For 30 years, Leonard Cohen has played at subverting his own success as a singer and poet. Now he is a monk at a Zen centre in California. Is this another put-on or has the sinner-songwriter finally found peace?by Pico Iyer / October 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the falling mountain darkness, I pull my car off the high, winding road into a rough parking lot. An older man, stooped a little and shaven-headed, in tattered black gown, woollen cap and glasses, comes out to greet me. He extends a hand, bows, picks up my case and leads me off to a cabin. He worries about my “long drive,” asks if I will be okay here, heats up a pot of tea and slices some fresh bread. As night falls, he offers me a young woman he thinks I should be married to.
Then, since I will need some clothes to join him in the austerities for which he has invited me, this Talmudic-looking gentleman leads me off into the chill, unlit night, to collect a gown, cap and pair of canvas sneakers for me. His home is markedly simple, with a small black “Welcome” mat outside its door. Inside, I notice a narrow single bed, a tiny mirror, a dirty old carpet and some puppies cavorting under the legend, “Friends Are All Welcome.” There is a small shoulder bag with a Virgin Airlines tag around it and, on a chest of drawers, a menorah. “This place is really quite a trip,” he says, smiling. “You enter a kind of science-fiction universe which has no beginning and no end.” His own ragged gown is held together with safety pins. The small, unplugged Technics synthesiser in the next room is the only sign of Leonard Cohen’s other life.
Leading me back out into the dark, he ushers me into a cold, empty room where he gives me instructions on how to sit. “The bottom half-the legs-should be really strong,” says Cohen. “The rest should be fluid.” Then, assessing my posture as serviceable, he takes me into the zendo, or meditation hall, next door. Thirty or so figures, all in black, are sitting stock-still in the night. They are coming to the end of a rohatsu, or winter retreat, in which they will sit like this for seven days. Monks patrol the aisles with sticks, ready to hit anyone who threatens to drop off. Every 45 minutes, the practitioners are allowed to break from their zazen positions to relieve themselves in buckets in the woods. But most of them use the breaks to continue their meditation, marching in single file around a central pine tree. My host is probably 30 years older than most of the fresh-faced young men and women, yet as they walk around the tree he seems at least 30 years stronger, too.