THE SWORD OF HEAVEN
By Mikkel Aaland ©1999 All Rights reserved
Summary by the Author
The Sword of Heaven is a record of a project I first heard about in 1982, at the height of the Cold War. A Japanese Shinto priest, a survivor of Hiroshima, had a horrific vision of the end of the world, and a subsequent vision about how to save it. This priest, or sensei as he is called in Japanese, was instructed by God to break an ancient Shinto sword into 108 pieces and place these pieces in stone. Each stone, which now became a kami or god, imbued with magical powers, was then to be placed strategically around the world. After each placing the priest and his followers in Japan were to conduct a special ceremony to help fight the evil that was engulfing the world.
After hearing the story and learning that the ambitious peace project was actually underway, I quickly offered my help. I was drawn to the project as a very concrete way to take some action against the threat the Cold War presented -- nuclear annihilation. I was also in a unique position to help because I am a photographer and writer who travels a lot for work. For the next six years I helped place kamis around the world, traveling to five continents and to Japan itself three times. As the project progressed I became interested in Shinto and learned about its mythology, its belief in ancestor and nature worship, and the window Shinto opens to the spirit world -- details of which are included in the story along with the record of the placing of the kamis .
But this is only part of my story. It quickly becomes clear that this is not only a Shinto project but a odyssey of personal exploration and revelation. As a child of the Cold War, and more specifically of a father who worked at the Livermore Radiation Laboratory -- one of the United States's major nuclear weapons research centers located near San Francisco -- I grew up fearing an impending nuclear apocalypse. Because my father believed that Livermore was a big X on a Soviet missile map, he built a bomb shelter in 1962 during the Cuban missile crises. The bomb shelter became my bedroom for the rest of my childhood and it was in that bomb shelter that my nightmares began.
Not long after I started helping the Japanese, just after attempting to place a kami at the Livermore lab itself, my childhood nightmare returned and recurred at significant moments throughout my involvement with the project. In my original childhood nightmare an evil force pounded violently at the bomb shelter's escape hatch, trying to get in. I would always wake up before it got through the heavy metal, never knowing what the evil looked like, only knowing that it was out to kill me and my family. As the Sword of Heaven project progressed I found myself in my nightmare getting closer and closer to opening the escape hatch door and facing the evil itself. Would the Sword of Heaven empower me to open the door?
At the end of the book, in South Africa just before the dismantling of apartheid, my nightmare made a final appearance. It was the night before I placed one of the kamis in the Cape of Good Hope. Sword in hand I opened the door and the evil screamed at me. The sword disappeared and I was faced with an unspeakable evil. At that moment I had an epiphany. I realized that I had to open my heart and let the evil pass. And it did pass, like wind through the branches of a tree. I woke not in fear but calm, knowing something deeply significant had occurred, something that would take a long time for me to truly understand but something that made all the difference.
The nightmare in the Sword of Heaven represents much more than one individual's response to the Cold War. As John Mack says in his book Nightmares in Human Conflict (Columbia University Press): "Each individual who conquers the panic of their nightmare, who faces up to the terror of evil, and thereby discovers a goodness which heals and cannot be destroyed, brings fresh love into the world. The deepening of their capacity for love will first heal their own wound, and then go further, spreading its gentle influence upon family and friends."
One person's story of overcoming fear (nuclear or otherwise) through ritual and love also has greater implications for society as a whole. In Hiroshima in America: A half century of denial (Avon 1995), the authors Lifton & Mitchell believe that fear -- traced directly to Hiroshima and the nuclear threat -- has a firm grip on modern America. They say this has led to a "numbing of the senses". And, as the numbing spreads, "we have become increasingly insensitive to violence and suffering around us, to killing in general, but also to poverty and homelessness. And we have come to require -- and seek -- ever larger doses of violence in order to enhance our capacity to feel."
In addition to its inspirational aspect, the Sword of Heaven is also a good introduction to the world of Shinto, something few Americans know about, much less understand. Shintoism has much in common with American Indian spirituality. It worships nature and ancestors, and empowers people by giving them a sense of connection with and purpose in the world. Furthermore, I like to think that this project and my involvement in it brought two great streams -- Shinto and the western Judao/Christian spirit -- together. Although at times they clashed, they eventually merged, just like the waters of the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes at the spot where I placed the last Shinto god, described in the Prologue.
The images that accompany the book are of two types--documentary and illustrative. The illustrative images -- one for each chapter -- were created using a style of photography I call "sumi-e photography", a style based on the gestural black-ink brush drawings of the Japanese. The illustrative images are accompanied with text from the I Ching, the ancient book of Eastern wisdom. The documentary images are just that: actual photographs taken during my six year odyssey. They are meant to run small, embedded in the text as a reminder that this story is in fact true.
The Sword of Heaven is now available at your local bookstore or at Amazon.com.
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