While waiting for David Best to return, I fought off the urge to decode whether the leftover Temple ornaments the crew had randomly placed around their campsite were in fact pieces to a cosmic chess match currently in play. Before I could get twisted up in that hot doozy, Best emerged from his extended cereal break hiatus. Once it had dawned on me what this man had endured, I’d gained quite a degree of admiration for him (along with a smidge of glee thrown into the mix). And in some weird, roundabout way I felt more at ease with the situation. Much more dialed in. However, I sensed our window together was limited indeed. So prancing around the proverbial bush would not be wise. Whether he was hiding his wizard cards from me or not, I reckoned we’d soon find out…
“So who do you build the Temple for anyways?”
“When the crew and I build, we build for one person. We don’t build for 70,000. If that one person forgives their son for committing suicide or forgives themself for not going to their father’s funeral, then it’s a done deal. I’m not asking for a lot.”
“What is it about the Temple’s kooky design that makes it a ‘sacred’ space for people to let go of the things that are haunting them and heal?”
“Intention. You know… Intent. It’s like two different chefs. One chef handles the food with no respect at all. And the other chef respects the food. They’re both using the same ingredients, but one puts something in it that the other doesn’t. What the people who build the Temple put into it is that respect. And that starts right at the very beginning of building when we start collecting and handling the material. Everybody’s conscious of the fact that somebody whose son has committed suicide is going to sit on a bench or write on a wall. So it’s the intent. That’s what makes it sacred. It doesn’t matter what the material is. Two cooks can use the same ingredients and one has the intent and the other one doesn’t.”
“Speaking of intentions, it seems that people might have different “ideas” about what the Temple’s purpose is. At one point I saw two weddings happening at once. Then there was this gal doing full frontal naked yoga. And then there was this one guy in a white tutu who got in a staring contest with the Temple. So you have all of this wild stuff happening just a few feet away from someone being overcome with grief. It’s truly bizarre. How does it all co-exist harmoniously?”
“It’s the journey of going to Burning Man. People expect that. They go there for a whole lot of different reasons. And it’s an environment that takes you awhile to get there. So I think the journey is what enables people to reflect…”
“Right, but there’s gotta be something innate allowing the various forms of reflection…”
“God, I don’t think it’s any different… We did one in Northern Ireland, and people didn’t know who David Best or Burning Man was. But they were able to figure out how to use the Temple for their grief and for their forgiveness and their losses. So I think maybe part of it is the design. If the Catholic Church started building little funky churches again, maybe people would start going back to them. At one time that’s what attracted people. There’d be a big, cool stone building with these things that looked like rocket ships shooting out of them… And people really dug it. Now they don’t make those kinds of churches anymore. The people in India, they go to pretty weird-ass churches and temples there. Maybe it’s the architecture that generates it. I don’t know.”
“Alright, so maybe it’s the aesthetic, maybe it’s the physical layout itself. With that said, do you subscribe to Fung Shoe or whatever the heck they call it?”
“I have a friend that said if anybody he knows shouldn’t use the word ‘karma’ – it’s me. Because I’ve violated every rule. So no, I don’t come to it with that kind of thinking. It’s coincidental. I build the structure and then people put their belief in it. I just make the wooden structure. You put the relationship to the planet or to the universe or to your children or to… Who you lost. I just make an empty thing.”
“‘Empty thing’ or not, on my first visit to the Temple I found myself quickly overwhelmed by the super duper heavy scene in there. Good lord, I never saw it coming. If only someone could’ve handed me an instruction manual or a coloring book. I mean, how the heck are we supposed to prepare ourselves to safely put our toes in the water?”
“There’s no information on how to handle it. Like I said, I build a wooden structure and people put their beliefs in it. Some people walk in and look at it and laugh. Some people walk in… They don’t know. They’re innocent. Someone walks in and all of a sudden they look at a set of car keys and maybe it resonates or maybe they just say ‘someone lost their keys.’ It happens a lot of different ways. There’s people that walk in and walk right out. The sheriff walked in once and I said ‘you got something to get rid of?’ And he said, ‘Not now, I’m not interested. Maybe it’s going to take something else to get me interested.’”
“And maybe there are people who just aren’t interested for whatever reason. I’ve met folks who either strategically wait until a certain day to visit or won’t go near the Temple at all because it would essentially ‘rain on their fun parade’…”
“I think that’s pretty silly actually. It seems like a silly thing to me for someone to look at it that way… I mean, there are going to be people who don’t want to go to the Temple because it makes them sad or there’s people that don’t go there because they think it’s bullshit or whatever. But there’s 70,000 people. Probably each person has a different way of relating whether they go to it or not. I just make it. I can’t control what people do with it or feel. Especially at this point in my life.”
“But this is Burning Man. Why is it so dang important to have a Temple out in the middle of one of the wildest, most fun-loving hedonism affairs known to mankind?”
“The Catholic Church is falling apart with the pedophile issues. You have the right wing fundamentalists that are blowing up abortion clinics and ridiculing people that have abortions. You have the Jews who are fighting the Palestinians. Religion does not exactly have a lot of credibility right now in our society. People still need a place to go to reflect on things that churches used to accomplish. We don’t have that. We have mortuaries that make money off people that are dead. We had a guy up here maybe three or four years ago wearing a tutu, a tie-dyed Grateful Dead t-shirt and a fluorescent orange wig – weeping. Now you wouldn’t be able to go into a synagogue and weep wearing a tutu and a Dead t-shirt and a fluorescent orange wig. Or a church. Or a mortuary. So this is a place, a community, that understands things differently… We started as a young community, right? It was a young, wild, uncontrolled community that all of a sudden has children or grandchildren or parents dying. That wasn’t included in the original plan. No one thought that going to Burning Man was going to mean that their mother died of cancer. Or that a best friend committed suicide. That’s now all of a sudden thrown into the mixture. We could do a statistic and right now 10 people or more out here are going to have someone dead. Whether it’s their mother who’s in a rest home or their best friend is going to get killed in a car crash or their baby is going to die. Ten people out of 70,000. I’m thinking it’s even more. That’s part of our city that’s happening. So the Temple is a public service. Not unlike the porta-potties or the center camp cafe or the police or the medical. It’s just another function that a city needs. It’s interesting to me, over the years I’ve had to figure out the scale of the Temple. There’s 70,000 people here. Probably between 40 and 50,000 will go into the Temple… But there are bigger, louder, more beautiful things in the city than the Temple. Right? And that’s kind of like our society. The churches, the city is built all around it. And the churches become antiques almost. So I’ve always wondered if the Temple is going to fall out of popularity. If the sound monsters were going to win against it. And I have a feeling they’re not. I have a feeling the Temple is still going to survive out here.”
“You said this is ‘a community that understands things differently.’ So there’s this notion floating around that Burning Man is supposed to be an epicenter of ‘transformation.’ How you’re supposed to come out here and get some profound change or awakening up in you. But seriously though, how does this beautiful chaos really help improve the human condition within the chaos going on in our world right now?”
“Out of the 70,000 people going to Burning Man, there’s maybe 7 people that might have an impact on the planet. Okay? You know, that’s still a lot of people. That’s a good ratio even if we got 7. How many people go out to the Macy’s parade and how many of those people get affected? How many people go see the Rolling Stones? I think everybody’s tried to make Burning Man into this thing that it’s not. It’s a big party.”
Feeling the conversation starting to teeter on the edge of full-on jimmy rustling mode, I swiftly changed gears to clear the air. Whether he was losing patience or not, there were still a few glaring questions I just had to ask. Just had to.
“I hear this is supposed to be your last year building the Temple at Burning Man…”
“This is my sixth ‘last Temple.’ But yeah, I do think this is my last one here…”
“Why stop now though?”
“I’m 70 years old and I’ve got another 10 years. So I’ve just got to choose my fights…We don’t know yet, but there’s a possibility of doing another project in France… And I’m hoping to do one in Belfast, Ireland…”
“But if it is such a painstaking process, then why keep building anymore anywhere?”
“It’s always a privilege to help somebody go through dark parts of their life and find healing or some kind of solution. It’s a real privilege. Over the years, whenever I’ve had the opportunity to build the Temple, even though I get tired or discouraged, I’m always grateful for the opportunity to help someone heal.”
“Whether it’s here, there or wherever, the Temple is only around for such a short period of time. Do you ever have any form of attachment to it? Does the burning of the Temple on Sunday night still mean anything to you?”
“No, it doesn’t mean a lot to me. When I put my parents’ ashes in it one year, that meant something to me. When my wife and sister-in-law lit it because their father had died, it meant something to me… I try not to be sentimental… It’s pretty mind-boggling though. I find it overwhelming to see how many thousand people are at the Temple during the night of the burn and are just silent… It’s breathtaking to be a part of that. To build something that creates that kind of… whatever it creates. I don’t know what the hell that is. Respect. Silence. Healing. I mean, I’m just like everyone else. All of a sudden we’re sitting around a circle with maybe 40 to 50,000 people and they’re silent. It’s kind of like, ‘What the fuck? How did that happen?’ You know?”
“Even after the burn, I’ve heard people say the Temple site is supposed to be a ‘metaphysical nexus.’ Is it really a secret gateway or vortex that’s connecting to something much higher in the universe?”
“Nope. I don’t believe in magic spots. I don’t believe in power points on the Earth. I think realtors specialize in finding the most ‘sacred spots’ in the universe to try to sell for the highest price. A true sacred spot is West Oakland or inner city Detroit or the slums in Chicago. Those are the sacred spaces. That’s where the power and energy is – where people are hurt. You want to see where the Earth is hurt, go to the dump where she’s cut. Where she’s bleeding. Not a beautiful park where she’s glossed over with perfume and fancy clothes. Sacred spaces and power spots in the Earth are where people are hurt.”
After laying that whopper of a doozy on yours truly, he wished me luck and promptly left the table. Yes, I had visited David Best seeking answers to this multi-faceted Temple conundrum. Yet I found myself drifting deeper into the desert than ever before trying to process our conversation. Trying to “Find Stillness in the Chaos” of the clues he’d presented me. Maybe this Best fellow had shown me every card. Or maybe he really was a wizard from another dimension. One who would never-ever reveal his sleight of hand to a silly peckerwood like me. However, somehow, some way, I believed in my heart that not even Mr. Best, a Black Rock City institution unto himself, could make full sense of this “empty” entity he’d conceived time and time again. As much as there was a deeply bewildering enigma to its presence, perhaps there was no all-encompassing explanation for its existence. Yes, maybe it was a fleeting emotional sweat lodge portal anyone could enter and be thoroughly cleansed of the dark shit. Maybe the Temple was a sacred ley line to the forgotten fringes of society. Maybe it was a makeshift shotgun wedding chapel from Mars. Look, I could just keep going here. I’ll do it. I’ll do it. Don’t make me freaking do it!
Sooooo yeah, if nothing else, perhaps the shred of truth I came away with was how the mystifying edifice was like a mirror being held up to the rest of Burning Man. And I surmise it wasn’t simply reflecting back a giant Etch-a-sketch of unbridled debauchery that’s blown clean, only to be filled again with any shade of madness you desire. But wait, on second thought, could it really be just a massive reach-around celebration of itself?
What that’s Burner buddy? You’re weird AF? Well I’m weird AF too. Ahhhh congratulations!
No-no Mr. Fluffy pen, just shush. I won’t have any part of it! There’s no goddamn way the colors could be that black and white. Especially since I’d discovered this temporary oasis to be eerily similar to the spectrum of light itself. A boundless field of brilliance, where in this instance, we can only see so much of in the glimpse of a filthy week.
Then again, regardless of duration, is it a matter of being able to see or allowing one’s self to see? For poking its ugly head somewhere out of the infinite array is quite an undeniable clue indeed: we are all in a state of suffering. Whether we allow ourselves to see it or not. Whether we want to confront it or not. Whether the seemingly excessive jubilee is intended to heal the pain. Whether it is intended to mask it. It’s still fucking there. Oh my goodness gracious!
Alas, that majestic pagoda-shaped mirror – if nothing else – existed to reflect back at me, and every wacky Burner person, the very revelation to which I speak of. To allow me to see I’m hurting, whatever the ailment may be. This magnificent gift was there, even if for a few flashing days, to enable me see we not only have the power to heal ourselves, but how us Bert’n’Ernies ultimately the power to heal one another.
You know, come to think of it Mr. Fluffy, getting lost within the Temple might not have been the Burn I originally wanted, but I do reckon it was the Burn I needed.
Portrait Illustrations by Roy Huerta / David Best Illustrations by Theopolis Dewheart
Special Thanks to Roy Huerta, Theopolis Dewheart, Lovemore Creations, Wolfbear, Temple Crew, Temple Guardians & David Best