Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin – Robert Plant
The Right View
Robert Plant’s Stairway to Heaven is an influential song that has transformed the minds of many since its debut in the 1970’s, its persuasive lyrics withstanding the test of time to convey his potent spiritual message today. Delicately interweaving powerful imagery with Buddhist philosophy, Plant effectively presents the Noble Eightfold Path as the gateway to inner peace by first defining the common blunders of many who become ensnarled in Samsara’s incessant cycle of suffering. Endorsing the promise that inner peace and happiness is realistically achievable, Plant depicts the pain and distress of his character ‘the Lady’. By examining her fallacies and demonstrating to the audience the vital first lesson of the ‘Right View’, Plant positions his eager listeners on the Noble Eightfold Path so that they may liberate from their suffering.
Plant introduces ‘The Lady’ as one who lacks the Right View. Believing that happiness lies in the transient gratification of materialistic desire, she lives a life lavished by the wealth, power, and social status inherent to her title. Her mid-song absence, limited description, and lack of a genuine name powerfully magnify these traits as the highlights of The Lady’s character. However, these secular qualities are only the mere manifestations of a deeper mana, misconception, one that ravages the Lady’s chance of attaining happiness: “all that glitters [with any value] is gold [has its monetary equivalent]” (Plant 1). Portrayed in both the opening and closing lyrics, The Lady remains unwaveringly devoted to this conviction throughout the song, ultimately believing that happiness can be achieved via worldly acquisition. While this belief is fostered by a lifestyle defined by her wealth and power, it is the subsequent avijja, ignorance, of how the world truly works that rigidly limits her to the only dogma she knows. However, because her environment is subject to annica, impermanence, the Lady’s inability to adapt accordingly brings forth deleterious consequences. From naively being “sure all that glitters is gold” (Plant 1), the Lady is thrust into an alien world in which mere survival depends on principles beyond her comprehension- and clinging to a fallacy she holds true, she is enveloped by the subsequent dukkha, confusion and distress, as she desperately and vainly “wants to show how everything still turns to gold” (Plant 33). However, beyond just causing her pain, the Lady’s avijja makes her vulnerable to it. Her failure to understand annica allows the Lady to strongly identify with the facade of her title and to internalize it, taking lifetime dogmas and constructing an unchanging atta, permanent self. Carrying ideals that seemingly define and thus sustain her existence, the Lady fears what would befall her upon relinquishing such fundamental principles. The Lady falsely believes she is acting in her best interest, blinded by avijja to the cyclical state of suffering that she is promoting, one so devoid of perpetual happiness that it is only identifiable via the external concept of ‘Heaven’. The Lady cannot recognize the origin of her suffering nor the path to its cessation; so regardless of how sure that “with a word she can get what she came for [perpetual happiness]” (Plant 4), it stands that the “stores are all closed” (Plant 3) for her. Just as “she’s [still vainly] buying The Stairway to Heaven” (Plant 2, 3, 7) in both the opening and closing scenes, the Lady is, without a moment’s relief, suffering to no end.??
While the Lady suffers in a Samsaric existence where she continually but painfully pursues happiness, Plant simultaneously highlights that shedding avijja can lead to liberation. Proceeding to guide his listeners, Plant assures them that this can be accomplished by first obtaining the Right View:
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.
There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving. (Plant 9-13)
Conjuring a bucolic scene of “a tree by the brook” (Plant 9) devoid of the Lady’s confusion and deluded thinking, Plant uses the state of nature to demonstrate the importance of understanding reality as it truly exists. Gently reaching out to his listeners through “a songbird who sings [that] sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven” (Plant 10), Plant encourages them to deeply consider their attachments- whether it be to a behavior, judgment about the world, or specifically applying to the Lady, a dogma- and truthfully assess its validity. The outcome of this action “makes [Plant] wonder” (Plant 11), a phrase that ingeniously inspires a childlike ‘temptation’ in his audience to develop a penetrative understanding of how their tanha, clingings, might have negatively impacted their lives. While the Lady could not understand her dilemma which lead to dukkha, Plant stands in sharp juxtaposition as he urges his listeners to eliminate their roots of avijja by recognizing the sources of their suffering. Further empowering his audience this necessary wisdom, Plant provides a reflection of the Lady’s Three Marks of Existence that indicated her life in Samsara, namely annica, dukkha, and atta. Portraying in his lyrics a figurative vision of death “when [he] look[s] to the west” during the sunset, Plant reveals that everything is subject to annica, even down to the very core of human existence. Thus while the Lady had feared changing the foundations of her identity, striving to do so proves meaningless when she will finally confront death. This powerful realization would have allowed the Lady to amend her dogma that ‘everything in life can be bought’, ultimately positioning her in the right direction on the Noble Eightfold Path with means necessary to liberate from dukkha entirely. Showing this passage to be entirely possible, Plant exemplifies by indicating that “there’s a feeling [he] gets … [that] his spirit is crying for leaving” (Plant 13). Reiterating the powerful implication of this Noble Truth, Plant shows that all people, like those in the Lady’s situation, can bring about the cessation of suffering by relinquishing desire.
While the Right View is only the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path, Plant shows that ultimate liberation is realistically possible by creating an outline for anyone to follow. While admitting the possibility that one may feel he is perpetually stuck in a Samsaric existence and cannot achieve the Right View, Plant brilliantly reminds that “there are two paths [one] can go by” (Plant 24). Even when dukkha seems hopelessly inescapable, that does not mean one is forever condemned to Samsara- for, it is within any individual’s power to “ in the long run … change the road [he] is on” (Plant 25). Filling the eager ears of his audience with hope, Plant then advertises that once his listeners embark on their journey “a new day will dawn for [them if they] stand [a]long” (Plant 19) the Noble Eightfold Path. Further advertising and encouraging that, although such an internal transformation might require great effort, demanding practice in both ethical conduct and proper concentration, the benefits of leaving suffering for eternal happiness such that “forest will echo with laughter” (Plant 20) make it worthwhile. Nevertheless, Plant is realistic and acknowledges that there can, and there will be times where the benefits of the Path are observable or seemingly unprofitable despite its follower’s extreme devotion to it’s teachings. Cautioning his listeners to be wary of such moments when “[as] they wind down the road … [their] shadows [doubts] taller [their] soul [faith]” (Plant 31), Plant offers words of guidance and advises them to wait for “a bustle [change] in [their] hedgerows [lives]” (Plant 22). Plant describes this moment of reassured hope as “spring clean for the May Queen” (Plant 23), a natural renewal process similar to the defrosting of the winter to usher in a new spring growth that comes when approaches the end of the Noble Eightfold Path. Such an achievement requires perseverance and diligence, and it is a task that can only be accomplished “if [they] listen very hard” (Plant 34), following only what will lead them to liberation, and avoiding the temptations of “the piper [spreading false principles] … calling [those who are not carful] to join him” (Plant 28). Yet regardless of the obstacles along the way, Plant empowers his audience to precisely follow the Noble Eightfold Path. He inspires that through devotion and effort his listeners can, and will achieve and a perfect and boundless peace, one coupled with the highest happiness of the likes they have never known in Samsara. An existence where unity is such that “all is one and one is all” (Plant 35) and the mind stands unmoved by any adversity “like a rock [that] does not roll” (Plant 36), Plant identifies the ultimate goal of the Noble Eightfold Path that his listeners must strive for: Nirvana.
Stairway to Heaven illustrates through the poetic lyrics the enormous suffering brought forth by desires, and offers a powerful approach to eradicate all suffering through Buddhist teachings in order to achieve Nirvana. The messages it entails serve to advocate the Right View, a perspective much needed in modern society where temptations of momentary pleasure is even more abundant, and desires which cultivate more suffering continue to hinder the pursuit for inner peace and happiness. Offering a promising and achievable goal, Stairway to Heaven inspires, encourages, and empowers all to follow the correct enlightened path towards Nirvana.