Across This Line, Everything Will Be Different

Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.

Consider the tea ceremony. The elegance of each stylized gesture. The deliberate pace. The simple beauty of its rustic implements. How is it that this ancient ritual is so definitively and quintessentially Japanese? Viewed through the lens of mass culture, it can be hard to understand. Why not just microwave some water, dunk in a teabag, and get back to work? Given the tendency among some people to ritualize daily routines as a kind of fetishization (chewing each bite precisely 50 times, or brushing one’s teeth in a certain way), it may even seem a bit silly, bordering on obsessive-compulsive.

But like all rituals, the tea ceremony is not meant to be observed, but to be experienced, and only through experience can it be fully understood. Think about the values that are encoded in it, and acted out by its participants. Patience. Service. Respect. Attention to detail. Craftsmanship. Aesthetics. Think about what it does to time, creating its own time stream outside the daily routine, linking its participants to every other instance, past and future. Think about what it does to space, collapsing the world to a few straw mats, the eternal teahouse that could be anywhere. This is what ritual does. It encodes values, and serves as a vector for culture in a way that can transcend our everyday notions of space and time.

High Priestess LadyBee, in a haze of frankincense, concludes a dramatic afternoon of confessions at the Rat Shrine. 1999. (Photo by LadyBee)

Consider the Christian ceremony of communion. To the believer, the wine and wafer become, through transubstantiation, quite literally the blood and flesh of Christ. Which makes each celebrant a participant in a dinner party that took place 2,000 years ago. Talk about bending space and time! As Joseph Campbell put it, “A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth.” And yet, while rites such as the Mass may be front-of-mind for the skeptic when we talk about ritual, they comprise only a small subset when we consider ritual in the broader context of “things we do mindfully, and that encode our values.”

Anthropologists describe at least 10 types of ritual, of which the magical is but one:

  • Initiation
  • Magical
  • Worship
  • Celebration
  • Protection
  • Healing
  • Transformation
  • Storytelling
  • Fire rite
  • Funeral

Which brings us to this year’s theme, and the wild proliferation of rituals within the Burning Man experience. The burning of the Man is, after all, an undeniably ritual act in itself: a celebration, a fire ceremony, and a physical transformation that anchors our year and serves as the axis mundi of our culture. Its power is not inherent, but rather an attractive force that draws to it all manner of meanings, inspiring acts of cultural genesis that reflect our values of participation and self-expression, and that implicitly reject mass-culture values of passive consumption. As we transform ourselves from consumers of culture to its makers, it is only natural that we create new rituals as expressions of a healthy culture-making process.

Crossing the Line

Followers of Burning Man’s history may recall another ritual that remains encoded, albeit dimly, in our collective identity, the Cacophonist ceremony of Crossing the Line. Our first journey to the desert, in 1990, was a Zone Trip, a style of Cacophony Society event in which travel, even to an ostensibly familiar location, was purposefully recast as an adventure into the unknown, a journey of discovery. At a certain point in the trip, a line would be drawn on the ground, either physically or notionally. “On the other side of this line,” one of the travelers would say, “everything will be different.” And then everyone would cross. It’s interesting to look back on this bit of absurdist magic and see what principles might be embedded in it. Immediacy, for one, since in terra incognita one has to keep one’s eyes open, and mustn’t take anything for granted. And in addition to those values we now like to think of as the 10 Principles, Crossing the Line encoded the distinctly Cacophonist value of playfulness.

The notion of every year being a new reality is not something we invented at Burning Man. Mircea Eliade, in his classic “The Sacred and the Profane,” points out that in many languages the words for “year” and “world” are the same, and that the passing of a year literally equates to the destruction of the old world and a birth of the new. This sense of impermanence, and of possibility, acquires a literal dimension in Black Rock City, where our space is purposefully annihilated and rebuilt in an annual cycle.

Consider the Golden Spike. Each year, the re-creation of Black Rock City from the empty desert is celebrated by driving a gold-painted length of steel into the playa at the spot where the Burning Man will stand, and from which point the entire city will be surveyed. This ritual mapping of space from a spiritual center-point is also reflected in traditional cultures, where any sacred space may represent the axis mundi, the world tree linking this world to the unseen realm, and thus bringing order to chaos.

Photo by John Curley

None of this is to say that Spike is somehow a religious observance. It is very much a DPW event, which makes it irreverent by definition. And while it may have spiritual undertones, it is more consciously a cultural observance: a rite of celebration, of storytelling, and of initiation in addition to its transformative role, marking the moment of transition from chaotic empty playa to ordered city. And as a cultural vector, it encodes values of Communal Effort, Radical Self-expression, and other principles through participation and direct experience. It is significant that the hammer is passed from hand to hand, and the Spike is driven collectively by the participants.

One doesn’t have to look far in BRC to find more evidence of ritualization at work: the lighting and caretaking of the One Fire, the bell-ringing and dust-angel making at Greeters, processions like Critical Tits and the Billion Bunny March, and pretty much everything to do with the Temple, as well as the profusion of small-t temples that we’re seeing more of each year. But rituals don’t have to be epic. They can in fact be very intimate, and still embody culture in a meaningful way.

I’m thinking of the toast, a little ritual that’s so old we don’t really remember where it came from, or why we still do it. All it really requires is a few words of appreciation and the clinking of glasses. But if you share a toast with certain Burners, you may discover a new twist: when you touch glasses, you are expected to make brief but intense eye contact. So in addition to the ancient values of hospitality, camaraderie, and friendship, a new value layer is added: one of genuineness, of immediacy, and inclusion.

It’s no tea ceremony, but it’s ours — take it or leave it. Or come up with something better.


Top photo: Ken Hamazaki’s tea ceremony (Photo by Sergey Brin)

About the author: Stuart Mangrum

Stuart Mangrum

A member of the community since 1993, Stuart manages the development of Burning Man educational programs, co-authors the annual BRC event theme, and has one toe in the Philosophical Center. He claims to have coined the phrase "that thing in the desert" and is due a royalty payment of US$1.00 for every use of the phrase or its derivatives, including "TTITD" or "That Thing."

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