Bear Butte, the Vision Quest, and the Bodhisattva Vow

Bear Butte rises from the prairie northeast of the Black Hills like an island rising out of a great ocean. Even at 1,400 feet tall, though, most modern visitors to the Black Hills will miss it – lying as it does out of sight of most of the access roads, and not otherwise known as a “destination.” Native Americans didn’t miss it, though. For the Cheyenne and Sioux migrating out of the Northeast and the Great Lakes region, respectively, Bear Butte would have been their first glimpse of what the Black Hills had in store. Likewise the Mandan, in the course of their navigation of the Missouri River watershed, would have happened upon Bear Butte due to its close proximity to the Belle Fourche River (Odell, 1942).

Bear Butte has long been considered a spiritual place. The Sutaio, an early immigrant tribe related to the Cheyenne, are storied to have received their sacred Buffalo cap from the spirits dwelling inside a cave therein. The Sun Dance, as well, is thought by some to have originated there (Odell, 1942). Story and conjecture notwithstanding, by the time written accounts began to appear in the 1800s, Bear Butte had long been a destination for Native Americans seeking to immerse themselves in solitude, in prayer, and in the spirit realm. Such vision-seeking continues there to this day, as evidenced by stones placed in the crooks of trees, and flags, feathers, and pouches of tobacco tied to their branches.

I first heard of Bear Butte while on a something of a vision quest of my own. I was headed to the Black Hills of South Dakota via the Sandhills of Nebraska and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the gloriously desolate Badlands. While stopped at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation I met a Sioux by the name of Jimmy. From atop the hill from which Colonel Forsyth and his Seventh Cavalry fired their Hotchkiss cannons down upon the men, women, and children encamped below I watched as Jimmy strung his collection of dream catchers from a bleached timber rack. After my descent from the hill we introduced ourselves and spoke for a time. Jimmy must have recognized that I was on a quest of my own because he ended up leading me back to his cousin’s property bordering Wounded Knee Creek where he explained to me how his people had scrambled down into the ravine-like creek seeking shelter from the guns pounding them from on high and then the Cavalry hunting them down. I was dumbstruck – barely able to comprehend what had taken place on the ground beneath my feet. “You must visit Bear Butte,” Jimmy finally said to me. “Bear Butte is holy to our people. It is said that even Crazy Horse sought guidance from the spirits there. I go there sometimes to help with the vision quests of our young people. I watch to make sure no outsiders stray from the trail onto the sacred grounds. Many people are curious and want to take pictures. You can visit,” he assured me, “but you must stay on the trail.” And so it was that Bear Butte became my destination.

I had undergone jukai just a year or so earlier, the ceremony during which one becomes, for the want of a better description, “officially Buddhist.” As part of jukai I had vowed to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I had also taken the Bodhisattva Vow – the vow to save all beings. Recall the Robe Verse (Ta Kesa Ge) from my previous post, as translated by Yoshida roshi:
Great is the robe of liberation
Markless garb of merit-making
Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching
We vow to save all beings.
Of course, it’s a whole lot easier to vow to save all beings than it is to actually do it. And just how do we go about saving all beings, anyway? How do we go about saving just one of them? Do we ensure their physical safety? Feed them? Practice with them until they’ve understood the Dharma to the point where all of their suffering is alleviated? It seems like an overwhelming task sometimes just to save ourselves!

Bodhisattva literally means “enlightenment being.” Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) say that “in Mahayana Buddhism a bodhisattva is a being who seeks enlightenment through the systematic practice of the perfect virtues [paramitas] but renounces complete entry into nirvana until all beings are saved” (page 39). Thus, I took comfort in the hope that as I worked my way toward enlightenment, the means by which I might actually go about saving all beings would become clearer and clearer. Regular readers who know that faith does not come easily for me might want to note at this time that it does indeed come. In some measure, it comes. The vow to save all beings must be accepted on faith, after all – at least in the beginning – because the aspiration at the time one first takes that vow almost certainly exceeds one’s realization of how to accomplish such a feat. Yoshida roshi knew that we were wrestling with this. I recall him encouraging us by telling us that “our understanding of our vows will deepen over time.” In other words, have faith, right?

There are various theories as to how Bear Butte got its name. As I approached from Highway 79, though, the name seemed to be an obvious one. It looked to me just like a bear in repose, lying on its belly with its head and snout resting on the prairie! The butte, in fact, is a laccolith – a magma bulge that did not have sufficient pressure behind it to erupt into a volcano. Actually, it looks more like two bulges, a large one that forms the body of the bear and a small one that forms its head. There are even rock formations on the head that resemble ears! Anyway, as I hiked up the trail to the summit – crawling up the bear’s right shoulder, and across its neck just behind one of those ears, and up its back – scrambling across talus slopes with rock shards clinking and clanking down below like pieces of broken bell – making my way past multitudes of gnarly pines adorned with the remnants of multitudes of vision quests – looking out across the prairie spread out like a patchwork quilt far below – I couldn’t help thinking about the Bodhisattva Vow, and how much like a vision quest it is.

Stolzman (1986-A) states that “the expression ‘vision quest’ is a translation of the Lakota [Sioux] word hanbleciya, which literally means ‘crying for a dream’” (p. 74). Black Elk (1953) refers to this process as “lamenting” (pp. 44-45). He goes on to speak of the attitude and intention of the seeker by revealing the prayer recited periodically during the quest: “O Great Spirit, be merciful to me that my people may live!” (p. 57). Stolzman (1986-B) elaborates:
One always prays that the people may live. One should also look beyond immediate needs and concerns. Remember the main purpose of a vision quest ceremony and cry for a vision. By that vision one will learn how to live, act, pray, and walk in holiness every day so as to bring blessing to the people a long time after the quest. (p. 35)

Certainly many a Buddhist has come to practice weighed down by life, seeking salvation from their suffering – crying for a vision, so to speak. With time, though, this desire for personal salvation transitions into the realization that all beings suffer – that all beings require and are worthy of salvation. Thus, the deep compassion of the bodhisattva is stirred and the intention to save all beings is formed. Doing so requires vision, though. Whereas the vision that one might pray for while on a vision quest is one that allows the seer to bring the physical world (their life and community) into greater accord with the spirit world, the vision that a bodhisattva cultivates is the vision of wise seeing – seeing things as they are, seeing what is needed for the benefit of all beings.

Of course, the wise seeing of the bodhisattva does not instantly appear in perfect form, ready to be put to good use for the benefit of all beings; it arises over time. Likewise, the vision-seeker must be persistent with respect to actualizing his or her vision. Says Mails (1978) in his description of the quest:
Sometimes the vision came, and sometimes it did not. If [the seeker] failed, he tried again until he was successful. Marvelous things were seen and learned in visions about the present and the future. The candidate received guidance for his life’s pattern, and often information which aided and directed his people. (p. 61)
It is also the case that visions might require clarification. Says Black Elk (1953): “Some young men receive a vision when they are very young and when they do not expect it, and then they go to “lament” that they might understand it better (p. 45). Once again, Stolzman (1986-B) elaborates:
A full understanding of one’s vision usually comes only from continued prayer and the following of one’s vision in one’s daily life. As a person in faith follows his vision, the meaning and instruction from the vision will become increasingly clear. (p. 38)
This all sounds very similar to the Zen approach to practice whereby cultivation and verification continue ceaselessly, with ever-deepening realization. It also reminds me of Yoshida roshi’s encouragement that “our understanding of our vows will deepen over time.”

It would seem, then, that perseverance is a good attribute to cultivate, whether in vision-seeking or in Zen. But perseverance can have a darker side. “Perseverance can get in the way,” warns Stolzman (1986-A), “for there may be proud, selfish, and controlling motives at the heart of that perseverance. If so, spirits usually do not come” (p. 76). Hmmm, that reminds me just a little bit of the dangers of practicing Zen with that so-called “gaining mind” – the mind that wants something out of practice.

In Zen practice the realization of so-called enlightenment experiences – penetrating insight, kensho, etc. – occur at the mysterious and fortuitous meeting ground of ripening practice and keen observation. Who can explain how a broom-swept pebble striking a hollow piece of bamboo with a sonorous tock can propel an individual toward realization? Recall Dogen (1227) saying in his Fukanzazengi that “the transforming ability of a finger, a staff, a needle, and a mallet, or the verifying utilization of a whisk, a fist, a stick, and a shout at a critical moment cannot readily be realized by the discrimination of measuring thoughts” (as translated in Yoshida, 2008). And so it is with vision seeking. Stolzman (1986-B) says:
After a period of prayer or song, one should be silent, watch, wait, and listen. One should be observant of everything; even the smallest creature can tell of God and sacred things. The paths, flights, sounds, and songs of each animal tell many things. They may speak either to one’s outer ear or to the inner ear of one’s heart. (p. 35)  

This need for heightened awareness, diligence, humility, and sincerity can be seen in the following account of the experience of a young vision seeker. Powers (1982) describes him being led to the top of a hill where a shallow pit has been dug in which he may sit or lie down for protection or sleep. He is encouraged to remain awake, however. Says Powers:
The vision would come to him only when he was fully awake, praying with the pipe to the Four Directions, the Above, the Earth, the Spotted Eagle, and all the Tunkasilas who might appear to instruct him about his future, and the future of his family and other kin in the community. (p. 35)
Later in the young man’s quest – immersed in sensations of hunger and thirst, exhaustion and wonder – he becomes captivated by the activity of a nearby ant hill. He can hear the frantic footsteps of the ants pounding the earth like drumbeats as they push boulder-like stones up from out of the hole they’ve made in the earth. Sometimes they lose control of the stones and they roll back down into the ground with the sound of a thunderous landslide. “Each step was more agonizing than the last,” Powers writes, “thudding and echoing against the earth’s surface, as if it were stretched taut over some subterranean resonator, a drum shaped by the universe itself” (1982, p. 75). Horrified, despairing, exhausted – clearly identifying all too well with the activity of these creatures in his midst – the seeker cries to the Great Spirit for help and crawls into his hollow. Says Powers:
The earth was cool and soft against his body, and he smelled the grass and sod around him as he had never done before. He thought of other things that might be in the pit with him – insects, spiders, worms, all crawling things. But he was not frightened [anymore] because he was not only with them, but one of them. (p. 75)

So, whether by going to a place high above the prairie where the world might be seen with unobstructed vision, or by sitting on our cushions where the conditioning that keeps us from seeing things as they really are might fall away, both vision-seeker and bodhisattva strive to live in harmony with all beings. Perhaps the vision seeker saves all beings through that process of living in harmony. Perhaps the bodhisattva does as well. Let’s find out. Let’s cultivate our vision.

Black Elk (1953). The sacred pipe, Black Elk’s account of the seven rites of the Oglala Sioux (Brown, J. E. Ed.). University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
Mails, T. E. (1978). Sundancing at Rosebud and Pine Ridge. The Center for Western Studies – an historical research and archival agency of Augustana College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Odell, T. E. (1942). Mato Paha, The story of Bear Butte. Thomas E. Odell
Powers, W. K. (1982). Yuwipi, Vision and experience in Oglala Ritual. University of Nebraska Press
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Stolzman, W. (1986-A). The Pipe and Christ, A Christian-Sioux dialogue. Tipi Press
Stolzman, W. (1986-B). How to take part in Lakota ceremonies. Tipi Press
Yoshida, R. (2008). Fukanzazengi: A universal recommendation for true zazen. Missouri Zen Center website. (Original work published 1227)
Ta Kesa Ge (Yoshida R., Trans.). In the sutra manual of the Missouri Zen Center

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. I love the way you described your experiences visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation and Bear Butte - I felt like I was there with you.

    It seems to me that life itself can be like a vision quest - with everyone searching for something that has meaning or purpose in life.

    Looking forward to your next post!

  2. Thank you again Maku, for your thoughtful writing. It seems that we can end up at the same cultivated place through many different paths. You clearly illustrated that point. I agree it is a process that at times can seem be very slow and that faith is needed.That word seems funny to write in regards to Buddhism but another word to describe the strength to persevere fails me. Thanks again for your teachings.

  3. Thanks K. Yes, meaning is extremely important in life. Recognizing that meaning changes is important too!

    Thanks Stacey. I wonder if people who come to Buddhism from the Christian tradition have similar thoughts about faith. Clearly if our faith were stronger we'd still be Christians, right? Perhaps we're predisposed to a "this needs to make sense to me or I'm out of here" attitude toward spirituality.

    I'm glad you both enjoyed the post! Have a great weekend everyone. Oh, and Happy Easter!


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