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By Mikkel Aaland ©1998 All Rights reserved

Chapter Twenty

The fire ceremony, Mt. Iwakiyama 1987


On the morning of the fire ceremony Takizawa, the White Dragon, arrived from Osaka accompanied by several of his congregation. They had prepared for the ceremony on their own, adhering to the special diet and praying .

I didn't notice any tension between him and the other teachers, but soon after he arrived the group from Osaka, including me and a few of my classmates, found a room in one of the smaller buildings and spent the morninggathered around our teacher, apart from the others. Our vow of silence was over and the room was full of happy conversation.

At one point the teacher asked me how the classes were going. Kazz, as usual, translated.

In truth I enjoyed what was happening between classes: my quiet writing and long walks alone through the forest to secluded shrines. In one ravine, high up the mountain, I had found a small pond with a red torri placed in the middle. I loved standing at the water's edge, surrounded by trees and brush, staring at the simple shrine. I clapped my hands, just as I had seen Kazz and the teacher do many times. They had explained that the clapping called the attention of the gods. The sound of my clapping echoed back to me. I prayed to nothing in particular. I just repeated the sun goddesses' name over and over, finding pleasure in the sound. A distorted duplicate of the red shrine reflected back from the water. A burst of wind blew ripples on the water, rustling the bushes and disturbing a bird which flew into the blue sky and disappeared in a burst of bright light. I felt power, pleasure and reverence. I couldn't remember a single church in America or cathedral in Europe that had evoked such wonder as that simple Shinto shrine.

"The classes are very interesting," I slowly answered the teacher, "but so much talk. It was difficult for me to understand."

He looked at me a long time before turning back to the others.

At noon of that day we assembled in the courtyard. There were about a hundred of us and we took a group picture. Four large packages which contained sacred objects were transferred carefully from the shrine. Then a procession began at a small shrine near our classroom. We walked single file. The mountain was steep but the path that we followed was windy and gradual. We walked slowly and no one lagged behind. Every thirty minutes or so the packages were ritualistically passed between masked bearers.

Several hours later, at the top of the mountain, we rested. A light supper was served, and we adjusted our kimonos for the final ceremony. A narrow piece of cloth was wrapped over our shoulders and across our chest, making an X in the back. Everyone, including me, covered the tops of their heads with a white headband. Some of the men took out their long samurai-like swords. I had only the small dagger, the replica of the original Sword of Heaven that Kazz had given me a few years earlier. The rest of the people carried a leafy branch called tamagushi (Tama means bowl or soul and gushi means to push). "The tamagushi becomes a sword," said Kazz. "It is used just like the sword to push away bad spirits. We push them away, not cut them. We don't want them to become two. After the ceremony the tamagushi is offered to the fire."

One by one we filed into a small clearing in the woods near the main shrine. The night sky was filled with stars. A large fire in the middle of the clearing was lit by a spark, and as the fire consumed the stacks of wood the people around me softly chanted. One of the participants pounded slowly on a huge wooden drum that was strapped to his chest. The sound reminded me of a pulsing heart. The sacred objects which had been so carefully carried up the mountain were paraded around the fire. Bamboo was tossed on the fire, which crackled and spit like an angry serpent. A woman stood in the middle of the circle and read from a scroll. I recognized Japanese words such as stone, gate, and open and I assumed she was asking the gods to let us in. Everyone seemed to slip into a deep trance. The fire glowed on their faces. I pulled out my camera, knowing I needed something to remind me that this was really happening.

I looked at Kazz's oblivious face and realized that while I was busy translating this ceremony and even the Sword of Heaven project into psychological symbols and metaphors, he was experiencing everything directly. The stone gods that we had so busily distributed around the world were as real for him as a hammer is for a carpenter. The bad spirits, which I had intellectualized as a manifestation of my own subconscious, were for him real as well; here, at the fire ceremony, he was literally battling them. At that moment, it was difficult to remember that Kazz was very much a modern man who owned a camera, a computer and ran a business selling antique. He was a man who saw no conflict between science and spiritualism.

On cue from the ceremony leaders, the participants began chanting what I was later told were archaic Japanese words. Then, as in Osaka, they began swinging their swords and leafy branches in front of them. This time, though, I was prepared for the wild scene and tried to chant along. I looked over and saw that Takizawa had no sword or tamagushi. He was waving his hands and arms.

The ceremony might have lasted an hour or a day. Time became elastic, and although it was past midnight I felt no fatigue. Finally, after several loads of wood burned to embers, the chanting stopped and one of the teachers began to speak. Kazz didn't translate, leaving me with no idea what the teacher was saying. Takizawa was silent, and I wondered what he was thinking. After the speech was over, we slowly walked the short distance to the nearby shrine. There was a brief ceremony, which included chugging a cup of sake, and then we walked in the dark down the steep road toward the school and our mats. There was just the hint of a new moon and just enough star light to see the road.

I walked alone. Kazz and Takizawa were somewhere behind me. I was passed by several people, whose shoulders were thrust proudly back, their hearts easily exposed, radiating self-confidence. I was convinced that these people would return to their jobs as shopkeepers, lawyers and factory workers knowing that their thoughts and actions were important, that they did make a difference in an inherently benevolent world. (A cynical voice inside me insisted that maybe one of them would return home and become a serial killer. But somehow, surrounded by this happy group, I doubted it.)

I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Kazz and Takizawa. We walked together for a while before I finally asked Takizawa the first question that popped into my mind: Why didn't he bring his sword?

Kazz answered for him, "The teacher always carries the mental body of sword. It's not important for him to have the actual sword."

Then I asked if Takizawa had experienced another vision, perhaps like the one two years earlier in Osaka of the Kremlin collapsing.

"For many years, at the fire ceremony," the teacher answered, "I felt God falling down into the fire. Always God goes into the fire. But not this time. This time God stayed in the high place and tossed ashes from the sky into the fire. The fire pushed the ashes back into the air where they dropped again on the fire. The fire pushed the ashes back. This happened three times. The last time the gods stayed in the ashes and went all over the world, covering all the bad and evil spirits. It will be difficult for war to start, now, with the earth covered in ashes."

"Because of the project?" I asked. "Because of the stone gods?"

"Yes," he answered, "However..."

We passed a group of silent participants. When they saw the teacher they stopped and bowed reverently.

"There is a problem," the teacher finally said after we continued down the hill. "We are missing two important places: South Africa and the Amazon."

It was Kazz who asked, "Do you know anyone going there? I can't."

"Not me. I'm finished traveling for a while."

"No problem," said Kazz quickly. "We'll find a way."

Then to my amazement I heard myself say, "Oh, don't worry. I'll take care of it."

Back in Tokyo, several days after the fire ceremony, I lay in a tub at my hotel. My body ached from a sudden flu and I couldn't move. The mineral salts relaxed my muscles but I was overheated. "What have I done?" I thought. "Why have I accepted more gods?" I pulled the plug and watched the water slip over my chest and legs on its way down the drain. Drifting into delirium, I saw myself flowing into the drain along with the water. I saw a windmill, the blades spinning round and round until they turned into a waterfall cascading into the tub. Then the bow of a ship appeared. A Viking ship? The vessel became a funeral pyre, drifting aflame. Was it my funeral I was witnessing? The ship changed into a myriad of shapes and forms. Then there was a huge storm. A hand from the burning ship reached into the swirling water and grabbed me just before I sank through the drain.

I slowly pulled myself out of the tub. Then I lay on my bed, mentally kicking myself. South Africa? The Amazon? What the hell was I thinking?

Chapter Twenty One