David Bowie: Postmodernist or Buddhist?
In the second half of the twentieth century, Arthur Danto (1926-2013) was the most important philosopher of art in the world. Danto had something in common with David Bowie, since both were pretty close to being obsessed with Andy Warhol, but in Danto´s case, it wasn´t just because he was a fan – in fact, at first he really wasn´t a fan. But Danto became convinced that Warhol´s vision and work had changed the world, irreversible. Danto made the astonishing claim that Warhol´s exhibit at the Stable Gallery in New York City in 1964 marked the end of art history. It was over. From the cave paintings of Lascaux, some 17000 years ago up until April 1964, art had a history, and then, poof, Warhol ended it. Or perhaps it would be more honest to say that Danto ended it in Warhol´s name.
Here´s what happened. Danto went to the Warhol exhibit and saw the Brillo Box sculptures Warhol had made – and make them is what he did. Yes, they looked like ordinary Brillo boxes we could buy at the supermarket, but they were not. It was not like Marcel Duchamp placing a urinal in the art exhibit and calling it “Fountain.” This was Warhol painstakingly constructing plywood boxes and creating the silkscreens to paint them, and then touching them up by hand after they were silkscreened, and installing them in a pyramid in the Stable Gallery as a sculpture.
We all know, by this late date, that Warhol was the progenitor of “pop art” and that a part of his aim was to hand us back in the form of art (with whatever glib critique it may imply) the images, colors, forms and figures that fill our overfilled lives and whose “art” we would not notice were it not for the activity of the artist in framing, repeating, installing, presenting, and otherwise calling to attention to what we would normally ignore. Everyone also knows that he said “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” This was not so much prophecy as simple observation carried to what it clearly portends. Time has tended to bear out the expectation in spirit if not exact quantity.
In the process of ending art history – which he didn´t know he was doing – Warhol achieved something that was to replace art: celebrity. The art he made was, after all, desirable, but that fact was mixed, inextricable, with the fact that it bore his name. Indeed. It was good, whatever that means. Many people wish they had one of those Brillo Boxes in their collection. Or anything Warhol touched. Or anything he mass produced himself. Or anything he endorsed. But the unintended consequence of this celebrity, on these terms, is that Warhol realized that his celebrity was the essence of this art, and he theorized it thus. If Andy wrote a book, the book was art because of Andy. If he made a movie, the movie was art because of Andy. If he took a walk, the walk was art because of Andy.
What Danto believed and wrote after visiting the Warhol exhibit in 1964 is that after Brillo Box, anything could be art, in principle at least.
Pop art is considered to be an art movement that precede postmodern art, or is some of the earliest examples of postmodern art themselves.
Postmodern art is a body of art movements that sought to contradict some aspects of modernism or some aspects that emerged or developed in its aftermath. In general, movements such as intermedia, installation art, conceptual art and multimedia, particularly involving video are described as postmodern.
There are several characteristics which lend art to being postmodern; these include bricolage, the use of words prominently as the central artistic element, collage, simplification, appropriation, performance art, the recycling of past styles and themes in a modern-day context, as well as the break-up of the barrier between fine and high arts and low art and popular culture.
We live in a postmodern society, where the distinction between reality and appearance/superficies is about to disappear. Reality is often the images, we receive through the stream of information. And it becomes more and more difficult to see, which objective reality that lies behind. It seems more and more to be the images, which are real, and not some behind lying reality. In that sense all images are equally true - (because there is no objective instance to decide what is more true than something else) - but they are not equal good, for some images are more fascinating than others, some images affect us more than others. Therefore the expression of the image has come in focus. The expression of the image – its aesthetics – decides, whether it fascinates us or bores us. What apply for today, is the intensity and seduction of the expressions. The new truth criterion is, whether something is interesting or boring. Eternal values such as goodness, truth and beauty fall more and more away.
The death of the eternal values doesn't only apply for reality, but also the personality. The individual human being lives in a space without truth, in a time without direction, and with an information flow so huge, that the manageability beforehand has to be given up. How are we to live then? Well, the management theorists claim, you do this by creating yourself in a never-ending new production. The personality then becomes a persona (mask), an eternal change of role, because when the role begins to stiffen, it becomes uninteresting and boring. New is good, as these theorists say. What before characterized the personality´s relationship to the world, was a call. Now the relationship has become a project (or as the management theorists say: a good story, a good branding, a good spin), which is formed, quickly is being carried out and dropped for the benefit of a new project, that can maintain the constant demand for intensity and seduction.
It is precisely the management theories, which are lying behind the companies´ much talk about the employees´ willingness to personal development, flexibility, innovation and readiness for change. Words, that appear in almost any job advertisement.
And therefore also so much bet on PR; that is: not only concerning consumer goods, but also concerning people, for example politicians. The image of the politician in the media is today more important for his choice than the politics, he may advocate. Politics becomes, like everything else, a ware, which has to be sold through good stories (branding, spin). Everything becomes a business, which have to be runned economical. The business community of the management culture, with its active leaders, is being transferred to all areas of life, where everything is being evaluated from if it can be sold, not from the Source of wisdom: the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
So the management theories, and its belonging self-help industry, have actual become a common accepted ideology. A whole time-tendency within school, folk high school and continuing education, focus on so-called ”personal development/self-improvement”. Therefore you can´t avoid being encouraged to an unrestrained and Egoistic self-expression, where you are letting your choices (story-telling, self-branding) decide everything, in the belief that you through your choices can create a successfull life as it fit you. From the management theorists you hear slogans such as: ”It is not facts, but the best story, which wins!”
The intention is to help people using their full potential, to help them in having success, both in work and in private life. The management theorists call it a win-win situation: both the private life of the individual, as well as the company, where the individual is employed, get profit by it – as they claim. What it in other words is about, within these theories, is to become something (be focused on the future), to get success, to conquer a place on the top, to become a winner. The virtues are self-assertion, storytelling, ambition and will to change. The terms of coaching and self-help are closely connected with these ideals.
It was obvious to Bowie that Warhol, whether intentionally or not, had created an art form that could be picked up and built upon: the art of celebrity. It could be sold as art without being cheapened thereby. The key was continuous reinvention of your persona as artist, endowing upon whatever you do the status of artwork, or if not that, in the highest sense of “art,” then at least artsy-cool. But to maintain such celebrity beyond fifteen minutes, the choices have to be just right – they have to be like Warhol´s choices. There must be an artistic importance about the choices that drags the public up to and into what they wanted but didn´t yet know they wanted. Part of the secret to making the public desire the work (or at least the new album) is that it carries the mystique of the artist´s persona. But that alone would never be enough to bring the public along. The art also has to be, well, good. The problem with postmodern art is therefore the long line of copycats, and the endless irritating discussions you have to have with them about whether for example a piece of concept art is good art. Just because a concept artist does the same as other concept artists doesn´t make him or her a good artist. But there has gone inflation in concept art, because it attracts an army of untalented artists.
Bowie´s art is postmodern art, but is he a postmodernist? In this comes the question of the constant self, identity, behind all the shifting personas; the source of the genius. Or the uniqueness of Bowie. Because if you are postmodernist you have to believe, that anybody could be like Bowie. This is what the modern self-help industry (which is postmodernistic ideology in practice) would like people to believe, most explicit show in Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP claims that its “experts” have studied the thinking of great minds and the behaviour patterns of successful people and has extracted models of how they work. “From these models, techniques for quickly and effectively changing thoughts, behaviours and beliefs that get in your way have been developed.”
So, you can say, that NLP is about programming your brain with such models, like when you’re downloading a new program to your computer.
This statement comes from people who claim they understand the brain and help you reprogram yours. As Carroll says, then NLP wants you to think that the only thing that separates the average person from Einstein or Paverotti or the World Champion Log Lifter is NLP.
In order to explain NLP Dr. Steven Novella (MD) tells about that there is an episode of Spongebob (one of those cartoons accessible to both young children and adults) where Patrick, upset that his friend Spongebob has won so many awards and he has won none, decides to copy everything Spongebob does. Patrick is a lazy, dumb, pathetic, (but charming) do-nothing, and he is no less so by simply mimicking Spongebob´s every move. NLP, at its core, takes the Patrick approach to success and counseling.
Briefly NLP is based upon the notion that success can be achieved by simply modeling the language, behavior, and thought patterns of successful people (see my article Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) and Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT)).
Also you could say that New Age is a postmodern spiritual movement (as if spirituality could be united with postmodernism). New Age is permeated with references to vibrations and energy, advices to avoid the negative (you can tell good people by their eyes), stop doubting, follow your intuitions and premonitions, flow with coincidences, believe in the purposiveness of everything, join thousands of others on the quest, turn into your feelings and evolve to a higher plane. Follow your intuitions and dreams as you go through your spiritual evolution. Fact or fiction, it doesn´t matter. Truth is what you make it. Life´s too short and too complicated to deal with reality. Make your own reality.
This New Age subjectivism and relativism encourage people to believe that reality is whatever you want it to be. The line between fact and fiction gets blurry and obscured. Subjectivism shuts down people´s critical faculties, making them suggestible for any ideology. It involves making people quit thinking critically in order to open them up to thinking magical about that Subjective validation and communal reinforcement lead to bliss. Hypnosis is in New Age directly used as a means for inducing in people certain worldviews (see my articles Six Common Traits of New Age that Distort Spirituality and Hypnosis, hypnotherapy and the art of self-deception).
Could Bowie perhaps be a Self-helper or a New Ager? Music never was Bowie´s only artistic form of endeavour, but it was always his bread and butter. The stylings he took on, one after another were also art. He certainly never could have known that his different-sized pupils (the result of a fist fight with a friend over a girl) would be so important to him, but that was how we recognized the man through the ch-ch-ch-changes, “Is that Bowie?” Well, check the eyes. They´re weird, you know? In a cool way. Still, the effort was more conscious and more Warhol-influenced than many folks realize.
After seeing a London production of Warhol´s play Pork in 1971, Bowie hired the principal cast members, including Cherry Vanilla, Wayne (now Jayne) County, Anthony Zanetta, and Leee Black Childers – all from Warhol´s Factory – to create an image for him. The result was Ziggy Stardust, and in succeeding related personas – Aladdin Sane, the Diamond Dogs persona, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Thin White duke, and, moving from one creative crew to another, it went to Lazarus, his final persona.
The mystique of Bowie´s persona (s) is what I felt when I heard the number Starman on the Greek Island Ios (the Rock ‘n’ Roll Island) in 1990, a year before the war in former Yugoslavia began. I was reading The Colossos of Maroussi, by Henry Miller. Like the ancient colossus that stood over the harbor of Rhodes, this book stands as a seminal classic in travel literature. The book Miller would later cite as his favorite began with a young woman’s seductive description of Greece. Miller headed out with his friend Lawrence Durrell to explore the Grecian countryside: a flock of sheep nearly tramples the two as they lie naked on a beach; the Greek poet Katsimbalis, the “colossus” of Miller’s book, stirs every rooster within earshot of the Acropolis with his own loud crowing; cold hard-boiled eggs are warmed in a village’s single stove, and they stay in hotels that “have seen better days, but which have an aroma of the past.”
Lawrence Durrell is the author of The Alexandria Quartet, at heart a sensuous and brilliant evocation of wartime Egypt. Durrell made Miller discover, that the dream and the reality, the historical and the mythological, were so artfully blended in Greece, and that this confusion is real and not due entirely to the poetic faculty.
On Ios I was influenced by a mix of this mystique and alcohol. Maybe not altogether incidentally; the Tomb of Homer were located here. Mylopotas Beach, where I stayed, is nearly a kilometre long of white sand and warm torquoise water protected be points on either side that make up the bay. It is the same beach that Cat Stevens used to give free concerts on for the hippies that frequented Ios in the sixties and seventies. You start the party here and end up at night in the main village Chora with its open air theatres that function as Rock ’n’ Roll dance palaces – the dance palaces of demons and angels under the stars.
From the beach I could see Cat Stevens´ strange house with a surrealistic full size sculpture of Pegasus, the winged horse in Greek mythology. The urban legends of Ios told that Bowie also had owned the house, or at least that he was a frequent guest there. The house lay on the rocks near the water. With some friends I went out to it on a pedalo. In a nearby servants house we could see a few people dressed in black robes. We could hear quite classical music streaming out over the water. We made a berth beneath the main house, and walked up and looked in through the windows. The living room was build into the rock, like a cave, and there were exclusive furniture and…art; sculptures and paintings which all depicted satanic scenes.
Bowie or not…now the house was art because of the rumour of him being a frequent guest there.
When I later tried to google Bowie and his house on the Greek island, I found that he had a house on the Caribbean island of Mustique (where else). It was called Mandalay, a fantasy, Balinese-style home specially built for Bowie.
It is the mystique that separates Bowie from being a postmodernist (though using postmodern art), Self-helper or New Ager, with all the copycats. No, Bowie is actually a Buddhist.
The fingerprints of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy are to be found all over the Bowie song “Quicksand” – in spite of its allusions to Crowleyan magic and the Nietzschean ideal of the Superman. The best way to understand this song is in a wider Buddhist context.
Bowie is by no means flirting playfully with Buddhism at this point in his career, and the long-term influence of the Buddhist faith has also surfaced elsewhere, for example in the lyrics to “Where Are We Now?” which marvelously heralded Bowie´s sudden emergence from occultation in 2013.
When Bowie sings, “Don´t believe in yourself” at the outset of the chorus to “Quicksand,” he is clearly alluding to the Buddhist teaching of anatta. How can we be sure of this? Because several biographers and commentators on Bowie have drawn attention to his familiarity with Buddhist teaching prior to the recording of Hunky Dory. In his study of the album Low, Hugo Wilcken suggests that Bowie might have been introduced to Buddhism by his older half-brother Terry, possible via the medium of Beat Generation writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg. Peter Doggett confirms this, as well as informing us that Bowie was a self-proclaimed Buddhist with a fascination for both reincarnation and Tibet and was also familiar with the popular guide to Zen Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys.
The early song “Silly Boy Blue,” for example, references “Lhasa” (the Tibetan capital), “chela” (a Tibetan Buddhist term for a religious disciple), and “Potala” (the former residence of the Dalai Lama), while the saffron robe-wearing eponymous subject of “Karma Man” is clearly a Buddhist monk. Most tellingly, Bowie spent time studying and meditating with Chime Rinpoche (and possible Chögyam Trungpa), two prominent Tibetan spiritual teachers at the Samye Ling monastery in Scotland, and seriously contemplated becoming a monk himself.
Trungpa was later to become a highly controversial and prominent spiritual teacher who shocked many who came into contact with him. Unusually for a monk, he attained notoriety for divesting himself of his Buddhist robes, eating any food he liked, smoking and making use of psychedelics, sleeping with his students (apparently of both sexes), and his eventual premature death was reputedly attributable to complications arising from alcoholism.
As people who have followed my writings will know, those things would have been a sign of the typical self-contradiction and hypocrisy of a false guru. He might also have been in a spiritual crisis of sorts. Read more in my articles Spiritual Crises as the Cause of Paranormal Phenomena, and The Spiritual Crisis in my book Dream Yoga. Especially the latter deals with the problem of alcoholism in connection with spiritual crises).
And yet I find precisely this aspect of Trungpa deeply fascinating, especially in the context of Bowie, where life and art become one. Leaving his tarnished reputation, a constant theme in Trungpa´s writing is to do with “ego.” This term, for Buddhists, refers to our constant tendency to place an “I” at the center of our experience. Descartes´s famous declaration, “I think therefore I am” (Cogito Ergo Sum) is therefore considered to be an illusion. I have made aware of this in connection with my critique of the self-help industry. In true spirituality the relationship is the mirror, in which you can discover yourself (that is: not through introspection). Without the relationship you are nothing. To be is to be in relationship, which is the actual life. You only live in relationship, otherwise you don´t live, life is then without meaning. So it is not because you - as Descartes says: ”I think, therefore I am!” - that you live.
In my article The Dream Hypothesis and the Brain-in-jar Hypothesis I show how Descartes is the man behind the so-called Dream hypothesis, and therefore for the later version: The Brain-in-jar hypothesis, which is a central inspiration for the movie Matrix, and therefore for my own concept of The Matrix Conspiracy. Descartes supports the radical subjectivism, that you can´t know whether you are dreaming or not. Everything is our own thought-construction. Note that this sounds like a Buddhist thought, and the self-help industry is therefore not reluctant to claim that Buddhism support their notions. The self-help industry continues Descartes´s Cogito argumentation in hypnotic sentences such as: I think I am a success, therefore I am a success. I think I am beautiful, therefore I am beautiful. I think I am a failure, therefore I am a failure, etc., etc. Thereby the self-help industry actually turns Buddhist teaching upside down (I have called this the 666 Conspiracy aspect of the Matrix Conspiracy).
All that Descartes demonstrated, from a Buddhist point of view, was the existence of thought. And just because we all have a lot of thoughts about ourselves does not mean that we actually do exist. Although the formation of the ego is an inevitable consequence of our cognitive development, the process through which we eventually separate ourselves from the outside world is ultimately revealed to be no more than a false mental construct. This is what the self-help industry misunderstands.
In his most famous work, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa particular emphasized the pernicious consequences that result from a predilection for interpreting reality from the vantage point of the ego (which the self-help industry directly has put into a teaching program). According to Trungpa, “It is ego´s ambition to secure and entertain itself, trying to avoid all irritation. So we cling to our pleasures and possessions, we fear change or force change, we try to create a nest or playground.”
We adopt sets of categories which serve as handles, as ways of managing phenomena. The most fully developed products of this tendency are ideologies, the system of ideas that rationalize, justify and sanctify our lives. Nationalism, communism, existentialism, Christianity, Buddhism – all provide us with identities, rules of action, and interpretations of how and why things happen as they do.
Concepts and ideologies therefore “screen us from a direct perception of what is. The concepts are taken too seriously; they are used as tools to solidify our world and ourselves. If a world of nameable things exists, then ‘I’ as one of the nameable things exists as well. We wish not to leave any room for threatening doubt, uncertainty or confusion.” (read my related articles The Difference between Philosophical Education and Ideological Education and The Value of Having a Religion in a Spiritual Practice. Also read the introduction to my book Dream Yoga).
It is probably impossible to know whether Trungpa´s particular take on egoism was this fully worked out prior to his reputed acquaintance with Bowie, and how much of it rubbed off on Bowie, assuming, as is very likely, that Bowie was aquainted with Trungpa´s thinking. However, it´s not unreasonable to think that Bowie absorbed a version of this outlook, as there is evidence for this elsewhere in the lyrics to “Quicksand.”
Firstly, we should note Bowie´s complaint that he is sinking in the quicksand of his thought and is powerless to resist this process. Against this backdrop, he confesses, amongst other things, to being “immersed in Crowley´s uniform” (obsessed with the occult), preoccupied with nationalistic fantasies (“Himmler´s sacred realm”) or, at the very least, delusions of grandeur, as well as declaring himself unable to shake off the trappings of conventional human rationality and “bullshit faith.”
In this and other ways, Bowie is recognizing the fact that – as Trungpa famously put it – “ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality.” The New Thought Movement and The Law of Attraction are the most extreme versions of this I have seen until now, since it is directly puts it into a teaching system; it´s not due to single persons failures or ego-inflations. See my article The New Thought Movement and the Law of Attraction. Such “turning spirituality upside down” is what I call the 666 Conspiracy aspect of my main concept of The Matrix Conspiracy. That´s also the reason for why I personally consider Trungpa´s book as extremely important.
Hence the first two lines of the chorus, which implore the listener (and also probably the singer) to dispense with belief in the self and not to allow oneself to be seduced by ego-reinforcing beliefs and belief-systems.
The question Who am I?, is old in philosophy, and in philosophy as an art of life it is perhaps the most central. As mentioned, then the returning meditation technique for the Indian philosopher Ramana Maharshi, was all the time to ask himself the question ”Who am I?” to everything that happened him.
In traditional Western philosophy they have more been occupied by the question about, what it is that does, that you, through all changes, are the same. I have investigated this question in my article The Pseudoscience of Reductionism and the Problem of Mind).
They have identified identity with the Ego, or the self, which it also is called.
(Here it is on its place to emphasize, that I don't discriminate between the Ego and the self, in the way, which others do. Popular concepts, such as personal development and self-development, is to me about the same, namely about developing and unfolding the Ego). And they have sought the permanent in the Ego/the self. The whole of the Ego´s activity is namely precisely about seeking permanence, about maintaining itself through all changes.
As mentioned, in Descartes´ thinking is lying - in good compliance with tradition - the answer, that I am a thinking thing: I think, therefore I am. I am in other words an immaterial reality or substance, a constant self, contrary to the changeable material reality. And everything I can establish of properties in myself - for instance all the different kinds of consciousness in, that I think, feel, want, sense etc. - are properties in this substance.
However the philosopher David Hume takes this view up to consideration, and he rejects it. We all use the word “I” and think, that it has an importance, that we have a conception about the self. But if we look deeper into it, it is an illusion. Because which impression, which sensation, should the idea about the self be derived from? Hume claims, that if he uses his introspective method, then all he finds in himself, is a constant stream of impressions and conceptions. Nowhere exists an impression of an immaterial substance, of a constant self.
Is there at all anything eternal and unchangeable in us: an inborn nature, a soul, or some gene, which are not touched by the changing circumstances? Do we have a permanent identity? You could perhaps to this say, that that to identify yourself with something, apparently is a permanent element of the brain´s function. That it is a permanent element will say, that it is something unavoidably and lasting. But is it true?
Any state of thoughts (or images) can assuredly be changed. Only the brain´s strong, persistent demand for physical safety for the organism, is something inherent. The brain has constructed symbols in order to protect the Ego; that is what the whole of the thought-process is all about. The Ego is a symbol, a manifestation of a self-image, not a reality. Here the Buddhists would agree with Hume, even though the self-image, according to Buddhism, is an expression of something much deeper than Hume came to realize.
After the thought has created the symbol, the Ego, the perspective – then the thought is identifying itself with this, its image, its conclusion, with the formula, and protects it. From there origins all unreality and absence. It is to have your identity in an absence, an existential fall, something unnaturally, and not something natural.
The feeling of the permanent consists in the condensed reactions; that is: the body, the feeling, the perception, the desires, and the consciousness. The feeling arises as a result of a challenge, and then you give it a name, which will say that you identify yourself with it. This, that we give it a name, restores the feeling in our images of life, the past pattern, which repeats itself again and again, which maintains the reactions and condenses them. Consequently an aspect of Man as a natural being. Unless you give the feeling a name - which will say, that you don't identify yourself with it and maintain it through evaluations - then the feeling is new, and it will disappear by itself. If it gets a name, it will gain strength, it will become permanent, and then we have the whole of the thought-process.
The name-giving happens through evaluations, that to say yes and no, justifying and condemning, commenting, comparing, accepting and denying. Conversely it means, that when you only observe events or feelings neutral, then you don´t give them any name. You will then be able to see how they come and go, blossom and wither away, without that they become maintained in the memory.
The memory consists of multifold experiences, which have been named, identified, and it is this process, which creates the Ego, the inner spectator, theorist, doubter. The Ego is tied to time and its images.
Reason has, from ancient time, been stressed as the most essential and important in Man. But modern points of views have tried to turn it upside down. Because maybe all reason only are rationalizations of desires and subconscious impulses.
The sharpest critic of the tradition is probably Nietzsche. He couldn't become tired of sneering at reason and all the illusions about the Good, the True and the Beautiful, which the philosophers, with the reason, had created. While the European view of human nature through millenniums had claimed reason as the hallmark of Man, Nietzsche turns the image upside down. He wants to convert all values.
And after Nietzsche Freud has been busy following the attack on reason up. Freud believes, as Nietzsche, that human reason is a weak and secondary part of the human nature. It is desires, and subconscious motives of different kind, that determine our actions, and reason is only seat for rationalizations and illusions.
Desires have, as Nietzsche made aware, to do with the striving of Man, to do with the will to power and becoming; something, which more is characterized by a Dionysian desire, than by an Apollonian rationality. Desires also have, as Freud made aware, to do with the question of the conscious in relation to the subconscious, including the question about the meaning of dreams. But desires have also with passion to do, the deep and incisive feeling of something, where you don't seek to achieve anything, because the feeling in itself contains fulfilment. A feeling, which not is possible without that there also is reason, clarity and awareness included in it.
The most famous of Buddha´s teachings are the Deer Park Sermon which was revealed to five former Sramana companions of him in a park near modern Benares, India. Here he talked on the existential conditions, growing conditions and growth levels of Man, and, like a doctor, he made the diagnosis: ”The nature of the illness and its cause”, after which he gave guidance in how it can be healed and the medicine hereto. Shortly said ”the illness” is suffering, and the suffering´s cause is, that Man clings to impermanent and temporal things. The many desires, that can't be fulfilled, give suffering and sorrow. The medicine consists in teaching Man how to rise over the changeable world with all its desires and transient joys. In Buddha´s teaching there is in that way spoken about The Four Holy Truths: 1) Suffering. 2) The suffering´s cause. 3) Suffering can be brought to an end, and this happens through 4) The Path, namely The Eightfold Path, where correct meditation, or correct self-communing, is the last step on the path to full enlightenment, which you also could term: full objectivism. The subject, or the ego, has stepped aside, or opened itself like a flower to the sun. This is the source of reason.
The Buddhist philosophy of impermanence could sound a bit like Nietzsche´s subjectivism and nihilism, and a part of it does, but the fact that the consciousness can raise above it shows an absolutism and objectivism, which by the way is the core in all spiritual traditions. Spirituality has therefore not anything to do with the subjectivism and relativism which New Age and the self-industry, deeply inspired by Nietzsche, teach. On the contrary.
In accordance with Nietzsche reality is in its nature dynamic. It is power. The primitive force, which can be retrieved in all reality, Nietzsche calls the will to power. Power is in Nietzsche an expression of increase. The will to power is therefore a power, which discharges itself in the striving towards something more. It is, in accordance with Nietzsche, a creative power, which seeks to form, upgrade, absorb, overcome, restrain, remould etc. The will to power is a life-principle and the basic power in Man. According to Nietzsche.
According to Nietzsche the will to power is the basic power of all life. He therefore thought about a special meaning of the word will. Normally the will is understood as Man´s ability to bring a more or less reasonable decision out in life. And ahead of the will´s effort goes the consideration. But Nietzsche´s will to power is neither connected to reasonable considerations, nor consciousness. On the contrary it describes life´s fundamental character of striving towards increase.
Will is normally a psychological concept. It describes an ability, or an aspect, of the human consciousness. In contrast to this Nietzsche is seeing it as an ontological, or metaphysical, concept. The fundamental idea is, that if we shall understand the multifold expressions of all life, then we must interpret them as outcome of will to power. This idea led to Nietzsche´s revaluation of all values. The eternal values are only a slavemoral without reality and truth. They are illusions or fictions. Therefore he dethroned reason as the ability to insight in the eternal values. Body, desires, and nature, are the central in Man, not reason. God is dead and the world is chaotic, empty, absurd; something, which Man himself must control. Man must himself create his values: a master moral created by the so-called superman.
Now, if we take Nietzsche, then his idea about the will to power has to do with the outgoing movement of time, the future; but as an ontological principle. He would reject the divine metaphysical source of it all, the destructive backmovement of time, the past, all the karmic energylaws etc. So what he is talking about is the becoming of everything, becoming and not being; that is: a state of non-being, nothingness, which only you yourself can fill with meaning. So - though Nietzsche is talking about the will to power as a creative force - this is not something positive connected with life itself. Nietzsche´s view of life itself, the eternal recurrence of the same, is a view of life devoid of values. God is dead.
According to Nietzsche there neither exists a sensuous, a material, or a spiritual world given in advance. Everything are created by being interpretated. With this Nietzsche introduced a quite central concept: perspectivism. Through our interpretations (language) we directly construct the world. And you must therefore have the will and power to create new values, and you must have the power to give them name in a new way, because name-giving is the same as an unfolding of power. Or else you end up as a slave.
To live is to will, to will is to create values. The will to power is becoming through us, and in that way we get control over the things through a perspective.
It is now easy to see how much the modern management theory and coaching industry is inspired by Nietzsche: the relativistic and subjectivistic ideas about that it only is the individual himself who, through his interpretations, or stories, can supply the world with values – or rather, not supply, but directly create it like a God; the denial of the past, and the orientation towards future; the superman idea about being a winner, a succes, a person standing on the top of the mountain; the preaching about that it is not facts, but the best story, which wins.
The will to power, according to Nietzsche, is a creating power. That this power is the basic power in Man means, according to Nietzsche, that all expressions of the human life must be understood as forms of will to power; intake of food, arrangement of the everyday life with home and clothes, cultivation of nature, as well as sensation, feelings, thinking and will in usual sense - are expressions of the will to power. Nietzsche is not least thinking about the will to power in the image of art. All human unfolding is actually a creative process where a content, or a material, is formed. Life is seen as a work of art.
A similar thought exists in the so-called self-production thesis, which is the thought about, that Man is the being, who creates himself through his history, and thereby controls his own freedom. The thought exists in the German idealism, for instance in Fichte, Schelling, Hegel. Both Existentialism, as well as Marxism, also builds on the understanding of the freedom of Man to form his own life, and that this is an unconditional value. Freedom is a good thing, a demand and a responsibility. What it is about, is the freedom to be the creative power in your own history. In the Existentialists it is the life-story of the individual, in the Marxists it is the world-history of the community.
The self-production thesis builds on the thought, that Man is in a continual state of becoming. The concept formation also often becomes used in connection with the concept of becoming. Let us try to look at what the concept is implying.
Just like the concept of desire is an important part of Buddhist philosophy, then you can say that the concept of becoming also is it, though under another word, namely Maya (sanskrit ”illusion”). And just like desire, then also becoming is a negative concept. It means suffering, that which veils your realization of life, that, which veils the path, that could lead to the end of suffering.
In accordance with the Buddhists it is immensely easy to lead yourself behind the light, to convince yourself about anything. The feeling of, that you shall become something is the beginning of the deception, and this idealistic attitude leads to multifold forms of hypocrisy.
We try incessantly to become this or that, to achieve a special condition, to get one kind of realization and avoid another, and in this way the mind is eternally occupied by something, namely the Ego. Constantly the mind is in action: thoughts, feelings, sensations, arrangements. Always the consciousness has something in mind. Always the mind is in progress with changing, making plans, commenting, remembering, creating images, and throwing out projects. Both the German Idealists, Nietzsche, the Existentialists and the Marxists, took this restless or ”creative” turbulence of the mind, as a presumption they didn´t investigate further.
Collectivists are seeing the thinking´s philosophical becoming something as the creative power in the world-history of community. Individualists are seeing it as the creative power in the life-story of the individual. The Buddhist´s objection against this will partially be, that it confuses the thinking with reality or life itself, partially that becoming not is something creative, but something destructive.
If you just take the thinking as a presumption you don´t investigate further, yes, then the mind will never be silent, so that it can listen to the noise of its own battles and pains. But both Stoics, Epicureans, Taoists and Buddhists, instead say: ”Be simple and don´t try to become something else than what you are, or to catch up some kind of experience”.
The constant morphing of Bowie´s public personas – from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to Soul Boy to Thin White Duke to Man Who Fell to Earth – surely reflect this characteristic Buddhist awareness of the fluidity and insubstantiality of the personality. It´s no surprise, then, to learn that in a 1973 interview published in the New Musical Express, Bowie admitted, “I´m not very sure of myself when it comes to thinking about me. I try and leave ´me´ alone…It´s much more of a realism for me to think that this [points around the room] is all me, that there´s nothing in here. I prefer that way of existence.”
It´s also in connection with this, that I claim that we as Life Artists must understand ourselves as communicative beings. Because the whole process of the mind can only be understood through the relationship with the surrounding world – the relationship with nature, with society, with humans, with our own projections, with everything around us. Life is simply the same as all these relationships. Art of life is to understand yourself in the relationship with the surrounding world. Art of life is meditation. Meditation has therefore nothing to do with introspection. This is also at heart in Buddhism.
An aspect of Man as a natural being is, as Behaviorism says, that Man is a subject to an influence-reaction relationship. The psychological behaviourism, for instance J.F. Skinner, considers the behaviour of Man for being the true object of psychology, and regards it as the task of psychology to state regular connections between outer influences (stimulations) and behavioural reactions (responses). Also called methodological behaviourism, because the direction refuses any kind of introspection and empathy as psychological method. They argue for, that only the study – after guidelines of natural science – of the outer, public observable behaviour, gives the possibility for a scientific psychology with objective methods and results.
The philosophical behaviourism is developed by, among others, Gilbert Ryle, who in his book The Concept of Mind, claims, that that to speak about the mental life of the person, is the same as referring to the person´s more or less complex dispositions to behaviour – act and speech – in specific ways, and in situations with relevant influences. According to Ryle, then the belief in inner, private consciousness phenomena, is an expression of a misunderstanding of the logic of the concept of mind.
The psychological behaviourism´s way of thinking is in fact not at all far from the way of thinking within philosophy as an art of life, where you also refuse introspective dissection (or empathy, when based on images) as a path to self-discovery. You can, as the Jewish philosopher and mystic Martin Buber claimed, only discover yourself in the relationship with the surrounding world. But the psychological behaviourism is, despite its strong confession to natural science, an expression of a reductionism, and is therefore not a scientific viewpoint, but a philosophical viewpoint. In this connection you can say that the difference between behaviourism and philosophy as an art of life is, that the latter doesn´t see Man as a result of a single influence. Man is much more composite, and to accentuate one influence at the same time as you understate others, is to provoke a lack of balance, which will lead to a lack of unity and coherence, and therefore to even larger confusion.
In philosophy as an art of life Man is seen as a complete process. The Life Artist as a communicative being seeks to understand the wholeness, and not only a part of it, regardless how important this sometimes can be. At the same time it is the Life Artist himself, who discovers his own behaviour. The Life Artist is not an object of study for others, in the way as it always must be in Behaviorism. The Life Artist is a unity of experience and being.
In addition to this there is the communicative view of nature, which does, that if you open yourself for it, then nature contains great richness and beauty, which not are of mechanical and causal character. Finally you can, as a Life Artist, yourself influence the world, you can be one with the creative source of life, the new.
This happens in the moment of death, whether it is the “little death” of enlightenment, or it is the physical death.
Also this is the fountainhead of Buddhist thinking. The basic principle involved in Tibetan Buddhism is that of psychological alchemy: the practitioner engages directly with the darker, more neurotic forces that most contribute to reinforcing our ego-driven behaviour, in order to transmute them and place these energies at the service of liberation, not just our own liberation, but that of all suffering beings. Of these forces, fear of death is the most powerful, and therefore potentially the most liberating of all.
The opportunity to master this fear and free yourself from the cycle of death and rebirth and all the suffering that goes with it is what the Tibetan Book of the Dead is all about. The word Bardo is specially known in connection with the Tibetan book of the Dead, which in Tibetan is called Bardo Thödol. Bardo is the Tibetan word for an intermediate state between two crucial states, for example life and death, birth and death, death and rebirth. What characterizes the bardo state is deep uncertainty and doubtfulness. Thödol means liberation through listening (spiritual practice in the intermediate state).
Bardo can mean the after-death state, the death-nearness state, or a borderline state as such. So if you actually begin to practice spiritual in a bardo state, then the state can have a healing and transformational value, which can give your spiritual development a considerable lift upwards. This is because that you in this state are more open for change than usually; that is: the Ego is weak.
The lyrics to “Quicksand” are, on close inspection, suffused with an awareness of this journey. First of all, Bowie appears to be inexorably sinking into the after-death state as he is powerless “drawn toward the ragged hole.” Although he remains aware that “knowledge comes with death´s release,” he´s also “frightened by the total goal.”
According to the Book of the Dead, at approximately the time of physical death, a fundamental or primary clear light is glimpsed by the deceased, and if they recognize this “Great Body of Radiance” as the source their own consciousness and identify with it, liberation is achieved. However, most mortals don´t have the prior meditative training to recognize this, and their lack of understanding and fear of this overwhelming luminosity causes them to continue – like Bowie – their passage through the further planes or bardos (a term explicitly referenced to in the song) or after-death existence (read more about this in my article The Deathprocess in my book Dream Yoga).
A feature of these bardos is the presence of hallucinations that the psychoanalyst Carl Jung considered to be externalized projections of the unconscious mind. I call them the collective images of time. “Crowley´s uniform,” “Himmler´s sacred realm of dream reality,” “Garbo´s eyes,” “Churchill´s lies,” and perhaps the “viper´s fang” might all be regarded as manifestations of this type.
When someone is freed from the delusions of ego, enlightenment or nirvana is achieved, a state in which psychological suffering ceases. And when Bowie – after a decade of silence – asks “Where are we now, where are we now?” and then adds, “The moment you know, you know, you know,” he is reminding us that the presence is the only place where life can truly be lived. This is why Buddhist meditation continually returns us to our immediate, direct experience. It alerts us to the fact that right before our eyes, there is a vast, vibrant, endlessly morphing, ungraspable present, and encourages a state of felt oneness with it. It invites us to understand that beyond the spinning out of the ego´s fears and worries, we all participate actively in, and are intimately connected to, a fathomless reality, a spacial objectivity, which is the source of consciousness, and in which, when you realize it, the subject is made transparent.
There´s also another sense in which the Book of the Dead may be understood: it too, is about now. If reality is constantly re-inventing itself, then we too die and get reborn every thought-moment, or as Chögyam Trungpa puts it:
To realize impermanence is to realize that death is taking place constantly; so there really is nothing fixed. If one begins to realize this and does not push against the natural course of events, it is no longer necessary to re-create samsara [the world of time-bound, ego-fueled delusion] at every moment.
Pay attention! Wake up! This is finally Buddhism´s simple message. We can see in the songs “Quicksand” and “Where are we now?” that it´s a message that Bowie heeded.
Reviewing Blackstar, Bowie´s last artistic will and testament, Jody Rosen reported that the songs “serve up a veritable Grand Guignol of dread, death, even dismemberment.”
Although the context in which the songs were written might suggest to those who don´t know Bowie that he was finally forced to confront the inevitable, Blackstar was merely the last in a lifelong lyrical preoccupation. From his very first album to his mature meditation on his own demise in Blackstar (2016), David Bowie explored the theme of ambivalence in relation to identity, love, joy, technology, and most consistently, death.
Bowie´s first major hit, “Space Oddity” (from Space Oddity,1969) exemplifies the interpretation of death as an evil to be feared. In this song, Bowie inhabits the persona of Major Tom, doomed to die alone in space. But Major Tom doesn´t die, and is revisited in “Ashes to Ashes” from Scary Monsters (1980). “Space Oddity” is the only song in his catalogue that unequivocally treats death as an evil to be feared – and “Ashes to Ashes” is the only song that deals with the potential consequences of that fear. Fear of death may be understood as the emotional counterpart of a defensive possessive impulse, which leads us to cling to life. At times this impulse is necessary and probably good. But in some cases it merely prolongs or worsens suffering, as it did for Major Tom. He ended in the wheel of samsara. But both songs also deals with love, the relationship with others.
But what is death?
In principle there in the death-process happens something analogous to, what happens in the process of falling asleep. It feels like a fall. And often we wake up suddenly after such a feeling. In death the consciousness moves into its source. During the death-process itself the physical clothings are thrown off - the veil of the energy and of the feelings are dropped, and the polarized thought-created (linguistic) veil is dropped. Also this feels like a fall. And this feeling of falling explains the fear.
The Bohemian-Austrian poet and mystic Rainer Marie Rilke´s poem Autumn can be seen as an image of the moment of death:
The leaves are falling, are swirled far around,
As withered in heaven distant gardens;
They fall, refusing, with large swings.
In the night the Earth falls, heavy and mute,
From the stars to the space of loneliness.
We all fall. This hand will fall.
Look at the others, look: it is in all.
However, there is one, and everything´s fall ends
Endlessly carefully in his hands.
In another context of music, Johann Sebastian Bach has depicted the moment of death in his Kunst der Fuge. But here you also experience the concrete Bardo Thödol, passive listening in the bardo (meditation in the moment of death). It namely also depicts the fundamental or primary clear light (in Christian interpretation: God). If Die Kunst der Fuge should be depicted as an image, a Tibetan Mantra Mandala comes to mind.
As the fugues proceeds forward there arises a primordial theme, which sounds behind all the time, like an anti-Matrix mantra. None of the notes in the work itself sounds so. This primordial theme of the fugue-art is trans-musical. It arises in the source of consciousness. The fugues, the counter-fugues, the reflection-fugues; all is circling around the idea of the theme. The whole of the work is a musical spiral galaxy, which dynamics is consolidated in a black hole in the centre. This black hole is the basic theme´s trans-musical, mystical aspect. This platonic fugue-idea from the silence beyond the tone dimension shines within the meditative listening, open consciousness, during the musical process of the work. Is it first realized, it can be recognized behind the very first basic theme of the very first fugue.
Kunst der Fuge is a long mystical meditation on the source of all music, the source, which is called God, and which we meet in the moment of death, but which most people without long meditative training don´t recognize, and therefore must continue their existence in samsara.
This brings us to Bowie´s interpretation of death as a transition between forms. His final album, Blackstar (2016) is an artistic last will and testament in which death is front-and-center. This is obvious in “Lazarus” the final single and Bowie´s final persona, which was released two days before his death. “Lazarus” opens with “Look up here, I´m in heaven / I´ve got scars that can´t be seen.“ Bowie imagines himself dying and floating away, with wry humor and acceptance. He imagines dropping his cellphone as he floats away, adding, “Ain´t that just like me”. Yet he is unafraid. “This way or no way / You know, I´ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Now ain´t that just like me / Oh I´ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Oh I´ll be free / Ain´t that just like me.”
January 11th, 2016, the music died and an enormous expression of collective grief was released all over the world. But like Bach´s Kunst der Fuge you can, if you follow the instructions of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, still listen to it in the bardo.
The Pop Culture Files