by Elena Comelli
La Nazione, Florence (Italy), November 25, 1998
Translated by Andrea Della Rossa
LOS ANGELES. The "Zendo" is a large empty hall in a house in the middle of a wooded area. About thirty people, all dressed in black, sit quietly and motionless in the hall. Some hairless monks walk between the rows of chairs, lightly tapping those forms that are tottering, and that might otherwise collapse, with a rod. Every 45 minutes the black-dressed meditators shake from their "zazen" position and go outside to stretch their legs.
Among the crowd of young faces, an older and marked one stands out; he has very short gray hair and his eyes are searching, as usual. Leonard Cohen is 63 and he is living at Mount Baldy Zen Center, in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles.
His life is regularly divided between house cleaning, kitchen tasks and traveling with the Roshi, the 92 year-old Japanese monk, Joshu Sasaki, of whom Cohen has become the factotum secretary.
He spends a full week each month in this new style life doing uninterrupted meditation.
Leonard Cohen has always been an astonishing man, and it is difficult to understand if his new life styles are real or if he's only pretending.
From the early Sixties, when he moved to Hydra (a Greek island), to live with his Norwegian girl-friend; to the "great refusal" he made, when he was only 34, of the highest Canadian literary honor; to the wild times at the Chelsea Hotel, with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix; to his grand resurgence in the 80's, rebellious and very topical, Cohen always pursued the myth. Now he has reached it, and has become popular among romantics of all ages.
His only lasting influences are his son Adam (who recently issued his first CD), his daughter Lorca, and the Roshi. Cohen met Roshi in 1973 and they became lifelong friends. If Cohen never appeared to be very involved with zen, listening closely to his 1978 LP "Death of a Lady's Man" or reading carefully the "Book of Mercy" (1984) make it is possible to see hints of the developing the monk within him.
Nowadays, moveover, this involvement seems complete.
So, has the man who never found, along more than 60 years, a woman to marry or a home to live in without escaping, finally reached something deserving fidelity?
One can only accept the life I live today as being for love -- everybody would agree with that.
What did the meeting with the roshi mean in your life?
Leonard Cohen wouldn't exist without the roshi. The roshi accepts everything I bring him - my selfishness, my anger, my ambition, my sins.
Does this satisfy you?
In one sense, yes. It's difficult to explain exactly why I do it. Try to stop someone in the subway and ask him: "Where are you going - in the deeper meaning of the word?" Nobody would be able to answer. Is it that I don't want to be the older songwriter in the breach yet?
And does Buddhism seem to you still the best solution?
Buddhism is different from other religions. I'm attracted by the complete lack of the morality concept. Meditation doesn't help one to become good. But it's the most effective way that I know of to reach that place where I always tried to go all my life.
And what about writing? I tried to stop, but my relationship with writing is like that of a bear running into a hive -- he can't resist the temptation to steal honey. It happens continually. It's delightful and it's horrible [here his songs' rhythms and a shadow of Canadian accent return] but, although I'm clumsy and aching, I'm up to my neck in it.
So, it is not true that Leonard Cohen reached the peace of senses . What are you writing?
I'm writing about a longing for the future -- "Book of Longing". But the monk Cohen's name is Jikan, the Silent One. I'm sure that silence, sooner or later, will arrive.
Religion is my favorite hobby. It's deep and voluptuous -- a pure delight. Nothing is comparable to the delight you get from this activity. Apart, obviously, from courting. If you are a young man, that is the more amusing activity.
And what about music?
We live in a moment of great confusion. Neither literature nor music can represent the depth of this crisis. I feel like I am watching a devastating biblical flood. Everybody tries to save himself by grabbing onto an orange crate. We pass by each other while barely staying above water in this huge swollen river which, by the way, ultimately submerges all of our points of reference and all of our possessions. And under these circumstances, people still insist on considering themselves as being "left" or "right." Frankly, it seems to me that they are all crazy.
So the dissolute author of "Suzanne", recently defined by his friend Anjelica Huston as "half a wolf and half an angel", is now really looking for a shelter for his restless soul. In the desperate deed to marry Babylon with Jerusalem, this son of the Montreal Jewish high society has come to Californian Buddhism, which is ceremony without sacrament and precepts without dogma. But where else could a man who spent his life putting Old Testament lyrics into Country-Western songs land?
Thanks to Andrea Della Rossa and Dick Straub for the translation.
Photo © by Nina Jassingerová, taken from Leonard Cohen, bludný trubadúr,
the Slovakian Cohen page.