Beatle vs. Buddha:
Whose faith is it, anyway?

Anthony Pomes
6 min readNov 6, 2023

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Writer: Anthony Pomes

Ripped from the tortured clutches of the mind, the wracked sinews of the body, the sullen dusty embers of the soul. This is where the world seems to find itself, adrift on a lonely night made lonelier by the sheer volume of matter stretched out across a vast horizon of data-choked stuff. What is any of this? What meaning? What purpose? What value? What point?

Here is but a snapshot — of things that seem to lie dormant in a life devoid of direction, empty of essence, filched of faith. And what of faith? That is what emerges most strongly from the books here in question: Philip Norman’s recent biography George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle ($35.00 USD, Scribner) and Tears Become Rain ($19.95 USD, Parallax Press), a new collection of stories informed — and touched — by the Buddhist teachings of the late Vietnamese Buddhist monk and “father of mindfulness,” Thich Nhat Hanh.

It is appropriate that, of the two books, the one that possesses more hope is the one not about Harrison — the one that Harrison himself would likely have preferred to read. Harrison’s story, as told by Philip Norman, is familiar already to most Beatles fans. What makes Harrison’s quest for a sturdier spiritual life such a worthy tale is how often that trajectory was thrown asunder by his own personal flaws — or, dredged up from the shadows of his own childhood Catholic roots, his demons. It can be said that anyone’s life holds within it the possibility of heaven or hell. Harrison, to his frequent annoyance, had the burden of Beatlemania always dogging his trail. It exacted a price and took a toll on the man, who fell to Hare Krishna chants while he was stabbed in his own home by an escaped mental hospital patient on the last day of 1999. He survived the attack thanks to his second wife and widow Olivia, only to last another two years before succumbing to cancer on November 29, 2001. From the man who wrote a song called “The Art of Dying,” what worry is a sloppy life when the deeper ambition is to achieve a pristine death? A lyric of his 1966 Beatles song “Love You To” — one of an unprecedented three Harrison-penned tunes on the Revolver album — speaks volumes about all things that pertain to George, then and now. It goes as follows:

“There’s people hanging ‘round
Who’ll screw you in the ground.
They’ll fill you in with all their sins, you’ll see.”

Having written in 1981 what many still consider the definitive Beatles biography, Shout!, Norman remains a sophisticated prose stylist whose eye for detail and penchant for research has made his Fab Four books necessary reads to neophytes and lifers alike. In the years since Shout! was published, Norman also told the life stories of John Lennon in 2008 and Paul McCartney in 2016. The scope of the John & Paul books seems between them to have a far larger reach than what is offered here about the often scowl-faced yet just-as-often mystical Mr. Harrison. What should satisfy the reader in contemplation of George’s biography is a consistent commitment to professional craft and personal contentment — a certain worship of balance and inner grace that doesn’t seem to have found its way into this book. Is it because what intrigues us most about Harrison are the things unseen and unforced under the cultural microscope — rather than his increasingly reluctant life as a Beatle, and then an ex-Beatle? Maybe so. Then again, Harrison was a famous rock star who could have bedded any woman he chose — and yet he chose in the early ’70s to have an adulterous affair with Ringo’s first wife, Maureen. It stands out as a blistering betrayal of a friend and bandmate — one that would, of course, soon karma-boomerang back at him when trusted buddy and fellow guitar icon Eric Clapton declared his love for George’s own first wife, Pattie Boyd. To be in the world, but not of it, remained a constant struggle for Harrison — one that, to his credit, he tried always to face in a brave and truthful way.

Perhaps his devotion to Hinduism — traced back to his inspired mid-1960s embrace of Indian music and culture, which reached a zenith point with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation — gave Harrison a kind of mantel on which to place the inconvenient debris of his own imperfect nature. If the concept of reincarnation is in fact a real and attainable one, then some of Harrison’s life choices may have brought him back around for another spin on this planet — a place he named differently with the title of his 1975 song “World of Stone.” There are things to learn about George Harrison in Philip Norman’s new book, but Harrison’s perennial gift to us all is his reminder that we have more to learn about ourselves just from living a life. As he sang to the world behind a stoical visage back in 1965, “Think for yourself, ’cause I won’t be there with you.” And he isn’t, though his words and music still are.

What if popular music isn’t enough, though? What if the endless, soundless shriek of our daily lives is so massive that we haven’t the strength or sense to keep hold of our own minds? The answer may reside in the example of Thich Nhat Hanh, whose steady model of Buddhist mindfulness serves as a beacon in a tidy compendium of inspirational stories called Tears Become Rain. Told across 32 authors’ meaningful life transformations due to this spiritual leader’s influence, this book from editors Jeanine Cogan and Mary Hillebrand could not have arrived at a better time.

The conventional definition of Buddhism is usually tossed around willy-nilly by those not yet invested in it, like some sort of nickel-store aphorism: “Life is suffering.” That’s where most start and end on the topic. A deeper assessment of the expression is required, however, if one is to truly understand or benefit from this centuries-old belief system. Tears Become Rain presents stories from real people who face real problems and — through the Buddhic teachings as embodied by Thich Nhat Hanh — who also find real solutions (or, with a variant spelling that would likely earn you an ovation from those in a metaphysics shop, soul-utions). An especially resonant chapter in the book is “Freedom from My Own Mind” by Joanne Friday (presented in Part Five, a section entitled “Facing Fear”). Some weeks after she had survived a car accident that left her with a brain injury, Ms. Friday was surprised to find herself inspired to join a week-long retreat in Rhode Island where Thich Nhat Hanh — referred to as “Thay” by his dedicated followers — would lecture. She had read his book The Miracle of Mindfulness many times prior to the accident — but it was the suffering that followed the accident, and which moved her to attend the retreat, that then led her to understand and benefit from the Buddhist mindset. She gleaned personal freedom from the experience and embraced that fullness of spirit going forward — even when diagnosed with stage four metastatic cancer, which stayed with her for twelve years before her passing in January 2021.

Upon turning the page and learning that Joanne Friday had died, my eyes welled up with tears — but as I reflected further on her story, and all that she had learned and drawn from in her spiritual beliefs, my sorrow turned instead to a faint but palpable feeling of joy. To suffer in life is a guarantee — far harder to achieve is the ability to be free. This is something that both George Harrison and Thich Nhat Hanh — exemplars of the West and the East, respectively — came to know. May we all know that freedom as well. As tears become rain, so should the sun also come.

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Anthony Pomes

Anthony Pomes has worked steadily as a freelance writer/editor and frequent ghost writer for more than two decades.