FRANCE- INTER, OCTOBER 6, 1997
Leonard Cohen lives in a rather odd place in California, it's high up, it's in the mountains, I'd say that it's at an altitude of at least 1000 metres.
Q: It's pretty high around here, right?
LC: Six thousand... between six and seven thousand feet
Q: So, obviously, the air is pure, there aren't a lot of people around, not a lot of noise... I hope we're not disturbing anyone coming to see you up here?
LC: On the contrary. We're very happy to be distracted - our lives are painful. No, we're very happy...
Q: Are these happy days that you are spending up here?
LC: Well, it's very intense. You're sitting in the mediation hall for five hours a day and you come up against yourself. Sometimes it's agreeable, sometimes it's not nice at all. People are trying to work out their lives here. There are no tourists here, no people just here for the luxury! So, sometimes people go into very deep introspection.
Q: Can it be depressing?
LC: Yes it can. It's VERY depressing, very painful. The practice is difficult, it's not a permanent situation except for the monks or a few other people who are here permanently.
Q: For instance for you... if it's too much for your privacy, you let me know.... Is it a way to escape from depression?
LC: Well, for me personally, depression has been an issue with me for the whole of my life and I've tried, like everybody else, various ways of dealing with that depression. You know, drugs, women, art, religion... you try everything... Finally, as a place of last resort, I've come here because here, all this is really is a large room with some cushions for sitting on with a few other people and to work out your salvation by yourself, there is no dogmatic philosophy. There's an old man here, a teacher, he's 90, he's a wonderful person to have around because he's already resolved all the questions in his life and he shows this freedom of conscience and his presence is very nourishing.
Q: There are a lot of questions, aren't there Leonard Cohen? Everything you've just said means a lot of questions, for instance depression. You're depressed, I'm depressed, everyone I know is depressed. It's a part of life. Why should we try to solve all those problems?
LC: Well, you know, there's depression and depression. What I mean by depression in my own case is that depression isn't just the blues. It's not just like I've a hangover for the weekend... the girl didn't show up or something like that, it isn't that. I'm trying to describe clinically like an acute depression. It's not really depression, it's a kind of mental violence which stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next. You lose something somewhere and suddenly you're gripped by a kind of angst of the heart and of the spirit. So, you know, I've had to deal with this most of my life like many other people and I've finally found a place like this where there are a lot of people like me. It's a place to resolve this on a fundamental basis.
Q: I was thinking about a few of your songs that I like and you speak, well, of freedom... well, of how freedom is not such an easy concept. But I was thinking "should I kind of come in and organise a place to find freedom or does it make sense to live in a place where there is already an organisation, rules, in order to find freedom?
LC: That depends. It depends on how... what the degree of suffering is. This is a kind of hospital. If you're sick enough you go to the hospital. There is no-one here who is not, in a certain sense, broken down, who has not found that he doesn't know how to deal with the things you have to face in ordinary life. So they come here. It's not at all an isolated situation, in ordinary life down the mountain sometimes you finish your day's work, you go home, you shut your door, you watch the TV… and you're really alone. Here you're never alone. There's little private space, very little time to yourself. There's a saying in Zen, like pebbles, like pebbles in a bag, they polish one another, we're doing that all the time here. So one doesn't have the sense of isolation here...
Q: Is it love? I mean people loving each other?
LC: I don't want to sound sentimental, but when you're working with people and you all have the same aim of trying to change yourselves you do get very close there is a sort of comradeship, I wouldn't say love, between the students here and the monks, that is to say the teachers.
Q: Talking about love, is it easy... we all have our vision of love... what's love for me? It's a woman, for instance, or a dog or a horse, I don't know... is it difficult to cut oneself off from that sort of love... to quit what people call love, let's say a woman or a wife, or whatever... is it very difficult? Do we have to do that?
LC: I remember I used to be secretary to an old teacher- there are a lot of them here- who travelled from one monastery to another, especially the Trappists, I would help the old teacher in his retreat... One day he said this- and you know that the Trappists lead a very hard life, though they have a hard time here, and he said to them: "Your life is hard here but you ought to try marriage- now that is hard!" For me marriage is the real monastery.
Q: That's an opinion, it's your opinion...
LC: (laughs) Yes, of course...
Q: I was thinking about the women in your songs when I said that... They were so perfect and dangerous! Talk about being anxious...
LC: (laughs mischievously)
Q: Is this your vision of what woman is… when I say "woman" I'm a bit embarrassed, it could be anything...
LC: When... you know... I'm reluctant to talk about women in a wide sense, but I think I that in my life I quickly recognised the power of women. They are powerful creatures and when one enters into intimate relations with a powerful creature you have to take it gently, you learn what prudence is.
Q: Is it part of the depression?
LC: I wish I knew! I wish I knew where this depression comes from! I'm beginning in these studies that I'm carrying out here to have an idea of what it is. I didn't have a clear sense of that in my life. We're getting into a difficult area.
Q: I don't want to go into private things... but I'm thinking about those women who are almost too perfect, who are straight out of the Bible, who are threatening... I couldn't cope with this. No man could cope with this perfection of certain women in your songs- your old songs.
LC: I certainly didn't do very well!
Q: What do you do during the day?
LC: Well, let's say we get up early. At 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning and immediately we go to the Zendo, there we meditate and we have a cup of tea, afterwards we go down to the chanting hall and we chant for an hour.
Q: Are you the best?
LC: No. It's very early in the morning, nobody is very good... and there's a drum and bells and it's a way of starting the day. After, that's enough of that, but it's very useful, it's a good way of starting the day with sound, because we don't really know what we're chanting, it's a sort of Japanese chant and no-one knows what it means. But it's a nice sound and it gets us going quickly. After that we go back to meditation for a couple of hours and then you go and see the old teachers, each of us for a few minutes and we confront him with our problems and he talks about his freedom.
Q: Is he a nice guy? He looks rough, I saw a picture of him... Hard...
LC: Yeah, he's a... He changes all the time... Sometimes he looks like your grandfather, sometimes he looks like your baby! Sometimes he looks like your enemy or your friend. He will become... He will respond to the state of mind that you've brought into the room. That's why he's so interesting. So he'll ask you a question, and much of the practice revolves around the question. For instance he might ask you a question like this: "There was a Buddha, an enlightened person, before the historic Buddha, and he sat forever in the meditation hall and he did not achieve enlightenment. Why?" So, it doesn't really have an answer but it will gather your own mind around the question which has no answer. Because that's the predicament the of people here. They have lots of questions in their heads but no answers. So, I think if I may be guilty of an oversimplification, what matters is to work to dissolve the questions rather than defining the answers so you want to produce a mind which is free of all these questions.
Q: Is it just spiritual work here or do you have other things to do? Do you have to work? We've been talking about spiritual meditation, or spiritual work, but do you have to do chores?
LC: Oh yes... we have to keep the place going ourselves, the division of labour is very clear and there are a number of jobs and people do them... there is a cook and an assistant cook, and there's a foreman and an assistant foreman, the head monk and several officers and some attendants amongst those officers there is a gardener, and there's a seamstress... the day is divided into its functions and the students have to help out with the clothes, the kitchen all over the place and that takes up a lot of the time...
Q: And what are you good at?
LC: Well, I spent the last two or three years cooking for the old man and for his guests... people have said that he's in very good health, commented on his radiant appearance I feel I have to take some of the responsibility for his good health.
Q: Do you realise that you have become fashionable?
Q: Yes... I'm not sure, maybe I'm wrong... I'm thinking about songs about the future, it's hard for us to understand... it's tough for us to listen to your vision of the future but it seems there is an agreement... I think people realise... it's depressing when you see the future and it doesn't look too good...
LC: "I have seen the future, brother, it is murder"! Well, you know that's also a very common expression in English, like saying "I got stuck in traffic, it's murder" ... or "I missed my 'plane, it's murder..." it can have a much lighter sense. But the difference between this expression and the description of something, I don't know... the way I work is that when I'm talking in conversation I don't have a lot of ideas, ideas about what's going on, when you're in the midst of your work, when you're writing things, writing verse, your antennae are very sensitive and somehow you pick up things, answers which you don't normally access in ordinary thought so my songs come out of that. That way of working. It's something true and it rings true at the time when I'm writing it but I don't feel that I have to defend all the ideas, all the nuances...
Q: Is it dangerous work for a man, for his brain?
LC: It's hard work. I think everybody, or most people, work hard and I've always been happy to be employed... I think that the real poison, if there is one, it's unemployment, even for the people who have jobs, there are so many people I know who have jobs but they aren't really employed, they don't feel they can really throw themselves into their work and I've had the privilege in my life to have been able to throw myself into my work.
Q: It seems that if you could go so deeply into something... and I'm coming back to depression here... to go so deeply into something and to come back with whatever it is, whether people agree or not, THAT is dangerous...!
LC: I find that it is dangerous if you stop along the way, it's dangerous if you don't carry it through and that's really what we're doing here: feelings come up which are difficult to face and if you try to go round or underneath them they're difficult to get away from, but not facing up to these feelings is worse, but if you consign yourself to a REAL experience of the thing which is disturbing you on the inside, if you sit at the very centre of this bonfire... and that's what we do in the meditation hall, and anyway you have to do it if you spend eighteen hours there each day which is what we do, all the monks, we spend eighteen hour sitting in the meditation hall. You can't avoid these issues. The only way to endure them is to get right inside them and then things change, but if you're used to avoiding things it's very dangerous. As I said, it's very dangerous if you don't go all the way.
Q: Has this ever happened to you? Not going deep enough?
LC: I think that's what depression is. The refusal to go deep enough into questions.
Q: Now, in this work that you're doing on yourself, what sort of songwriter... what sort of songwriter is that going to produce?
LC: Well, I've got a whole lot of songs, lyrics, poems... Of course, you're just still yourself, someone who is working on his life and I don't want to claim to be anyone else, that I've sorted the whole thing out and that I've come back with some sort of chalice or something, that's not it! But sometimes I feel that way... Sometimes you feel you've got something, you've looked at things in enough detail and it's resolved.
Q: I also wanted to ask you a very deep question for me about you... it was when the Berlin Wall came down and it seems to me that you said something that people couldn't understand, you said: "There's more trouble to come."
LC: Yes, that was the only... well I guess it's characteristic but I was the only person who wasn't at the party that day! I had a lot of misgivings, a sort of shiver went down my spine when I heard about that. I wrote a lot of verses about it and I wrote a song called Democracy and a lot of poems. I had a feeling... I wrote a song called Russian Honeymoon, which I've never finished and that was it, it was a honeymoon and something was coming which was not going to be too great.
Q: What did you see that we didn't see?
LC: Well, a collapse of order, for one thing and the... don't know exactly, but I felt... the European experience was such that unless there were very solid barriers and frontiers, treaties, understanding between countries, everything would collapse into a tribal warfare, and that was exactly what happened.
Q: You're not my teacher, but you're interesting... Are we more anxious than before? What would you say, because it seems that there is this anxiety, but can we deal with it? We don't face things easily...
LC: Well, I don't think that this human life is a place to resolve anything. I don't think you can resolve everything. This mind that we have only gives us three answers: yes, no and maybe. Those are not usually very satisfying for deep questions. So we're continually anxious, we're creatures of anxiety, that's our natural habitat. There are a few very accomplished individuals who emerge from this, we try to become on of those but we also have the proof that in our own lives we can go somewhere but that we can't become free of what we are. I don't think this is a place, on Earth, where we can resolve these problems.
Q: Can we talk about religion?
Q: You're Jewish, right?
Q: Does that pose any problems, this Zen philosophy? I know it's not a religion... How do your family regard this?
LC: I took a great deal of trouble in explaining all that to my sister who really thought I'd gone out of my head and I had to make it very clear that I wasn't looking for another religion, and I've been involved in this for many, many years, and I always take great trouble, especially with the Jewish community, to explain to them that I'm very happy with my religion and I'm not looking for another one- ours is a good religion- this isn't that kind of activity, it's like the Marines; can you be Jewish and in the Marines? Yes, you can.
Q: Does it make you a better Jew?
LC: If one is interested in being a better Jew I think you can use all the training- I've used this training to clear up a lot of questions about the Bible, texts in the Bible, so it's a kind of fundamental activity. I think it's common to the founders of all religions. This activity is designed to produce an experience that you might call religious or spiritual belief and it's really very highly developed and sophisticated, it's not random, but this technique has brought hundreds of thousands of millions of people throughout history to an understanding of the fact that they couldn't achieve things without this help.
Q: What did you read in the Bible? I mean, there is a fascination- that's not the right word but it seems to be THE book for you...
LC: Well, it's a book about experience. I think it's different, especially the Old Testament, although I love the New Testament, I like the character of Jesus and I like his role as well but the Old Testament is really the Testament of the victory of experience- it's history, it's men, dealing with the Absolute and who have to deal with other men as well and who also have to deal with what is relative and it's the tension of the fight between the relative and the absolute. This kind of training is very important for looking into that tension.
Q: I understand your sister! You're a weird Jew!
LC: You know recently we've heard ultra-orthodox Jews who've made these declarations, the conservative Jews, brought up in the conservative Jewish tradition, that those of us, the rest of us may not be Jews! That's what these orthodox Jews say. So I've written a poem which says "anyone who say s "I am not a Jew isn't a Jew!" [laughter]
Q: That's smart! I said that because... you're a great admirer of Jesus, you admire the guy, what's so exceptional about Jesus?
LC: Well, if you look at that Sermon on the Mount, no-one has really carried that out... I mean "Blessed are the poor, the downtrodden..." I tried to say that, "there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."
Q: A charismatic leader, that's for sure...
LC: Well, I don't think in all of human history there has been a person who has so closely identified himself with the downtrodden, the outsiders, the victims; criminals, prostitutes... people talk about that, but that man he really spoke to them... he talked about the human predicament and about compassion...
Q: I'm sure you're a compassionate man...but you are not in the world...
LC: There's only one world, you know and we're all in it.
Q: Leonard Cohen, being a pop star... [Leonard laughs wryly] ... well, a rock star then... that should be nice...
LC: [voice absolutely DRIPPING with irony] It's terrific. [laughter]
Q: I'm serious!
LC: I don't know about that, I think it's a very modest kind of stardom, it's a small constituency, I know that you can't hang on to these things. There are many agreeable by-products, like, I don't receive THAT much mail, but I do get some, from people who tell me what my songs mean to them and that's very touching, difficult to describe. You WANT to feel useful, everyone wants to feel useful, and sometimes like somebody wrote me that they listened to one of my songs at a friend's funeral, or at a marriage or someone says that his mother is dying of cancer and she listened to my songs until the end... things like that, they give you a sense of having achieved something useful and that's very nice.
Q: When you think it over, did you enjoy the status? I mean going to Paris or London to sing on stage with musicians and people applauding you on stage. Do you ever think about that part of your life?
LC: Well, I have enjoyed it and I was also fearful of it, because giving a concert, you can't avoid anxiety, but when it goes well it's great. Usually took me three or four bottles of red wine to get on stage, so there's a lot of anxiety there for me, but I did enjoy it, when it went well I loved it, you know, after the day is finished when you've been travelling, when you've got to the airport at five o'clock, done the interviews, the soundcheck, when everything's going well and you're in your hotel with your musicians and you open up the bottles and start drinking together, you get to that state where you feel there might be a successful marriage between wine and music and you go on stage and people have come to see you and applaud you and welcome you and you deliver what people have come to hear, but sometimes it doesn't work and that's not such a good feeling.
Q: But being a star, a megastar, does it make you feel good or don't you care?
LC: I would never say that I don't care about what's going on but my own anxiety, my own life, my own nature were such that it's always been difficult to enjoy anything- that's been my problem! I've been very grateful to have had that feeling, to have been lucky enough to have this gift to able to use this gift... I love it, but there's the pesky detail that I have a hard time enjoying life and the fruits of my labour.
Q: Are you going to stay here forever?
LC: It's hard to say. I think that one of the reasons that I came here was because of my teacher, my friend, who is old, he's ninety and I don't know how long he'll be with us. But I think most of us are here for that reason and we work very hard with him because we know he won't always be there. Another thing is that this practice which we have here is very rigorous and you have to be fit, and I won't have that forever either, I'm already getting on a little...
Q: You look pretty fit to me...
LC: Well, I beat the cook at arm-wrestling the other day... and she is an Aikido master, she's a black belt and that was a great triumph for me. She's twenty-five, but perhaps she was being polite and didn't want to hurt my feelings! But I'm in very good shape, yes... This is a practice which is designed for twenty year-olds.
Q: About twenty years old... I don't know how old your kids are... did they understand their father?
LC: They understand their father. I'm so lucky to have kids who understand what I do- better that I do! They're tolerant, supportive of what I do here. I heard that my daughter defended me in a conversation with some of my friends who were putting down this experience of what I'm doing here, saying "you don't know what this means to my father". I'm very lucky.
Q: You look like a man on the right road...
LC: Thank you.
Q: Thanks very much. It's been very nice.
LC: Thanks a lot.
© Photos (dated on September 25, 1997) by Giuseppe Videtti;
scanned from the October 8, 1997 edition of Musica, a supplement
to the newspaper La Repubblica, Italy.
Nick Halliwell's comments: I have tried to indicate where Leonard