Filed in Community, Travel

Dharma on the Playa

Buddhism at Burning ManAllan Badiner

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As I approached Burning Man’s Black Rock City from the air, the clouds cleared in a flash to reveal a large, intricate crescent in the sand. With a population of nearly 70,000, the temporary settlement for the annual art and music festival springs into being from the dust for a week before every vestige of it vanishes in flames. I was struck by how similar this almost-perfect circle of a city was to a Tibetan sand mandala, and how its fiery fate resonated so strongly with the ancient and artful message of impermanence.

Low tolerance for desert heat, strong aversion to unruly crowds, and an abject hatred for dust are just a few reasons why I never planned to go to Burning Man, where thousands gather each year in 110-degree heat smack in the middle of a petrified Nevada lake bed (called the “playa”) for a week of psychedelic-fueled festivities. In fact, I planned never to go. Black Rock evangelists once dragged me to a San Francisco “Decompression,” a post–Burning Man party. Not partial to indulgent costumed affairs and immodest displays, after two hours of this cacophonous chaos I longed to see any evidence of normality. Another problem was what I imagined to be the widespread, indiscriminate use of hallucinogens, empathogens, and alcohol at the festival. I recognize the value of many varieties of psychedelics, provided that they are used mindfully, as a sacrament, with the specific intent of having a spiritual experience—but I was not at all sure that this was what the annual legions of scantily clad Burners had in mind.

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