literatures, religions, and arts of the himalayan region
Michael Sunderland
Red Cloud High School
Nature and Spirituality in the Himalayas: A Comparative Approach
Himalayan And Lakota Culture
Nature Literature
Comparative Mythology
Spiritual Worldviews Cultural Practices Sacred Mountains Modern Conditions

Himalayan and Lakota Culture: Spiritual Worldviews


Lakota Spirituality

Wakan Tanka/ Wakan

"We should understand well that all things are the works of the Great Spirit. We should know that he is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples." ~ Black Elk

The Oglala Lakota tribe of South Dakota believe in Wanka Tanka, often translated as the "Great Spirit". Wanka Tanka is viewed as a presence, a spirit that infuses all of creation. The Lakota word wakan translated to the "sacred". The sacred is found in all of creation, from a newborn baby( wakanyeja, literally "sacred gift", is Lakota for children) to the wind blowing over the plains to the rhythmic beating of the drum.

"All life is wakan. So also is everything which exhibits power, whether in action, as the winds and drifting clouds or in passive endurance, as the boulder by the wayside. For even the commenest sticks and stones have a spiritual essence which must be reverenced as a manifestation of the all-pervading mysterious power that fills the universe." ~ Quoted in Joan Halifax's "The Third Body: Buddhism, Shamanism, and Deep Ecology" in Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology

Mitakuye Oyasin

A key term in Lakota cosmology is mitakuye oyasin, which translated to "all my relations". Ritual participants often state mitakuye oyasin in Lakota spiritual ceremonies, such as the sweatlodge (inipi). This statement reflects the Lakota belief in the interconnection of all of creation: animals, plants, peoples, trees, and so forth. Humans have their part in this great hoop of life, but are not above the rest of nature.

"Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation's hoop. " ~ Black Elk


Cangleska Wakan--The Sacred Circle

Related to the Lakota's concept of mitakuye oyasin is their perception of the world as a circle. Life is a circle, with all things connected and equally significant in the same dance of life (in contrast to a hierarchical view which sees humans as above all else). The reality of life is the circle: the sun is a circle, the moon is a circle, even the cycles of months are years are circular. Our lives are circular, as we all return to the earth upon our death. The Lakota word for sacred circle is cangleska wakan. Most of Lakota spiritual ceremonies, such as the sweatlodge and sundance (wi wangyang wacipi) as well as powwow dances (wacipi) are performed in a circle.

The Four Directions

The Lakota see the four directions of the world as sacred. Each direction is reverenced for its unique qualities. For example, East is usually represented as yellow and symbolizes the rising sun which brings us light and wisdom . The Lakota pay reverence to each direction in spiritual ceremonies, often with the sacred pipe (cannupa wakan). In addition to the four directions, the Lakota perceive the sky above and Mother Earth (maka ina) below as sacred. Here is an excellent video describing Lakota spirituality and the four directions:

Four Values

The number four is sacred to the Lakota. There are four values particularly significant to the Lakota. These four main Lakota values are generosity (wacontognaka), courage (woohitika), respect (wowcintanka), and wisdom (woksape). Here is a good website that explains the significance of these values for the Lakota:

Here is a fantastic website on Lakota culture, spirituality, language, music, and law:


Tibetan Buddhism and Lakota Spirituality

Buddha-nature/ Wakan

Tibetan Buddhism is prevalent in the Himalayas and shows many striking similarities to the Lakota spiritual worldview. Just as the Lakota believe in Wakan Tanka, a spiritual presence or mystery that infuses the world, so too do Tibetan Buddhists believe in a spiritual energy that animates the world. The Lakota concept of wakan, a belief in the sacredness of all living beings, parallels the Mahayana Buddhist belief in the buddha-nature of all beings. In the Mahayana spiritual worldview, all of creation is endowed with an intrinsic buddha essence. Just as for the Lakota, the Tibetan Buddhist world is an animate, vibrant living being:

"In the traditional Tibetan view, the animate and inanimate phenomena of this world are charged with being, life, and spiritual vitality. These are conceived in terms of various spirits, ancestors, demi-gods, demons, and so on." ~ Reginald A. Ray, Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, pg. 26

"Nature deities, especially associated with those awesome mountains, passes, and rivers that encompass the land, have given Tibetan culture a shamanistic flavour throughout its history." ~ Robert E. Fischer, Art of Tibet, pg. 11

Om Mani Padme Hum


The most popular mantra in Tibetan Buddhism is Om Mani Padme Hum, a mantra of Avaloketeshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. This mantra beautifully reveals the Tibetan Buddhist belief that wisdom and insight (prajna) is within us all. It is a call for us to wake up to this wondrous reality, which hearkens back to the original message of the Buddha (literally, "the awakened one"). Om Mani Padme Hum is often translated as "the jewel in the lotus". The lotus flower is a significant symbol in the Buddhist world. The lotus flower arises from the muck and scum of swamps, which symbolizes the world of samsara ("rebirth"). From this messy, painful, and painful world, the beautiful flower of enlightenment can blossom within each individual. The jewel represents this radiant awakening that can occur within us all. The shining jewel of enlightenment, our innate buddha-nature within, can certainly be paralleled to the Lakota concept of wakan, the sacred, numinous quality that resides in all beings. For more information on the meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum, consult this fine website: Another helpful website is the Dalai Lama's explanation of the mantra: Here is a short video clip of Om Mani Padme Hum being chanted:

Indra's Net/ Mitakuye Oyasin

The Lakota concept of mitakuye oyasin, the realization that all beings are interconnected and interdependent, has remarkable parallels to Mahayana Buddhist thought. Mitakuye oyasin parallels the Mahayana Buddhist Avatamsaka Sutra and the metaphor that is contained within it, that of Indra's Net (an image central to the Hua-yen school of Buddhism). This metaphor describes the world as an interconnected web that contains myriads of shining jewels. Each jewel reflects and is reflected in the other jewels, which represents the interconnection of all beings and the shining illumination that is within us all.

"Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring. The Hua-yen school has been fond of this image, mentioned many times in literature, because it symbolizes a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeated interrelationship among all the members of the cosmos. This relationship is said to be one of simultaneous mutual identity and mutual inter-causality." ~ Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, pg. 2

"The metaphor of Indra's Net (Avatamsaka Sutra) is an excellent example of an expression of root Dharma of great ecological and social potential. At each intersection of Indra's Net is a light-reflecting jewel (that is, a phenomenon, entity, thing) and each jewel contains another net, ad infinitum. The jewel at each intersection exists only as a reflection of all the others and therefore has no self-nature. Yet it also exists as a separate entity to sustain the others. Each and all exist only in their mutuality. In other words, all phenomena are identifiable with the whole, just as the phenomena that constitute a particular phenomenon are identifiable with it." ~ Ken Jones, "Getting Out of Our Own Light" in Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, pgs. 185-186

Mandala/ Cangleska Wakan

"Literally a circle or arc, the mandala became a means in Tibetan Buddhism of representing the entire sacred universe." ~ Robert E. Fischer, Art of Tibet, pg. 67

The Lakota perception of the world as circle parallels the Tibetan Buddhist mandala. The mandala is a sacred circle meant to embody Buddhist cosmology. A second layer of understanding is that the mandala is a roadmap to enlightenment. In the mandala, each dot symbolizes the deities. Likewise, most of Lakota spiritual ceremonies are performed in circular venues. For example, the sweatlodge is a circular dome that is said to embody or contain the entire universe within it. The sweatlodge is utilizes water, fire, air, and earth. It is the world in miniature, the womb of Mother Earth.

"The rite of the onikare (sweat lodge) utilizes all the Powers of the universe: earth, all the things which grow from the earth, water, fire, and air. The water represents the Thunder-beings who come fearfully but bring goodness, for the steam which comes from the rocks, within which is the fire, is frightening, but it purifies us so that we may live as Wakan-Tanka wills, and He may even send to us a vision if we become very pure." ~ Black Elk in The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux by Joseph Epes Brown, pg. 31


The Lakota see the four directions as each represented by a specific color. There are different interpretations on the color of each direction. One interpretation is the following: black (West), red (North), yellow (East), white (South). The sky is usually represented by the color blue and the earth by the color green. Here is a website that examines this aspect of Lakota spirituality: Similarly, there are sacred colors in the Tibetan tradition: blue, yellow, red, green, and white.


Buddhist enlightenment can be said to be the union of wisdom (symbolized by the bodhisattva Manjusri) with compassion (symbolized by the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara). Both of these values are highly regarded in Lakota thought. For the Lakota, wisdom is woksape, symbolizes by the illuminating rays of the sun rising in the dawn. The Lakota writer Joseph Marshall III focuses on the wisdom of elders gained through a lifetime of experience:

"The Lakota consider fortitude, generosity, bravery, and wisdom to be the four greatest virtues. In any discussion or mention of these virtues, wisdom is invariably the last to be named. However, intentional or unintentional that may be, it is entirely appropriate because wisdom is not only the greatest of the four greatest, it is also the most difficult to achieve. Furthermore, wisdom is associated with old age, and that, too, is entirely appropriate because wisdom cannot be had in ten easy lessons. One has to live a long life to gain wisdom, and it is regarded as life's gift by some who finally achieve it. It is, many also realize, a gift they cannot keep to themselves. It must be given back to life." ~ Joseph Marshall III, Walking with Grandfather: The Wisdom of Lakota Elders, pg. 2

The Buddhists believe that inner wisdom ("prajna" literally, "insight") is the foundation through which all else flows. Wisdom is seen as the mother of all buddhas. Wisdom is personified by the bodhisattva Manjusri, who is usually depicted wielding a book (symbolizing wisdom) and a sword, which is said to cut through delusion and ignorance.

manjusri MANJUSRI

The second aspect of Mahayana enlightenment is compassion. The Shakyamuni Buddha exemplifies this aspect in his life. After becoming enlightened, the Buddha could have reveled forever in this blissful state; instead, he decided to remain in the world and preach the Dharma out of compassion for all beings. Also reflecting the ideal of compassion is the concept of the bodhisattva, the enlightened beings who delay their own buddha-hood to remain in the world and attempt to save all sentient beings.

This ideal of compassion corresponds to the Lakota virtue of generosity(wacontognaka), one of their most significant values. Lakota generosity is frequently manifest, whether in large feasts after an important event or in giveaways.

An interesting website that parallels Tibetan Buddhism and Native American spirituality is the following:

Classroom Use:

This material could be helpful especially for a comparative religions or social studies class. It is important to be able to make connections between different cultures, which simultaneously recognizing their uniqueness.

Essay Question

1. Research two different cultures or religions. Compare and contrast their similarities and differences.

Journal Question

1. What is your cosmology? How do you view the world? Do you have a spiritual worldview?

Move on to Cultural Practices

This site was created by Michael Sunderland at the NEH Summer Institute "Literatures, Religions, and Arts of the Himalayan Region," held at the College of the Holy Cross, Summer 2008.