Listening to Leonard Cohen

A writer visits the world-weary, enigmatic rock 'n' roll idol at a Buddhist monastery


| November/December 1998



Leonard Cohen

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In the falling mountain darkness, I pull my car off the high, winding road into a rough parking lot, and Leonard Cohen comes out to greet me: stooped a little and shaven-headed, in a tattered black gown and woolen cap and glasses. He extends a hand, gives me a bow, and, picking up my case, leads me off to a cabin. He worries about my "long drive," asks if I'll be OK here, heats up a pot of tea, and slices some fresh bread for me. As night falls, he tells me to feel at home and mentions a young woman he thinks I should be married to.

Then he leads me out into the mountain dark and into the zendo. Thirty or so figures, all in black, are sitting stock-still in the night. They are coming to the end of a winter retreat, rohatsu, in which they sit like this, all but uninterruptedly, for seven days. Monks patrol the aisles with sticks, ready to hit anyone who threatens to drop off. Every 45 minutes or so, the practitioners are allowed to break from their zazen positions to relieve themselves in buckets in the woods, or in primitive outhouses known and feared throughout the Zen community. Most of them, however, use the breaks to continue their meditation unbroken, marching silently in single file, round and round a central pine tree. My host, who is 63, is probably 30 years older than most of the fresh-faced young men and women here, yet as they walk around the tree, at top speed, he seems at least 30 years stronger too.

Cohen has always been a man of surprises, so much so that many take him to be a man of artful disguises (as he sometimes does himself). His life has always been dangerously mythic: from the house he bought on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960 with a $1,500 inheritance, to the dramatic rejection of Canada's Governor General's Award for English-language poetry when he was only 34, to the wild, strung-out days at the Chelsea Hotel and other shrines of dissipation (where Janis Joplin was "giving me head on the unmade bed," as his song says).

Even those who were not surprised when this archetypal figure from the seeking '60s suddenly came back with a growl in the late '80s and started winning all the prizes yet again may be taken aback to know that the definitive ladies' man and husky poet of the morning after is now living year-round in the Mount Baldy Zen Center, 6,250 feet above sea level, in the dark San Gabriel Mountains behind Los Angeles, serving, he says, as "cook, chauffeur, and sometimes drinking buddy" to a 92-year-old Japanese man with whom he shares few words.

Cohen has, in fact, been a friend of Joshu Sasaki since 1973, though he has not made a fuss about it, and fans will get clues to this part of his existence only from a couple of tiny elliptical vignettes in his 1978 book, Death of a Lady's Man, and occasional songs—like "If It Be Your Will"—that, like his 1984 collection of psalms, Book of Mercy, express absolute submission. Apart from Cohen's 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year-old daughter, Lorca, the Japanese roshi, or spiritual teacher, seems to be the one still point in his endlessly turning life, and now he accompanies Sasaki to Zen centers from Vienna to Puerto Rico and endures punishing retreats each month in which he does virtually nothing but sit zazen 24 hours a day for seven days on end.

The rest of the time Cohen works around the Zen center, shoveling snow, scrubbing floors, and—most enthusiastically—working in the kitchen (he tells me, with mischievous pride, that he has a certificate from the county of San Bernardino that qualifies him to work as waiter, busboy, or cook). The monk known here as Jikan (Silent One) has thrown aside the things he's famous for: a command of words, beautiful suits, a hunger for ideas, and a hypnotist's ease at charming the world. The icon who has been entertained and idolized by everyone from Prince Charles and Georges Pompidou to Joni Mitchell and Michelle Phillips, the regular visitor to the top of the European charts who has inspired not one tribute album (like most legends) but a dozen worldwide, the Officer of the Order of Canada once described as "perhaps the continent's most successful poet" seems to thrive on austerity. He's too happy to write anymore, he tells me soon after I arrive (though, one day later, he's showing me things he's writing, toward a Book of Longing). "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."