Around 600 B.C., in the region now known as Iran, Zarathustra Spitāma, a herdsman who sidelined as a priest, was inspired to write poetry and to preach his vision to anybody who would listen and, apparently, to some people who didn’t want to hear which got him run out of town on a rail, which seems a bit preferable to crucifixion. Zarathustra did not invent the religion that was named after him and my source, Mircea Eliade’s A History Of Religious Ideas Volume 1, does not explain why that religion is Zoroastrianism instead of Zarathustranism, but he did reinterpret, reinvigorate and add some new elements to it. The gist of Zarathustra’s revelation is that people are free to choose to do good or evil. The creator, Ahura Mazdā, is good. His heavenly court, six divine beings known collectively as the Amesha Spentas, are good. His offspring, Asha, Vohu Manah, Ārmaiti and Spenta Mainyu, are good. But Spenta Mainyu, the Beneficent Spirit, is a twin and his brother, who must therefore also be the offspring of Ahura Mazdā, is Angra Mainyu, the Destroying Spirit.
At the beginning of time, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu chose good and evil respectively and, by so doing, set a precedent. Human beings, behaving on earth as the gods do in Heaven, are free to choose to do good or to do evil. Ultimately, of course, good, or rather, Good will triumph over Evil, the dead will be judged and, yes, those who chose to do good will be admitted to the House of Song, while the evil-doers will be consigned to the House of Evil. The whole cosmic battle between Good and Evil is pretty much old-hat to us, because we’ve been hearing about it for centuries, but it was pretty radical when Zarathustra started preaching it. Of course, Zarathustra and the rest of the folks worshiping Ahura Mazdā got to feel really special and quite a bit holier than those wicked Āryans worshiping Teshup down the street. Zarathustra wasn’t afraid to name names. Bandva and Vaēpa were people who had personally offended him and you can guess which House those dudes were headed for.
I’ve never been able to get down with that Heaven and Hell thing. Actually, I don’t mind the Heaven part; it’s the Hell side of that I don’t like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as spiteful and vindictive as I can stand to be, but my revenge fantasies usually end when I shoot the asshole, or hack them to pieces with a machete, or when I order my Mongol hordes to raze their cities. I don’t have any desire to imagine the meter maid who gave me a parking ticket burning and writhing and screaming in pain and anguish forever and ever and ever and ever and ever, while I sit on a cloud eating candied ginger, getting my dick sucked by forty’leven virgins. The whole eternal punishment for temporal behavior idea is what finally got me to renounce the religion I was raised with, which was a version of Protestant Christianity. I realized, one day many years ago, that I couldn’t even hate Adolf Hitler enough to want him to be damned for all time, so I quit believing in Hell and Heaven went with it. Now, I don’t pretend to have any idea what happens to people’s souls after they die. Maybe nothing happens, or maybe something does. Buddhism has many heavens and many hells, all of which are temporary, all of which are just places the monad passes through according to its karma. I can get behind reincarnation; I recycle. Mostly, I’m too busy with the business of living to spend much time on afterliving. But I definitely and whole-heartedly reject the idea that anybody is going to suffer eternally because they fucked on Sunday or took a Lord’s name in vain. That’s just crazy talk.
Around the Spotted Opossum’s third birthday, she started asking me questions about churches. “What’s that building with the pointy roof? What happens there?” My parenting style is child-directed. I let her tell me what she needs. When she started asking about church, I gave her a basic description – church is where people go to learn about God – and asked if she wanted to go to church. She said she did, so I had to look around for a church that I didn’t totally disagree with and the first one I thought of was the Unitarian-Universalists, who have no doctrine, no creed, no real convictions in any serious sorta way. I mean, they advocate for social justice and sign petitions and shit, but if I was in any kinda hard fight I wouldn’t want a bunch of U-U’s backing me up. I’ve met a lot of good people at the U-U church and I like them, but I don’t see them being able to smack somebody upside the head with a hammer. Which is fine. What I want for the grrrl is a spiritual community that will encourage her to grow and learn and find her own way spiritually. I absolutely do not want anybody telling her that Jesus cries when she touches her yoni or that she’ll go to Hell if she picks her nose. That’s just crazy talk.
Back in the 19th century, the Unitarians and the Universalists were separate denominations. The Unitarians were more urban and upperclass; the Universalists were more rural and workingclass. Both were socially active, but the Universalists were more so – they were second to the Quakers in officially denouncing slavery, at a time when the Catholics were still citing Genesis 9:25 as evidence that God approved of it. Furthermore, the Universalist answer to the question, “If God loves me, why would He send me to Hell?” was – and is – “He won’t”. Universalists believe in universal salvation. Nobody, no matter how wicked or depraved or Republican they might be, no one is condemned. Everyone is saved. Salvation is the result of God’s love and God loves everybody.
That was a radical and crazy concept in the 19th century. Universalists were not allowed to hold certain offices or testify in court. Everybody assumed that without the fear of eternal damnation, there was no reason whatsoever for anyone to tell the truth or behave morally. There were no atheists then, at least not the way we think of atheists. Everybody was attached to a church somehow or they were social pariahs. It’s still a radical concept, but there are so many stupid religions now (Scientology?), that nobody notices much anymore.
The Unitarians were similar to the Universalists in many ways and the two denominations merged in 1963 or so to become Unitarian-Universalist and because that’s a long and awkward name, most people just call then “Unitarians”. I just call them/us “Unitarians”, though it’s probably obvious that I’m really more on the Universalist side of the hyphen.
So, I started taking the Spotted Opossum out to the little red U-U church on the Sundays when she’s with me. She’s gone back to the Sunday school class a few times, but mostly she likes to stay with me and color in the Order of Service. They do a lot of singing at the local U-U, which is unfortunate. Congregational singing is awesome when it’s a Smithsonian Folkways recording of black Southern Baptists or white Southern Baptists, who know the words and melody. I’ll listen to that stuff all damned day. A bunch of gluten-sensitive, touchy-feely white people with liberal arts degrees flatly fumbling through a poorly-written New Age hymn to Nobody In Particular which fucking changes from 4/4 to 3/4 in the middle of the chorus is another thing altogether and I find myself wishing they’d all just shut up. The girl likes it, though, and I’m sure I can benefit from learning to be a little gentler.
I’m kinda rough around the edges. Numerous girlfriends have mentioned it. There was one who requested that I shave every time I knew she was coming over because my stubble was abrasive on her inner thighs. My attitude at the time was along the lines of “Well, I guess you need to toughen up”, which wasn’t exactly sensitive. I know I cuss and spit and sometimes offend people without intending to and I’m pretty much okay with that, but ya know, I’m not unwilling to soften a little. And the U-U Sunday morning service and snacks afterwards is not my only avenue of spirituality. I sacrifice puppies to Hecate when the girl is at her mommy’s house.
It’s weird sometimes. I’ll be standing around with some other dads on the front porch of the church, eating muffins, watching the kids play, and I have to remember to be on good behavior. Maybe I’m imagining it. I dunno. I’m still sort of new to the congregation and they have welcomed me and my little whelp with open arms and I certainly appreciate that. That’s how the U-U is. Everybody’s welcome. Everybody’s going to Heaven.
So, why do good? Why bother to live morally if it doesn’t matter, if everybody’s going to the same place anyway?
Well, I’ll tell ya. I’ve been immoral. I’ve broken nine of the Ten Commandments and I would’ve broken them all except somebody dislocated one of my fingers and made me let go of that guy’s throat. I have wallowed in iniquity and sin. I have fully embraced decadence, corruption, teenage girls and wickedness. If I didn’t do something that was immoral or illegal, it’s because I didn’t have the opportunity, didn’t think of it, or just didn’t want to – like gambling, which I never thought sounded like fun . Wrong living was what I was into.
Ya know what? It wasn’t that much fun. Seriously. I enjoy everything I do now that I’m living right, including the few harmless little vices that I still engage in. I’ve come to think of the Ten Commandments as the Ten Pretty Good Ideas If Ya Wanna Get Along With People. The Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism says pretty much the same thing. I’m kinda loose in my interpretations. Some people think that “Thou shalt not commit adultery” means you can’t have sex with anybody you’re not married to. I take that to mean that I shouldn’t have sex with women who are married to someone else, which is a policy I can agree with. It’s really just common courtesy and good sense.
I’m honest, but not stupidly so. I don’t remember the last time I stole something. I try to do things that will make the world a better place. Whenever I can, I look at other people as fellow travelers as opposed to assholes who are in my way. I do the best I can and I have fun.
When I started writing this, I was thinking I was going to use Zarathustra’s idea that people can choose to do Good or Evil as a set-up to rant about bands that don’t play benefit shows. BDSR plays benefit shows. Actually, BDSR plays benefit shows because I organize benefit shows, which is how I know how hard it is to get bands to agree to play benefit shows. It’s funny – sweet, little pop-punk bands come across all sensitive and caring and they won’t show up to raise money for sexually abused children, but the corpse-painted goons doing Danzig covers will. I was gonna go off about how anybody who’s in a band obviously has disposable income and free time and how fucking hard is it to give a little back? Then I started feeling like an asshole. And a hypocrite. After I wrote that sentence about Zarathustra feeling holier than the Āryans, I realized I couldn’t go that route without doing the exact same thing.
Maybe the U-U’s are making me soft already.
When I was fifteen or so, I bought a cheap skateboard at the toystore at the mall. I’d gotten the idea someplace that skating was cool and punk and I figured it couldn’t be that hard. I didn’t know anybody who skated; it wasn’t a popular activity among the Mennonites and turkey farmers in Dayton, Virginia. After scooting clumsily back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the house a few times, I decided that the thing to do would be to go to the top of the biggest hill in town and zoom straight down. I made it a third of the way, almost, before the board went out from under me, I took a couple giant running strides and then a tumble/roll/slide. All the ball bearings had come out of one of the wheels, which is what happens when you buy cheap skateboards at toystores. I left the busted board in the ditch where it fetched up and went home to pick gravel out of my skin.
Fuck that game. I had a bike that worked fine and a ’64 Comet four-door with a four-banger carb in the backyard just waiting for me to be old enough to drive it, which I already was, when I could scrape together a few bucks for gas, sneak out of the house in the middle of the night, put it in N, push it out of the yard, down the hill, jump in and start it on the roll, using a spoon handle to turn the ignition because my dad, who didn’t know the ignition was worn out, had hidden the keys. Skateboarding was not worth the time, energy and flesh wounds.
Twenty-five years later, walking around downtown with the Spotted Opossum, then two, on my shoulders, I went into the local skateboards and used records store to put up a flier for a BDSR show.
“Daddy, what is this place?”
“This is a store where they sell skateboards and records. That guy over there is my friend…”
“I waaaaaaaaant one!” She wasn’t talking about used records. Christmas was coming up so I went back later and put in an order for a hot pink, plastic board. I told the guy I didn’t want to spend a whole lot, but I didn’t want to get a cheap piece of crap either. He hooked me up. The girl was delighted with it, then got distracted by something shiny and at some point we walked off and left the board on a playground. Every time we saw a kid skating after that, she started wanting to play with her board until I finally went back to the skateboards and used records store and ordered a replacement. The second one is even better than the first – same model, hot pink plastic deck, but the trux are purple instead of matte grey and the wheels are blue, not white. The Spotted Opossum was even delighteder and was much more interested in actually riding the thing.
She mostly sits with her feet splayed out so she can slow herself down if she starts getting nervous. Sometimes she lays on her tummy to ride. A helmet was always mandatory – she picked out a pink one with kitty-cat eyes on the front and soft rubber ears sticking up on top – and after she busted up her knees and elbows a few times, she took to the idea of kneepads, elbow pads and padded gloves pretty easily. Her pads are black with flaming skulls. No, of course not: they’re all pink, with Disney princesses.
The main reason I got my daughter a skateboard was that she wanted one. Beyond that, I knew it would vex both our mothers, which is always entertaining, and I want her to grow up bold and strong and fearless. At this point in her life, if she falls, she doesn’t fall far and nine times outta ten, she bounces back up and yells “I’m okay, Daddy.” On those occasions when she does have to sit and cry for a minute, I’m right there with her and a minute is about as long as she ever has to cry. She’ll wipe off the snot and tears, limb over to her board and be ready to keep going.
With the parenting, I try to sort out the things that my parents did that were positive, so I can do them; and the things they did that were negative, so I can avoid them. Encouraging kids to get up after they fall is positive; telling them to quit yer damn crying or I’ll give you something to cry about…not so much.
So, she’s got a skateboard. We’ve been getting out the bike lately, sledding will happen – if we get any snow this year. We went into the guitar shop today so I could look for a transducer and she pointed out the pink uke she wants for Christmas. She’ll get it. Eventually, I’ll teach her ride a horse and a motorcycle and drive a stickshift. I’ll show her how to handle knives, machetes, hatchets and axes. I’ll teach her to shoot using the same guns my dad used to teach me – they’re all still in the family. If she wants, I’ll take her to the county co-op and get her one of those child-sized, pink .22’s. They have wee little, pink compound bows there, too.
Of course, I play with her dolls with her. I help her dress her “babies” and feed them “cake” which is really playdough. I’ve even made some clothes for the babies. I can hand-sew and will probably start teaching her how to that soon – I got some big, blunt yarn needles just for sewing practice. I was a restaurant cook for years so my knife skills are more dicing onions than cutting motherfuckers, but it ain’t that much different. I take her to dance class and, if she keeps on about it, I’ll sign her up for ballet, but I think she’s more interested in T-ball.
Point is, I’m doing the best I can to model and teach all kinds of different skills, regardless of whether they’re traditionally “male” or “female”, but for reasons which I expect are obvious, the “male” stuff is a little easier for me. I’d rather kick a ball around the yard than dress dolls. And I think that even if she grows up to be a femmy-girly-girl, she’ll be better off for knowing how to shoot a gun, swing an axe and bounce right up after a fall. Those things build confidence. If you know how to load and shoot a Colt 1911, a powerdrill ain’t that scary. Furthermore, if some dude ever comes on strong with her, I want her to know how to crush a windpipe. No shit.
So, we were over at the playground recently. She was all padded up, but saw some dirt she wanted to dig in. I was standing there with my foot on the board, watching, and then I looked at the paved, oval track I was standing on and pushed off. Just like that, I realized that I could ride a skateboard and I did. I managed to get a few laps around before the girl suddenly had to go potty “reeeeeeeeeeeeally bayad!” and we had to head home. I’ve been skating almost every day since. Usually, I sneak in a few zips around the playground while she’s on the slides, or I get ten or fifteen minutes when I’m killing time someplace. I’m not doing half-pipes or grinding stair rails – I’ve seen footage of guys doing that shite and, while I don’t intend to have any more kids, I’m not interested in those injuries – just having a little fun with it. I’ll probably get a grown-up-sized board soon, though I should get a new amp first.
I learned to ride a skateboard without trying. I had a skateboard in my life. I carried it around playgrounds, helped a little girl get on and off, tried to explain to her what I knew was the way to ride even though I couldn’t do it myself. I kept stepping over the thing when she left it in the middle of the kitchen floor and occasionally I stepped on and rode into the livingroom. I never tried and never intended and it just soaked in.
Playing guitar is slightly more complicated that standing on a board with wheels, and I did have some desire to learn to play, but I mostly taught myself to play by sitting on the sofa with a guitar on my lap, moving my fingers around, while watching Samurai movies. I was interested, so I read some stuff about music theory and I memorized the basic chords, but I don’t like practicing so I didn’t. Practicing is boring; messing around and seeing what kinds of sounds come out is fun. It wasn’t hard to apply the same approach to the tenor banjo, mandolin, uke, baritone uke and bass. I used the same approach to learn the poetic code that myths are written in and discovered the hidden meaning in all the worlds’ religions. Seriously, I sat around reading myths because they’re great stories, watching documentaries like N/um Tchai and Dream Wanderers Of Borneo because they’re awesome and weird, and participating in various activities associated with various religions because I wanted to see what that was like (and, in some cases, because women would be naked), and it all soaked in. One day, I realized I was a guitar player. One day, I realized I was a saved, enlightened shaman.
I believe everything is that easy. A guy I know wants to be able to draw. He keeps asking me about it and I keep telling him to get a cheap sketchbook and doodle in it. Look at your boots and doodle. Think about clouds and doodle. A community college drawing class might help him learn to draw quicker, but he ain’t taking a class, he’s asking me and I’m in no hurry for him to be able to draw. He needs to get a job and move out of the Salvation Army shelter more than he needs to be able to draw. And it’s supposed to be pleasurable, for fuck’s sake, or why do it? Drawing, playing guitar, knowing the sound of one hand clapping, realizing – making real – that Brahman and Atman are the same, riding a skateboard, whatever. Anything that you or I or the Spotted Opossum want to do, we can do and all we have to do is put ourselves in a position to learn. Hold a guitar for a few hours every day. Talk to somebody who knows how to knit. Talk to a Zen teacher. Hang out in the right places, pay attention, be teachable. It really is that easy.
Not long ago, I attended a meditation session. Some guy with a bit of knowledge had set up his livingroom as a meditation space and formed a group. He got in touch with some Buddhist monks from over the mountain and somebody agreed to come over and do a dharma talk every couple weeks. I went to a beginner’s session because it was at a convenient time and because, though I have some experience with meditation, I was a beginner to that group. After the preliminary readings and ritual, we sat for twenty minutes. The guy asked if there were any questions or comments and the girl next to me asked the standard beginner’s question, “What do I do when thoughts come into my mind during meditation?”
My answer would’ve been “Ignore them. They’ll go away”, because that’s it. That’s all there is to that. But she wasn’t asking me. The guy who was running the show gave a little chuckle, nodded sagely and then launched into a ten-minute monologue, quoting various Bodhisattvas and sages, extrapolating on the Flower Sermon and Christ knows what else, I tuned him out and watched a stinkbug crawling around on his autographed copy of The Diamond Sutra until he shut up and we did another twenty. I never went back. No one is going to get saved by listening to a guy talk who loves to hear himself talk.
You want to meditate? Cool. It’s easier with a group and you might meet some good folks. It isn’t hard. You sit there. When thoughts come into your mind, ignore them. Do that long enough and one day you’ll realize that you were enlightened a long time ago.
If you meditate or ride a skateboard in a parking lot, some cranky old business owner is going to come out and yell at you. That’s cool, too.
First, I should say that I have learned a Naraka-of-a-lot from Buddhism, especially Zen. I have taken the Bodhisattva Vow, a fact I sometimes almost regret when I think about the blithering fucking idiots I see bumbling around. I continue to study the Sutras, venerate the Tathagata and wear Tibetan skull beads, but I am not a Buddhist.
Skipping the backstory on the assumption that everybody knows all about Gautama, the poor little rich boy who got upset and quit the world, going straight to the Bodhi tree – Gautama realized the Four Noble Truths, frequently summarized:
- All living things suffer.
- Suffering is caused by attachment.
- Cessation of attachment is the end of suffering.
- The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the cessation of attachment.
Now, that’s all well and good and certainly true, but it presupposes that the end of suffering is desirable which is not necessarily so. Sure, suffering sucks, but the spiritual gains far outweigh the merely tempora(l/ry) discomforts. The Passion of Christ has been blown far out of proportion and is hardly the most important part of His story, but suffering was an essential ingredient in His mission here in the Zone Of Middle Dimensions. Otherwise, whence cometh His compassion?
That aside aside, let’s forge ahead to some really interesting religiosity: the Wi-wanyang-wa-c'i-pi, Sun Dance, of the Sioux, the main object of which is to make a sacrifice of one’s own flesh, to Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka, the Great Mystery. (Other tribes of the Plains also participated in the Sun Dance and no disrespect is intended toward them, but one has to draw the line someplace and I’m drawing it here – I’m using the Sioux terms.) (Cultural sensitivity is something BDSR takes very seriously. Especially when it comes to beady-eyed, red-skinned Rez rangers who are basically just waiting for an excuse to club and scalp ignorant white folks.) Furthermore, I am referring to the Sun Dance as it was in the pre-Wounded-Knee-Massacre era. The Sioux took a serious hit on 29 December, 1890, which just about wiped out the tribal traditions permanently. Later generations got it going again, but I haven’t looked into how they’re doing it these days because they don’t seem too inviting toward whitey poking his nose in their business, no wonder.
Anyhow, back in ye goode olde days, the basic social unit of the Sioux was the band, a few hundred related families who lived and traveled together under the loose leadership of a chief. They mostly just nomadded around, hunting bison, sewing beads on their buckskin shirts, killing and mutilating the occasional prospector. Every late spring/early summer, the bands would gather together for the Sun Dance. It was a big deal, ritually and socially. Everybody got to visit with friends and family they hadn’t seen since last year. Everybody participated in the Sun Dance in some way or another, either as Dancers or as support personnel. The Sioux liked to make a production out of rituals: everything they did was ritualized to a certain extent and the Sun dance was almost absurdly so. The trees that were used for the support poles of the lodge in which the final act of the Sun Dance would take place had to be selected by specific people, approached, thanked, appeased, chanted at, danced around, chopped down and hauled back to camp in prescribed manners. Nothing could be left out; for fear that a single omission would taint the entire affair. The holes into which the poles were to be set had to be dug a certain way. The building site had to be approached from the East. The strips of buffalo hide to be used had to be obtained in exactly the rite way. It took a month just to set up. A month in which everybody had to be fed – except for the Dancers who were fasting.
The Dancers were generally males, aged fourteen or so up. Women were not barred from participation in the Sun Dance, but were not expected to offer themselves as sacrifice. The feeling was that the women offered themselves in sacrifice every time they got pregnant, carried, birthed and nursed a child. Men were generally expected to dance the Sun Dance frequently in their late ‘teens/early twenties, then less often as they got older and took on other responsibilities. Many men continued to offer themselves well into middle age. Participation in the Sun Dance was entirely voluntary. People offered themselves in sacrifice for the benefit of the tribe as a whole. And they fuckin’ meant it. A month of fasting, with little water and less sleep, dancing day and night, gazing at the Sun while it was blazing, breathing the dust, chanting, dancing, collapsing, dancing, chanting. On the final day, when all the preparations had been made, everything put up according to specs, every detail lovingly detailed, the Dancers would enter the great lodge to much pomp and ceremony and proclaim their vows.
“I, Running Horse, will offer twenty pieces of my flesh for the people.” That kind of thing. In 1876, at the age of forty-five, Sitting Bull offered fifty pieces of flesh and received a vision of soldiers “falling into” the Sioux camp, a vision that came true shortly thereafter when Custer valiantly led the 7th Cavalry to bloody destruction.
Medicine men and their assistants would then pierce the skin of the Dancers, chest, back and arms, with wooden pegs from which buffalo skulls were hung. Or they would be attached to a pole and the Dancer would strain against the thongs. The purpose was to rip the flesh, freeing the pegs. Dancers would hang suspended from pegs through their flesh, run in circles with buffalo skulls hanging and swinging around, battering them, or leap backwards, yanking at the pegs in their chests. All the while, the Dancers were blowing whistles made of eagle bones, drummers were drumming, everyone was chanting and clapping and shouting encouragement, hundreds of people crowded into a lodge in the heat of a summer night, excited, shouting, bleeding, collapsing, sweating, drumming, ripping flesh.
Those of us raised in quiet, little Protestant churches can hardly imagine it.
Living flesh is tough stuff. It might take hours for a Dancer to free his bonds. In the event that a Dancer lost consciousness before breaking loose, he was allowed to lay where he was for a while, in case he regained his strength. If he didn’t move, an official would check to make sure he was alive and then a decision would be made about whether he should be let be for a while longer or cut loose. In the latter case, his flesh would be cut and he would be finished. But most Dancers kept right on going, ripped the flesh, broke free and then offered more. A medicine man might pinch a Dancer’s skin between his fingers and saw off a piece, then another and another and another, or a man might take a knife and chop off a finger or two. In some cases, Dancers would hang until they ripped themselves loose, then have buffalo skulls attached to their legs and run right out of the lodge, skulls bouncing behind them, skin and flesh tearing. On and on, until the Dancers collapsed. Until the ecstasy passed and there was nothing left but the lodge and the night and the broken bodies on the ground. The Dancers were gathered up, tended to, and then interviewed by the medicine men and chiefs. Frequently, the Dancers had visions which needed interpretation. These visions might have significance for the individual or for the entire Nation. Sitting Bull’s vision has been touched upon.
Friends, that is some crazy shit. That is piety beyond the ability of God-fearing Christians to comprehend. And why should they? Somebody else already died for them, so why should they be bothered to do anything? Black Elk had this to say about the Sun Dancers of his youth in the 19th century: “our men were brave in those days and did not show any sign of suffering; they were really glad to suffer if it was for the good of the people.” * That’s living religion.
Was it really “for the good of the people”? Did the Sioux actually benefit from the voluntary mutilation of some of their men? Even if one refuses to believe that the Great Mystery was somehow pleased or reached through the actions of the Sun Dance, the ritual brought people together and united them in what Victor Turner called “communitas”, the spirit of community. Rituals bring people together. The more intense the ritual, the more intense the together-bringing. The Plains Indians had achieved a beautiful balance of individual and social needs before they were civilized by white men with Bibles and Hotchkiss guns. Individuals were praised and rewarded for the good they did for the group. Young men were celebrated for their hunting skills and for giving the food they obtained to the old and infirm, widows and children, who were not so skilled. The Sun Dance was the ritual that represented that giving. And that’s above, beyond and on top of all the regular suffering that goes along with having a meat carriage. Stubbed toes, heartbreak and eyeball-cancer and all the other pains and trials, force us to face our frailty and mortality, to grow in humility and empathy, and to help each other when we are able.
Suffering as offering seems more desirable to me than simply quitting the game.(Full disclosure: I also enjoy my vices and prefer to keep them, though they do occasionally cause me some discomfort. Coffee, tobacco and poonnanny are sacraments.) Certainly, I do not wish to disparage the many Buddhists who have borne suffering amazingly well and voluntarily when some good end could be achieved - Thích Quảng Đức springs to mind - but those folks are generally Tibetan, Vietnamese or Chinese Monks and Nuns. The mass of self-proclaimed Buddhists I have personally interacted with tended toward the Milquetoast end of the spectrum. Hard to imagine those simps removing their own splinters, much less hanging from wooden pegs through their flesh or immolating themselves in the street. If your spirituality doesn’t endow you with sufficient cojones to do the hard shit that needs to be done, then what good is it?
I don’t much care for pain, though I bear it well enough. My tattoo guy has remarked on it. I’ve put myself through some little discomfort in the pursuit of spiritual knowledge. I’m not about to show up at the Rosebud Reservation trying to horn in on next year’s Wi-wanyang-wa-c'i-pi, though if the Sioux invited me, you’re fuckin’-A right I’d take off work, kiss the baby and head out there for a month or so. I would absolutely go hang for the good of the people. The suffering I have been through has made me what I am and I’m fine with that. It isn’t something to rush into thoughtlessly or rashly, but suffering is a good and great thing. And it isn’t all caused by attachment. Sometimes it’s caused by a couple dozen wooden pegs through your flesh with buffalo skulls swinging, banging against your legs as you run, famished, dehydrated and sleep-deprived around a lodge in summertime.
So, I’m in no hurry to end my suffering, Siddhartha, thank you kindly, nor will I encourage others to do. Instead, I will offer my suffering as a sacrifice, for the good of the people, that I may be better use to them and to Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka, the Great Mystery.
*The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, Black Elk, recorded and edited by Joseph Epes Brown. I’m not citing the page number – you can read the whole book if you wanna find it.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.