication ("What I meant to say..."),
a lingering critical judgement ("If I
were her, I'd...")--until it all runs
together to become, finally, nothing but
Immediately, almost angrily, I reminded
myself to pay attention.
Pay attention. Pay as in giving something.
A tithe, a donation, an offering of respect,
of consciousness, of mindfulness. Attention
as in listening. To the chirps, the buzzes,
the crunching under my shoes, and the
pockets of silence in between, reminding
me where I am, not who. And what I am
doing at this very moment, not before
or later. Pay attention to the rock I've
just stumbled over. To the next step.
And the next. To the sharp light splashed
on the bearberry bushes. To the sudden
sweet scent of some mountain flower or
the odd oil-burnt smell of creosote on
the logs lining the path. Shhhhhhh. Walk,
I resume, quieter somewhat, slower. In
no hurry. The pace of my ascent now coinciding
with the rising sun. I look at the fiery
orb, a hand rubbed, polished apple--Golden
Delicious-hanging from a branch of sky
just above the horizon. I feel its first
heat and strip off my lined, flannel shirt.
Immediately, I grow thinner, lighter,
more flexible, but also more vulnerable
as I ascend. I try to fight off the nagging
thought of unworthiness, of being spiritually
"incorrect." I stop, turn, and see that
the plains are now brilliantly lit, and
incredibly, have grown larger, greener.
I stand next to a stone outcropping with
yellowish lichen marbling its north face.
I pull out the Kinnick Kinnick, traditional
ceremonial tobacco of bear berry, red
willow, osha root, mullen, and yerba santa--friend
Jenny's gift. I hold a pinch of it out
before me and realize I'm at a loss for
words. I feel intimidated by the responsibility
of the act. I wish to do this right. Me,
some middle-aged, would-be apprentice
without a master.
I begin by thanking the mountain directly
for allowing me to be here. I offer a
blessing which I hope doesn't sound too
much to me like my father's terse grace
at Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas
(terse because the act reminded him of
his Southern Baptist heritage which he
had abandoned long ago). I toss the tobacco
out like a farmer scattering feed, and
surprisingly feel somewhat more valid,
though still unsteady. I move on.
Finally nearing the peak, I stop again,
mainly to resist my European heritage
of "having to get to the top." Why? What
is the point? "Because it is there," declared
the first white man (with Sherpa guides)
to scale Mt. Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary.
From what little I know about him, he
was a man who seemed to have had a reverence
I try to think of his statement from a
Zen Buddhist's perspective. "Because it
is there" then does not connote climbing
simply for fun or fame or ego gratification.
If declared with a spiritual meaning,
then the statement cannot be equated with
an insidious notion of, "I conquered the
mountain, or I claim this mountain..."
Rather, "Because it is there" is a wonderful
Zen statement, filled with meaningfulness,
yet completely understated, to the point
of irony, even absurdity. "The sword that
kills the man is the sword that saves
"Because it is there" beckons to me. It
is a spiritual challenge for me to experience
this mountain more fully than I have.
To put it another way, "Because it is
there," I must. Or, "Because it is there,"
and I am not. It is a challenge for me
to grasp what it means to "get to the
With such thoughts, I climb the last fifty
feet to the top. My first decision is
to avoid the large wooden, designated
lookout platform. Not without some trepidation,
I follow a barely discernible footpath
that traverses the ridge to the south.
There's one of those Park Service trail
signs with a figure with a walking stick
and back pack hiking inside a red circle
with a red line through it. One thing
I am clear about: I am not hiking. I step
out on the path already lined with prayer
cloths and offerings with as pure an intention
as possible: I'm here to offer a blessing,
to give thanks, to sprinkle some ceremonial
tobacco, and to practice zazen, sitting
meditation, (my only "formal" praying).
And sitting among the prayer cloths, the
small stone "altars" and cairns with various
offerings adorning them, I am most mindful
of the space I inhabit, the heady wind,
the girth of mountain beneath me, the
brassy light, and an odd species of flies.
They are as large as small bees, but they
don't zoom all about like the common house
fly. Instead, they hold still in mid-
air, much like a dragonfly, buzzing as
they do, seeming to watch me. After awhile,
a couple "bump" me here and there, on
an elbow, a forearm, the top of my head--am
I spirit or flesh? Am I being respectful?
These are the guardians I know--maybe
even the spirits of the ancestors themselves.
I try to stay centered as long as possible...longer.
This means losing my "I." Instead, be
here and nothing else, but present in
the sharp rocks, the ponderosa pine riffling
with color, the prayer cloths alive in
the stiff breeze that remind me I will
not fool anyone here, especially myself.
This isn't a game. This isn't "cool,"
or a "Wait until I tell somebody" opportunity.
This is, for me, my practice, my best
effort at faith, which Katagiri Roshi
says is not something given by somebody;
nor is it something coming from you. Rather,
"faith means tranquility, and complete
tranquility is the source of our nature
and our existence."
I gradually move out of silent, sitting
meditation to consciously ask for blessings--for
my daughters, my son, my wife, all of
my loved ones, friends, family, past and
present and future--as heartfelt and mindfully
as possible. My heart is moved to ask
for a blessing for "all sentient beings,"
as the Buddhist vow puts it, but I am
thinking particularly of Pakistan and
India, who in the past week have been
squaring off in a deadly nuclear showdown.
I take vows and offer prayers for the
earth itself. I asked for nothing in return,
except for assistance to honor life in
all of its manifestations, to continually
cherish life with clarity, conviction,
I manage to meditate about twenty minutes
I guess, maybe thirty. I'm not that strong
spiritually yet. It takes great strength
to worship--to surrender to that which
one barely comprehends, to give up one's
intellect, one's rationality, to "think"
instead with the heart, to open oneself
up to intuition, to intimation, to a felt
sense of the world, of the spirit of the
world, of the energy of the world. The
kind of spiritual strength one finds in
the figures of Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed,
Crazy Horse, Black Elk, and in our own
times, a Ghandi, a Martin Luther King
Jr., a Mother Theresa. Giant shoes to
fill, I know, but footsteps, nonetheless,
Still, if it was thirty minutes, it was
thorough, focused, and my sense of a centerless
center was interwoven with the centeredness
of the mountain. As "I" dissolved or diffused,
the place coalesced and became more real
as a site of the earth's power, a spiritual
capitol of the world.
Later, on the South Dakota State Park
observation platform, I find I am unable
to write poetry. I couldn't "stop" experiencing
the dynamics of the place--though creative
writing, poetry in particular, is often
a way of connecting for me, of becoming
an integral part of the process of being
in a place or of consciously participating
in an event, never with the "objectivity"
of a reporter or scientist, but only subjectively,
sympathetically, intimately as a poet.
But I do have another way of praying.
Laying down my pencil and notebook, I
began to dance Tai chi. I practice a version
called "Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain"
that incorporates the five elements (fire,
water, wood, metal, earth) into the dance.
Dancing Tai chi brought me physically
into accord with the movements of wind,
trees, prayer cloths, flies, sun, and
space--the feeling of being on top of
a mountain, of moving in a slow circle
following the sun, east to west.
Dancing atop this great wave of earth,
roots humming the ground below,
these feet rising and falling
to a silent song falling and rising
within this wooded space,
these limbs growing a tree of sky,
so flows this body: liquid bark
around blue stones of air
circling in the smooth light.
A half hour later, the sun, a half a ponderosa
pine higher, I see far down the mountain.
Ranger vehicles already in the parking
lots, and a mile away the first visitor
at the gate, and a half mile further back
turning off the main highway another visitor's
car. I estimate they will be up here within
an hour. My time, alone, with the spirit
of the place is coming to a close. And
yet I linger not ten feet from the steps
of the platform on the way back down.
There's one more task I need to perform.
What is it? I sit, listening to the wind
sighing through the blackened bones of
the pines. Later, Bear Butte State Park
Ranger Chuck Rambow tells me the Native
Americans say the Great Spirit saved the
mountain from being completely burnt.
But it was a terrific fire, devastating.
Approximately, ninety percent of the trees
on Bear Butte were either consumed by
the fire or scorched to a point where
recovery is unlikely. The Lakotas I spoke
with the night before insinuated it was
"non-native people" who started it--accidentally.
But it seemed, to me, something was a
bit askew with their tale or with all
"accidents." The emphasis shouldn't be
who is to blame; it doesn't have anything
to do with blame. Even the Lakota seemed
uncomfortable with their own explanation.
I heard an uncertainty in their voices
as they told me about the "campfire that
wasn't extinguished properly." They spoke
with more conviction when they mentioned
"a big wind," and that there had been
Finally, everyone agrees in hindsight--Cheyenne,
Lakota, and Ranger Rambow. It has been
a purification wrought by the Creator.
Everything is better today, despite the
loss of ponderosa pine and the frequent
mud slides; there is much new grass, even
an abundance of the precious "June' grass
used in Sundance ceremonies.
The day before I met a blithe, young woman,
who worked in the information booth at
the Bear Butte trail head. She was chatty,
spilling over with youth's sense of its
own vitality. She informed me the journey
up the mountain was an "easy hike" of
about an hour and a half, and a half hour
down. "You could be done in no time."
Recalling her statement, I laugh quietly
and am tempted to say to the sky, "Out
of the mouth of babes." But, I don't.
As I begin my descent, however, I assume
a "no-time" attitude and begin walking
mindfully one step at a time. In step
with my breathing. I center my concentration
in my hara, my lower abdomen below my
navel. Centered and centerless, this is
Kinhin, slow walking meditation one practices
between periods of formal sitting meditation
in the zendo.
I walk neither stuck in my own thoughts,
nor attached to the phenomenal world about
me. If anything, my focus is somewhere
between both, for when I am feeling particularly
right, out there and inside are indistinguishable.
During clear moments, a pebble glinting
in the sunlit path at my feet, glistens
inside me. Again, to use Zen phrasing,
I walk mindfully.
Not I am walking down the mountain, but
I am the mountain's walking consciousness.
I am its slope, its talus, it altitude,
its gravity in my calves and thighs, its
eyes--seeing a mountain sparrow nearly
invisible, mottled brown as the tree limb
it perches on. I am the mountain rose,
the wild yarrow that rings the top in
clusters of white cupped flowers. I am
the mountain's ears, its listening to
the wind, the birds, a jet 35,000 feet
overhead, a single car winding its way
toward the visitor's center a mile and
half below. I am also the mountain's fingers
and feet. As well as the mountain's mood
of serenity and expansiveness, its warming
beneath the rising sun, its lingering
coolness in the shade on its unlit north
side. Dogen Zenji uses the term "whole
faith-like body," which means your whole
body and mind are exactly faith. It is
with this kind of "whole faith-like body,"
that I descend the mountain.
I notice a butterfly moving alongside
of me, moving as I move. It has black
wings with splotches of white. It stays
with me for twenty, thirty yards. I can't
help but think of it as escorting me on
my way, a guide, a guardian, a fellow
sentient being. And then just as it stops,
landing on a white flower on the up slope,
another butterfly appears, tangerine colored
with black spots, and immediately begins
to escort me for the next twenty or thirty
yards. It is one of the most simple, silent,
and subtle of events and yet I am beaming
with awe and gratitude for the attention.
I halt, again perhaps halfway, my hand
against calcite rock. There a fly an inch
from my index finger. I move ever so slightly
toward it and it moves minutely toward
me. It walks onto my fingernail. I make
no motion to brush it off. In fact, I
carefully move my hand back to its kinhin
position over the other folded across
my lower belly and continue walking meditation.
Nothing misses my attention and yet my
attention holds onto nothing. Each flat
stone step every twenty-five feet or so,
strategically placed where the path switchbacks,
traversing its way back and forth down
the hill. Each twig, each scattered leaf,
the peppering of shade and light across
the rock strewn path.
For the Lakota, this mountain (particularly
the southern slope) represents the bear
of the Devil's Tower myth, who after futilely
attempting to reach the young princesses
(or warriors) depending on who tells the
tale, gave up, wandered the fifty miles
to this part of South Dakota and lay down
to become Bear Butte.
But I'm still on the eastern slope, which
is the "Cheyenne side" of the mountain
that they see as a great sacred lodge
where their folk hero, Sweet Medicine,
received the Four Sacred Arrows, the medicine
laws of the tribe.
In the past, these myths seemed historically
and culturally so far away from me. Yet,
here I expect at any moment during my
descent to meet one of the Old Ones, maybe
Sweet Medicine himself. I wonder what
sort of sacred bundle I might receive?
Is there something I can take back to
America at the end of the Twentieth Century?
Nothing material, I am sure of that.
Are we not already overladen and overwhelmed
by things in our world? Not just the microwaves
and oven toasters and leaf blowers and
designer everything, but our throw away
cameras and "antique" Barbie dolls and
more watches than the history of time.
Not to mention the combined exhaust of
millions of cars, buses, R.V.'s, and A.T.V's
on the ground, speed boats, oil supertankers,
and jet skis on water, and every kind
of jet and aircraft in the air. Then there
is the future of things like digital television,
the ubiquitous computer, and world wide
web (fiber optics forever!).
Enough. I know this is the so-called "Information
Age," but where is wisdom amidst this
welter of things, like the thousands of
satellites or space junk orbiting the
planet. Where's the center? Where's the
still point? The hub? The ground of all
this being? What holds it together? Is
there some super thing or idea or ethos
that gives it all meaning?
I descend, my body and mind attuned to
the details of the place. I glance down
at the fly still sitting on my hand, silent,
motionless. It waits too. My spirit guide?
Insignificant, even reprehensible creature,
what truth could it carry? I know the
common attitude. But. I still resist swatting
at it and walk with it as my guide. In
and out of the dappled light and shadow,
I inhale the subtle and rich scent of
pine and flowers I cannot name.
But the colors! Here and there in certain
patches of bright light, a burst of magenta
and fuchsia and deep purple, splashes
of creamy yellow and sky blue. I can't
imagine what the fly sees with regard
to its magnified sense of seeing, but
to me, the colors are so vivid as to be
fully meaningful as simply color for its
As if on cue upon reaching a certain boundary,
the fly tickles my hand as it moves for
the first time, perhaps not more than
a millimeter, before flying off. Thirty
seconds later, the first humans of the
day, a young couple, walking fast, but
quietly. We pass without eye contact,
wordlessly. The mountain gives us permission
to do this without guilt or feelings of
Then not long, three men, middle-aged,
loud talking, kicking rocks, stumbling,
laughing. "How's it going?" the first
booms. Cameras around their necks, sweating
already, no doubt in a hurry to get to
the top, take their pictures, remark about
the view, then scramble down to where
next? Devil's Tower to the West? Mt. Rushmore
to the South? A casino in Deadwood?
The last fellow erupts, huffing to me,
"Bet it's easier going down!"
I steel myself, trying to not pass judgement
(though I already have), but at least
amend my opinion a bit. They will receive
what they bring in their hearts. The mountain
is ancient, imperturbable, mysterious.
Spiritual responses--whether rewards or
repercussions--are unfathomable. Those
who believe, who have faith, and who act
accordingly are astute and will be the
first to recognize the movement of spirit.
Those who don't often perceive nothing
and gain little or no knowledge. Life
begins with suffering, says the Buddha,
and yet he is always depicted smiling.
Certainly, he must have known something
many of us don't.
Here, back in my living room, I'm smiling,
too. Not because I know what the Buddha
knows, but because six months have passed
since that predawn hike and, as winter
begins to solidify around my house on
a bluff near Powell, Wyoming, I am still
on Bear Butte. The sacred mountain has
not left me.