Buddhism didn’t just transform Tina Turner’s life – it saved her

In our exclusive extract from Tina Turner’s new book, Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good, the legendary singer shares the deep wisdom that underpins her longstanding faith in Buddhism, and reveals how you can use it to find happiness in your own life too.

I first learned about the workings of the universe from my daily experiences growing up in Nutbush, Tennessee, a small rural town. I loved spending time outside, running through the fields. Even as a little girl, I sensed an unseen universal force as I walked through the wide-open pastures each day. I learned to listen to my heart, which taught me that you and I are connected to each other and everything else on this planet.

tina turner
‘I always love strolling through the garden before my evening prayers as the sun sets over Lake Zürich.’ Image: Xaver Walser/Taro Gold

Even though I’ve felt it instinctively since childhood, it wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I began to consciously see life in this way. I’m not sure if the nine-year-old me handpicking cotton in Tennessee specifically dreamed of a day when the forty-nine-year-old me would be shaking hands with the Queen of England. Yet, on some deep level, even that far-fetched dream was always within the field of my imagination.

Who would have expected any extraordinary outcome from a farm girl like me, born between the final days of the Great Depression and the first days of World War II? Nevertheless, my life’s path has truly been like a lotus flower, blooming over and over again, against all odds, emerging stronger each time.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that encountering adversity, as I have, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what we make of it, how we use it to shape ourselves and our futures, that ultimately determines our success and happiness

How did I do it? That’s what I want to tell you.

***

I arrived at the end of 1939, safely delivered in a window-less basement relegated to “colored” women’s maternity at the county hospital. My parents named me Anna Mae, the only name I was known by until adulthood.

Although racism was rampant, I had more immediate things to worry about, starting with the early realization that my parents couldn’t stand each other. They fought constantly, locked in a hopeless battle neither could win. Their unhappiness cast a long shadow over my childhood

My mother, Zelma, was affectionate with my sister, but it was different for me. I knew I was the child my mother never wanted. That’s a heavy burden for a little girl to bear.

My parents tried to get away from Nutbush a number of times, hoping that a change of scenery would give them a new life, and they left their young daughters behind. When I was only three, they went to work at a military base in Knoxville, more than 350 miles away. We didn’t have a phone, so we had no contact while they were gone. It would have felt closer if they had moved to the moon, since at least I could see the moon.

Though my mother was always emotionally distant from me, her side of the family was warm and caring. I adored my fun-loving grandmother, Mama Georgie, and my cousin Margaret, who was three years older than me. Margaret became my first mentor, best friend, and soul sister, and in some ways she was even a mother figure—including having “the talk” with me as I entered adolescence, the only person who did.

When my parents went away, they left me with my paternal grandparents, Mama Roxanna and Papa Alex, who were strict and sombre Bible-thumping folks. It was agony for me. Not one bit of my natural rambunctiousness was allowed in their house.

Baptist Sunday school became obligatory. When I finally got old enough to join the choir, that was my sweet spot. I was eight or nine, and the youngest singer in the group. The rest were teenagers. Even at that young age, I had the biggest voice in the choir.

tina turner
‘I sang my heart out for the SGI Buddhist peace festival in Washington, D.C., 1982, where I vowed to always inspire hope through my music.’ Image: Carol Halloday

My parents returned to Nutbush when I was five, so I was freed from the stifling environment at my relatives’ place. But our home wasn’t much better because my parents were still fighting tooth and nail.

Whenever they’d go at each other, I’d run out of the house to find a quiet place to calm my heart. Sitting by a stream, I’d watch dragonflies hover over the water, daydreaming about growing my own wings so I could fly off to a happier place—a home where nobody fought and I could be loved for being myself.

That was just a dream. When I was eleven, my mother left for the last time and never came back. She moved to St. Louis. Never sent a single letter. Nothing. I waited for the mail to come each day, hoping she would remember me, but I didn’t see her again until Mama Georgie’s funeral, more than five years later.

Soon after I turned thirteen, my father also left.

Thankfully, I still had my cousin Margaret.

Margaret and I were each other’s sounding board and safe haven. When I was fourteen, she told me a secret I never expected to hear: She was pregnant. This news confused me, because Margaret was always so careful in her life. She confided in me that she had decided a baby and college weren’t compatible, so she was determined to terminate the pregnancy.

Tragically, at the end of January 1954, just a week after she revealed her biggest secret to me, Margaret died in a terrible car accident. I couldn’t believe it. Not my Margaret. The light of my life. I was devastated. Lost. Alone.

After Margaret died, there was a lot of talk about God’s will. I couldn’t verbalize my own vision of God then, as the vocabulary hadn’t come to me yet. Something told me I had a piece of God in my heart, even if the traditional beliefs of my family and the way they practiced religion weren’t right for me.

After Margaret’s death, I knew I’d have to find my own way to carry on, to construct my own path to happiness.

 

***

tina turner
‘Here I am in the late 1970s, reading about the principle of “changing poison into medicine,” which helped me transform my life.’ Image: Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy of the Ford Foundation.

Eleven years later, when Mama Georgie suddenly passed away, my mother invited me to live with her in St. Louis. That’s when I began a whole new life.

When I was seventeen, I went to the Club Manhattan, a bustling, smoke-filled music venue, where I met two men who would play important roles in my life. The first was Raymond Hill, a talented sax player with whom I had a brief romance that produced my beloved son Craig. The second was Ike Turner.

Ike became a mentor to me and launched my musical career. I was thrilled. There I was, a teenager, standing onstage, dressed in fine clothes, singing my heart out. I never imagined that kind of career was possible for me. It seemed like a dream come true, until it wasn’t.

Against my better judgment, Ike became my first husband. The best thing our relationship produced was my second beloved son, Ronnie.

Living with Ike was a challenging series of ordeals. He changed my name from Anna Mae Bullock to Tina Turner in the early days of our relationship, despite my protests. After that, during our difficult ascent to fame in the 1960s as the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, I suffered years of domestic violence, both emotional and physical. Busted lips, black eyes, dislocated joints, broken bones, and psychological torture became a part of everyday life. I got used to suffering and tried to keep myself sane while somehow managing his insanity. I felt there was no way out.

Finally, in 1968, I was so depressed and despondent that I couldn’t think straight. Ike’s abuse and infidelities left me numb, unable to feel for myself or my family, unable to feel alive. The only thing I could feel was that I had reached the end. One night before I was set to go onstage, I attempted suicide by taking fifty sleeping pills. People backstage noticed something was very wrong with me and rushed me to the hospital, which saved my life.

At first, I was disappointed when I woke up and realized I was still alive. I thought death was my only chance at escape. I tried to pull myself out of despair as best I could. It occurred to me that maybe I had survived for a reason, for some greater purpose. From that point on, no matter how tough life was, my instinct, my heart, told me to just keep going.

Where was I headed? That was still unclear.

The early 1970s were a difficult time, both personally and professionally.  I was often distraught and exhausted from the abuse, and it was getting harder to hide it from the people around me, who weren’t blind to my problems

One day, our sound engineer said something different to me. “Tina, you should try chanting. It will help you change your life.”

Wasn’t chanting something hippies did? I soon forgot about it.

A couple of months later, Ronni came home carrying what looked like a lacquered brown wooden rosary. He said excitedly, “Mother, these are Buddhist chanting beads. If you chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, you can have anything you want.”

What? How could I ever have anything I want? I didn’t even know how to process that statement.

A few weeks later, Ike brought home a cheerful-looking woman to meet me. He was always parading people through our house to “see Tina.” Out of nowhere, she started talking about chanting. She was a Buddhist.

Apparently, the universe was trying very hard to send me an important message. This time, I was ready to listen

***

When I first received the gift of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, it marked the beginning of a new life for me in more ways than I could have imagined. Thanks to the spiritual awakenings I experienced by chanting, I gained the clarity and strength to make countless important changes in my life.

Ike was afraid of my chanting because he thought I might be able to put a curse on him or something. I realize now that he mostly feared the person I could become through my spiritual practice. His hold on me was threatened because chanting strengthened me.

He almost never let me go out to meet people without him, so I found time whenever I could to chant secretly, stealing precious moments to do my prayers morning and night.

Gradually, I felt I was getting in sync, in rhythm with life on the deepest level. The more I chanted, the more I felt my true self, my inherent Buddha nature, awakening. My life condition kept rising, and I developed a newfound feeling of detachment around my husband. I became so strong inside that eventually our conflicts began to feel like a game, like some sort of karmic test.

In the midst of chaos, I felt as if I had been reborn.

Slowly but surely, I increased my Buddhist practice over the next couple of years. I became stronger—so strong that in the summer of 1976, I finally found the courage to escape from the unhealthy domestic situation I had been trapped in for so long.

It lifted my life condition—and it can do the same for you.

tina turnerWhat is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo?

The concise meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is: Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra.

Nam means “devoting oneself.”

Myoho means “Mystic Law,” with myo indicating life’s mystic essence, and ho representing its manifestations. Myoho expresses the fundamental life force of the universe.

Next, renge means “lotus flower,” expressing cause and effect, since lotus plants bring forth their blossoms and seed-pods simultaneously.

Renge also indicates the Lotus Sutra.

Finally, kyo has multiple layers of significance, including the teachings of Buddha and sound vibration.

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo can be interpreted as: ‘I devote myself to the universal Mystic Law of cause and effect through the sound vibration of Buddha wisdom.’

Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good by Tina Turner will be published on 1 December 2020 (Harper Collins, £16.99)