The Best Art At Burning Man 2016 (There’s No Party Like A Zen Party)

September 23, 2016

A life without love is of no account. Don’t ask yourself what kind of love you should seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern or Western. Divisions only lead to more divisions. Love has no labels, no definitions. It is what it is, pure and simple. Love is the water of life. And a lover is a soul of fire! The universe turns differently when fire loves water.

~ quoted from The Forty Words of Love, by Elif Shafak (a historical novel about the Sufi mystics Rumi and Shams Tabrizi, which I read during Burning Man)


Fire in a Burning Man sculpture
Fire spreads across the roof of a sculpture at Burning Man


This year, I’ve gained a new interest in personal spiritual experience — so my approach to Burning Man 2016 was very different. In the past, I’ve focused on art and dancing and stuff, with triumphant articles like The Best Art At Burning Man 2015. (Note: Anything I say about Burning Man that includes the word “best” is a joke.)

So this year I did less art-hunting, but there’s always plenty to see. On my way to the desert, I was reading Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and I encountered a section with this heading:

No Trace: When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.

One of Burning Man’s Ten Principles is Leaving No Trace. Officially, this is about our environmental impact — we don’t want to leave a mess in the fragile desert. But Suzuki started the San Francisco Zen Center, which became active before Burning Man began in San Francisco, and someone in the original Burning Man crew probably read the book.


Huge metal fire sculpture at Burning Man
Black metal struts support a black metal roof that holds fire;
I don’t know the name of the artist who built this


At Burning Man, impermanence is a major theme. A lot of the art gets burned at the end of the week. Many art pieces have ephemeral aspects, like participation — or fire. I took the photograph above while climbing into a soft den under a black metal roof. Within the den, you can lie down and look up to see a roiling sheet of flame pour across the ceiling. (The picture at the top of this post shows a moment of those flames.)

This year, I did something I’ve never done before — I volunteered as a Temple Guardian. The Temple is a long-running independent project within Burning Man. I’ve visited past Temples, but I’ve never spent hours in the Temple being present, which is what Temple Guardians do.

Some Burners get married at the Temple, but the Temple is generally a contemplative space where people reflect and mourn. The bereaved create small shrines to loved ones who have passed away. The newly divorced leave wedding dresses and wedding rings. People grieve for broken hearts and lost selves. I wrote my own prayer on a sheet of paper, and I left it in the central pile of requests and remembrances.


Temple entrance
One of the Temple entrances


Wedding dress at the Burning Man Temple
A wedding dress from a marriage that ended, left at the Temple to burn


Artists for Peace at the Temple
A banner for Artists to Peace, left at the Temple


Wooden memorial to lost loved ones
A wooden memorial to lost loved ones, left at the Temple


John Two Hawks quote left at the Temple
A John Two Hawks quote, left at the Temple


People sitting in the Temple
Burning Man attendees sit in the center of the Temple,
in front of the central pile of remembrances


At the end of the week, we burn the whole Temple. It happens on Sunday, the night after we burn the Man. When the Man burns, there’s lots of music and mayhem; when the Temple burns, the crowd is silent.

Every year, people wonder whether Burning Man has jumped the shark — whether it’s still the cutting edge. Yet being the cultural cutting edge is a fundamentally impermanent state. Burning Man has always understood that, has encouraged spinoff festivals and regional remixes. My San Francisco community builds and attends lots of different Burn-influenced events, but we’ve all been in and out of Burning Man itself. Lots of people don’t go back. I never know if I’ll go back.

But whether or not I return, I’m grateful for the moments I spent in 2016, standing in a silent crowd, watching the Temple pour sparks into the sky along with our memories.


Burning Temple
The Temple burns, 2016


I thought again of that section in Suzuki’s book, No Trace:

Before we act we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea. The thinking not only leaves some trace or shadow, but also gives us many other notions about other activities and things. These traces and notions make our minds very complicated…. Thinking which leaves traces comes out of your relative confused mind. Relative mind is the mind which sets itself in relation to other things, thus limiting itself. It is this small mind which creates gaining ideas and leaves traces of itself….

In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely.

One of the other Ten Principles is Immediacy: “We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers.” As I watched the Temple burn, I remembered my second day in the desert. On that day, I watched a sunset and meditated on the side of the road next to our camp. A woman passed me and wordlessly rolled up a sleeve to show me her tattoo — calligraphy that said: Be Present.

And I remembered the previous evening, Saturday, the night we burned the Man. I was standing, breathing hard, on a dance floor when a Belgian composer came over to talk. It was his first year. He told me, “Burning Man makes me want to practice love.”

Once upon a time, I would have taken that as a meaningless pickup line. But I do believe he was sincere.

I’m glad of the role Burning Man has played in my life, and the cultural space it holds. Whether I ever go back is beside the point. In the meantime, I’ll see you all out in the world — at other festivals, at campfires, in cities across the world. With love!