What could Whitney Houston and Quan Am Thi Kinh possibly have in common? These are two famous women from totally different cultures, different life experiences and different centuries. I suggest that the connections between them are based on what their life stories can teach us as fellow human beings – namely, compassion.
Whitney Houston was a pop diva and musical icon renowned internationally through the global vehicle of popular culture, and recently deceased. Quan Am Thi Kinh lived many centuries ago, and her legend as a female monk is renowned through the centuries among Buddhists and Vietnamese people.
The first factor that connects them is that both women, albeit in different circumstances, experienced unbearable suffering even while they dedicated their own lives to alleviate the suffering of other human beings, through their creative gifts and practice of compassion.
A second factor is that both women were motivated by spiritually grounded love. Their inner glow attracted and inspired others. For Whitney Houston, her childhood was influenced by a strict family home and joyful participation, through gospel singing, in the Church. For Quan Am Thi Kinh – a later name bequeathed upon a young Vietnamese woman, Kinh Tam – her family similarly was strict, and disallowed advanced schooling or any life beyond getting married and bearing children. From a very young age, regardless, Kinh Tam yearned for the monastic life, and privately studied the sutra texts of the Buddha.
Women, however, were not allowed to be Buddhist nuns in Giao Chau (the ancient name for Vietnam). Kinh Tam was forced by her parents to marry at 19, then wrongly accused by her in-laws of trying to kill their son, disgraced, and returned to her parents’ home. Her prescribed role was to help her younger brother study. She otherwise devoted herself to learning meditative practices, and soon ran away, disguised as a young man. In this disguise, she trained to become a novice in the Dharma Cloud Temple, and sought future ordination as a monk.
Again, what in heaven’s name can a historic Buddhist female monk – who chooses a life of sacrifice, spiritual retreat, and carries out humanitarian deeds as per religious custom – have in common with a contemporary American pop singer?
For contributions to the world from Whitney Houston primarily have been generated not by religious anonymity but, instead, measured in accordance with worldly achievements such as music record sales, awards, Hollywood movie successes and more awards. Indeed, always and relentlessly, Houston was expected to maintain `peak performance’ under the public gaze. Her philanthropy, meanwhile, got marginalized in the media and treated as just another expectation, given her celebrity status and wealth.
The adoring, yet notoriously fickle, public loved her when she performed as a super woman or, more accurately, when reduced to a super `commodity’ to feed the expectations and demands they foisted upon her. The public, conversely, condemned her human fragility of succumbing to addictions.
In watching a recent American TV news magazine show, that highlighted earlier TV interviews, no awareness is evident in the lines of questioning to get at the source of the addictions. In other words, no recognition is directed to the human toll paid in order to maintain the super star fantasy image that pushed Houston over the edge into substance dependencies.
Public condemnation – totally bereft of compassion – therefore, is the third factor that connects Whitney Houston and Kinh Tam, despite totally different lifestyles and how the popular media characterized Houston’s humanitarian acts, seemingly in contrast to Kinh Tam’s religiously-based tenets of life purpose.
Instead, the fourth factor connecting the two women is that their humanitarian motivations came from the same source – the human soul and desire to use their respective gifts to create a more socially just world.
Let us return to Kinh Tam’s suffering. Her new life as a novice, disguised as a man, did not spare her from further injustice. A village woman became pregnant and accused Kinh Tam of being the father. Kinh Tam was publicly and severely whipped, because she refused to confess to this false accusation. Nor did she want to reveal her true identity as a woman, which would have terminated the monastic life that she lived for.
Next, when this village woman gave birth, she abandoned her baby on the steps outside the monastery. The novice Kinh Tam chose to take responsibility for the baby’s care, despite re-igniting village rumours that she really was the father after all. Her love and compassion to save the life of this child took precedence.
Six short years later, Kinh Tam contracted pneumonia. Despite the injustices inflicted upon her, she had transcended any ill feelings towards the perpetrators. On her death bed, she composed letters of loving kindness to them, and asked her parents to adopt the child as their grandson. In a letter to the abbot, she invited him to commit to the building of the first Vietnamese Buddhist temple where women could be ordained and practice as nuns. He pledged to do so, and such a temple was built.
Something tragic happened, however, in the life of Whitney Houston, to distinguish her life path from that taken by Kinh Tam. The latter, in following her soul’s desire found a community of kindred souls who were on the same spiritual path. The former, believing God had given her an angelic voice to bring joy, beauty and love to the wider world outside the Church, stepped outside the embrace of a spiritual community of support.
The toxic blend of commerce and voracious appetites of public demand fed off Houston, psychically and viscerally, sucking the life energy out of her. In an early 1990s interview with Diane Sawyer, Whitney Houston identified her future dream ten years hence – to retire in order to focus on family and children, including grandchildren. In saying so, her face lit up, fleetingly. The sadness in her eyes, otherwise, spoke volumes, when she added that the joy she once had experienced in singing was gone. By then, throughout that decade, Houston’s immense productivity tragically tore her asunder.
Before closing this blog, I want to tell readers that I initially had intended to focus on the story of Quan Am Thi Kinh, after reading a contemporary version titled The Novice (2011) by Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh – and recommend it.
But, distressed by the media focus of Whitney Houston’s passing, reduced to a story about the fall from grace by yet another pop celebrity whose life bit the dust from substance abuse, I felt compelled to address her more fully as a human being and, as well, raise a question.
When is the popular media, and the larger society, ever going to examine what our collective societal addictions to celebrity culture, and also consumer culture, inflict upon fellow human beings? We need to reflect on what we value, who we value, and why?
The Dalai Lama writes: “Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the rights of the other.” He points out how concern for someone we care about often is not actually `compassion,’ but instead `attachment.’ In other words, our so-called concern, more honestly, comes from our expectations and what we project through our own desires onto that other person.
He continues, “As long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop a genuine concern for his or her problems. This is genuine compassion.”
Let us remember Whitney Houston through her generosity of song and humanitarian work, especially on behalf of children. We remain blessed with her music that lives on. May we wish for her, compassionately, a soul finally at peace in the world of Spirit.