My factual knowledge of the religion and spirituality of native Americans is minimal. What little I know is based on Black Elk's "The Sacred Pipe" and a single sweat lodge ceremony I participated in September, 1999.
There may be errors in what I relate here, but I am trying to state things exactly as I understand and remember them.
To quote Black Elk, spiritual understanding is an "...understanding of the heart and not of the head alone." Black Elk maintained that his people knew the One True God and prayed to Him continually. He was deeply concerned that the sacred ways of his people would be forgotten.
All his life he struggled with a vision that he had to do something to repair the "broken hoop" of his people. He was afraid that he had failed.
My understanding is that his visions now concern the larger hoop of our common humanity. If he were able to speak to us today, I am convinced he would warn us that the hoop of our common humanity is in great danger of being broken.
The present Dalai Lama has often stressed that spirituality is separate from religion, and not the "property" of any one religion. The question is never whether or not this or that religion is The True Religion. The question is whether or not this or that religion is true to that facet of spirituality which that religion represents.
The age in which we live is quite antimonian and at times blasphemous. The reality of religion and deep spiritual experience is denied and denigrated in outright and sometimes very subtle ways even by religious leaders.
The worst atheists are not those who deny God in their minds but those who praise God with their lips and deny our common humanity in their hearts.Should such an ugly thing happen and we actually lose the center of our common humanity, we will not survive, not as human beings.
To borrow something else from Black Elk: the most important thing we can do as individuals is to be attentive as we walk the sacred path of life.
I will now try to relate something of the experience of a sweat lodge ceremony as seen through the eyes of a complete novice in hope of giving the reader some inkling of an understanding that the sweat lodge ceremony is a valid spiritual undertaking -- as valid as any I have ever participated in.
The sweat I was part of was done in the Lakota tradition.
Each of the Indian Nations which have managed against all odds to preserve something their traditional worship have done so in their own manner. Therefore there are variations in how sweats are practised, however, they are variations on a theme.
The Lakota tradition is "open", that is to say it is open to outsiders. Some traditions consider the ceremonies and their details "closed" and outsiders are seldom, if ever, invited.
The reasons for this are historical and may well be a response to the active repression of U.S. government and its agencies.
It is little known by the general American public that the sweat lodge and other aspects of the religion of Native Americans were long repressed and even forbidden by law. For a long time their religious practise had to be done in secret.
One of the first things that impressed me with the sweat lodge ceremony is that, in principal, it can be done anywhere.
It is a purification of the body and spirit and represents, so to speak, a death and rebirth from the womb of our Mother Earth
In our case, a clear space of forest floor was carefully cleaned and the lodge raised and consecrated in a single day.
The ceremony was performed the same night as we raised the lodge and everything was taken down the following day. The afternoon after the sweat, I was sweeping the forest floor and only a critical eye could see that anything had happened.
A cynic might say that a sweat lodge is just a tent on top of a hole full of hot rocks -- but it is more than that, it is the experience of those participating in the ceremony.
The lodge we raised was a dome of a size appropriate for the expected number of participants. It was made of saplings lashed together and in our case covered with plain tarpaulins. There is significance in how all this is put together, the number of saplings and how they placed in the ground.
The opening was to the East and could be closed by a flap. The floor of the lodge, carefully cleaned, was hard earth and in the middle was a hole where the heated stones were to be placed. From the middle of the ceiling is hung a whisk of aromatic herbs, including sage.
From the opening to the east there was a short fire path, also carefully cleaned, which lead to the fire pit. The earth taken to make the hole inside the lodge as well as the fire pit is carefully collected on a mound to the right of the fire path, as seen facing the lodge itself.
This mound of earth is sacred and objects may be placed there to be cleansed and dedicated though the effort of our worship together. What I placed there is a story in itself which you hear later
When the frame of saplings had been lashed together, the holes dug and the path cleaned, there was a brief ceremony to consecrate the place and to declare our intention to worship in this fashion.
The second ceremony took place at sunset, when the fire was lit. There were a number of large stones in the pit, the size of large grapefruits or small melons -- that and lots of firewood.
(I should mention here that care must be taken with the stones selected. River rocks should be avoided because they can contain small pockets of water and splinters of stone could be flung out when they are doused with water in the lodge. If medical reasons preclude your using a sauna, you certainly shouldn't participate in a sweat!)
You'll get the rest of this account tomorrow...