Lotus in a Sea of Fire: Burning Buddhist Questions
Of the many things for which San Francisco is notorious, Buddhism and Burning Man are undoubtedly near the top of the list. Home to the first Buddhist temples in the US, the city has attracted several waves of Asian immigrants, a handful of Zen masters, and a bunch of Beat writers that together have fostered dozens of sanghas representing an array of Buddhist traditions. Elsewhere on the countercultural spectrum, Larry Harvey and his intrepid entourage have continued to fuel the fires of radical self-expression and psychosocial experimentation that were ignited on Baker Beach over 25 years ago. Although Burning Man now takes place in the Nevada desert and draws over 50,000 fabulous freaks from all corners of the globe, its heart and headquarters remain in San Francisco.
In retrospect, it seems strange that I was lured from the Midwest to the Left Coast by neither Buddhism nor Burning Man. With my interest in the former already well established, I was actually attracted by a rad grad program (Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness) offered through an equally cool school (The California Institute of Integral Studies, which, I only discovered after enrolling, was originally called The California Institute of Asian Studies). As for Burning Man, my virgin ears had only heard the phrase in passing, but after just a few months in the Bay Area, I had fallen under the ecstatic trance of dirty dubstep, steam punk fashion, and colorful fake fur. Even before stepping foot onto the playa, I felt like I had found my tribe.
Having now attended three Burns and spawned a theme camp, I'm beginning to feel as much a Burner as a Buddhist, despite my longer and more intimate involvement with Vipassana practice (which keeps me wary of labels). Nevertheless, I recently hatched the idea of starting a blog entitled "The Burning Buddhist" that would explore this rich and sometimes tangled intersection of interests. As a visual thinker, I had even begun imagining a smart-looking logo, until realizing how dumb, as in unthinking, my idea really was. In the eerie light of the 1963 self-immolation of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc and the many others who have followed that path of martyrdom, the image of a burning Buddhist is clearly too laden with political significance and emotional charge to be blithely appropriated.
Even unattached to specific examples, the mere idea of self-immolation elicits strong reactions and raises important questions regarding its efficacy and whether it qualifies as "nonviolent." In the case of Thich Quang Duc, whose body burned but whose heart remained mysteriously intact, the act did succeed in attracting international attention to the political situation in Vietnam and in galvanized internal opposition to the repressive, US-backed Diem regime. More broadly, it helped crystallize a movement dubbed "engaged Buddhism" by fellow monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who has described self-immolation as a legitimate and selfless form of political protest. According to Hanh and others, fiery self-sacrifice is mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important texts of the Mayahana traditions. The passage involves a sagely Medicine King who torches himself to demonstrate his deep understanding of the body's impermanence. One could argue, however, that this gesture is better understood as a metaphor for sacrificing one's personal needs (or ego) for the benefit of others -- a common if not universal religious ideal.
Though I can only aspire to the wisdom and compassion embodied by the Vietnamese monks mentioned above, I do identify as an engaged Buddhist. When I first encountered the term a decade ago, my engagement came mainly in the form of anti-war rallies, anti-globalization protests, and community marches, too often undertaken from a self-righteous "us vs. them" standpoint. Now a bit older if not wiser, I tend to focus on the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion as manifest in myself and in the collective psyche. In the language of another preeminent engaged Buddhist, Joanna Macy, my primary concern has shifted from the arena of "holding actions" (aka activism) to that of "change in consciousness." (The third, equally important arena involves creating new sources of energy, new monetary systems, and other structures geared toward sustaining life rather than maximizing industrial growth.) To help facilitate what Macy calls The Great Turning, I now write books (well, one at least) and occasional articles like this one.
Right in the middle of my research and reflection on Buddhism and Burning Man, the universe sent me a link to a New York Times article about a wildfire slowly encroaching upon a three-year-long meditation retreat. The participants could see the smoke, but remained unaware and uninformed of the level of threat. The situation, I immediately realized, translates into a rough analogy for our current ecological crisis. As global temperatures rise and natural systems decline, can we -- should we -- remain calm? Will our fears about the future derail our mindfulness of, and gratitude for, the present moment? Will the heat eventually become too much to bear, or can the worst-case scenario be averted?
Like dark clouds of smoke on the horizon, other questions arise. Amidst the world's escalating chaos, can people of conscience (and privilege) afford to spend so much money and time playing on the playa? Is not such brilliance and creative energy desperately needed in the default world? And what about the environmental impact of so many loaded-down, gas-guzzling vehicles, tricked-out, fire-breathing art cars, disposable, plastic blinkies and cheap, Chinese-made tchotchkes? Despite the ongoing efforts to make Burning Man more green, its very nature might well prevent its ever becoming the most eco-friendly event in the world. Relying on local resources, for example, is simply not an option.
Furthermore, why would any earnest seeker of the Middle Way venture to such extremes? Nevada's nether regions can be oppressively hot during the day and numbingly cold at night, while the social climate is hardly more temperate. The music never stops, the energy never subsides, and the city never sleeps. It's all a sweating, swirling, kaleidoscopic, co-creative lucid dream in which the sacred and the profane, the ancient and the futuristic, the individual and communal all dance together on the fine line between art and artifice. If nothing else, Burning Man is a beautiful mass of contradictions. But aren't we all?
And aren't we all burning to live more loudly, give more freely, laugh more fully, and love more deeply? Aren't we dying to immolate everything that no longer serves these ends, to shed old skin and jettison outdated fears, compulsions, judgments, beliefs, stories, paradigms, institutions, and icons? This, finally, is where Buddhism and Burning Man come together: at the pyre of attachment. Both teach us that nothing is impermanent and remind us (to paraphrase William Blake) to kiss the joy as it flies, so that we might live in eternity's sunrise.
This August, I will return to the Burn with bells on (securely attached, so that they not wind up as matter-out-of place). My conscience may not be entirely clear, my mind may be a bit muddled, my body may be somewhat compromised, but I trust that my heart will remain intact and fully functional. I have no intention of burning to death, but I do hope to continue burning for life.
Darrin Drda is a San Francisco-based artist and author whose book entitled The Four Global Truths: Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our Times will be published under the Evolver Editions imprint on October 25, 2011.
Image by JahFae, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet