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The Leonardo Gallery

The Flaming Zen Garden and The Sands of Fire

by Wally Glenn

© Wally Glenn. Photo © Wally Glenn.

The Flaming Zen Garden uses fire to foster contemplation and creation. It is a fire artwork that draws one into its center and allows one to change its shape by changing its surface. To fully appreciate The Flaming Zen Garden, one has to be familiar with the conventional Zen sand garden, which is a Japanese meditation tool associated with Zen Buddhism. It contains a landscaped area with a few rocks, which is filled with a very fine sand that is carefully raked into some geometric design. After a time the design is raked away and replaced with a different one. Often the creation of the sand design is undertaken as a meditative experience. The Flaming Zen Garden first appeared at Burning Man in 2002, when I brought a big-box version to the event.

Created from my original experiments, The Flaming Zen Garden is composed of a box of flaming sand, hence its name. How it works is simple: One is given a rake and invited to rake a pattern into the sand. When one does this, the sand pattern becomes filled in with a hovering blanket of fire that mimics the engraved sand design. The fire is a very small blue flame about 1/4 in high, so it is not overwhelming. I also supply other tools with which to work the sand, including hand tools, branding irons and even insulated gloves that allow people to put their gloved hands in the flaming sands.

Usually, one person will come along and start a pattern by making wavy lines in the sand. What starts out as a simple pattern then becomes quite complex as others add their own lines, circles or other unique forms to the main pattern. Sometimes a pattern becomes so strikingly interesting that everyone will pause to admire it for a while before starting at it again.

What really endears this work to me is that it uses a low-flame effect that is still very spectacular, as compared to many of the fire artworks at Burning Man, which are monumental and large-scale. The Flaming Zen Garden has a great effect on people despite its very small size. It allows people to get up close and personal with fire. Even kids, if they are very careful, can work with it.

The Flaming Zen Garden
uses a series of propane tanks connected to feed tubes with regulators on them. The feed tubes are then distributed throughout the Garden and covered with sand. The gas that is emitted is heavier than air and hovers near the sand. The blanket of gas is then ignited, creating a very low flame that awaits someone's turn at the rake to sketch a sand pattern to be filled in with fire.

Over time, the device has been getting bigger. My first Garden was a 2-x-2-ft area, but since then it has grown as big as a 4-x-8-ft box. A larger box allows more people to collaborate and simultaneously create designs that flow into one another. The rare occurrence of wet weather out in the desert adds its own special effect. The raindrops hit the sand and then fizzle and burn away, leaving small crater-like patterns.

However the patterns are made, the Garden has an interesting effect on those who gather round; it tends to foster a relatively subdued atmosphere as people contemplate the flaming sands. This installation has been to Burning Man three times, and I expect it will return many more times, because people love it, and that makes me very happy.

Wally Glenn, pyroboy.com

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Updated 17 April 2007.

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