Burning Man, pilgrimage

chagall burning bushThinking about what to offer in this note, I find myself reflecting on Burning Man, where so many friends I know are this week. It has really become a pilgrimage place, and some devotees speak of it that way. For this week, each year, there is a mirage city created out of whole cloth, inspiration, and vast desert space. I’ve never been, yet, but know what it’s like to set out toward a distant, magical place. And how that setting out moves something in the heart.

And of course it’s in the desert. Christ went to the desert, for 40 days, to meet his shadow. The Burners go to the playa, and it’s never easy, I hear. Who do they each meet there, amid the dust, space, art, lusts, adventure, friends, prayers? And at the end of the week, a great burning. What burns? What (who) is the Man that Burns?

The Buddha gave a famous talk that begins “Bhikkhus, all is burning. And what is the all that is burning?” The eye, the ear, the nose and tongue, the body is burning, the mind is burning. This body all with its senses is burning. We each are the Burning Man (or Woman). When Moses saw the bush burning, and heard the voice of wisdom roaring in his ears, did he know that he was the bush? Did Ezekiel know that the burning wheels rolled through his own heart? Or that the seraphim (literally “burning” angels) powered not just the vision but his own eyes? In a way I think we can’t know. But the Buddha’s teaching is plain. “Burning with what, bhikkhus?” (Bhikkhus means all of us practicing toward freedom.) “Burning with the fires of grasping, aversion, and delusion.”

To undertake any pilgrimage, we have to want something. Even want something badly enough to burn for it, and to walk through privation to get there. And practice, whether meditation, yoga, kirtan, therapy, study, or experiencing the parched throat and tapas (heat) of the desert, needs your fire to burn or it doesn’t work! Said simply, if we’re not passionate, the heart can’t open to what’s true. So the fire of grasping doesn’t mean we should abandon the Path! Paradoxically, it takes a strong inner fire to practice with the kind of persistence necessary to mature. And our practice of seeing clearly what burns us, over and over, is what begins to cool the flames. Nirvana literally means “cooling”, like a fire that has run out of fuel, and one of the ancient nicknames for freedom is “the cooled state”.


Burn, baby, burn.

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