Spirituality and Community: The Process and Intention of bringing a Temple to Black Rock City

photo by Portaplaya

Since the year 2000, there has been a Temple at Burning Man, and when we talk about the Temple, most people think of what started that year with David Best and Jack Haye, and became a long line of temples that have graced the playa. The Temple has evolved from what became a memorial to their friend into an “emotional nexus” of our community, where thousands make pilgrimage each year to remember those they have lost, to celebrate and affirm life, to heal and to forgive.

In 2012 I was fortunate to meet many of the people who are involved with building the Temple each year and to research what I came to believe are some of the essentials of understanding what the Temple at Burning Man has become. It is a place where our community goes to unburden itself and it is a representation of our maturity as a community as well as a natural manifestation of something sacred in the City of Black Rock.

photo by Portaplaya

Proposing to be the one who builds the Temple at Burning Man is serious stuff involving quite a bit of work within an existing structure of volunteers and other Temple minded folks to create something for the community.  One question that was raised over and over again as I spoke with people who have done this before was that you should not ask yourself  “WHAT am I doing this for?” but rather “WHO am I doing this for?”

For many Burners, the Temple is a vital place where those who build it possess a solemnity and a respect for that process. It is also a place for those who attend the event to use for grieving or celebration of life in an environment that is in contrast to a lot of the rollicking and outrageous things happening elsewhere on the playa that week in late summer.

photo by d’andre

Walking around the Temple at the middle of the week, I personally get overwhelmed by the amount of emotion that is focused like a beam in there. It is as if, from its inception each year, to all the planning and all the hands that build it, then when the event begins and it becomes “the largest collaborative art project” on the playa; that the energy of so many caring people turns whatever sublime Temple structure is built that year into something far greater than any art project.

Stopping to read the remembrances of so many loved friends, family and pets who have passed on, seeing the pictures of so many of them, pausing at the altars and shrines where people have lovingly placed tokens of their lost one’s lives, well, that can really get you right in your plexus where you feel that big sorrowful empathy wave. The Temple is a profound space where some of us who have lost loved ones can let them know that they are still loved and missed, but that it is all ok, they can pass and we can move on.

I’m a large, somewhat dim and oafish fellow, and I can only stay in there for so long before I have to walk away from it out onto the blankness of the playa with the Temple behind me, and breathe deeply so as to not betray the tough guy façade I live behind.

It is a heavy place.  If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.

photo by Steven Fritz

Regardless of who builds the Temple, it is always something spectacular and special. There are bona fides and expertise that are a prerequisite to building the Temple at Burning Man and I was privy to finding out what some of those were this year.

I’ve written an article about what I discovered after being on playa (and attending the Temple construction before leaving for Black Rock City) for the building of this year’s Temple of Juno. I was able to research and read some of the intellectuals who’ve written about the concept of the Temple, including Lee Gilmore, Sarah Pike and Larry Harvey; and I had the pleasure of speaking with some of the folks involved with building Temples through the years including David Best, Jessica Hobbs and Jack Haye. The article is on the Burning Man website and is titled, Spirituality and Community: The Process and Intention of bringing a Temple to Black Rock City.

Burning Man would like to have a conversation that explores what you feel about the Temple and to get your insights on it since it is really your Temple. Please read the article as it is meant as a starting point to stimulate discussion. Our community loves discussions and the Temple is something many of us have very strong feelings about. Feel free to read the article and post your thoughts here.

Could Burning Man replace religion? For real?

Photo taken at Center Camp.

When Christian media first got wind of Burning Man, they accused it of being the latest fad in Satanism.

They still do that … apparently Satan’s had a slow decade … but now there are so many articles with the premise of “my time at Burning Man as a Christian” that it’s practically its own genre – and many of these articles posit that Burning Man is something the Church can learn from, and that there is a place for the Cross at the Man.

There’s Phil Wyman’s recent article in Christianity Today – along with numerous posts on his blog. Wyman, incidentally, also creates Christian themed art for the playa that fits in perfectly with the rest of our patented brand of madness. (I wrote about one of his pieces here, and he strongly disagreed with my take here, but there’s no question in my mind that his work contributes fittingly to our ethos.)

There’s Steve Matthews posting for The Worldview Center, which is mostly critical (and badly misinformed) but still asks “What the church can learn from Burning Man.” There’s a number of posts about Burning Man on the Sidewalk Theologian blog. And many more.

Which begs a question I’ve been wondering for a while: When exactly did a Cacophony sponsored trip to the desert to build art and shoot guns transform into a major spiritual pilgrimage for the Western world?

Whether or not it’s appropriate to think of Burning Man in those terms, there’s no question that many people do. The number of camps offering morning yoga has increased alarmingly in just the last few years. A number of people talk about Burning Man as though it were an alternative to mainstream religion – as, for example, this recent Huffington Post blog suggesting that because Burning Man fits Joseph Campell’s criteria for a religion it’s ready to hit the big leagues. And as a Volunteer Coordinator for Burning Man, I receive hundreds of volunteer applications every year that say something like this: (more…)

Hysterical Revolution!

To The Burning Faithful –
Senior officials in the Earthalujah church have informed me that my god-reaching pompadour collapsed midway through this sermon. This is like the Nike swoosh turning into a swastika – a total brand collapse. But we stand by the heartfelt hysteria in this week’s lesson. We must inject joy back into our activism, and you who erupt in dance and song every year in the desert are the prime example. See you on the playa! -Rev.

Reverend Billy’s Freakstorm #10
Watch more episodes & subscribe: http://revbilly.com/podcast
Sign up for our e-bulletin: http://revbilly.com/bulletin
What is The Church of Earthalujah? http://bit.ly/EarthalujahExplained

As The Church of Earthalujah takes off for our European tour, Reverend Billy gets a lesson in hysterical revolution from British activists and his one-year-old daughter.

Confused by Burning Man? You’re goddamn right you are!!!

Wait, that's ... that's not a Man. Where am I?

It might not be an overstatement to suggest that the single biggest challenge facing Burning Man as it transitions to a non-profit is explaining what-the-hell-it’s-good-for without making it sound like a therapy weekend or an erotic spa.

Why do we need to do this?  Well, one reason is that the Media Team frequently gets emails asking things like:

  • “What bands are playing at Burning Man this year?”
  • “How many stages do you have?”
  • “How do I get my act in your lineup?”

Telling these people to look at our website and see what we really do only leads to return emails saying “I still can’t find the bands!  Except, is one of them named Temple Burn?  Are they playing at the Arctica stage?  Is that the main stage?”

Actually, wow, “Temple Burn” is a pretty killer name for a band … I’m calling it.  It’s mine.  Get your own band.  You can be:  “Dust Storm.”

Actually, “Dust Storm” is a pretty good name too.  I’ll need it when “Temple Burn” kicks me out for creative differences.  Hands off.

Your band can be “Gift Economy.”  It’s kind of a folk-rock thing, very 60s influenced, writes a lot of songs about peace. (more…)

Earthalujah Explained!

[Editor’s Note: For those of you unfamiliar with him, Reverend Billy is a New York-based performance artist whose work speaks to the heart of Burning Man’s principles of decommodification and radical self-expression. He was a Burning Man honorarium artist in 2003, where he performed in front of the Man as part of that year’s “Beyond Belief” art theme. Enjoy!]

Reverend Billy’s brilliantly bombastic, boldly brief Earthalujah sermons — now available as a podcast! Watch more episodes and subscribe at revbilly.com/podcast

 

Sometimes people come up to me and ask “The Church of Earthalujah…what is that? Is it a political rally? Is it a real church? Is it a comedy sketch? What is it?!”

Question: Is consumerism, is consumption, is consuming too much killing us right now? Yes it is. In the Church of Earthalujah we are definitely fighting consumerism. And that starts with the flags, the banners of consumerism are labels. There’s a label on every product, Amen! So, let’s not label anything. Let’s get beyond labels – that’s the devil!

We have an Earth crisis right now that we can’t label. In the old days it seems like there used to be people who would run down to the village common and shout “there’s an emergency here!” The traditional town crier. Someone should be shouting “Hey! The atmosphere! Too much heat! Extinction! Everything’s dying! Do something!” Where’s that person now? There seems to be a giant hush from the governments, celebrities, corporations, religions, armies – all the people who are supposed to be leading us. There’s a hush because they don’t have the right labels. But they look around them and they see what we all see: fires, floods, tsunamis, quakes, typhoons, tornadoes…Yes! That is the town crier! That is the force that is so powerful it’s chasing the God-forsaken celebrities off the front page of the newspaper. And that is the Earth itself getting our attention, and killing some of us.

In the Church of Earthalujah we regard these events as expressions, as words, as communications from a living being. The Earth is talking to us not just through these tragedies but every time we love each other, the Earth is whispering in our ear. When we walk out across a field on a beautiful day the Earth is alive.

Lets continue to live here. Let us ask the Earth to teach us to save the Earth and save ourselves. Amen.

Theater in a Crowded Fire

As the Burning Blog’s occasional religion and spirituality blogger, I would be remiss if I failed to mention a couple recent posts about Burning Man on other blogs and online mags. However, in this case, I must admit that my task also falls into the category of (cough) blatant self promotion, as I am the author of the interview and guest post in questions (and, coughs again, the book+dvd that inspired them).

The first interview was featured in an excellent online magazine called Religion Dispatches, which seeks to engage diverse, progressive, and academic perspectives on religion in an accessible public forum. My piece (which the editors titled Burning Man: Religious Event or Sheer Hedonism) set out to summarize some of the key ideas in my book–namely, why does Burning Man (sometimes) smell like religion? And, then what does that say about some of the directions that religion seems to be evolving these days? Broadly, I encourage folks to reconsider the concepts of “religion” and “spirituality” as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience. From this perspective, Burning Man can be seen as an exemplar of the extent to which spiritual feelings and desires often emerge in settings not traditionally defined as “religious,” and I argue that this should cause us to stop and think about what we mean by the terms “religion,” “ritual,” and “spirituality” in the first place. Cross-culturally speaking, I think the ideas and experiences which we attempt to describe with such language are much larger and more complicated than is popularly understood.

The other essay was a recent guest post on one of my favorite blogs, The Wild Hunt, which is widely considered to be among the best sources for news and commentary on contemporary Paganism. Here, I dig down a bit deeper on a related set of questions about the relationships between Burning Man and NeoPaganism. In this context, I like to distinguish between uppercase Paganism (as a specific family of religious traditions) and lowercase paganism (as an underlying, primal “root religion” that underlies all global religions and that also pops up in festive ritualistic events like Burning Man.)

Finally, I was also interviewed last week by writer and longtime Burner Erik Davis on his Expanding Mind podcast. Along with his co-host Maja D’Aoust, we had a delightful conversation about (you guessed it) Burning Man and its religious elements.

The book itself is the product of over 10 years of participating in and observing Burning Man and its surrounding culture–including numerous interviews and an online survey. (And who knows, maybe some readers here contributed to this research?) I wrote the book because I wanted to tell the story of Burning Man (or, at least, my version of that story), and because I think the event has something important to teach people about the nature of spiritual expression and experience in late modernity.

Finally, since I suspect some readers may wonder if I am abusing Burning Man’s anti-commodification ethos by linking to commercial websites and, well, pitching my project, please believe me when I state that academic publishing typically runs at a loss and academic authors make very little money. Since I’m a big nerd for religion and anthropology, I see this book (and DVD) as my particular art form and as my way of participating in this community. I’m honored to have the venue of this blog to tell folks about it. And should you want more info about me or my project, I’ve put together a simple page here.

Coming soon: a brief recap of other recently published books that cast scholarly eyes on Burning Man.

The Temple: Sacred Heart of Black Rock City

[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.

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Creativity, Collaboration, and Catharsis

For those familiar with the emotional catharsis that can be discovered through the Burning Man experience—resonating both on and off the playa, and effecting real change in the worlds beyond Black Rock City—this story may strike a chord.

A couple months ago, Harley DuBois, longtime BRC LLC member and City Manager, was invited to serve as an “Instigator” and lead a workshop for museum professionals attending a “Creativity and Collaboration” retreat at Asilomar. (Other “Instigators” included representatives from the Exploratorium, LucasFilm, and an “Alternate Reality Game” designer, among others).

For Harley’s session, she worked with participants to build a Shrine dedicated to memorializing loss, with the plan to collectively burn it that evening. (Sound familiar?) Prior to the workshop, she sought the support of David Best—well-known to many Burners for initiating the annual tradition of building memorial Temples on the playa—in order to obtain materials and to learn tips on Temple construction from the master.

In facilitating the Shrine’s creation for retreat participants, Harley had them organize themselves into four groups—sorters, builders, decorators, and mavericks—in order to expedite various aspects of construction. createcollaborate But perhaps most importantly, she asked them to talk with one another about loss as they worked in their groups to create the Shrine, and to “get it real in their bodies.” For some—the great majority of whom had never been to Burning Man—this was more than they had bargained for.

Harley reports that some participants were soon sobbing out their grief, as they confronted various losses and deaths encountered in their lives. Later, the small groups were asked to report back to the rest. Harley recalled one woman in particular who spoke of “emptiness” and the difficulty of holding on to people and memories, as she held her hands gently cupped.

(more…)