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.