Days after hearing his name for the first time I heard someone talking about Rolling Thunder, the Native American medicine man and spiritual leader. A young woman sitting in front of me on the bus was talking excitedly to a friend, “its like, this weird thing. I just got a room in this house and now all of the sudden Bob Dylan is leaving messages for this guy on the answering machine. I only knew who it was because my Mom used to play him ALL THE TIME. She actually had the album “Rolling Thunder”! Anyways, there are all these Indians over at our house all the time now. I mean like Native American Indians. Its SOOO weird!”
I only heard about Rolling Thunder because I was taking Iaido lessons from one of the last living Samurai. Before my Aikido Sensei left on his spiritual quest he invited Takahashi Sensei to teach us the meditative art of Japanese quick draw swordsmanship. Born into a family lineage of Samurai stretching back centuries, he walked away from his fighter plane as Emperor Hirohito delivered the historic radio message of Japanese surrender to his people at the end of WWII. Sensei left his country soon after, making his way first to France to study painting and then to America, where he wound up hanging out with Beatniks in Big Sur. I was lucky enough to study with him for several years, learning more about life than swordsmanship, probably because I was not much of a swordsman.
“Dis is Japanese Yoga,” he explained to me one day in his pigeon-English. I laughed the loud snorting laugh of an arrogant young college student. “Yeah right,” I thought to myself, “practicing killing people is Yoga!” Strolling the college campus with his long matted hair, Confucian beard, disheveled kimono, and a live sword at his side, it was easy to think Sensei was more than a little crazy.
Classes with Sensei often consisted of three to five hour training sessions followed by dinner and drinking. The training never stopped though. I can remember at the end of a long story about some of the greatest martial artists he’d trained with Sensei pointed to few grains of rice left on the otherwise empty sushi plate at the center of our table. “Who left dis?” Sensei knew which of the half dozen people sitting around the table had been clumsy enough to leave rice behind. He expected us to know as well.
“Rollring Dunder very power spirit man. Dis true Shaman. Very strong spirit.” I had shared my interest in Shamanism with Sensei, hoping to find out more about the Shinto traditions he was raised with and the mystical religion “Oomoto” the founder of Aikido was involved in. Sensei had met Rolling Thunder in the early seventies and the two of them recognized something powerful in each other. I suspect part of what they saw was warriors from a bygone era whose people had faced the same enemy. Though Sensei was a jovial, compassionate teacher, I’d also caught glimpses of the killer in him and it made my blood run cold. I was to discover Rolling Thunder was no less powerful.
I decided I had to approach the young woman on the bus to see if she could reconnect these two warriors. “Hi, I overheard you talking about Rolling Thunder. I know this is going to sound weird but I have a Japanese sword teacher who is his friend. I think he’d like to see Rolling Thunder again.”
“Oh my God, this stuff has been happening to me all the time!” The young woman was flustered but finding her sea legs. “Could you just pass my phone number on to him” I asked? “Have him call me if he’d like to meet with my teacher again. His name is Takahashi Sensei.”
I got the call a few days later. Bob, the man Rolling Thunder was staying with called to arrange a meet. I gave him Sensei’s number and a meeting was arranged. A sword demonstration would be held at our dojo followed by dinner and some time to talk with Rolling Thunder. I was allowed to attend not so much as an honored guest as a valet for Sensei and his senior student.
Performing demonstrations with Sensei was a little like being a crash test dummy. My sword work was too inferior to show off, but like many Aikidoists I knew how to take a hard fall, even on pavement. Attacking Sensei felt like running full speed at a giant petrified tree stump. Being thrown by him was like falling five stories and THEN having a piano land on you. I managed to survive the demonstration and used the time during the sword portion of the demonstration to observe Rolling Thunder.
He was undergoing treatment for late stage diabetes and was facing the amputation of one of his legs. There was an intensity to his gaze, like a gunslinger who never knew when the next attack would come. He looked Anglo, being half Irish, but there was no mistaking he was culturally Native American. He struck me as a man who knew many secrets. Every move was calculated, every gesture limited vulnerability.
He and Sensei treated each other like long lost brothers. Later at Bob’s house a party ensued in which everyone but Rolling Thunder drank beer and sake for the first part of the evening. Regardless of language barriers, stories were swapped and wisdom was passed on. There were more martial arts demonstrations, despite the drink nobody was fatally injured. After taking his fill Sensei and his senior student left to make a long drive home. They would visit Rolling Thunder again.
A parade of well wishers and would be Shaman apprentices filed through the house that night. Rolling Thunder had made something to weed out those who couldn’t be trusted. Sitting in a wheelchair he prepared a small area by the edge of the fireplace. Laying a bundle of herbs and whispering a silent incantation, he seemed satisfied that his interview environment had been properly set. Slowly, unconsciously, people started finding their way over to that place to sit down. Once they sat they would start talking, and talking and talking. Rolling Thunder listened very carefully, interrupting from time to time to ask brief questions. He would nod occasionally then dismiss the person, soon after another would take their place. When I finally sat down I found myself babbling uncontrollably. It was as if all ability to filter out my own thoughts had vanished. I vaguely remember talking about a news story I’d read about cattle. Rolling Thunder asked a few questions, nodded and let me go. I’m sure what he found in my head was not very interesting.
When the last of us had revealed the workings of our minds it was time to separate the wheat from the chaff. Rolling Thunder had made it clear to Bob who would stay and who would go. With only a little resistance many of the guests were asked politely but firmly to leave. A few argued, it was useless. The decision had been made.
Those who have read books about Rolling Thunders exploits know that acts of tremendous magical power were attributed to him. Witnessing what was a modest expression of his ability first hand left no doubt in my mind that he was capable of much more. He knew he could get everyone in that room to reveal what was truly in their heart and mind. With the attitude of a seasoned tactician he managed each of us deftly, as if we were simple clay in his hands. This from an elderly man sitting in a wheelchair. If the stakes were life or death I have no doubt who would have been victorious.
I was privileged to join Rolling Thunder and the remaining guests outside for a brief prayer offering ceremony to the moon. We were each given a small portion of cornmeal and a chance to say a prayer. The mood was somber and sincere. Mindful of my own Irish ancestry I prayed for a peaceful homecoming for long lost kin.
I accompanied Sensei on a visit to Rolling Thunder after his leg had been amputated below the knee. For several years I’d been practicing laying on hands as a form of healing. Usually feelings or pictures came to mind when I touched someones body, especially near a place of injury or pain. Sensei asked me to touch Rolling Thunders leg above the point of amputation to support him in his healing. Rolling Thunder allowed it. Closing my eyes I could see nothing but clear bright energy. He was the only person I’ve ever touched who felt completely free of blocks, tension or suffering. Oddly enough it felt as if the part of leg that was amputated was still there.
The darkness and the lightness of these two friends from vastly different cultures left a permanent imprint me. Their reunion had little to do with me, I was just a messenger and then later lucky to be a spectator. I learned so much from both of them, if only in how they carried themselves. Both men faced death in harrowing circumstances time and time again in their lives. They grew up in a world where the savagery of battle was wrought not only with the cruel machinery of war, but also the powerful tools of mysticism. The world changed around them, they remained no less dangerous or passionate about their people and their way of life.
Michael Harner speaks from time to time about cultures with strong shamanic traditions that have lost their ability or propensity to journey to the Upper and Lower worlds of spirit – the places where transcendent wisdom is available to the Shaman. Without this guidance cultures can tend toward sorcery, using the gifts of shamanism for harm rather than good. A friend and spiritual teacher with many years of mystical training recently pointed out to me that Rolling Thunder had not been chosen by the spirits to be a Medicine Man, rather he’d been trained by choice of some kind. That may also mean he lacked the guidance of spirits who are otherwise available to those specifically chosen. Perhaps this led him to wield both sides of the sword, the spiritual aspect that lends itself to transcendance through cutting away illusion, as well as the lethal side – leading to great suffering.
I do not envy Rolling Thunder’s power, I suspect power like that comes at a very high price. Sensei has also seen his share of the darker side of life. While I don’t wish to emulate either of these two men’s lives, they authentically embody a warrior identity that is all but lost from our world. I still measure myself by their presence. Not in my ability to work magic, but in striving to embody fearlessly and without reservation what I know to be true. If they had doubt or fear in their lives I never saw any indication of it.
Rolling Thunder was the first Shaman I’d ever met, and as you can tell he made quite an impression. In addition to being a lesson in warriorship, I was also reminded to focus on the thread I’d been given, without getting lost in my preconceived notions of what shamanism or any other spiritual path was. I could easily have become one of the people Rolling Thunder ejected from the house if I’d put my desire to learn about shamanism in front of my own, very basic path. I didn’t imagine I could be like Rolling Thunder, I really didn’t want to be like him either. I was learning the value of putting one foot in front of the other with these new spirits in my life.
Those who work with Shamanism for healing purposes rarely hear about its darker side. We are privileged to train with people firmly grounded in positive, healing practices. By all appearances negative practices of this kind do not exist in our culture in any significant way. As more of us become aware of shamanism its inevitable more sorcery will come to light.
While ‘sorcery’ is too strong a word to use in reference to Rolling Thunders babble spot, there was something of wizardry in what he did. Unfortunately I would experience much less benign versions of a similar skill later in life. I learned first hand that this kind of power is not limited to indigenous cultures, it also exists in some very powerful ways in our own society. I did not fare so well in my later brush with a sorcerer’s power, experiencing suffering I never imagined was possible.