The response to David Bowie’s death shows his impact. What does his work mean for a Buddhist?

Thought for the Day 13.1.2016

Speaking to friends since David Bowie’s death, I’ve noticed that each of us has woven him into a very personal story of our lives and what we care about. So here’s my version of David Bowie and how that connects to Buddhism.

Like many others, I discovered Bowie as a teenager who was asking, ‘Who am I?’ Bowie offered liberation from conventional answers. Reinvent yourself, I heard him saying; be what you want. I wasn’t particularly interested in his experiments with gender and sexuality, but the message: ‘We can be heroes,’ felt exciting and dangerous.

Not long after, I encountered Buddhism which also told me that identity isn’t fixed. Learning meditation prompted me to think that, rather than asking who I was, I could ask who I might become. I also responded to stories of the Buddha as he wandered through the world following his Enlightenment, engaging with people and sharing his wisdom. Like a Bowie character he was in the world, but somehow untouched – and not ‘just for one day’.

A little later I heard of the legendary Buddha who plays his lyre and sings a song of impermanence to the gods, and thought of Bowie’s Changes. ‘I watch the ripples change their size, but never leave the stream of warm impermanence,’ sings Bowie. I can’t help hearing in that the Buddhist idea that everything we experience is shifting and transient. Change, Buddhism teaches, is a characteristic of life itself and you only heap further sufferings on yourself when you look for security where it can’t be found, or nestle into your comfort zone.

But the alternative is frightening. The most basic fact of our lives is that nothing endures – the people we love, our very existence … everything. For Buddhists, the capacity to accept that nothing lasts forever develops gradually by living with an awareness that touches every area of our lives. By practising generosity and ethics we become less self-absorbed. Buddhism teaches that meditation calms the mind and allows our experience to come into perspective. And insight comes when we learn to inhabit the mysterious space that’s there when we let go of our ideas about how life should be.

The refrain of Bowie’s Changes is, ‘Turn and face the strange’. I think that’s his central theme. It’s a fitting epitaph, but it’s also a challenge, and a rather Buddhist one at that. I think it means that, if we really want transformation we have to embrace the insecurity that goes with it. And that’s the work of a lifetime.