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
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.
At 2am, back in my cabin to get some sleep, there is a knock on my door; it’s the rabbinical-looking Cohen again, ready to vault up rough stone paths to join in morning chants. For half an hour, to the beat of a steadily pounded drum, the assembled students race through 24 pages of Japanese syllabary which mean nothing to them. Cohen, like many others, recites the entire Heart Sutra from memory. Then he leads me back through the frosty night to his cabin to show me the 9th century text on which we will soon be hearing a teisho, or Zen discourse.
It is light when the knock comes again and I follow my sleepless host to hear the roshi, or teacher of this community, deliver his talk. A small round figure in orange robes comes in and two attendants help him on to a kind of throne. “What is this thing called love?” the man says, speaking in the old-fashioned tones of his northern Japanese dialect, in synch with a translator. “A child can befriend a dog and lick its rear end. Is that love? Is love just shaking hands? Dogs, cats and insects mate. Is that love?” He goes on: “You’ve been hypnotised. You’ve got to take your mind to the laundry. Get it clean.” And concludes: “When a man is with a woman, he has to occupy her fully.” Afterwards, we head out into what is now a dazzling blue-sky day. “Nine o’clock,” says Cohen, “and we’ve had several lifetimes already today.”
The “Lord Byron of rock ‘n’ roll,” as he is too often called, has always been a man of surprises—to the point where many (sometimes himself) take him to be a man of artful disguises. Cohen’s life has always been mythic: from the house he bought on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960 with a $1,500 inheritance, to turning down Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for English language poetry when he was only 34, to the wild, strung-out days at the Chelsea Hotel, the Chateau Marmont and other shrines of dissipation (with Janis Joplin “giving me head on the unmade bed”). Even those who were not surprised when this figure from the 1960s came back with a growl in the late 1980s and started winning all the prizes again may be taken aback to learn of some of his adventures: that he wrote, scored and directed a film, I Am a Hotel, which won the Rose d’Or at the television festival in Montreux; that he played for the Israeli troops of Ariel Sharon during the build-up to the Yom Kippur war; that he acted as the head of Interpol in an episode of Miami Vice.
Many would be even more surprised to learn that the ladies’ man and husky poet of the morning-after now lives year-round in a Zen centre, 6,250 feet above sea level, in the mountains behind Los Angeles, serving as “cook, chauffeur and sometimes drinking-buddy” to a roshi, a 92-year-old Japanese Zen master with whom he shares few words. Cohen has, in fact, been a friend of Joshu Sasaki since 1973; votaries will get clues to this part of his life only from a couple of elliptical vignettes in his 1978 book, Death of a Lady’s Man, and occasional songs-such as “If It Be Your Will”—which, like his 1984 collection of psalms, Book of Mercy, express absolute submission. Yet, apart from his 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year-old daughter, Lorca, the roshi seems to be the one still point in Cohen’s life; he accompanies him to Zen centres from Vienna to Puerto Rico and goes through punishing retreats each month in which he does nothing but sit zazen, 24 hours a day, seven days on end.
The rest of the time he works around the Zen centre, shovelling snow, scrubbing floors and—most enthusiastically—working in the kitchen. Here he is the monk known as Jikan (or “Silent One”). The things he is famous for—a command of words, beautiful suits, a hunger for ideas and a hypnotist’s ease at charming the world—are thrown aside. “In the zendo,” he tells me, “all of this disappears.” (“This” refers to his name, his past—the life he carries around within him). “You don’t notice if this woman is beautiful or ugly, if that man smells or doesn’t smell. Whoever you’re sitting next to, you just see their pain. And when you’re sitting, you feel nothing but the pain. And sometimes it goes, and then it’s back again. And you can’t think of anything else. Just the pain.” He pauses, then the chanteur slips out again. “And, of course, it’s the same with other kinds of pain, like broken hearts.”
The pop icon who has been entertained and idolised by everyone from Prince Charles and Georges Pompidou to Joni Mitchell and Michelle Phillips, the regular visitor to the top of the European charts, the Officer of the Order of Canada who was described in The United States of Poetry as “perhaps the continent’s most successful poet,” seems to thrive on this new life. He is too happy to write any more, he tells me soon after I arrive (although the next day he shows me things he is writing for a new Book of Longing). And, although the face is still reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman, he is well hidden in the bobble cap that his roshi “commanded” him to wear. “This whole practice is mostly about terrifying you,” he says happily. “But there’s a lot to be gained in those terrors. It gets you so efficiently into a certain place.”
The place is one to which Cohen has been journeying all his life. “There’s a bias against religious virtue here,” he assures me, grinning, one morning, as bells toll outside and I smell sweet incense in the air. “You never have the feeling that it’s Sunday School. You never have the feeling that you’re abandoning some cavalier life, or getting into some goody-goody enterprise. Not at all.” When a Buddhist magazine recently asked Cohen to conduct an interview with Sasaki, he gladly agreed, provided they could talk about “wine, women and money.” And to be sure, we have only known each other for ten minutes when he begins using “pussy” and “shunyatta” in the same sentence.
It is not so much that Cohen has given up the world—he still has a duplex which he bought with two friends near the Jewish district in LA (and where his daughter now lives). And when I visit him at 2am one morning, I hear the crackle of a transistor radio in his bedroom. The man with a gift for being in tune with the times is still providing songs for the soundtrack of an Oliver Stone film, appearing at Rebecca De Mornay’s side at Hollywood functions and inspiring a new generation of grunge poets. None the less, he has come to LA, centre of surface and self-absorption, and managed to turn it into mountain training more rigorous than the army.
In some ways he has been there since the beginning. His songs have always been about obedience, war, pain and surrender. He has always seemed a curiously old-fashioned, forbidding figure who abhors clutter, goes it alone and yearns to be on his knees as well as on his toes-focused, penetrating and wild. The dark skies, spare spaces and mythic shapes around Mount Baldy feel uncannily like the landscape of a Leonard Cohen song.
Besides, the self-styled “voice of suffering” has never chosen to diversify his themes; he just goes deeper into them. The refrain which lights up his recent song, “Democracy,” appeared in his novel, Beautiful Losers, 30 years ago; the poem he recently recited as a prologue to an album called Rare on Air, Volume One was written for his first book, composed in part when he was in high school. Even 30 years ago, when he was known as a woman-hungry, acid-dropping enfant terrible, he was writing: “Prayer is translation. A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered.”
For nearly half a century, he has been playing games with the public entity known as “Leonard Cohen.” There is the short, upper-middle-class Jewish kid taking lessons in hypnotism, forming a band called “The Buckskin Boys” and, while studying English at McGill University, reciting verse over jazz at midnight like some wintry Kerouac. There is the slightly older figure, scrupulously dissolute, already the author of six books, reading his poem “Suzanne” over the telephone to Judy Collins, who persuaded him to sing it himself. He appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Isle of Wight Festival and then on the client list of John Hammond (who discovered both Dylan and Springsteen). There is the leading young poet in Canada, not only delivering lectures on “Loneliness and History” and composing a whole opera in the 16th century verse-form of The Faerie Queene, but also losing his rights to “Suzanne,” with the result that his first and most famous song brings him no money at all to this day.
He lived on a Greek island with his Norwegian love in the 1960s. He acquired a “small, cupboard-sized room” in the Chelsea Hotel, where Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix came through now and then. He took over a 1,200-acre homestead in Franklin, Tennessee—and posed for photos in a Stetson. He was dissected by the novelist Michael Ondaatje in a book-length work of literary criticism, sold excerpts from his work to Cavalier, the skin magazine, appeared at one concert on a white horse and greeted an audience in Hamburg with “Sieg Heil!”
Cohen was ready to live out every cliché, from living in a garret to moving to Greece (for its “philosophic climate,” he said), to telling all his women that being true to them meant being untrue to his Muse. Understandably, this provoked a sense that he was brashly courting success by pretending to ignore it. “If you listen carefully,” the New York Times said in 1973, “you are sometimes rewarded with a poet’s profound thoughts, sometimes with a pop star’s put-on.” Undeterred, Cohen continued to subvert his success with puckish gestures, following a book of poems called Spice-Box of Earth with another called Flowers for Hitler, scribbling aphorisms on walls—”Change is the only aphrodisiac”—and then ascribing them to the Kama Sutra. He teamed up with Phil Spector for a 1977 album, Death of a Ladies’ Man, in which serious enquiries into the nature of the soul got buried under a foot-thumping Wall of Sound (Cohen called it “a grotesque masterpiece”). Yet this overblown Vegas production may well have paved the way for the fuller, richer sounds of later albums which brought Cohen surging back on to the charts in his mid-50s.
Now, as we sit in his cabin this cold December morning, he tells me that he makes no claims to piety: his training is just a useful response to the “predicament of his life.” He explains: “This connection—the unavoidable presence of the Other—has driven us to religion. The great religion is the great work of art. We form ourselves around these problems. These problems exist prior to us, and we gather ourselves, almost molecularly, around these perplexities. That’s what a human is: a gathering around a perplexity.”
He sips some coffee from a cup with the logo of The Future on it; beside him are the thick notebooks in which poems hundreds of verses long will be condensed-often into a single six-verse song. Cohen has not slept, probably, for six days. “It’s driven us to art,” he says, returning to his theme of the Other. “I mean, it’s so perplexing, the humiliations, the glories that are so abundant… I was looking through my notebooks and I saw something nice: ‘I set out for love, but I did not know I’d be caught in the grip of an undertow. To be swept to a shore, where the sea needs to go, with a child in my arms, and a chill in my soul, and my heart the size of a begging bowl.'”
Even on this lofty perch, he doesn’t deny the “fixed self” that awaits him whenever he comes down from the mountain. In fact he goes out of his way to downplay his presence on the mountain top. “Everyone here is fucked-up and desperate,” he says brightly. “You don’t come to a place like this unless you’re desperate.” Yet, amid the gamesmanship and calculated irreverence-one of the reasons he became a monk two years ago, he says, was “Roshi wanted me to do so for tax purposes”—I see something genuine: Cohen, I realise, is really, really trying to simplify himself.
One morning at dawn, as we talk about Van Morrison, Norman Mailer and how “living in England is like living in a cabbage,” Cohen starts reminiscing about Cuba. Just after the Revolution, he was walking along the beach in his Canadian Army shorts with his camping knife, imagining himself the only North American on the island. He got arrested as the first member of an invading force. “So there I was, on the beach in Varadero, speculating on my destiny, when I found myself surrounded by 16 soldiers with guns. They arrested me and the only words I knew were Amistad de pueblo. So I kept saying, ‘Amigo! Amistad de pueblo!’ and finally they started greeting me. And they gave me a necklace of shells and a necklace of bullets and everything was great.” Then, suddenly, he stops. “What time is it ?” I tell him and he says: “I shouldn’t be talking about my adventures when we’re about to listen to a wonderful teisho.” He disappears again into the black-robed disciple.
Another day, another tale—about his most recent girlfriend. “When I met Rebecca [De Mornay], all kinds of thoughts came to my mind. How could they not when faced with a woman of such beauty? And they got crisscrossed in my mind. But she didn’t let it go further than that: my mind. Except it did. And finally she saw I was a guy who just couldn’t come across.”
“‘Come across?'” I ask. He explains: “In the sense of being a husband and having more children and the rest.” He stops. “And she was right, of course. But she was kind enough to forgive me. I had breakfast with her the other day, and I told her, ‘I know why you forgave me. Because I really, really tried.’ And she said, ‘Yes.'” End of story, end of song.
At times, as I listened to this man with beautiful manners and a poet’s diction, moving back and forth between hippie existentialist and Old World scholar, I could see the coyote trickster who has been working the press for three decades or more. I felt disconcerted by his very niceness, his openness, his courtesy. He kept thanking me for “being kind enough to come here,” tended to my every need as if I were the celebrity and he the journalist, and referred to “what you’re nice enough to call my career.” I felt that there was something excessive to his modesty, his unusually articulate and quick-witted sentences bemoaning his lack of articulacy and sharpness. I saw the seasoned seducer whom his friend Angelica Huston called “part wolf, part angel.” Certainly a man so meticulous in clothes and manner was not going to be careless in his presentation of self. Yet Cohen seemed more wise to this than anyone. “Secretly, the sin of pride as it is manifested here is that we feel we’re like the Marines of the spiritual world: tougher, more reckless, more daring, more brave.” Asked about his early years, he confesses: “I think I was more interested in the poetic life and everything around it than the thing itself.” Nominating himself as “one of the great whiners,” he says that the roshi looks at him sometimes and says: “Attention to the world: need more Buddhism!”
And soon I begin to feel that I am watching a complex man genuinely trying to come clean; a still jangled, sometimes angry soul making a heroic attempt to reduce itself to calm. “He’s a tiger,” I remember a woman in New York telling me, “a complicated man. Complicated in a very grown-up way. I mean, he makes Dylan seem childish.” The first time she met him, he congratulated her on a book she had written. As their meal went on, though, he said: “Your writing is a lot more interesting than you are.”
Cruelty has always been a disconcerting part of his package. Yet when I spoke to the people who tour with him, I felt I was speaking to the Apostles. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as gracious, as generous as Leonard,” said Perla Batalla, his back-up singer for ten years. “Once I’d been out on the road with him, I couldn’t go out with anyone else.” His other back-up singer, Julie Christensen, left a newborn baby at home to tour with him-having seen her band-mates come back “changed, philosophically changed, really on this kind of heightened awareness level.”
Both talk of how Cohen the singer seems of a piece with Cohen the Zen practitioner, making them sing the same song until they would burst into tears; and wearing them out with his three-hour, 12-encore concerts. But they speak of his tours as if they are a kind of spiritual training. “He’ll give the same attention to the president of the country or to someone who’s just walked up to him on the street,” says Batalla. Others mentioned his racing off to buy aspirin for them, or inviting them to his hotel room at night to drink hot chocolate. Batalla sometimes visits his home only to sit in absolute silence with her boss.
And when I visit Cohen in his cabin, he gives me tea, or shows me paintings-flowing nudes and haggard self-portraits-he has done on his computer, or reads me poems about the dissolution of self from a book he is collecting, which, like all his best work, sound like love-songs and prayers at once.
One morning, in his bathroom, I come upon the Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. “I like the fact they distinguish between Buddhism and Zen,” he says when I come out. “What is the difference?” I ask. He disappears into the bathroom to clean cups, without replying-a good Zen solution.
Another day, he shows up with his hands dirty from fixing the toilet and I try to get him to talk about his writing. “For me,” he says, his voice soft and beautiful, with a trace of Canada still hiding inside it, “the process is really more like a bear stumbling into a honey-cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it. And it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful”—you can hear the cadences of his songs here-“and yet there’s something inevitable about it.” But most of the writers he admires “are just incredible messes, as human beings. Wonderful and invigorating company, but I pity their wives and their husbands and their children.” A crooked smile.
As for the songs, “I’ve always held the song in high regard because songs have got me through so many sinks of dishes and so many humiliating courting events,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll catch one of my songs on the radio and think: these songs are really good. It’s really wonderful that they have been written and more wonderful that they have found a place in the heart. And sometimes I’ll hear my voice and think: this guy has got to be the great comedian of his generation. These songs are hilarious: hilariously inept, hilariously solemn and out of keeping with the times; hilariously inappropriate.”
“To me,” he continues, “the kind of thing I like is that you write a song, and it slips into the world, and they forget who wrote it. And it moves and it changes, and you hear it again 300 years later, some women washing their clothes in a stream, and one of them is humming this tune.” His conversation unfolds like the outline of a ballad.
At last, as the 168 hours come to an end, I walk up the mountain to join the students in their final session of zazen, the stars thicker than I have seen in 30 years of living in southern California. By now, nearly everybody is exhausted to the point of breakdown-or breakthrough-some with open wounds on their feet, others nodding off at every turn; others are lit up and charged like electrical wires. Then, at 2am, on the longest night of the year, the silence suddenly breaks and people talk and laugh. They return to being maths professors, doctors and writers once again. They drink tea and, in the great exhalation, you can hear a woman saying: “Better than drugs!”
In his sepulchral cabin, Cohen breaks out the cognac and serves an old friend and me gefilte fish, Hebrew National salami and egg-and-onion matzohs from a box. The two of them look like battle-hardened veterans-“non-commissioned officers,” as the friend says-and I begin to see how this celebrated lady-killer called an early back-up band “The Army” and one of his sweetest records “an anti-pacifist recording.” Yet even at his most ragged, here, he seems a long way away from the man who cried out so pitifully on his 1973 live album: “I can’t stand who I am.” Cohen has always tried to inhabit a higher zone, one that his parable-like songs, his alchemical symbols and his constant harking back to Abraham, David and Isaac seem to stretch for. In trying to marry Babylon with Bethlehem, in reading women’s bodies with the rigour of a Talmudic scholar, in giving North America a raffish tilt-closer to Jacques Brel or Georges Moustaki than to Bob Dylan-he has tried to find ceremony without sanctimony and discipline without dogma.
“I feel we’re in a very shabby moment, and neither the literary nor the musical experience has its finger on the pulse of our crisis. We’re in the midst of a Flood; and this Flood is of such enormous and Biblical proportions that I see everyone holding on in their individual way to an orange crate, to a piece of wood, and we’re passing each other in this swollen river that has pretty well taken down all the landmarks, and overturned everything. And people insist, under these circumstances, on describing themselves as liberal or conservative. It seems to me completely mad.”
Of course, he says impatiently, he can’t really explain what he is doing here. “I don’t think anybody really knows why they’re doing anything. If you stop someone on the subway and say, ‘Where are you going-in the deepest sense of the word?’ you can’t really expect an answer. I don’t know why I’m here. It’s a matter of: what else would I be doing? Do I want to be Frank Sinatra, who’s really great? Do I want to have great retrospectives of my work? I’m not really interested in being the oldest folk-singer around. Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Well, I hated it when it was going on, so maybe I would feel better about it now. But I don’t think so. Would I want to find new drugs, buy more expensive wine? This seems to me the most luxurious response to the emptiness of my existence. I think this is the real deep entertainment: religion. Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available to us is within this activity. Nothing touches it.” He smiles his godfatherly smile. “Except if you’re courtin’. If you’re young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement.”
Before I leave, he catches my eye; his voice turns soft. “We are gathered here around a very, very old man, who may outlive all of us, and who may go tomorrow. So that gives an urgency to the practice. Everybody, including roshi, is practicing with a kind of passionate diligence. It touches my heart, makes me proud to be part of this community.”
Before I leave, the roshi invites me, with Cohen, to his cabin for lunch. It’s a meal of noodles and curry, taken quietly and simply. As always when the roshi is around, Cohen sits absolutely humble and silent in one corner, all the tension emptied out of his face. Later he cleans up and asks his old friend, very gently, if he is tired. When we go out into the car park, a woman comes up and starts telling him how much his songs have meant to her; Cohen gives her his warmest smile and leaves her with a kind of blessing. “A practice like this, you could only do for love,” he says. “So if it weren’t for the roshi, you wouldn’t be here?” I ask. “If it weren’t for the roshi, I wouldn’t be.”
As I set off down the mountain-listening with new ears to the old songs and seeing the shadow of an old Japanese man, even behind the love songs-I realise that my stay has affected me more than anything I have done in years. Why? Mostly because of a sense of the bond between Sasaki and Cohen and the way neither seems to need anything from the other, yet each allows the other to be deeper than he might otherwise be. “Roshi knows me for who I am,” Cohen had said, “and he doesn’t want me to be any other. ‘International Man,’ ‘Culture Man,’ he calls me; he knows I am an ‘International Man.'” And, by all accounts, roshi will take everything Cohen brings him-his selfishness, his anger, his ambition, his sins-and, while holding them up to him, accept him.
It is touching, in a way: the man who has been the poet laureate of commitophobes, who has never found in his 64 years a woman he can marry or a home he will not desert, the connoisseur of betrayal and the self-tormenting soul who claimed, 25 years ago, that he had “torn everyone who reached out for me,” the man who wrote a prayer for “the precious ones I overthrew for an education in the world” and became an international heart-throb while singing “So Long” and “Good bye,” has finally found something he hasn’t abandoned and a love that will not let him down.
“Roshi said something to me the other day that I like: ‘The older you get, the lonelier you become; and the deeper the love that you need.'” For the old and the deep and the lonely, change, it seems, may not be the only aphrodisiac.