In December of 2018, I visited Hong Kong for a leisurely trip, and being a place that my family was also familiar with, I’d had a long history of enjoying various sights around the place!
This trip was the second time I’d been to Lantau Island—probably one of my favourite destinations in the entire region—and as with the first time, I headed for The Big Buddha (天壇大佛), or the Lantau Buddha as I like to call it!
It was a pretty foggy day, so at first I thought the sights would be… not great.
But little did I expect to be greeted by a sight so surreal… that the image has stayed with me to this day (*´ω｀*)
“Growing heart and soul…”
This was my view from the stairs leading up to the Buddha, and everything just gave off a vibe I hadn’t felt anywhere else: from the fog, to the sun’s position, and even the tranquility—it was crowded, but almost everyone was pretty quiet, so it was just me, my camera, the Buddha, and the footsteps of everyone visiting the site too…
As I went up the stairs, I felt a mixture of pressure and calmness, like the Buddha, looking down, was almost judging me in general… I couldn’t see its eyes, but it felt like it could see right into mine… and that kind of one-way staring’s always a bit unnerving, isn’t it?
On my very first visit years before this, I remember being able to enter this museum area at the very top around the Buddha, but this time, for various reasons, the very top was cordoned off—didn’t stop a few cheeky tourists from jumping the ropes, but welp I felt like playing it safe that day~
Here’s the better of two shots I got from the highest point we were allowed to climb, and given I’m no professional photographer… this one image is one of my favourites out of all the ones I’ve ever taken!
I wanna ask first though: what do you personally feel seeing this?
For me, the way the Buddha remained blurred and fogged this high up made me feel even tinier—it’s what I imagine coming face to face with him would look like in some dramatised biography…
In that moment, I felt like me, all the people taking photos alongside me, and everyone on that staircase were completely insignificant… and the fact I’ve never been overly-religious really made it a strange feeling, even now.
Around that level we were at, there was a balcony of sorts that wrapped around the statue, and it wasn’t the highest point, but because most people were around the stairs, this little ring was pretty quiet…
It was there that I noticed another sight to my left.
Now I’m not 100% sure, but I think this mountain is Lantau Peak, in English anyways—If I’m not mistaken, its Chinese name is 鳳凰山 (Fung Wong Shan), a name that actually references its two distinct peaks: one known as 鳳山 (Male Phoenix Mountain), and the other 凰山 (Female Phoenix Mountain)l which I thought was a cool etymology~!
But if that Buddha and the sun behind it made me feel tiny, then Lantau Peak here reduced me to a speck.
I was genuinely mesmerised just gazing off at the mountain—in the fog, it looked to me like a floating island: like some higher plane, maybe a mythical garden, perhaps the geographic manifestation of Nirvana- I didn’t do it of course, but I felt this urge to just head over and climb that peak myself… to find out what was above the mist.
I was so transfixed by everything at the time that I just stayed up there for a good hour or so… but eventually the fog went away, and so did that surreal, boreal feeling that kept me around for that long （ ; ; ）
The emotion of the moment receded with the fog, but my love for Buddhist monuments really began here—helped a lot by my pre-existing fascination with stuff like Shinto temples and shrines…
Like a lot of the teachings of Eastern religions, Buddhist landmarks like this did a good job of making me feel tiny—to use psychological terms, it was like its very presence removed my ego from my self-concept for just that one hour…
“Sweet name, you’re born once again for me…”
1976 was an interesting year for David Bowie—he released Station to Station, presently known as one of his greatest albums, performing alongside what’s also known as one of his greatest backing bands-!
But it was also a year marred by widespread accusations that he was a Nazi sympathiser, largely because he portrayed his then-personal the Thin White Duke, as a nasty, soulless figure with those kinds of tendencies…
Whether or not Bowie actually believed these views at the time is… in all honesty, a matter of debate, but what is for sure is that his spiralling cocaine addiction amplified a lot of these controversial moments of his.
Most of Station to Station is defined by surreal, grungy topics and tracks that I feel really reflect this addiction of his, but when I first listened to the whole album, one track really stood out to me…
In between songs like the epic, progressive rock title track, to the funky, soulless, romantic crooning of Golden Years, then the rough guitar edges of Stay, is a lone pleasant, if melancholic, ballad: Word on a Wing.
So no exaggeration here…
That opening piano is one of my all-time favourite bars of music!
The pianist here is Roy Bittan—and you might recognise him from all his work with Bruce Springsteen over the years!
But the way he articulates that opening bar after two whole songs from an emotionless void…
For me, it’s such a sudden but pleasant break that I couldn’t help but just kick back and let some of my day’s burdens take off into the air…
Now for a quick preface—I wanna make this analysis not of Bowie himself, but largely of the character he portrays in the album, so when I do begin talking about him as a person, I’ll hopefully remember to clarify…
The opening lyrics, personally speaking, echo a lot of that bitter yet defiant tone the prior songs established:
In this age of grand illusion
You walked into my life out of my dreams
I don’t need another change
Still you force your way into my scheme of things
Coming from Golden Years, my first guess was that this was another song about some romance-gone-sour… because it kinda has that tone, right?
But for me, his choice of words echo this questioning of something much larger than just another partner.
His slow, quiet vocals don’t have a sense of rage in them too… it’s more of a confused anger at something he knows is out of his control.
Then the pre-chorus segment comes, and the theme of the song became really clear for me…
Sweet name, you're born once again for me
Sweet name, you're born once again for me
Oh sweet name, I call you again
You're born once again for me
Just because I believe don't mean I don't think as well
Don't have to question everything in Heaven or Hell
He is disgruntled at someone again… but this time, it’s a higher being—perhaps God, perhaps Buddha depending on what he believed- but personally?
I think it’s a lot more of a vent at fate itself than any one higher being…
In the chorus, Bowie’s vocals ramp up like he’s on the verge of crying, and he sings:
Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing
And I'm trying hard to fit among your scheme of things
It's safer than a strange land, but I still care for myself
And I don't stand in my own light
Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing
My prayer flies like a word on a wing
Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?
For me, this is kind of an image of someone struggling so much in life that they turn to spirituality as a last resort… yet they’re so far downhill that even faith can’t help them anymore,
And as an inherently-religious song, I feel like Word on a Wing is still something that might be able to speak to a lot of us outside these faiths…
We all have our own ways of dealing with personal tragedies, but personally, bitterness towards some irrational being has always been a part of my experiences.
That constant feeling of “why is this happening to us?” when, in reality, the question should really be “who is this not happening to?”
But I think grief and reason are all too often mutually-exclusive.
And songs like Word on a Wing showcase a very-real person in such a state: in 1999, when Bowie revived the song and performed it live for a studio audience, he said something along the lines of “I’m sure it was a cry for help,” labelling it one of the only genuine moments in all of Station to Station.
Drug addiction, marriage problems, career troubles—all of it stacked up in this one song that showcases the real Bowie in, what I feel anyways, may be one of his most vulnerable on-record moments…
I think he channels so much emotion in this performance that the music was almost secondary—that he really just wanted to vent about the place he found himself in as he found himself, for a rare moment, aware of his own mind.
“Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?”
It’s pure speculation from here onwards… but I wonder if his thoughts at the time were similar to what I felt looking up at that statue and that peak?
As humans, I feel almost every culture out there at least somewhat focuses on showcasing ourselves in some way… perhaps for independence and self-actualisation in Individualistic societies, or to best contribute to the population in Collectivist societies.
But having that sense of self disappear is really surreal to look back on for me…
It’s not like blending into a crowd in a busy shopping district, it’s more like disappearing altogether—becoming, if for but a moment, so intertwined with the world that you become inseparable from it.
To feel like your life is spiralling because of some sort of fate that detests you… Would it feel the same way? Would someone in that position also feel like something less than a pawn—so helpless and powerless that even complaining becomes taxing?
I don’t know the answer to this honestly…
I can’t say I ever found myself in a situation as dire as Bowie’s was in 1976–I remember seeing reports that he himself was surprised he even survived that year thanks to how bad his self-destruction got…
To me, it’s like a negative version of the Buddhist concept of anattā or the non-self: to become completely detached from any self-concept or essence, but through tragedy rather than enlightenment.
Hearing about the amount of people going through similar, and much worse, problems nowadays… will never not be depressing for me.
Wherever you are right now, I hope you’re doing alright! There are people out there with all sorts of love for each of us, so if trouble appears to be brewing, then I hope you’ll pull through and come out someone new, if not for yourself, then perhaps, for all those around you!
Have a wonderful weekend, and all the love to you~! ♪（ｖ＾＿＾）ｖ