This week, Buddha Weekly takes a slight detour into Native Spirituality, interviewing Cree Medicine Man Sean Walking Bear. Born in Alberta, Canada — now residing in Nevada — Sean Walking Bear is a full Cree, trained by the Medicine Men of his community. He also learned the traditional sacred arts of rattle and drum making
Interview by Lee Kane
I first met Sean when I asked him to craft a special drumstick rattle for my practice. He hand-crafted the piece, and painted a gorgeous Vajrayogini mandala on the rattle. The workmanship was astounding and precious. Later, he created a rattle as well, this time with Vajra symbols, mantra, and seed syllable.
As I got to know Sean, I realized the areas of commonality between traditional Cree spirituality and many of the concepts and practices in Buddhism are more than just cursory. The practices were deep and meaningful. When he spoke of his work being “of the mind” and of “labels” and described practices such as offerings and cleansing impurities and removing obstacles, I felt right at home. He even discussed “impermanence.” Especially, on my third question, when he said “for the benefit of others” I thought instantly of the Bodhisattva vow.
This quote from the interview really resonated with me: “The mind is where we build our life from the inside out. It’s where we invite the Creator to live within us — so keep it blessed and clean. It’s a sacred space. A sacred place. Its where we truly live. It’s the spiritual battleground we must win before any peace or enlightenment can be obtained and maintained.”
And, so, a short detour from our interview with Buddhist teachers, for a talk with Medicine Man Sean Walking Bear.
Buddha Weekly: You’re probably most famously associated with the sacred art of rattle making. And also, because of movies you’ve been in, as an actor. If you were to label yourself — what label would you use: Medicine Man, healer, artists, rattle maker, actor or something else?
Walking Bear: You can call me “Walking Bear.”
Note: To see Sean Walking Bear’s amazing hand-made sacred rattles and drumsticks, check out his Etsy page>>
Buddha Weekly: In what ways do these separate labels and personas compliment each other?
Walking Bear: They’re all labels related to activities I pursue, guided by the belief I was born to contribute in these areas, with innate talent and potential skills; for the benefit of others.
Buddha Weekly: Does your spirituality inspire your wonderful art?
Walking Bear: Very much so. My artwork is guided by spiritual concepts found throughout my Native American heritage, Shamanic Practices, and the Spirit World. I see visions in the sacred space of the mind. Forget the imagination, think vision. Think awareness in a waking dream.
Buddha Weekly: Are you a Medicine Man? In the interviews with you I’ve read, you don’t use the term shaman, but rather Medicine Man.
Walking Bear: I am simply a Native American man faithful and devout in my Spiritual Practices. I feel ‘Shaman’ and ‘Shamanism’ no longer belong to any tribe or language or region, it has now become part of the English language, slang that has taken on its own meaning. The new age followers seek to find meaning in themselves and this includes inventing new meanings for traditional words. So, I don’t use the word Shaman.
Buddha Weekly: What is the simplest way to explain your spiritual path?
Walking Bear: Self-discovery, especially identifying who (entity) and what (energies) is not the self; ultimately becoming aware of this spiritual battleground – seizing control. This is physical existence. “Living to die-scover the permanent.”
Budda Weekly: Die-scover?
Walking Bear: We die. Therefore we are impermanent. Which suggests permanence elsewhere, in another form. The true form or existence.
Buddha Weekly: Who were your teachers?
Walking Bear: A multitude of Medicine Men and Elders from back home and beyond. They were always answering my questions and never failed to put me to work. I learn much the hard way, and always the long way. I didn’t take any weekend workshops or go to any retreats. I lived the life. For this I am grateful. Poverty was also one of my best teachers.
Buddha Weekly: Can you think of any funny stories involving one of your teachers?
Walking Bear: First you have to understand how sacred smudge/incense works. They say when you breathe it in and it burns, that means you have negativity to wash away, or in a teenager’s case – you were up to no good. When I would arrive to help out around the sweatlodge, the Medicine Man would ask me to come close so he could smudge me. He would say “breathe it in deep into your nose” and would watch me. If it burnt my nose and I flinched, he would yell “what were you doing this weekend? Drinking? Talking to girls?” I soon learned to hide the pain, breathing the smudge, as my eyes watered.
Buddha Weekly: What is the most valuable lesson you learned from a teacher?
Walking Bear: To be careful with words when you pray. I used to pray for strength a lot. Not realizing the hardships and pain I would endure to obtain this strength. A Medicine Man told me instead to pray for gentle lessons, and strength would come without the kick in the butt. I pray, I fast, and I do no harm.
Buddha Weekly: You teach and use smudging? What are it’s benefits?
Walking Bear: Where do I start? We often think of Medicine as a solid or a liquid. Smudges are Medicines in the form of smoke. Western Medicine does nothing for the soul; it plays with the body. Smudges and natural medicines work spiritually and energetically, which ultimately helps the body physically. Smudges are sacred, and act as an aid in prayer, spiritual warfare, warding off evil, and cleansing and purifying the body and mind – which empowers the spirit. Smudges bless spaces, which includes the body, mind, sweatlodge, churches, and the home.
Buddha Weekly: I have to ask, since the language is aggressive, what do you mean by “spiritual warfare”?
Spiritual Warfare is the battle in the mental and physical against all adversaries of the Creator. They are obstacles. They distance us from the Creator. They can attack us psychologically and biologically. They are what some may call demons, evil spirits. Their attacks are endless and last from birth to death. But, it is still possible to have peace.
This is why we bless and consecrate or purify holy places, our home, ourselves. By doing so, we cast all obstacles and evil out of our lives. Sealing them out. Protecting an area or person.
This is why we breathe in smudge — as well as smudge and bless our bodies. This is why we wear or carry sacred relics like obsidian arrowhead, or protection made by medicine men such as medicine bags and pouches, holy pipes, and so on.
Buddha Weekly: What else do you teach?
Walking Bear: Once in a while I will share the art of Shamanic Rattle making. The way I was taught, the ritual way, the right way. I am working on other classes. Its tremendous work putting traditional teachings which span a lifetime to master into a curriculum for urban warriors and shamans.
Buddha Weekly: To your knowledge do Buddhist attend any of your workshops or events?
Walking Bear: Yes.
Buddha Weekly: What role does ceremony play in healing and/or your spirituality?
Walking Bear: Ceremony is how you commune with the Heavens. When I place the sacred pipe together, symbolizing the joining of Heaven and Earth, that’s where my soul can be reunited with its Creator. It’s the time where I pray deeply, where I can become cleansed by chanting and drumming, calling upon the Creator’s children to pity me and deliver my prayers, to help in any way they can. I deeply enjoy praying for others. The idea is to keep “clean” so my prayers can be “loud” and “strong” to pray on behalf of others. This involves a true sincere lifestyle. The Creator sees and knows all.
Buddha Weekly: Does healing work for people even if they don’t “believe”?
Walking Bear: Yes. This is where most belief and faith is founded. You might be ignorant to a “demon” causing chaos in your house. But that doesn’t mean I can’t walk in and throw him out. It’s that moment of peace where the demon is gone; you become aware of life without one and aware of the life to keep it that way.
Buddha Weekly: Is tobacco used in your tradition? How is it used, as an offering?
Walking Bear: You can consider it spiritual currency. It’s from Mother Earth, therefore allows a special connection to be made, a spiritual transference, from person to person, and person to spirit. Delivering prayers sealed in its core. It’s a special gift.
Buddha Weekly: Can you explain the significance of the sacred pipe?
Walking Bear: The pipe is a Sacred tool bestowed upon those chosen by the Creator. It provides a connection between heaven and earth, and ultimately joins them. It is a blessed sacrament to our people. It also represents male and female. The joining of the two. It’s how we communicate with spirits It’s considered very powerful. When it’s put together, it is considered a very sacred time, there’s an entire rite to just filling with tobacco. Prayers are placed in the tobacco before its put in the bowl. The pipe is then pointed in the four directions plus earth and sky. Specific things are said. Specific prayers are sent.
Buddha Weekly: Do you work with spirits, ancestors, animal guardians?
Walking Bear: They are considered the Creator’s children, his helpers, so often we go through them first, or the Creator sends them to help or deliver messages.
Buddha Weekly: Is there an element of shamanic journey in your practice?
Walking Bear: Journeying is a huge component. It has been since time immemorial. It’s the core of our practice. It’s how we receive messages, lessons, rites, songs, medicine, answers, visions, and much more. Whether done during a vision quest, a sweatlodge, a pipe ceremony, or meditation. The journey leads you to where you have to be, never where you want. Its where we see the unseen, the ethereal, which is more real than anything seen.
Buddha Weekly: You were taught the art of making rattles and drums by artisans and Medicine Men of your people, a Cree tribe in Alberta Canada?
Walking Bear: Yes. There were many artisans and traditional drum and rattle makers. I would always be at the right time and place ready to learn. I was lucky in that respect. Unfortunately it is a dying art and not practiced back home as before.
Buddha Weekly: Last year, I know you participated in a New Moon Shamanic Healing Ceremony. What kinds of healing do you teach?
Walking Bear: Healing in the form of Spiritual Warfare.
Buddha Weekly: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a student of your tradition?
Walking Bear: You may have to learn by doing 1000 times and only being told how to do it once.
Buddha Weekly: What is the most important lesson you try to impart to your students, or people who attend your workshops?
Walking Bear: Scrap the notion of the imagination. The imagination is a place for fairytales and dreams that never come true. The mind is where we build our life from the inside out. It’s where we invite the Creator to live within us — so keep it blessed and clean. It’s a sacred space. A sacred place. Its where we truly live. It’s the spiritual battleground we must win before any peace or enlightenment can be obtained and maintained.
Buddha Weekly: How is a rattle or drum used in your tradition, and why is it powerful?
Walking Bear: These are shamanic tools where sound and vibration is created to send healing to yourself and others, to send prayers to the heavens. They are sacred tools given to us by the Creator, delivered to us by ancient beings, to heal, pray, do ceremony, fight evil, cure sickness, clear stagnant energy and blockages, meditate, journey, chant, and give thanks to the Creator. The plants, trees, rocks, and animals each sacrificed a part of themselves out of pity and love for their human brothers and sisters to create the sacred drum and rattle. For this I am grateful and send love back to the beings of the Earth which we share this beauty.
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.