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Herbie, Fully Buddhist

Jazz great Herbie Hancock’s journey into Buddhism began in 1972 with a life-altering bass solo.

BY: Interview by Valerie Reiss

Herbie Hancock

Photo credit: Kwaku Alston

As a pop-cultured child of the 1980s, until recently the extent of my Herbie Hancock awareness was sadly limited to his cross-over hit “Rockit.” I stand humbled. When I queried one musician friend on what he’d ask Herbie Hancock, he burst out, “What’s it like to be a keyboard god?” Another was equally enthusiastic, detailing the ways in which the Grammy-winner’s 40-or-so-year career have hugely influenced jazz, pop, soul, hip-hop, and funk–from reinventing jazz as an avante garde, improvisational art with Miles Davis to being one of the first to use turntable “scratching” as an instrument, for starters. He’s also worked with virtually every musician you can name—most recently he’s released a Joni Mitchell tribute album, “River: The Joni Letters,” with guests that include Norah Jones, Tina Turner, and Leonard Cohen.

Through much of his diverse career, Hancock, 67, has practiced Nichiren Buddhism (pronounce nee-chee-ren), a form of the philosophy that focuses on chanting the mantra Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a path to enlightenement. It’s no surprise that the Christian-raised artist would connect with a melody-based religion. Hancock recently talked to Beliefnet about how the Buddhist seed was planted in a smoky nightclub, why Buddhism is like jazz, and how the practice has taught him who he really is.

What was it like recording Joni Mitchell’s songs?

Before, I almost never paid attention to lyrics. I’m so bad that when I hear a song that’s sung, English is gibberish. I don’t hear it. I mean, I would have to translate it from whatever the thing is that I hear to intelligible English. Because I hear it as a sound.

You’ve been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for a long time, right?

Yeah, 35 years.

How did that begin?

Well, back in 1972, my band was playing music that required a very intuitive sense. It was an avant-garde approach to playing jazz. So it was very much in the moment and spontaneous. We had structure, but it was a very loose structure. So we went though a period when we were vegetarians because we would keep trying to find things that would help the flow of the music. I was very open at that time.

The Magic of Buster Williams

One night on a certain tour in mid-1972 we played a club in Seattle, Washington. It was a Friday night and the club was packed. We were all exhausted because we had only gotten a couple hours of sleep because we had been hanging out all night before. But we could feel the energy in the air—these people were really into this far out kind of music. They were ready for it. I asked the band to play “Toys,” a song that I’d never called to play, which starts with a bass solo—acoustic bass, which is the softest instrument in the band by its very nature. Un-amplified bass.

So the bassist Buster Williams starts playing this introduction. And what came out of him was something I’d never heard before. And not only had I not heard it from him, I’d never heard it from anybody. It was just pure beauty and ideas and—it was magical. Magical. And people were freaking out, it was so incredible what he was playing.

I let him play for a long time, maybe 10, 15 minutes. He just came up with idea after idea, so full of inspiration. And then I could feel myself waking up just before we really came in with the melody for the song. And I could tell that the whole band woke up, and there was some energy that was generating from Buster. We played the set and it was like magic. When we finished, many people ran up to the front of the stage and reached up their hands to shake ours. Some of them were crying they were so moved by the music. The music was very spiritual, too.

I knew that Buster was the catalyst for all of this, so I took him into the musicians’ room, and I said, “Hey, Buster, I heard you were into some new philosophy or something and if it can make you play bass like that, I want to know what it is.”

And then all his eyes lit up and he said, “I’ve been chanting for a way to tell you about this.” And I said, “What? Chanting what? What is this?” And now I know that it was the only way he could have reached me. That would be the only way I would have listened to what he had to say. If he had just come up and told me about it beforehand, I would have probably put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Hey, man, that’s great. You know, whatever works for you keep doing it,” which is a way of putting up a shield. But it came through the music, which was the only way to kind of reach my heart at the time, because that’s what my focus was then.

So, that was when he first told me about Buddhism and about chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo , which is the primary thing we do. It’s the sound of the essence of everything. So, that was the beginning.

Then what happened?

I asked him some questions. I’d ask him one question, but his answers answered five or six questions that I already had in my head. Even though I had read some books on Sufism and Eastern thought, many of those things that I had read just brought up more questions than they did answers. This was the first time I was hearing something that was giving me simple answers to questions that answered more than one thing that I had in my mind. It all seemed to kind of tie together and work in such a beautiful way.

I mean, having been brought up in the Christian tradition, I had my own spin on Christianity. And most people that I knew that were Christians had their own spin on it. But what he was telling me sounded like my own personal take on religion and the way to look at things. And I said, “This sounds like what I always believed in anyway. I thought I was the only one.” He said, “No, there are, you know, close to 20 million people that believe the same thing.”

I was kind of startled when he talked about Nam-myoho-renge-kyo being the law of the universe. The idea of cause and effect, which is what Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is about, made sense to me. I’m a guy that’s always been attracted to science—and cause and effect is what science is about. But I said, “I can’t just believe that chanting the sound is going to do something, so I don’t see how it could work for me.”

He said, “Oh, you don’t have to believe it. It’s a law. So, if you just do it, it’ll–you’ll see the effect in your life. It doesn’t depend on you having to believe it first.”

That’s handy.

That was totally new to me. Because, to me, the idea of religion was always that you had to believe in it for it to work. But then I thought, Wait a minute. Gravity works whether you believe in it or not. And then, Should religion be weaker than natural science? And he said, “This religion is really based on cause and effect and actual proof.” So I said, “Well, I have nothing to lose. Sure, I’ll check it out.”

It was funny, too, because there were people hanging around Buster each night who seemed like they knew something. I don’t know how to describe it, but I saw them smiling a lot. And there was something that seemed to be deep inside them. Then I said, “Those people that have been hanging around, are they Buddhists?” He said, “Yeah.” So, I was even more intrigued.

How did Buddhism change your music over time?

On Practicing Buddhism

This practice of Buddhism has given me several realizations. One of the most important ones is to realize finally that this thing that I’ve been kind of placing up on a pedestal, sort of as my object of worship—music and being a musician—I wasn’t looking at it the true way. I realized that being a musician is not what I am, it’s what I do. I’m also a father, I’m a son, I’m a neighbor, I’m a citizen, I’m an African-American. I’m a bunch of things. But, at the center of all of that is I’m a human being. Now I view music from the standpoint of being a human being rather than being a musician. So, that’s a much deeper overview.

Consequently, I’m able to come up with concepts for musical expression that are different every time. And that’s a request from myself—to make each record different than what I’ve done before, to have a particular function which would be my reason for doing the record. And even the idea of having function is something I never thought about before. I never thought in those terms—”What is the purpose, or what is the function of doing this? ”

I imagine you’re also more present on stage.

Why Jazz Is Like Buddhism

Yeah. I mean, the cool thing is that jazz is really a wonderful example of the great characteristics of Buddhism and great characteristics of the human spirit. Because in jazz we share, we listen to each other, we respect each other, we are creating in the moment. At our best we’re non-judgmental. If we let judgment get in the way of improvising, it always screws us up. So we take whatever happens and try to make it work. We try to make it fit. We try to enhance it.

I also realize now that there’s an infinite way of looking at things. Sometimes you have to create a vision, a path for a vision. It may not be apparent and you may have to forge it yourself. And that will be the way to move your life forward.

I wonder if you could chant for us for a second?

Chanting a Buddhist Meditation

Oh, yeah! Oh, by the way, I chant every day. Primarily in the morning and the evening. Even before going on stage I say Nam-myoho-renge-kyo three times—the idea is to get in sync with the moment. But anyway–

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. That’s how we chant.

Thank you. That’s great.

You’re welcome.

What does that chant mean to you?

It is the name of life. It’s like the sound of life. When you invoke that by saying Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, that sound, that energy, touches everything in the universe. At the same time—and just think about this—within the life of a human being is the universe. So, we all have the universe inside at our core. That’s the microcosm. And then the physical universe that we see is a macrocosm. It takes the work of chanting and living your life, and listening to the signs that are a result of chanting, for the best pathway toward the development of your life, and the uncovering of your highest condition of life, which is your Buddha nature.

Cool.

‘Buddhism Is Inclusive’

Yeah. It really is cool. And it’s very open. That’s the other thing about this Buddhism, it’s not exclusive; it’s inclusive. It doesn’t say that any other religions are wrong and it’s my way or the highway. Nothing like that. I don’t feel like I have rejected Christianity or Judaism or Islam. I feel like I’ve embraced the truth that’s in everything. Because there is truth in all of those pursuits. And others, too. It’s a great way to feel.

It sounds very enlivening.

It’s really cool. I can’t even begin to scratch the surface to tell you how great this practice really is. It’s life-changing in that, in doing this, you actually get closer to who you really are.

What have you discovered about who you really are?

That I’m a human being at the core. And that there’s a great beauty to each human being. Each human being exists because there’s something they have to offer for the evolution of the universe that only they can fulfill.

It might be something as simple as saying the right word to the right person at the right time—and that could change the course of history. You never really know. But the whole thing is to work at the process of being in sync with the universe, so that everything will align at the proper time so that you can deliver that which is your life mission. And that’s why we’re here as individuals. And then there’s our contribution to the collective. It makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

Source: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Buddhism/2007/10/Herbie-Fully-Buddhist.aspx#

Tina Turner on her Buddhist practice
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Shambhala Sun | September 2011

FEATURE

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

She’s the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. An unwanted child. A believer in the power of love. A longtime Buddhist. ANDREA MILLER talks to Tina Turner.

Tina Turner—I’ll never forget my first glimpse of her. It was when I was ten years old and watched Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. She had killer legs, impressively large shoulder pads (even by eighties standards), and the most incredible raspy, sexy voice I’d ever heard. What happened to me is what, at that point, had been happening to audiences for more than two decades, and now has been happening for more than half a century: I was awed.

The Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll is not just a powerhouse on stage. She is also a longtime Buddhist, having begun her practice in the 1970s while struggling to end an abusive relationship with musician Ike Turner. Soka Gakkai, the tradition to which Tina Turner adheres, is like other schools and subschools of Nichiren Buddhism; it focuses on the Lotus Sutra and teaches that chanting its title in Japanese—Nam-myoho-renge-kyo—ultimately enables chanters to embrace the entirety of the text and uncover their buddhanature.

Turner chanting the Lotus Sutra is featured on Beyond, a CD available through New Earth Records that weaves together Buddhist and Christian prayers, and also features the singers Dechen Shak-Dagsay and Regula Curti. “Bringing together corresponding pieces from Christian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions as has been done here,” writes the Dalai Lama in the liner notes, “will allow listeners to share in these prayers, stirring thoughts of deeper respect and peace in their lives.” All revenue from the CD goes to foundations dedicated to spiritual education or helping children and mothers in need.

In this interview, Turner speaks about Beyond, the power of song and practice, and the meaning of love. — Andrea Miller

All religions speak about love, and it sounds easy to be loving. But people so frequently fail to love. Why is loving so difficult?

Some people are born into a loving family. For example, everyone in the family greets everyone else in the morning, they sit at breakfast together, they give each other a kiss when they leave. There is harmony and love in the house. When you are born with that, you take it with you.

But some people are born into situations where they’re exposed to everything but love. The world is full of people that are born into such situations, and they are traveling through life in the dark. No one has ever explained to them that they need to find love, and they have no education for love except for falling in love with another person, for sexual love. I believe that the problem with the world today is that we have too many people who are not in touch with true love.

What helped you to become loving?

When you don’t come from your mother with love, you might have the gift to be surrounded by other people or situations that are loving and you learn to love in that way.

My mother didn’t want a child, so I experienced being unwanted. But I found love when I was with myself. I would go into nature, into gardens and eat fruit. I would climb trees. I looked to nature and found love because love is in nature. If you go there, hurt and angry, it can transform you. I went with nature, with animals, and I found love and harmony. I would come home at the end of the day—braids pulled out, my dress torn—and of course I got asked, “Where have you been all day!?” But I had been in a world of love and happiness.

I am very happy that I discovered love in nature because later I was in a relationship without love and I still found a way to find love. You can find love when you are of love.

Did singing help you?

I was singing almost from the moment I was born. Ever since I was big enough, I’ve been singing. When I was a little girl my mother would put me on a chair and I would sing for the shop ladies. So I was born with a voice to sing and I have been singing all my life. It might be that being a singer helped me. Maybe singing on stage helped. Maybe it was a release.

In what way is singing a spiritual practice?

“Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” is a song. In the Soka Gakkai tradition we are taught how to sing it. It is a sound and a rhythm and it touches a place inside you. That place we try to reach is the subconscious mind. I believe that it is the highest place and, if you communicate with it, that is when you receive information on what to do. Singing a song can make you cry. Singing a song can make you happy. That’s spirit—the spirit inside of you. If you look up “spiritual” in a dictionary, you will find that it is your nature, it is the person you are. When you walk into a room, a person might say, “Oh, she’s got great spirit.” Or you can walk into a room and someone will say that you don’t have spirit because it’s not visible. You’re kind of off or negative. Meditation and praying change your spirit into something positive. If it is already positive, it makes it better. I think that is the best answer I can give you right now.

On Beyond, you say, “Sing—singing takes you beyond.”

The singing that I am referring to on the CD is one that comes out of you when you hum. It’s not necessarily a song, rather it’s that moment when you find yourself making sounds from within—from your heart, from your spirit. Each person has a musical song from their bodies. That is something I learned over time. You can play the tune of your name and this is the hum from inside of you that can give you peace when you are really down. My grandmother had a hum, never a song. She would hum sitting in a rocking chair and I would listen. As a singer, I wanted to know what my grandmother was singing. But it was the song of her soul. This song I am referring to is about singing, being happy, enjoying music, and even when you’re depressed, still singing. You must try to find that sound or song within you. You might find that it is just a “huuuaa” or a “hum” or something in falsetto. But it is a sound, which comes out of you that gives you peace.

In what ways has your practice changed you?

I feel that chanting for thirty-five years has opened a door inside me, and that even if I never chanted again, that door would still be there. I feel at peace with myself. I feel happier than I have ever been, and it is not from material things. Material things make me happy, but I am already happy before I acquire these things. I have a nature within myself now that’s happy. Practicing the words “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” for so long has put me in another frame of mind, so that when I don’t practice for a day or a week, I still feel happy. But I do practice.

Since I have been practicing Buddhism, I have to say I don’t experience the feeling of guilt anymore. Practice clears the way. Chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” makes you comfortable because it removes uncomfortable mental attitudes. It doesn’t just buy you a car or a house—it takes care of you.

What is your practice like? Do you ever include elements or practices from other Buddhist sects?

My practice these days is how I want it, how I feel it. I can take some time on weekends and just stay in my practice room and meditate, drink water, walk around. Depending on how busy I am, sometimes I go without practicing for a week and then I just click right back into it. I am not on the schedule of practicing precisely every morning and evening, but I consider myself a Buddhist. It is within me. Do I ever associate with other Buddhist elements? I haven’t felt the need except when something comes to me directly. Since I’ve been living in Switzerland, I went to a shrine elsewhere in Europe and I’ve met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Everybody knows I am a practicing Buddhist.

Would you say that you’re still evolving spiritually?

Oh, I think as long as you are on this planet as a human being, you never get to the top of spiritual evolution. I think that you evolve until you leave the planet and you don’t know how far you’ll get until you leave.

You were born into a Christian family. Can you tell me about your transition from being a Christian to being a Buddhist?

I was born into a Baptist family. I went to church every Sunday. The preachers were speaking the words of God, but I didn’t really hear what the preacher said. What affected me was the environment. It was the people’s “amen” in agreeing with the preacher. We had a young Baptist reunion to learn about the Bible and it put me in touch with information about God and Jesus and being nice to people. My mother taught me that saying the Lord’s Prayer would help me, so I kept saying it straight through life until I was introduced to Buddhism.

But it didn’t matter that I changed from being a Baptist to being a Buddhist because I learned later that they’re the same. They just use different words. Maybe I stopped saying the Lord’s Prayer and went into Buddhism because I needed new words—I needed refreshment— to get to the next step.

I noticed that saying the Lord’s Prayer and chanting a mantra had a similar effect on me. But I was chanting a mantra for longer periods of time and more often than I had ever said the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t have this system for the Lord’s Prayer and it’s a system that works for me.

Is it important to have a particular place to practice?

When I practiced the Lord’s Prayer I simply went down on my knees, so you can pray anywhere, but there are psychological benefits when you have a shrine in a quiet place in your house where it is comfortable to sit. You can cry your heart out there and it is private. The fact is that you have to have your quiet place in your house, your Buddha shrine. It is not private at church where you have to listen to the priest. At your place, you are focusing on something your person and your mind needs.

In your view, how often do people need to practice?

Some people have to practice a lot—morning, middle of the day, evening. Some people can practice once a day. Traditionally, when you’re starting out, you practice twice a day—when rising in the morning and before retiring in the evening. When I was having the hardest time of my life, I was practicing for four hours a day. And I saw how it was working. My reactions were spot on and I knew that was because of my practice, because my normal reactions weren’t that way.

Why do you consider it important to have a CD that combines Buddhist and Christian prayers?

The answer to this question is unity. Years ago, when I was on tour in New Zealand, I was given a purple book that I couldn’t stand the color of, but somehow I kept it and opened it after my tour. It explained that God is within us and it doesn’t matter what your religion is. Whatever words you use, the results are the same. If you are in another country and you go to their meditation area to pray with them and you do your own prayer and they do theirs, that’s fine.

The CD Beyond is to remind people or to educate people that God is inside them. How you tap into God is your decision. Whether you meditate or whether you become a Christian, it’s up to you. Beyond is an invitation to open the heart for all religions and to become united.

How did you get involved with Beyond?

I was invited to get involved in the project by Regula Curti, born Christian in Switzerland, and Dechen Shak-Dagsay, born Buddhist in Tibet. I thought it was a good idea because I was already on the journey of unity, of thinking about how there are religious wars and how someone has to help people know that God is to be found within, so that peace and harmony will evolve.

Regula and Dechen and I started to chant together and we discovered unity on a deeper level, more energetically and spiritually. The thought of unity in prayer became, for all three of us, a field to explore musically. We hope that everybody realizes that the system—the system of God, of contacting God, of being a better person, and of correcting your life conditions—is within you. What we are trying to say is that it doesn’t matter what holy words you chant, what matters is that you do it with all your involvement—physical, mental, spiritual. It doesn’t matter if Regula sings Ave Maria and Dechen sings the prayer for Tara and I sing the Lotus Sutra. Prayer is prayer. What’s important is doing it and not worrying about how others are praying.

On Beyond you say, “When you go beyond that’s where you find true love.” What does that mean to you? What is true love?

There are many different forms of love, but true love is something that transcends doubt, something that is not judgmental, something that is openhearted and accepting. We are not talking about passionate love, sexual love. We are talking about a love of human beings, of the planet—the love of seeing a little flower growing out of the earth at a certain time of the year.

If you have the capacity to find love in beauty, that is the door opener of true love. True love comes from looking at a beautiful day and the feeling that comes from that. Perhaps you don’t have the words for it, but you just feel, “Ah, gosh, what a wonderful day,” and that particular moment makes you happy. You see beauty and you embrace it—that is love.

What or where is this “beyond” that you refer to?

Oh, that’s a deep question. Let’s start with meditation. There is a stage in practice where you don’t faint, you don’t black out, but you are in a space. In this space you are able to stop the conscious mind, the one that constantly talks and gives you all kinds of information from your eyes, your ears, your nose. When you’re able to get into that space, that is “beyond.” That’s where you find truth. In this stage of my life, I personally believe that you get truth from your subconscious mind and by meditating you get into the subconscious mind. Meditation opens the space I call “beyond.”

What does it mean for you as a rock singer that your newest album is about prayer?

It means that people who work in the arts need prayer as much as anyone else. I don’t separate my work as a rock singer from prayer. When I went on stage to make a living, I made people happy with my work. The feedback was always that I inspired people to get out and help themselves to go forward, to practice Buddhism. Everything has been very positive and that’s because of my spiritual practice.

I feel alone now—my mother is gone, my sister is gone. But I have two sons, I have my relationship with my partner, Erwin, and I have my practice. I feel that I have help. The practice takes care of me. If you practice, you will see that this is exactly what it does.