May 18th, 2010  |  Filed under Metropol, Spirituality

The Temple: Sacred Heart of Black Rock City

May 18th, 2010  |  Filed under Metropol, Spirituality

[Lee Gilmore teaches Religion & Anthropology at California State University Northridge and is author of Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

As travelers, historians, and archaeologists can tell you, great cities contain spiritual and ritual centers–physical manifestations of the human quest for the transcendent and magisterial.  Grand cathedrals, imposing temples, and mosques with soaring minarets–each an attempt to intersect both divine and earthly powers.  For Black Rock City, that heart is perhaps best identified with the annual Temples–each an ephemeral locus of memory and mourning.


Rod Garrett tells us that the origins of BRC’s famous layout of concentric circles lay in pragmatic and organic decisions.  Nevertheless, when viewed through a symbolic lens, its template readily suggests a labyrinth or mandala.  The placement of the Man at the BRC’s center readily evokes what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the axis mundi–a symbolic manifestation of the sacred center of the cosmos and the location of hierophany–the eruption of the sacred into the profane world. As both the spatial center and temporal apex towards which each annual event is definitively aimed, The Man forms axis of space and time in Black Rock City.

Yet over the course of the past decade, the sacred heart of Burning Man has shifted a few hundred yards outward.  Where the Burning of the Man can bring joy, catharsis, and transformation sharpened into a singular, ecstatic moment, Temples’ rites can engender a deeper and perhaps more difficult self-examination in asking us to consider our own mortality.

The Temples grew out of tragedy and immediacy when Petaluma artist David Best first transformed his 2000 playa installation called the Temple of the Mind into an impromptu memorial for a friend who had died in the weeks just before the event that year.

Temple of Tears, 2001

In 2001, a similar but significantly expanded structure would be called the Temple of Tears where all Black Rock Citizens were invited to inscribe memorials upon ornate wooden walls and to leave behind photos and other objects of personal significance. As my friend and colleague Sarah Pike has noted, through the physical inscription of memories on the Temple’s walls, and in turn through reading the inscriptions of others, participants were able to share, ritualize, and transform private grief into public expression in ways that are generally unavailable to many contemporary Americans.  Finally, on the festival’s final night, the Temple and its tokens were ultimately offered up in flame, dust, and ashes as thousands looked on in reverential silence.

This ritual has since become a cornerstone of BRC’s annual traditions–providing a contemplative space in which to reflect on some of life’s bigger questions concerning transience, meaning, and love.  Conceived and guided by David Best from 2001-2004 (and once again in 2007), he eventually handed off design and leadership to other members of the Burning Man community.
For example, this year’s Temple of Flux is being planned and constructed by a collective of participants affiliated with the Flaming Lotus Girls, the Shipyard, and other communities led by Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, and Peter Kimelman. (One of the artists reflected further on her inspiration for this year’s Temple here.) Expanding their ritual intention, this team writes:

To lead our design thinking we look to the idea of Counter-Monument. A phrase coined by James Young to define a new way of thinking about memorial/monument: The counter-monument’s aim is not to console but to provoke; not to embody permanence but change; not to be everlasting but to disappear; not to be ignored but to demand interaction; not to accept the burden of memory but to throw it back and demand response. The counter-monument accomplishes what all monuments should; it reflects back to the people and thus codifies their own memorial projections and preoccupations.

If the Temple is Black Rock City’s “church,” it is a space where religious impulses rest lightly upon themselves, leaving plenty of room for personal interpretations and expression while providing ritualized nudges towards introspection, connection, and transformation. And unlike the renowned cathedrals and temples of history, as a “counter-monument,” the Temple serves not as Black Rock City’s seat of divine authority or civic power, but rather as a decentralized, collective, and participatory nexus of creation and destruction, intimacy and spectacle, love and death.

10 Responses to “The Temple: Sacred Heart of Black Rock City”

  1. Laurel Karsch Says:

    The temple of Tears was truly that. I walked into the space and was immediately full of my grief and everyone else’s at the same time. The tears did not stop as I wrote on the pieces of wood supplied by the building crew. It was overwhelming for me in such a pure way. I have never experienced anything like it before. My awareness is: we are all suffering together about something all the time and we do and can release our grief at the Burning Man temples.

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  2. Mitchell Says:

    Love does not divide, it multiplies.

    Grief does not multiply, it divides.

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  3. BrotherMichael Says:

    Love and Grief neither multiply nor divide.
    They exist.
    We realize them, or we do not.

    It is our mind that believes things are multiplied or divided.
    The universe has no such concepts.

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  4. Andy Bruch Says:

    In 2001, the last time I went to BM, the Temple of Tears was the highlight of the week for me. I randomly met a woman I later fell in love with while comforting her mourning her fathers death. You could just feel the energy.

    After the Temple was burned down to a pile of very hot coals, I ended up pulling a guy out of the fire that had tripped and fallen face first in to the coals and couldnt get up. Something snapped in my head and I just ran in there and grabbed the guy and carried him out. About 10 people swarmed us and doused the guy with water after I got him out. It was one of the craziest nights of my life, and I still remember so many little moments so clearly.

    Man, I love that Temple…

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  5. J.michelle Says:

    This year is my third year in a row at BM. i brought friends last year,I thought that one friend would really grow from the experience.Due to the fact that he had never done anything like this in his life…Well the worse outcome anyone could imagine happened.While we were at BM our house got robbed they took his only true love…his guitar.Several months later he found the guys who did it.He ended up stabbing one to death and critically injuring the other.I never could have thought that this 19 year old kid could do something so grusome.Especially after seeing true beauty and happiness at BM.Now he faces a life in prison with the only good memory in his mind is BM.I thought i was doing a great thing by opening the eyes of a kid who had nothing good in his life.Now I feel like I love a murderer…how can this be?I didnt’ think anyone could get worse off after BM.I thought BM is a growing experience.Should I put something in the temple for him?I want to because i love him like a brother.I know he didn’t mean to kill that kid.I know he didn’t want to throw his life away.Please help me decide.

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  6. Reverend Billy Talen Says:

    Thank you Ms. Gilmore for your fair and clear march through difficult territory. It is fascinating to have an “axis mundi” that grew organically out of the reverenced chaos of the burn and the whole week of theme camps and bunnies and bodies and ego-loss and dehydration and the whole swirl of the playa.. We all have that grief but it took until 2001 to have that axis for it – maybe because grief is hi-jacked so thoroughly by organized religion. It is an amazing counter-monument, given the big old religions’ hold on traditional culture, to have our response to death improvised and then burned each year. I wish the Flaming Lotus Girls and the Shipyard good building!

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  7. Indi Says:

    J, Michelle, dear heart – you can not take responsibility for opening a door to possibility. One, your friend, may cross a threshold and not be prepared for entering the room. You offered in good consciousness, hope, the joy of sharing and your friend interpreted the following events in his way. Yes, we can love and care for one who transgresses – but we don’t have to condone the action. Has your friend requested that you place an offering in his name at the temple? Have you asked him if this would be something he’d want?
    You are suffering too – whatever your creative process, be it visual artwork, the written word or musical expression – design your own offering to the process of the temple. Healing will come with time.

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  8. joriverdog Says:

    I can not say just how this is related…but here’s a true story that to this day beguiles me….it was 2003 burn. I had just left the man’s burn and was riding my bike back to my camp when for some reason I stopped to look at a huge dome structure…a person was at the door and waved for me to come in…so…I did! I went in there realizing that there was some vortex of power there…inside there was a circle of couches on the outerside of inside the dome…between the walls and the couches were probable more than 50 people in a circle….I spoke briefly asking them to send the young female artist’s soul onward..I hear a voice behind me say ”we can do that”…then when I first came in I noticed an object…probably a human? under a black shawl. When finished the asking..i stepped closer to the object…when I got about 3 feet away the being lifted the shawl and there was the most grosteque human figure I have ever and ever will see…black as night and disfigured and twisted…he said to have come to close…I knew I was in deep shit…i stepped closer and it said I have something to tell you..I went closer and said what is it…i can take it…he said you won’t like it…I said i can take it what is it? he said I am death! I believed him and told him that was okay but I was not ready and then told him why and what I have to do in this life yet…he said you can have that….as I left none of the people in the circle would look at me..they could not hear what was said between death and myself…I left and when outside called on Gabriel my angel protector (another story)…anyway the next day we could not find the dome…This is a facutal and true story…

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  9. kaylah Says:

    joriverdog, 3 words, too much acid.

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  10. “Economy of Loving Kindness” | Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man Says:

    […] assembled in Black Rock City every year, the highlights are two towering wooden structures, the Temple and the Man. In the Temple, Burners leave notes throughout the week that describe the suffering […]

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