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Burton Bradley

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 sense?
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 the trees.
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 static.
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, breathe, sense.
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 for mountains.
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 the man."
"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 top."
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, and courage.
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, to follow.
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 a drought.
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 own sake.
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 uncomfortableness.
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.