What Is This Temple Thing About?

Photo: John Chase
Photo: John Chase

I hadn’t even planned on going to “The Temple.” I heard others mention how they “needed to go” there. Why would I need to go? I really hadn’t had any recent losses. It sounded like some sort of obligation— like “needing to go” to church…

It was my first Burn, just my second full day. I was sort of on my own—my wife had been once but chose to stay home. I was trying to take it all in, exploring on my bike. I came across the Temple while crossing the Playa on my bike to get to somewhere else. It was an impressive, very interesting structure—“guess I’ll take a quick glance inside…” I thought.

Once inside, I was impressed by the emotions I felt more than the architecture. I felt waves of sadness tugging at me, pulling me—almost a physical sensation. This is weird, I thought. I stepped outside and the feelings subsided. Curious, I went back in. Again I felt a pool of grief that got exponentially stronger as I ventured further in and as I stayed longer. I heard some people sobbing, some laughing, but mostly it was very quiet. I felt myself being pulled into a vortex of quiet sadness. It then welled up inside of me, wanting to come out. I needed to sit down.

I found a little space to sit in, elevated off the ground a bit, a very private nook. I began to sob.

I remembered that my dog was dying; my wife had stayed home to care for her. A neighbor, my age, died suddenly a few months ago of alcohol related problems. My dad was recently diagnosed with a rare and vicious form of skin cancer. My mom is doing OK but has only partial kidney function and like dad, is in her 80’s.

I realized that my parents were dying—maybe not today, but dying nonetheless. Many relatives and friends had already died—not so recently, but dead just the same. And in reality, I am dying, my wife is dying, my brothers and sisters, my friends, everyone I know—all moving towards death.

In a way—some way I can’t really articulate—I felt “we all dead already”…in the ultimate scheme of things. Not through the narrow slit of time we usually look through called “the present”, but in the big picture—we have all come and gone it seemed.

I sat and sobbed and grieved. I thought of everyone I had lost during my life, everyone I was going to lose. I thought of my grandparents—my mom’s parents who had been so nurturing to me in my childhood, how I missed them so dearly. I found a pencil and wrote a little message to them on the wood structure nearest me. Then, I looked around through my tears. I saw a myriad of messages and photos others had written—all seemingly to grandparents. It was like I’d sat down in a little epicenter of grandparent grief!

I suddenly realized that my grief was a part of universal grief–just a drop in the bucket of human loss and suffering. We have all lost and are all losing, everyone here in this temple—everyone, everywhere in all time, all losing loved ones, all dying.

Yet I am alive—I take a breath; all of us sitting and breathing here are alive. Those who have passed live in us. We are all one. While we are breathing we are alive. Each breath is a micro life/death cycle. It’s good to breathe, it’s good to be alive right now!

Slowly, I collect myself and get up. Out into the bright sunshine, I find my bike and ride back to my camp. Now I understand what the Temple is about. I understand what my wife had said about my going to Burning Man: “It will change you.”

by Dean Martin

About the author: Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.

9 Comments on “What Is This Temple Thing About?

  • Jungo says:

    The Temple is where the promise of spiritual transformation happens. Burning Man promises attendees will achieve this transformation, it’s included in the ticket price. It goes hand-in-hand with the promise that the Man will burn on Saturday night.

    You’ve seen them walking around out there – people searching for the authentic Burning Man experience. Sometimes that requires standing in line. But on Sunday, no one has to wait in line. Spiritual transformation is delivered to all in attendance on Sunday’s burn. It’s the reward for not bailing early, like baseball spectators do during the seventh inning stretch.

    So you survived all week (or some portion of), and there you stand before the monument to spirituality. People put a lot of work into it, and many hopes and dreams hang in the balance – what will spiritual transformation be like? Will it be the first time you had a nine inch cock? It will be something like that, as promised.

    In reality, as you stand there waiting, and waiting and waiting for the flames… the people next to you (who have been on their best behavior all week) have lost all patience. You will likely hear 2 or 3 couples going at their throats (“Where were you last night?!” sorta thing), and the owner of an art car trying to kick off people who are not from his camp, and a camp leader who never got over the fact that most campmates didn’t pull their weight all week and now chooses to express that to them in terms everyone can hear.

    Just as you finish pouring three fingers of Patron Anejo in some lady’s tamper-proof anti-roofie cup, just as she asks you for some kind of mixer because she doesn’t really like the taste of taquilla, as the flames begin to rise – only then will you finally know what it was that had killed Marilyn Monroe.

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  • Sedagive says:

    It was 8 mg/dL of chloral hydrate and 4.5 mg/dL of Nembutal, I believe.

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  • Gentle Remington says:

    Thank you for your story. My experience was similar, except that I didn’t have the strength to linger. Perhaps I will next time.

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  • Crowbob says:

    The temple is a magical grief shrine. Last year we went within about an hour of it’s opening. Was strange, not like the temples that I had been to in the past. Was more like the opening reception of an art exhibit. People milling around, talking, taking pictures. I was thinking what is going on. Then I realized that I needed to come back when the temple was really what it is. I came back several days later. I was not disappointing. It felt as sacred as any mystical and holy place that I have been in the world. It had been transformed, it was no the temple. People in silence, holding their grief or in many cases feeling the flowing of their grief in the form of that salty wetness on their faces. I had gone to BM with my 23 year old son. It was his first Burn. As I wondered in that vast expanse of the temple, I thought I need to find him. Not sure why. When I saw him, we embraced, and spent the next 10 minutes in a heartfelt embrace, sobbing, like we had never done before. Was one of the most tender moments in my life. We were sharing the grief of the world. That is what the temple is for me.

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  • Nik says:

    Hello – I felt the exact same way; I think most people do in the temple. And I think in our world of science and hard facts, in all these things we believe to be true, it is remarkable in that it does not fit. I can feel that physical sensation of grief – do we have words for it? It’s as real as the ground beneath my feet. To me it is an opening into the unknown – into the infinity of all that which we do not understand, or have words for.

    For every fact we know about this universe, we can reasonably assume there is millions we don’t. Maybe billions. We know practically nothing. Isn’t that exciting?

    At last year’s temple burn, I had the exact same thoughts too – that everyone here, out of 5,000 odd people at the burn, had lost somebody. Multiple people, even. And that the same was true of everyone, all over the world; I was comforting random people who were crying. Not to tell them it’s all right, but because I understood that we are all one.

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  • rough (diamond in the...) says:

    during my first burn in 2001 i got a bit depressed. i got very, very depressed. i rode my bike out to the trash fence and then kept going out into the desert. (you could do that back then.) and i kept going…

    then i stopped and cried. just lost it. didn’t really know why. or care. eventually i pulled myself together and headed back to “civilization” and passed by the temple.

    i stopped and met david best, the temple artist, not knowing who he is. i went in and suddenly thought of my father who i never really knew since he died when i was four. i wrote something on a piece of wood and threw it in to the collective pile. i didn’t quite realize it but the experience of my father dying is something that i had never really dealt with. i never grieved… i just became the good boy that it seems everyone told me i needed to be. (the “good boy” that eventually made his way to burning man.)

    that sunday when the temple burned i released something that i never really knew i was holding on to. the fact that my father died, that i never really had a father, was defining my life (even though i did have a step father.) but i learned that that event or any other did not have to define my life. i could define it as i want.

    yes, shit happens. but what you make of it is up to you. i had no idea how much this would help me the following week.

    i came back to new york city via a redeye monday night and was sitting at my desk on tuesday morning thinking “what the fuck just happened?”

    the following tuesday was 9-11. at the time, i was a structural engineer so i quickly went to work at the WTC site as part of the rescue, then recovery, and clean-up. yes, shit happens. what are you going to do about it?

    that saturday, some dear friends had a get-together. i hesitate to use the word “party” but they knew that they really just needed to bring some friends together. there i met again a woman that i had met earlier in the year who convinced me that i should go to burning man and then met up with out on the playa one afternoon. (i have a funny story about thinking her sister-in-law was her sister and then watching her brother and “sister” making out.)

    well she’s sitting right next to me now. we got engaged out at burning man 2003 and now have two boys, 3 and 5. i came across this blog because i’m thinking of bringing the boys to the playa next year.

    in 2004 i was able to work on the temple with david and his crew. i was able to give back to the experience that taught me about realizing possibility. i’ve worked on some amazing architecture in my career but the temple i hold most dear.

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  • Royalti Jones says:

    This year will be my first Burn. I am going with a friend who has been encouraging my participation for the last 6 years, and this year I am finally ready!! I have to say that reading stories and experiences from the temple is a large part of what convinced me that this is something I need to experience in life. I am anxious and slightly intimidated by the prospect of how this place will change me but I am in need of a change!! See you all at the playa!!

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  • dean martin says:

    It has been facinating to learn that others have had very similar, transcendant experiences in the temple (see also the next tale)–an undeniable validation of the power of a space and place dedicated to such a spiritual purpose and filled with people attuned to the same.

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  • Tefla says:

    Beautiful piece, thank you Dean Martin.

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