Spirituality and Community
The Process and Intention of bringing a Temple to Black Rock City
Volunteers and our Community
One thing unites all Temple builders. They are building something that is all inclusive and for all Black Rock City citizens. As such, certain design elements have been carried forward with each reinterpretation of the Temple including creating a space that is both intimate, with areas (often called altars) for folks to leave tributes, as well as creating a large enough gathering space capable of holding hundreds (possibly a thousand) at a time, so that it's a true community area.
When I was hanging out with David Best's Temple crew I noticed that, like most projects at Burning Man, the volunteers care deeply about the Temple, but there is an added dimension to this particular project. Many of them have lost someone close to them and the Temple has helped them to grieve and let go. Every person on the Temple Crew I met told me that when they heard David was building the Temple in 2012, they wanted to work with him. The process of building a Temple, for a majority of the Temple Crew, is cathartic in the same way the Burn of the Temple is and many of them feel they are contributing in remembrance of someone they've lost.
I asked Jess Hobbs about volunteers. The Flaming Lotus Girls, and now the Flux Foundation have a lot of members. How did they handle the influx of people who wanted to work with them? She said, "We had a lot of people come to us to work on the Temple. We took into consideration if they'd worked on Temples before and we tried to accommodate everyone" then she added that "The Temple attracts people who are grieving and in the process of letting go. We had some really heavy moments with people, especially the day before we burned it."
Tuk Tuk talked about how so many people volunteer to make "The Temple part of their own. They wanted to touch a piece of it."
The Temple Guardians are another volunteer phenomenon who appeared organically in 2002. Part of their purpose of "holding space" is "to protect the Temple and all of those who visit it" and they state "We do not make rules, nor are we enforcers; we watch quietly and act skillfully when necessary to protect the safety and sacred space of the Temple." 
David Best handles his volunteers with such empathy it was something that helped me develop a deeper understanding of what the Temple is all about. Watching him interact with his crew by taking time no matter what was happening and to listen to them, console them and help them through whatever process of letting go they were going through, was pretty intense and demonstrated to me one of the reasons our community is something I care so deeply about. There are other memorial art installations that come to the playa year after year, but the Temple has become a focus of so much of that energy that not only is it moving to see it in action, it is important for people to realize just what kind of a burden they are taking on if they want to propose building a Temple. Volunteers will appear who have motives that are deeper than simply "getting the job done".
I talked with David Best about his volunteers and he told me the story of a woman who, while she had few skills that could be tapped to build a Temple, wanted passionately to work on it. David had been in a discussion about building the Temple with another artist who mentioned that they thought there would be no room for someone like this woman in his crew if he were to build the Temple.
David relayed that the woman had said,
"I can't do anything, I have no skills, but I want to be on the Temple crew"and he continued,
"We were going, how we are going to deal with her? And she came up to the work weekend. I thought maybe we can just tire her out. Maybe she can just see for herself that she can't do it. Well, she didn't quit. She didn't quit. And we finally went, she's gotta be on the crew and she came up to me in line, we were at lunch one day working on the Temple, and she came up and said, "I want to thank you for letting me be on the crew" and I said we wouldn't be worth a shit if we didn't let you on the crew. We wouldn't be a Temple crew if you couldn't work with us."
David told this to the other artist who said "Well you know you can't have people who slow your project down."
David replied, "You don't build a temple for the finished product, you build it for the crew. It's for those people who are building it. I could build a temple with 20 people in half the time. I've done it in half the time. But what it would lose is its soul and the heart. And that comes from P being in a wheelchair or T being unable to do that, or someone else who's artistically challenged or someone who's challenged using tools. It's those layers of the commitment from those people."
"We're talking about other people coming to build it and I'm saying that in the screening process of someone saying hey I want to build the Temple; we kinda have to look for what the intention is. Is it to make a spectacular, the biggest burn you can possibly make? I mean that's kinda cool, but there's gotta be something else."
Someone sitting at the table with us said, "It has to spiritually resonate" and David agreed.
Jack Haye told me that their camp in 2000 and 2001 that created the original Temples was called Sultan's Oasis, and their themecamp description was:
"The Sultan's camp is to be a place where you can prostrate yourself before a greater entity and find transformation" and in 2001 it was "The sultan is back at his oasis, offering weary travelers a place to rest."
Jack said their philosophy was one of service and that is something that needs to be impressed on people who attend Burning Man. Jack said that "in camp we would invite people in and say 'How can we serve you', not touchy feely, but 'How can I help you?' And the Temple is like that. It's a shared community art piece. Some people want to build it to become rock stars but it's really all about that service."
Jack doesn't see the Temple as a resume builder. It belongs to Black Rock City. It is a work of art, but it doesn't exist as a piece of art unto itself. There are plenty of pieces each year on the playa that exist for themselves, as beautiful sculptures. The Temple is different.
Jack said, "It's not there to call attention to itself, it is there as a sacred, spiritual space."
Sealed up, never to return
Personally I was ambivalent about the Temple until this year. One year in the mid aughts, I put a picture of my grandparents in there with a goodbye and good luck inscription to them. Another year I made a little shrine to my dog of 16 years who I had to put down, but this year, after hanging out with so many people and hearing their stories of loss and letting go of that loss, of forgiving themselves and of taking part in building the Temple or of leaving totems to their loved ones that, as David Best has said, "everything is sealed up, never to return" I came to an awareness that the Temple once complete and filled with remembrance is something consecrated and very significant to our community.
On Sunday night I walked out to the Temple burn and hung out, unexpectedly, in the Temple Bus with two new friends, one who was celebrating her mother who'd died 19 years ago. My friend had been allowed to get on a boom lift to place her mother's ashes in the spire towards the top and her mom was next to a cat which delighted my friend. She said. "We celebrate the dead, but life is for the living. She's been with me for 19 years, and she's next to a cat. She always loved cats."
Bagpipes played. Diva Marisa and Reverend Billy's choir sang "Ave Maria", and the three of us took swigs of Jameson befitting an Irish wake as the full moon inched towards the Temple. Once the Temple was lit by wandering purposeful shadow shapes in the courtyard carrying fire, we watched the roaring orange and red flames grow then engulf that structure until it became a delicate black skeletal outline against the glowing blazing inferno. I hugged my friend and saw the flames in her eyes as she looked on smiling, and said, "Mom has the east, the best view on the playa. Her and the cat."
When the spire outline grew thin, it finally leaned over slowly, and then collapsed upon the rest of the Temple sending a great chimney of embers floating upwards. My friend said, "Mother is free and so am I now. I really feel her. She would have liked this."
I have no doubt she did, indeed, like it.
I have attempted here to discuss the cosmological importance of the Temple as it appears in Black Rock City and to impress that it is a vital part of our shared Burning Man experience. The Temple is not just an art installation, but it encompasses a large range of serious spiritual requisites that add dimension to our community. Building a Temple in Black Rock City requires not only artistic and craft skillsets, and is something that is taken very seriously by our community, but along with it comes a set of volunteers who want to be part of it, to build and to protect it. As such, the Temple is something special and is, in one way or another, shared by all of us.
As with all Honorarium projects, each year's Temple crew is expected to create something extraordinary, on time and within budget, but building a Temple also involves a substantial responsibility to not only the citizens of Black Rock City and the Burning Man community in general, but to the volunteers who will want to take part in the building of the Temple. It is something bigger than any artist who conceives and pulls it off because it is something that helps to define who we are as a community. It is about creating a shared space for everyone to take a part in, as Sarah Pike notes the Temple is "Burning Man's largest collective piece of art."
When they were building the Basura Sagrada Temple, Shrine said, "You are putting in what you want to let go, or putting in how you want to change your life. It's what makes a sacred space."
In 2012 David designed thresholds to keep out bicycles and the distracting sound from art cars. Upon venturing out there, I felt like I was stepping across that threshold into another reality. The atmosphere was heavy with reflection and quiet chanting, prayers, the drawn out grrr of a digeridoo and other reverent sounds. I was overwhelmed with all the notes and altars, inscriptions, photos and totems that covered every square inch of the walls staring back at me. That most intimate space swells with so much grief and remembrance, so much reflection and meditation it is indeed what David Best has called an "emotional nexus". The Temple provides a space for that essential urge, but unlike religion, that feeling is coming directly from our core, unadulterated by dogma.
Creating this place carries with it a heavy responsibility and should not be taken lightly.
Whoever is building the Temple each year brings it to our city as a gift for everyone. A friend of mine said "It's a profound space. If people can't confront it, they want to escape." If you have been fortunate enough to not have experienced something that rocked your reality, you may have no use for the Temple. But if you ever need it, someone will be building it for you each year in Black Rock City.
Jess Hobbs told me, "We wanted to bring back the silence of the Burn. It was a gift and the Temple was the biggest thing we'd ever burned. It was a gift we gave to the community, but the biggest gift we ever got was what the community gave back to us."
I've been to many Temple Burns over the years, but this year as I was trying to understand on a deeper level what it all meant, I felt that I'd come closer to realizing what a gift all our Temple artists, volunteers and playa citizens create each year. It is all about affirmation, closure, forgiveness and healing. On Sunday of the event this year I tried to describe how it feels to be there as a Temple burns and wrote the following that is not concerned with the how and why, the philosophy and meaning.
It just is.
"Tonight the Temple burns and all of the emotion we've put in there this week will wash up in a cathartic column of fire, sparks and ash that will send those notes of love and loss and of grief and forgiveness swirling into the night sky. Dust tornadoes will form and dance around us as if they are our loved ones lost, caressing us in the firelight's glow, saying do not worry, everything is as perennial as the seasons, or the plants that return each spring or the love that brings us all together eventually."
Huge Thanks to everyone who contributed to this article by letting me interview them and thanks to Portaplaya, aka Todd Gardnier who took many photographs this year of the Temple and those who build it.
Also, there is an accompanying blog post where you can record your comments to others' comments about your thoughts on this article.