The Religion that Saved Tina Turner

The Buddhist Channel, 29 May 2023

Zurich, Switzerland -- When news filtered through social media that Tina Turner was no longer with us on Wednesday, 24 May 2023, the world mourned the passing of an iconic artiste. The Queen of Rock 'n' Roll was 83.

On Thursday, her team said she died of natural causes, but did not give any more details. Her health problems lasted for decades and included a stroke, PTSD from her abusive marriage to her former music partner Ike Turner. She also had long term kidney problems that led her husband, Erwin Boch, 67, to give her one of his kidneys to save her life in 2017. One of her representatives said on Wednesday that she had a long illness.

While media outlets celebrated Tina Turner's exceptional performances and numerous career accomplishments, a lesser-known fact is that she dedicated the past five decades to practicing Soka Gakkai International Nichiren Buddhism.

Soka Gakkai, established in Japan in 1930, is a lay Nichiren Buddhist organization. In the United States, Soka Gakkai International-USA played a significant role in popularizing Nichiren Buddhism. Turner's introduction to this organization took place in 1973, facilitated by Valerie Bishop, who was employed by her first husband, musician Ike Turner, in his recording studio.

Turner's embrace of Buddhism unfolded during her initial marriage and continued to shape her journey as a solo artist. This spiritual practice served as a wellspring of inspiration for some of the final projects she pursued in her illustrious career.

In an interview with USA Today in 2020, Tina said "Buddhism literally saved my life, and I've been happily chanting every day for about 50 years now." In her HBO documentary "Tina" (2021), Turner said, "The more you chant Nam(u)-myoho-renge-kyo, the more you become liberated, mentally."

Watch: Tina Turner Chant "Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo"

So one question comes to mind: If Buddhism did play a big part in Miss Turner's life, why is there such muted response from the Buddhist world with regards to her faith?

It is quite unusual when followers of a religion do not generally play up the faith of a superstar. One reason that could explain this peculiar situation is the branch of Buddhism that she had devoted herself into.

Nichiren Buddhism and Soka Gakkai

Nichiren Buddhism is based on the teachings of Nichiren (1222‐1282), a Buddhist monk who lived during the 13th century in Japan. While renowned as a reformer monk, Nichiren was often controversial and criticized by the government authorities at that time because of his prophecies that social problems and natural disasters were based on a failure to adhere to his form of Buddhist practice. He considered himself a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Jōgyō.

Nichiren established his own sect (the Nichiren sect) and declared that the Lotus Sutra alone contains the highest truth of Buddhist teachings suited for the Third Age of Buddhism, also known as "the degenerate age of Dharma". He insisted that the Sovereign of Japan and its people should support only this form of Buddhism and eradicate all others1. He advocated the repeated recitation of its mantra, Nam(u)-myoho-renge-kyo as the only path to Buddhahood.

Due to his rebellious nature, authorities during that period tried to execute or sent him into exile a number of times. History have judged this controversial figure either as a fervent nationalist or a social reformer with a transnational religious vision.

Meanwhile, Soka Gakkai members pray to Nichiren's Gohonzon, which is a calligraphic mandala, in contrast to worshiping the Buddha or Dharma as anthropomorphized personifications. The organization teaches that a member is considered to be practicing the Lotus Sutra when chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo to the Gohonzon.

Critics of Soka Gakkai have raised concerns about its practices and organizational structure. Some argue that the organization displays characteristics commonly associated with cults, such as an authoritarian leadership style, strong group cohesion, and pressure to conform. Critics also point to the intense focus on the founder and the perceived exclusivity of the group's teachings. The group's reputation was also preceded by its image from the 1950's, where its relentless, highly successful proselytizing  stirred up fear in wider society.

On the other hand, Soka Gakkai and its members argue that it is a legitimate Buddhist movement promoting peace, education, and personal empowerment. They highlight their emphasis on individual spiritual development, community service, and the promotion of global peace. According to a research by Mayumi Itoh2, since 2000 deep anti-Soka Gakkai sentiments in Japanese society at large has weakened, as the members have stopped the aggressive membership drives it deployed in the past.

Nichiren Buddhism and Tina Turner

Nevertheless, whatever faith that the late Ms Turner adopted, it has to be said that Nichiren Buddhism was there when her life needed it most. Buddhists generally appreciate that a person's faith is an individual's personal choice. When one has put one's mind into the practice, as she had done chanting Nam(u)-myoho-renge-kyo faithfully for almost half a century, who is to say that the teaching was not correct?

Nichiren Buddhism has given her strength, hope and most of all a reason to live. And through her life, she presented humanity a host of wondrous hits which had stood the test of times. Buddhists in general may not warmly embrace Nichiren Buddhism or even Soka Gakkai, but this should not stop us for being thankful to them, for giving Tina Turner the strength and inspiration to produce incredible music. Indeed generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this legendary musician, ever rocked this earth.

1 H. Byron Earhart (31 October 2013). "Value Creation Society (Sōka Gakkai)". In Huffman, James L. (ed.). Modern Japan: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism. Routledge. p. 281.

2 Itoh, Mayumi (2014). Hrebenar, Ronald J.; Nakamura, Akira (eds.). Party Politics in Japan: Political Chaos and Stalemate in the 21st Century. Routledge.

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