Standing as a stark and graceful contrast to the corruptions of freedom of religion, expression, and human rights we hear about every day, there was a grand display of feminine empowerment and beauty at the most recent Burning Man festival, an event in Black Rock City, Nevada. It was a magnificent temple created for Mazu—the Chinese Goddess of the Sea. Her temple and its towering lotus flower were built, and soon thereafter ritualistically burnt, in the simplistic beauty of the desert.
An aesthetically calming temple honoring her came about by the collaboration of Project Manager Nathan Parker and Taiwanese arts foundation, the Dream Community. When I arrived at Burning Man and first saw the temple, I was in awe. The open, octagonal building created from bamboo was rustically elegant. It was designed to be indicative of a structure floating in water. Two piers stretched outwards on either side, while an eye-catching arbor framed the path to the entrance. Blue LED lights flickered on the ground in wave patterns around the temple to create the essence of water encircling the goddess’s temple. A towering 40-foot pink lotus flower sat atop the structure, while fire breathing dragon statues flanked the four corners. Once inside, a center pillar held burning incense, notebooks and pens for reflections, and small strips of papers inscribed with prayers for people to take.
This goddess, Mazu, is celebrated throughout Asia as the goddess of the sea, and also of compassion and love. She is often prayed to in times of distress, as she is known to protect people in times of danger, and is most revered for assisting sailors in the open sea with safe passage. The irony is not lost on me that this temple that honors the great Sea Goddess was erected in a desert. While this may seem paradoxical, it seems she was exactly where she belonged. Black Rock Desert is an ancient lakebed, and in its prime, one of the largest lakes in North America. Mazu had simply come home.
One of the most fascinating features of the Burning Man celebrations is that its most cherished pieces of art come down in flames at the end of the week-long event, Mazu’s temple being no exception. On the second to last night of Burning Man, I biked to the ceremony for the burning of this temple. The night was cold but the energy was electric as thousands gathered eagerly and awaited the burn. The atmosphere was filled with the sense that something powerful was happening in our presence, the feeling that most come to Burning Man for—to become part of something bigger than themselves. While we huddled in the cold, two flares went off on either side of the temple, which led to a spectacular firework show to honor this moment. When the fireworks died down, white sparklers gleamed and crackled from every petal of the huge lotus, and a flash ignited within the temple. Moments later, the temple erupted into flames and the crowd roared in elation. Mazu showed off her vivacity by transforming the flames into fire tornadoes that danced around her temple as they blazed into the night.
It’s hard to imagine that energy that powerful would simply disappear though. I’d like to think the goddess’s spirit rose out of the ashes like the ole Phoenix, and floated to faraway places where atrocities are presently occurring, to create a future world more egalitarian, more loving, and more integrative of the feminine energies Mazu is so emblematic of. This night brought part of the ancient East together with a modern counterculture of the West, and was truly a magical convergence of worlds.
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
Kayla Bonnin is a Religious Studies major at California State University, Northridge. Her academic interests include interdisciplinary approaches to religion, women in religion, cognitive science of religion, and mysticism. Kayla is also a research assistant in the Cognitive Science of Religion lab group at CSUN. When she’s not swimming in papers, research, and grad school applications, she is the Marketing Manager of a winery in Santa Barbara, CA. You can find her on twitter @Kayla_Bonnin.