Redeeming an Unholy Fire: Pilgrimage to the Poisoned Heart of Avanyu

Copyright 2002 – by Steven McFadden

Los Alamos, New Mexico — Here in this place of Poplar and Cottonwood trees — where fire has at times bellowed up from the earth with catastrophic consequence — a purified flame of nuclear energy returned on February 26, 2002 to its spiritual, intellectual, and physical point of origin.

lanternThe flame, flickering in a lantern borne by pilgrims on foot, was largely unrecognized and unacknowledged in Los Alamos. Still, the pilgrims completed the work of spiritual redemption they had come to accomplish, and then they walked on toward the East, planning to arrive in New York City on May 12, 2002. Their visit to this place of fire is of marked spiritual significance.

On Turtle Island (North America) there are many sophisticated and distinct teachings from ancient times. Yet there is one widely held understanding about the great story of the continent, a story that concerns the origins of human beings and their relationships with one another and the Sacred Hoop of life that supports them. In the beginning, some traditional elders say, Creator established four nations of people and gave each the responsibility for one of the four elements. The Red nation to keep the Earth; the Black nation to keep the water; the Yellow nation to keep the air; and the White nation to keep the fire.

hoopIn the beginning, it is said, the four nations lived together as one and shared their gifts. Then came a time when it was necessary for spiritual growth that the Four Nations disperse to the Four Directions and live apart. Over time they could develop as human beings and master the mysteries of their element for good or ill, according to their free will. Earth, air, fire and water — the peoples went apart.

At a crucial juncture of world history, the story relates, the four nations would come together again on Turtle Island. By intermingling again, it was said, they would have an opportunity to share and teach — to put their gifts together in a new and beautiful way. If they neglected to do this, if they were distracted by fear and greed, then the people would face a monumental challenge.

The imminence of that colossal challenge — a global convergence of war, environmental destruction, earth changes, and social chaos — was illuminated by the courageous spiritual deed of 30 pilgrims on February 26, and by the sacred fire they carried. Their story is worthy of note.

Walkers Behind the Storm

A bruising, roaring, dust–choked wind preceded the pilgrims and their flame. The stinging dust storm ripped across northern New Mexico and the streets of Los Alamos all day Monday, Feb. 25, 2002. Then that evening as the winds finally eased, 30 motley peace walkers entered Los Alamos bearing their flame. They quietly moved into the Unitarian Universalist church for the night, to share a meal and shelter.

The region they entered — now called Los Alamos — has been a fire center since pre–historic times. It was widely known and marked as a special node of material and spiritual fire, a place to be enaged only with the utmost respect. Now it is more widely known as the birthplace of the atomic bomb, and the home of the nation’s nuclear weapons, Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Pilgrims walk east from Los Alamos toward the Sangre de Christo Mountains.

Pilgrims walk east from Los Alamos
toward the Sangre de Christo Mountains.

Los Alamos is built on the eastern flank of The Valles Caldera, one of the largest “dormant” volcanoes in the world — a vast, sleeping source of molten fire from the bowels of the planet. “Caldera” is the Spanish word for cauldron. Such a place on earth is formed from massive but infrequent eruptions. After the eruption — much like a nuclear bomb but without poisonous radiation that endures for hundreds of thousands of year — the blast hole fills with volcanic ash and pumice. Scientists say the vast, 15–mile diameter Valles Caldera last erupted a million years ago, and that it is now dormant.

When American scientists were drawn to this region in the 1940s to build the atomic bomb, they were — as a matter of mystical consequence — being magnetically drawn to the most potent and significant fire center of Turtle Island.

Carrying a Lantern

The prayer walk that came to Los Alamos in late February began January 15, 2002, at the grave of Chief Seattle in Washington state. A small band of pilgrims, coming from nations all over the world, began a walk across the US carrying a lantern with a flame ignited from the fires started by the nuclear bombs which obliterated Hiroshima, Japan.

They are walking without recriminations, grievance or protest, but rather in solidarity with life and in peace. They seek mainly to give people an opportunity to partake of the flames’ redeemed meaning and power.

Nuc-BombThe flame the pilgrims carry was ignited 57 years ago and has been tended with prayer ever since. In1945, after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, a man named Tatsuo Yamamoto walked into the ruins of the city to look for friends and family. In shock and anger, he collected some of the embers still smoldering from the bomb and carried them home.

Yamamoto’s grandmother preserved the embers and kindled a flame, which was used to illuminate the family’s prayer altar. For Yamamoto the smoldering embers symbolized his rage over what had happened; for his grandmother it symbolized love and the memory of the over 300,000 people who died directly from the atomic blast. Thousands of other human beings later died of cancers and related illnesses, or suffered mutations, directly attributable to the bomb’s nuclear radiation.

Over the next 12 years Yamamoto’s grandmother kept the flame with honor and respect. During this time Mr. Yamamoto underwent a complete change of heart. The flame on the altar transformed for him from a flame of hate and hostility into a flame of respect and love. Thanks to his family and a nearby monastery, the flame has been burning — surrounded with prayers and incense — since the moment of the Hiroshima blast on August 6, 1945.

Through the last decades the prayers of the people of Japan — and others around the world — have transformed that fiery expression from material to spiritual. The flame no longer harms people and destroys no life. It has become a quiet but potent focus of light and peace.

The 2002 Hiroshima Flame Interfaith Pilgrimage includes people of all colors and faiths.They say their effort is not a political statement, but a spiritual act. By walking and praying for peace, they say, they focus a common hope of all peoples and a common prayer for our mother the earth.

The Pilgrimage was organized by Sister Jun Yasuda, a Japanese Buddhist nun, and Tom Dostou, a citizen of the Wabanaki Alqonquin Nation in the Northeast region of Turtle Island. Jun San and Tom have been joined by peace pilgrims from around the world, an international group of all colors and faiths.

Material Realization

The very nature of the walk, and the very fact that the redeemed flame was returned to the source, promps realization. They symbolize a crucial choice the world must make now. That choice is between an essentially materialist culture fenced in by desire and dogma, or a fundamentally free culture that respects the living spirit in all of life.

atomicBombThe nuclear bomb is an ultimate expression of materialism. When the atomic scientists of Los Alamos took the secret of the atom — the fundamental particle of matter — and developed it into a weapon of mass destruction, they unleashed a scathing, wrathful demon of fire rather than a higher angel of warmth and illumination.

In splitting the atom scientists realized the core power of matter. In using it against life they became immersed in awe of and deference to the ultimate death—dealing expression of materialism. This can be seen as a failure altogether to recognize and respect the spirit that resides in all sentient beings, and as trespass against a universal spiritual law: thou shalt not kill.

In works such as Lyrics from the Book of Nature and the Second Coming over Lindisfarne, Welsh poet Charles Lawrie has expressed the excruciating polarity of this choice in vivid terms, describing his inner images in response to the first nuclear explosion.* His thoughts, even in paraphrase, are arresting:

  • Contrast the eye–scalding light of the world–shattering bomb, against the radiant light of authentic spiritual revelation as in the Transfiguration.
  • Contrast the flash of heat that causes sands to melt to glass, against the warmth of love which touches every human being.
  • Contrast the blast wave of sheer energy moving swiftly out as a destructive shock, against the moral impact of what humans feel in response to the revelation of the indwelling spirit and the shame of their personal imperfections.
  • Contrast the death–dealing nuclear radiation (potent, invisible, lacking honor) against the life–giving radiance which comes from nurturing other people and the earth we share.
  • Contrast the mushroom cloud, the crown of an anti–king (who dispenses death, illness and suffering), against the coming in the clouds from the East, the radiant sky forms crowning a heavenly source of grace.

Vigil at the Place of Avanyu

At sunrise on Tuesday, Feb. 26 the walkers arose at the Los Alamos Unitarian Universalist Church. They meditated for an hour, ate breakfast, and set out on a short walk downtown to the Los Alamos County Skateboard park. What is now a place for children to play, 50 years ago was the site of the first plutonium processing plant. There the walkers and a small band of local supporters formed a circle.

Shannyn Sollitt of Santa Fe, who guided the walk through the region, sounded loudly on a conch shell to honor the Four Directions. The Nichiren Buddhist monks chanted their familiar central tenet, Odaimoku: Na Mu Myo Ho Renge Kyo, “the Lotus Sutra of the True Dharma.” Tom Dostou called upon several elders, who made prayers according to their traditions. Shannyn Sollitt called upon the Los Alamos National Laboratory to use their intelligence and skills not in service of war and death, but rather in service of life.

And then the pilgrims went on, walking about 10 zig–zag miles through Los Alamos, prohibited by federal security from getting close to any of the many “sensitive areas” around and about Los Alamos. The US Energy Department banned the walk from approaching any of the labs, and from walking on any of the public roads that pass the labs.

Since the walk came not for confrontation but to perform a spiritual service, the organizers changed the route without complaint. They walked and held vigil as close to the labs as they were permitted, and then they walked on.

Place of Avanyu, sealed off within Area G in Los Alamos, NM - now desecrated by the world's largest nuclear dump.

Place of Avanyu, sealed off within Area G in Los Alamos, NM – now desecrated by the world’s largest nuclear dump.

In the afternoon the pilgrims walked further with the flame. They set out from nearby White Rock, New Mexico along Pajarito Rd, to the barbed–wire fence outside the Los Alamos Lab’s Area 54, Area G. This is a global wonder, the world’s largest nuclear waste dump. According to Shannyn Sollitt, over 50,000 drums of contaminated nuclear waste, plus additional unlined pits and shafts some of them leaking their infernally toxic contents, the waste slowly seeping into the earth to poison it and the scarce waters below for hundreds of generations to come. The DOE says it plans to to bury an additional 2.7 million drums of waste here over the next 65 years.

Just behind the barbed wire and the warning signs which impotently strive to seal Area G off from the rest of the world, yet clearly visible from the road, are rock cliffs marked with a petroglyph.

avanyulosalamosThe glyph was carved into the rock face of the outcropping thousands of years ago by the indigenous Pueblo peoples, whose descendents still live nearby. There are such petroglyphs all over North America, serving as signs and signals of importance to native peoples.

The Hiroshima Peace Flame walkers stopped and formed a circle across the road from a particular petroglyph, the carved image of Avanyu. Avanyu is depicted as a great serpent with a lightning–bolt tongue. According to tradition, Avanyu represents the sacred waters of the earth and sky, and the lightning-bolt can be understood to respresent what modern spiritual scientists might refer to as Shakti, cosmic electric fire with the capacity to enlighten, or to burn and destroy if employed without wisdom.

Beholding this ancient stone carving, the walkers viscerally understood that the place where they had come — Los Alamos, the city of nuclear fire — had been built directly upon what has for many thousands of years been considered to be a sacred site.

In this place formerly regarded as worthy of high respect, our National Lab has dumped ton upon ton of desecrating nuclear poison.

Message on the Wind

prayerWFrom the place of Avanyu, the walkers proceeded — drumming and chanting each step — about seven miles to Tsankawi, a prehistoric site that is now part of Bandelier National Monument. Tsankawi is a spectacular place high on a mesa overlooking the Jemez Mountains to the West and the Sangre de Christo Mountains to the East.

The walkers climbed to the top of the mesa with the Hiroshima flame, an indigenous woman from Ecuador, and two Native American elders from the nearby Santa Clara Puebo — whose ancestors once inhabited Tsankawi. With the sun setting in the west, the elders guided a simple ceremony, emphasizing peace and respect for all of the Sacred Hoop of life.

“You will need to be strong,” said Erwin Rivera, one of the Santa Clara elders, “for you will be called cowards and traitors. But it is an act of courage to choose sanity and peace when others are choosing hate and war.”

“Right now,” the elder said, “the Valles Caldera has the exact same technical classification that Mount Saint Helens had up until the time it exploded in a massive eruption. The scientists say it is dormant. But the caldera is not dormant, only sleeping. Some of our elders say it may have to awaken some day to cleanse all the poison that has been dumped here.”

Atomic Aftermath

HomageWindThe wind people, the messengers, brought the flame home to its point of origin, having purified it with their chants, prayers and incense. They offered it to the people of the city without rancor, recrimination, or challenge. They offered the flame with understanding and hope. And then they walked on.

Not one scientist, not one of the new keepers of the fire, came out to behold the flame that was still burning from the nuclear holocaust started 57 years ago by the work done here. No one bore witness.

Except for a handful of locals, the newspapers, and the UU church, the walk was overlooked. Scientists and citizens drove by with barely a flicker of recognition or interest. The only people paying attention were the County Sheriffs. In marked cars they diligently shadowed the walk all day, remaining politely distant.

After the day in Los Alamos the walkers were hosted for a meal and sleeping accommodations at the Rio Rancho community center. The next day — February 27, 2002 — the peace pilgrims departed the Los Alamos region quietly to walk East. On that same day, USA Today reported that radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests across the globe has caused at least 15,000 cancer deaths in U.S. residents born after 1951.

This information was obtained from an unreleased government study. Coupled with findings from previous government investigations, it suggests that 20,000 non-fatal cancers – and possibly many more – also can be tied to fallout from weapons tests. When fallout from all tests, domestic and foreign, is taken together, no U.S. resident born after 1951 has escaped exposure, the study says.

doomsdayclockAlso on that day, to sound an alarm about the rapidly growing danger of a nuclear conflagration, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved their famous Doomsday Clock forward two minutes closer to midnight. The scientists wanted to highlight the dramatically mounting dangers of political instability, the wide availability of nuclear materials, terrorism, and the aggressive unilateral stance of the US government.

The Hiroshima Peace Flame Walk will continue in the eastern half of the United States until May 12, 2002. It will end its eastward trek in New York at United Nations headquarters and at the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. Later the walk will return the fire ceremonially to the Earth at the Arizona mine where the uranium for the Hiroshima bomb was dug from the ground.

To read about the end of the walk months later at Big Mountain on Black Mesa in Arizona, click here.

*For more on poet Charles Lawrie and an essay on the spiritual implications of the nuclear bomb, see “Nuclear Power, the Royal Stars, and the Destiny of Humanity” by David Tresemer, Ph.D. and Robert Schiappacasse