> Zed Book Club / Bookshelf / First Person / Tina Turner’s Pursuit of Happiness

After leaving Ike Turner in 1978 and starting from scratch to restart her career, Tina Turner struck it big in 1984 with her Private Dancer album, which sold 10 million copies and won three Grammy awards. Photo: Denize Alain/ Sygma/ Getty Images

> First Person

Tina Turner’s Pursuit of Happiness

In her new book Happiness Becomes You, the 81-year-old music icon explains how Buddhism changed her life and allowed her to 'turn poison into medicine' / BY Kim Honey / December 16th, 2020

Tina Turner may have it all, but the singer didn’t have much to begin with and she’s lost it all, too, and more than once. Although she’s laid it out there in her previous two memoirs, I, Tina (1986) and My Love Story (2018), she sums it up in the introduction to her new book, Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good, like this: “You might know the list, and it’s long – an unhappy childhood, abandonment, an abusive marriage, a stalled career, financial ruin, the premature death of family members, and multiple illnesses.”


Happiness Becomes You tells you how she survived years of domestic violence – “busted lips, black eyes, dislocated joints, broken bones, and psychological torture” – as well as several life-threatening health scares, and it all comes down to her faith. Buddhism saved her from the minute she first chanted its meditative mantra in 1973, and it’s what gave her the courage to leave her tormentor, Ike Turner, after years of abuse. “My life-altering revelation was that I could change my way of responding to these challenges,” she writes. “The most valuable help comes from within, and peace comes when individuals work on becoming their better selves.”

Turner explains Buddhism’s 2,500-year history, its tenets, what karma really means and how to attain Buddhahood, the highest state of enlightenment that is “total freedom, wholeness and absolute happiness.”

It’s non-fiction and self-help rolled into one, and Turner, 81, wants to share the wisdom and insight she’s gained in the five decades she’s been a practicing Buddhist. In the Q&A that follows, she responds to Zoomer’s questions by email from the home she shares with German music executive Erwin Bach in Zurich, Switzerland. An excerpt from the book appears below.

Q: What compelled you to write a book about happiness now, in your eighties?

A: I’ve dreamt of writing a book like this for many years, three decades, in fact. But the timing was never right before. My dearest hope in writing Happiness Becomes You has always been to uplift people and help them to find joy in everyday life, especially during tough times. Now, when many people are going through hardships and looking to make positive changes in their lives and mindset, that wish is stronger than ever.

Q: What does happiness mean to you?
A: There are different sorts of happiness. There’s transient happiness, which comes and goes depending on outside circumstances. Then there’s true and lasting happiness, which is the kind of happiness I’ve been able to attain through the methods I describe in the book. When joy is rooted in our hearts and minds, then happiness becomes a solid foundation that’s unshakeable, no matter what happens in our lives. And I believe every one of us has this capacity.

Turner, pictured in the late 70s, says she is reading from a Buddhist text about “changing poison into medicine.” Photo: Johnson Publishing Company Archive. Courtesy of the Ford Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Smithsonian Institution.


Q: In the book, you write that you first encountered Buddhism in 1973 when you were in a major world of stress. Where exactly were you on your life’s path and how did that encounter change it?
: When I was in my late twenties, I was quite depressed and finally felt so hopeless that I tried to kill myself by taking a bottle of sleeping pills. Fortunately, people found me before it was too late, and I was taken to an emergency room, where medical staff revived me. But when I opened my eyes in a hospital bed and realized I was still alive, I was disappointed. At that time, I thought death was my only way out. I am thankful that it wasn’t long before a number of people suggested I try chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. They promised it would change my life for the better. Eventually, I decided to look into it. The more I found out about it, the more I saw that Buddhist teachings made a lot of sense to me. Soon after I started practicing Buddhism, I realized that within me I already had everything I needed to become happy. I gained confidence and hope, and the inner transformations I achieved through my spiritual practice helped me to become optimistic and joyful.



Q: You describe your early experiences with chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as hearing the “anthem of angels.” What is the chant and what does it mean to you?
A: Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was the start of the changes that saved my life, so it has a deep personal significance for me. I explore its meaning extensively in my book, but in short, the literal meaning is “devotion to the universal law of cause and effect.” When I chant these words, I can feel an inner change taking place—my mind clears, my mood lifts, and with this clarity I can envision what I want my life to look like and how to achieve it. Accessing this higher state within myself enables me to connect with my innate wisdom and compassion so I can make positive causes that in turn create positive effects. In other words, chanting helps me to increase my good karma, and also helps me to help others do the same.

When the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – in which Turner starred as villainous Aunty Entity opposite Mel Gibson – became a box-office hit in the summer of 1985, Turner chanted with gratitude in New York. Photo: Brian Lanker Archive


Q: You say that spiritual practice can’t change other people or control what happens, but how can spiritual practice help someone get out of a bad situation or an unhealthy relationship, as you did?
A: The important thing is to recognize your own worth and understand that you have a purpose here in this life. Take care of yourself, love yourself. You may not have direct control over what comes your way, but you do have control over how you respond to what comes your way. Every day, we express who we are and who we wish to become through our thoughts, words, and deeds. Choose the positive path in everything you do. We all have positive and negative sides, but we can make decisions that enhance our positive side. And through spiritual practice, you can come to see yourself and your life clearly. When you can see things clearly, you can transform any situation. Never settle for a relationship in which you aren’t cherished and respected.

Turner says she loves to walk in her garden before evening payers as the sun sets on Lake Zurich. Photo: Xaver Walser/Taro Gold


Q: Many people despair at the thought of growing old, but you have spoken publicly about your positive view on aging. How do you maintain that viewpoint as you age?
A: I’ve always owned my age with pride and welcomed getting older. Experience is valuable and brings wisdom. As long as we do our best to be a happier version of ourselves today than yesterday, then age is only a number. At every stage of life, I’ve felt fortunate to experience what comes with each year. In my heart today, I feel more youthful than ever. That is because I treasure every moment.

In the following excerpt from her new book, Turner explains how chanting gave her the strength to leave Ike Turner and how it sustains her to this day.

The fragrance of flowers perfumed my spring garden today as I looked across the shimmering waters of Lake Zürich. I smiled as I began my morning prayers, realizing it’s been nearly half a century since I first chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

The transformation in my life from where I was upon first hearing these words to where I am today, as I write this, is extraordinary. If I hadn’t made the journey myself, it might seem like a fairy tale. Yet that’s exactly what I did—I made my dreams, my own vision of a fairy tale, come true. Whatever your dreams may be, I know you can make them come true, too.

My wish for you is to succeed and achieve your own definition of happiness, however you paint that picture. If you take away anything from these pages, I hope that my story of self-actualization will inform and inspire your dreams, now and in the future.

When I speak of dreams coming true, I’m not referring to the external desires in our lives. Material rewards are lovely, and I’m deeply grateful for all the wonderful things in my life now. I worked hard to get to where I am today. But that isn’t the transformation I’m talking about. What shifted for me, what enabled me to attain all the conspicuous benefits I enjoy, was infinitely more important—the deep, inner changes that resulted from my spiritual practice of chanting, studying, and helping others.

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.

It all started when I had that series of encounters with people who urged me to chant. Fortunately, I listened to the message that was trying so hard to reach me. I began by chanting a little each day, sometimes just saying Nam-myoho-renge-kyo a few times in a row. Then I started chanting five minutes a day, then fifteen, and noticed small, yet definite, improvements and shifts in my life condition.

For example, I found a rare cache of my favorite makeup that had been discontinued, and I often felt like I hit long stretches of green lights when I drove. Bit by bit, my Buddhist practice was helping me to rearrange my place in the universe.

Soon, I increased my chanting to a half hour, sometimes an hour.

Although I wanted to chant with my sangha, the local community of practitioners, I was still married to Ike, and he 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. Sometimes, a few of my brave chanting friends, Susie Sempers, Valerie Bishop, and Maria Lucien, would sneak into the house to practice with me when my husband wasn’t around.

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.

The brighter my inner light shined, the more my environment improved, and dreams I hadn’t even expressed outside of my chanting began to come true. Internal gains were followed by other benefits, starting a positive cycle that grew over time. The first big example of this was powerful. I had always wanted to act in film, and out of the blue, I was asked to star in the rock opera film Tommy, together with Elton John, Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey, Eric Clapton, and Jack Nicholson. Remember my love of movies when I was a child? This was a real dream come true.

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 run away from Ike, to escape from the unhealthy domestic situation I had been trapped in for so long, and I filed for divorce.

Once I gained my independence, I also gained the freedom to go to chanting meetings whenever I pleased. All around the world there are neighborhood chanting meetings organized by the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhist network; warm and friendly gatherings of people who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I joined the meetings nearest me, in the Brentwood area of West Los Angeles.

Oh, how I enjoyed studying and practicing Buddhism with other openminded people. What a relief and delight that was! After years of oppression at home, having the freedom to express my thoughts and beliefs was sheer joy. Looking back on it now, it seems like such a simple thing. But those of us who have survived abusive and codependent relationships know the value of basic pleasures and rights that others may take for granted.

Excerpted from Happiness Becomes You published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2020 by Tina Turner.


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