Sunday, May 28, 2023

Tina Bids Farewell: The Exuberant Buddhism of the Late Tina Turner

Tina Turner, in 2018. (Photo: Charles Gates)

“The Buddhist concept of changing poison into medicine works. My life has proven it."  – Tina Turner, Living Buddhism, July 2018.

As a Buddhist, I don’t, of course, believe in the customary concepts of heaven or hell, since as fellow practitioners well know, we humans do a pretty good job of manufacturing our own versions of those two domains right here on earth while we’re alive in this material world. Like many of you, though, I do, however, believe in reincarnation, and that’s where my mind first went when I learned of the passing of the great Tina Turner at the age of 83 at her home in Switzerland on May 23, 2023, with her beloved second husband Erwin Bach at her side. Her first husband, the notoriously abusive Ike Turner, whose sole role in history has become his introduction of a shy sixteen-year-old girl named Anna Mae Bullock to the recording industry and his transformation of that girl into Tina, the larger-than-life talent we all came to adore, has drifted off into whatever hellish domain awaits the cruel and inhuman among us. But Tina, she might well have gone elsewhere.

Her last decade was one of great suffering, with the cancer that eventually took her from us persistently haunting her and kept in check with dialysis and even a kidney transplant from Bach, but it was also a time of distinct revelation for those of us following her lengthy career as a gargantuan entertainer, artist, woman and philanthropist. My first reaction regarding her potential reincarnation was that she might merely directly assume the mantle of a dakini, the feminine manifestation of compassion and wisdom, given how far she progressed from her humble beginnings in Nutbush, Tennessee to a towering goddess figure on the global music stage. The lady herself, humble and unassuming no matter how mega a star, would naturally scoff at such a grandiose notion. That’s okay; I’ll just entertain myself with it anyway.

Readers of this magazine may recall a sterling Tina Turner interview conducted by editor Andrea Miller in these pages some four years ago, which explored in some considerable depth Tina’s serious commitment to Buddhist practice and the huge role she believed in played in her salvation and reclamation, both as a person and as an artist. While that wonderful piece confirmed her dedication to a lifelong path that first began by accident back in 1974, for some members of the public it may have been one of the first indicators of just how serious a practitioner the owner of those titanic legs really was. In 2018, deep into the midst of her mortality threatening illness, she further shared with the Living Buddhism editors how she situated her spiritual path and faith in humanity as part of her activity as a creative artist. My new book on her saga, Tumult: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, tries to situate her art within her spiritual practice.

“Music can build bridges between ‘you’ and ‘me,’ ‘us’ and ‘them,’” she explained. “I feel strongly that it is now time for the world to move beyond such divisions into a greater spiritual connection. I have never separated my spiritual practice from my life as a rock singer. When I was going through the hardest times of my life, I was chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. And chanting helped me and changed my life for the better. I’ve left a good body of work as a rock singer, and I’ve always made it very clear that it was all because of my spiritual practice.” From this startling statement, I believe we can infer not that her music was about the content of her practice but rather that without her practice she may never have actually survived.

The legacy of Tina Turner honors all those women who were strong enough to leave their abusive situations, but also all those who were not. Being righteous is, in many respects, a full-time job, and in addition to being an entertainer of obvious scale and scope, she is also a lesson in both endurance and triumph, with her initial encounters with Buddhism being more of a survival mechanism than a search for enlightenment. That part came later, as she herself put it in an interview with Minerva Lee for the World Tribune in 2018, a difficult year for her indeed, “My legacy is that I stayed on course, from the beginning to the end, because I believed in something inside of me.” Like all of us, she carried within her a seed of the Buddha nature, and in her case it was writ large.

In 1976, she finally filed for divorce from Ike, stating about that time that her embrace of Buddhist meditation and chanting practices helped her survive the ravages of their suffocating relationship. She also developed those uncanny skills that enabled her to connect with so many of her fellow mortals at such a deep heart-to-heart level. She was, in fact, a beating human heart in high heels. Sometimes the most important things that happen to creative artists are accidents of fate or destiny. For someone like Tina, however, a firm believer in the principle of karma, there are no accidents, even the ones that at first seem tragic. That belief was perhaps the only way she could ever survive her marriage to a monster.

But the rest was all her, and her incredible voice. Juggy Murray of Sue Records described her as early as 1959, when she still only 19: “Her vocals sounded like screaming dirt . . . it was a funky sound.” As an instrument, it certainly needed to be powerful enough to become transcendental, and indeed it did. I recently came across two notions about resilience that seem to apply directly to Turner: wabi sabi, a Japanese aesthetic that highlights imperfections or damages, irregularities or rough patches, and kitsukuori, which means “to repair with gold,” the art of repairing broken ceramics with gold-leaf veins which accentuate and celebrate damage. That, again, was Tina Turner writ large.

Karma is such a funny thing, except when it isn’t, of course. But some kind of exotic deliverance seemed to manifest itself out of nowhere in 1974, when her psychotic husband Ike introduced her to an attractive Jewish woman at their home one afternoon. Valerie Bishop didn’t stay too long for a visit, possible already picking up on Ike’s heavy-duty vibe, but just long enough to introduce the depressed Tina to a unique brand of meditational chanting known as Nicherin Shoshu Buddhism. Its most common and visible tenet, apart from undertaking a faith in the Lotus Sutra, was the chanting of nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo, which is basically an expression of homage to the Lotus teaching as explored by the sage Nicherin himself, a Zen teacher active in the Kamakura period, roughly about 1250. Chanting the daimoku, as it is called, led her to long-term implications for her consciousness lasting right up until her last day on earth.

Subsequent to what she saw as her waking-up from a bad dream and a brief encounter with a perfect stranger, Valerie Bishop, for many years she attributed her ongoing solo success, and her life happiness in general, to the Buddhism which not only transformed her life emotionally, but also, she believed, literally saved her life. Two years later she left Ike and two years after that her divorce was finalized. She was ready for new challenges, even if some of them required a certain amount of humility and patience until she paid her solo career dues after so early a big success as part of the Turner Revue.

But that was all right with her, though, since prior to her comeback breakthrough with Private Dancer in 1984, she knew that she had already overpaid her dues and also that she deserved some karmic payback. And sure enough, that payback was already on its way and would last through a magnificent stellar star turn, earning her the title Queen of Rock and Roll, selling more than 200 million records and garnering eight Grammy Awards from 25 nominations; three Hall of Fame Awards; a Kennedy Center for the Arts Honor; and a Guinness Book of Records Prize for selling more live concert tickets than any other performer in history.

But deep down inside, somehow and against all odds, the megastar rock goddess always remained inherently that same humble Baptist gospel girl from Nutbush, Tennessee. Somewhere along the way, Anna Mae Bullock seemed to have figured out something that the playwright G.B. Shaw once characterized in the most salient way possible: “Life is not about finding yourself, it’s not about finding anything at all, it’s only about creating yourself.” She’d been doing that right from her beginnings and she succeeded in her chosen life by continuing to create and recreate Tina Turner. Global rock star and humble everyday Buddhist, she also finally created a truly happy version of Anna Mae Bullock. One we will all miss.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.


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