THESE WERE QUESTIONS POSED BY A REPORTER FOR THE GRAND TRAVERSE INSIDER. YOU MAY BE INTERESTED IN MY ANSWERS.
Why do you believe that now is the right time to share Red Path teaching to non-native people?
I have been shown that we are at the end of the current age and beginning a new one. This understanding is not mine alone but is common among spiritual people of all types. The end of the current age is being marked by fear, resistance and chaos, while the new age brings in a period of human understanding and mutual respect. During this time of transition it is very important for us to love, respect, support, and generally develop a sense of community. I believe that Zen, especially Red Path Zen, will be a great help to all life during this period.
What first led to your exploration of Zen Buddhism?
For 30 years the Sweat Lodge had been my spiritual home. During those years I lived very close to my Sacred Pipe and listened to the guidance of my Spirit Teachers. I have been honored to teach a great many people how to walk the Native American spiritual path, the Red Road. Eleven years ago the Grandfathers (Spirit Teachers) told me that they wanted me to teach outside the Native community because we were entering a time of violence, discord, and destruction. It will be desperately needed for us to teach reverence for Grandmother Earth, respect for humanity and all life. I agreed to do that, but there were not many opportunities for me to teach these things. I couldn’t imagine myself standing on a street corner like some ancient prophet expounding on the importance of our spirituality, so nothing much came from it.
A few years later after having conducted a routine Sweat Lodge ceremony, sometime during the middle of the night, the Spirits woke me and told me that I had just completed my last Sweat Lodge. As you can imagine I was pretty confused. So, I took my Sacred Pipe the next morning and asked the Grandfathers what this was all about. I was told that as long as I was based in the Sweat Lodge I would not be teaching non-natives in the way that was needed. You can’t imagine how devastated I was because the Sweat Lodge had been my home for so many years. I told them that I would do this but They would have to open doors for me if they wanted me to teach.
Literally, within one week, I was invited to hold a workshop at the Zen Peacemakers Monastery where Roshi Paul Genki Kahn was the spiritual director. After that I began to give workshops in other Zen venues. The more I was exposed to Zen, the more I realized how compatible Zen philosophy is with Native American Spirituality. Incidently, Roshi Genki is now head of the Zen Garland Order in which I am a priest and sensei.
What motivated you to become a Zen priest?
Meditation has always been important to me even though it was not Zen type meditation. I had been wanting for a while to develop a meditation group in my home community with my neighbors. As I became more involved with Zen, it became more of a Zen meditation group or Sangha. From my early adulthood I have always been a priest/teacher so it was within my natural evolution to take the vowels and precepts of a Zen Buddhist priest. Since then I have completed the necessary studies and activities to become a Dharma Successor or Sensei.
What led you to combine red path teaching with Zen meditation?
It was a natural step. Having always been a spiritual teacher now Aplaced@ within Zen, it seemed clear to me that my task was to take Native American spiritual insights and appropriate practices and enrich Zen with them in a way that makes the Zen experience more fulfilling for people.
How do the two traditions complement each other?
The native way is the way of Mitakuye Oyas’in, which means “all my relations.” It is a way of Oneness with not just human beings but with all Creation: stones, trees, rivers, mountains, four-legged, human beings… all creation. Everything we do is done in the name of Mitakuye Oyas=in.
A basic concept in Zen is Oneness which sees all things as One and to live in a way which enhances that Oneness, a way of service, love and respect. So, at a very basic level the two systems are alike.
How are they most different from each other?
In the native world we sit in a circle around red-hot stones in a Sweat Lodge, and there we get rid of the poisons in our bodies, minds and spirits. All of our ceremonies help us to recognize our Oneness with all.
In Zen we sit on a cushion in deep meditation and in that way experience our Oneness with all creation. Red Path Zen encourages us not only to do sitting meditation but to also meditate outdoors in the woods. I do a lot of walking meditation along wooded paths feeling the energy of the trees and plants and being present for them. In the native world we don’t talk about practicing presence so much as do Zen folk, but we’re practicing the presence in Sweat Lodge.
Unfortunately, Sweat Lodges and native ceremonies are not available to the general community. Zen is accessible to everyone and offers a practice for experiencing these things in a way that has been followed for over 2500 years. Maybe not as rigorous and exotic as a Sweat Lodge, Zen will help you experience your Oneness and come to understand your own being through direct experience.
What might you say to someone who is concerned that their own religious affiliation/belief might be compromised by exploring Red Path Zen?
I can only say that we do nothing in the Zen which would conflict or disrespect an individual’s personal religion. Zen has existed for over 2500 years alongside dominant cultural religions. The same is true of the native American way. I have personally known only one medicine man who was not a Christian. Even the great former medicine chief of the Lakota people, grandfather Fools Crow, was a devout Catholic, pouring Sweat Lodges on Saturday night while attending mass on Sunday morning. The same was true of Black Elk who was not only a Medicine Man but a Catholic catechist. There are priest/ministers who are sweat Lodge leaders. I, personally, am active in my home church back in Massachusetts, while at the same time serving as a Zen priest and sensei.
There is no conflict. During those times of meditation when prayer is appropriate, one prays in the name of the God or Sacred Being which is part of their personal religion. Buddha taught that belief in a God and/or specific rituals have no bearing on Buddhism one way or the other.
Incidentally, Buddha isn’t perceived as a God or a deity. Rather, Buddhism is a philosophy and practice based on the Dharma (teachings) of how to live actively in a way that is fulfilling for you individually and healthy for the universe. Its foundation is the Dharma , not a person.
What in your experience causes non-native people to explore Native American Spirituality?
I personally think that many traditional religions have become formalized, bureaucratic, rigidly dogmatic, and thus without much relevant power. Rituals are reduced to reading and reciting prayers and following prescribed actions with little sense of the presence of Spirits or a personal spiritual practice. I know that some would question that observation but it is my personal opinion. I think people are attracted to the native religion because it offers a deeply personal experience of the Sacred. It is experiential, mysterious, and embeds the Sacred in the natural world.
Why is it deemed wise/necessary by most native teachers to exclude others from this knowledge? Is any sharing allowed and encouraged?
There are divergent strains of thought within the native communities.
There is a general wariness about sharing spiritual things with non-Indians. White folk have a genius for changing things and Aimproving@ them. Native people do not want outsiders messing with their traditional spiritual practices. Many of those practices are physically rigorous and spiritually powerful, and when done by someone who doesn’t understand them and is not skilled at using them, they can be dangerous. For example, remember that so-called Sweat Lodge in Arizona where a White entrepreneur, self-help mogul, was using a Sweat Lodge in a way horrifying to native people and ended up killing several of his students. There is a natural concern about making these ceremonies available.
Once, in my personal experience, a Protestant minister asked to come to my ceremonies and I allowed it. He attended several times and I didn=t see him again. Then, I found out that he was representing himself as an Indian spiritual teacher, running spiritual growth groups and teaching our practices as if he knew what he was doing. I had created a “medicine man” with three sweatlodge experiences.
On the other hand there is a teaching particularly from older medicine men that that the time has come for non-Indians to be invited into our spiritual path. They tell of a prophecy that when red men, white men, black men, and yellow men dance together at Sun Dance, it will mark the beginning of the new age. This is now happening.
One final thing, over time in the Sweat Lodge ceremony, a bonding develops in which people share their deepest feelings, worries and concerns in front of each other and the Grandfathers. A stranger coming into the group changes the dynamics. Truthfully, most of the time when outsiders want to sweat, they mainly want to “take in” the experience just to see what it is like. They are not usually interested in any kind of commitment to the ceremony or the community.
Sweat lodges tend to be small because we are looking for small, committed communities. The sweats that I have built have held about 13 people. There are larger ones but the smaller sweats are the most common. It is almost impossible to find native Sweat Lodge communities which are interested in entertaining outsiders. It sometimes happens, but the non-Indian person must have first won the trust and respect of someone in the native community.
So it is that many teachers like me are taking native concepts and teachings about the Creation and Oneness into other communities. I am honored to be leading the Red Path Zen of the Zen Garland order.
What is the most important message of Red Path Zen to the world?
There are several messages. People want to live fulfilled lives. I think most of us want serenity, belonging, and purpose in our lives. Zen Buddhism teaches that meditation is the primary practice to finding peace, contentment, and beauty. Secondly, Zen teaches the importance of loving service particularly for the most needy brothers and sisters, animate and inanimate, of this world. It also teaches the importance of physical balance. Most of our younger people are practicing Yoga, aikido, tai chi or some other form of physical discipline. Body work at my age consists of rigorous hiking over rough terrain, weight training, and stretching.
What would you most like the people to know about the work with which you have been charged?
I want the people to know that I have no agenda for them other than for them to find their own way. I can teach certain things that will facilitate their spiritual journey. It has been shown by voluminous neuro-psychological research that Zen meditation makes positive changes in the brain which then makes changes in the mind which then changes the way we think, and which moves individuals toward happiness and peace. I hope that people in my Sanghas will recognize that I follow the guidance of my Spirit Teachers to the best of my ability, and I will continue to follow Their guidance and fulfill my calling until I shed this body.
What results have you seen in people who have been faithful to their meditation practice? What have you personally experienced?
I can only tell you that I have seen people become more centered, happier and better able to work through the stresses of life. I have seen people deal successfully with the most horrendous sets of life circumstances because they are able to meditate and to connect with the loving and healing energy of Creation. As for me, I can tell you that I am basically happier than I have ever been. I am fulfilling my calling.