Cohen Between Earth And Sky

by Gilles Tordjman

Translated by Keith Campbell

Les Inrockuptibles, France, October 15, 1995

Two novels, eleven albums, various songs and poems -- of which an anthology, "Stranger Music", was recently published -- all of this in more than thirty years of writing. We knew Leonard Cohen wanted to speed himself up, slowly. It's just that he had better things not to do. He spends his time loving, drinking and meditating on the beauty of paradox every day at his current residence, near Los Angeles, in his Zen community. Where he receives for the first time.

A flower? A flower. It stubbornly grows on a prune branch in the clump of trees that face the Zen centre on Mount Baldy. The precociousness of spring, imposing itself several dozen hours after an epic snowfall, is a fitting beginning to the story in this corner of the San Gabriel Mountains. Los Angeles and its smog are only an hour and a half by car from here, but it could just as well be another planet, like in those cliché metaphors of high and low, those stories of the world that one turns inside-out like a glove or an old sock, revealing another world. There is a certain transparency to the air -- that pre-emptory cold that has become unknown in city centres. There is the series of old scout camp cabins that detach themselves too cleanly from the overly intense green of their surroundings. Rocky trails spread themselves up the slope with no other logic than that of a never-ending ascension. Quick-moving silhouettes with shaven heads and black robes pass furtively from one house to another to the sound of chopping wood. In the washroom of one of the cabins, a book is placed where people will see it. Title: Nothing Special; Real Life.

In an adjacent room, the man who helps the guest into the traditional monks' robes is a legend. He seems unaware of this, or chooses not to remind himself of it. "There's all you need to study Zen," he says. He puts the same precision into these gestures as he did earlier in the kitchen in order to honour his hosts: caviar on tortillas, mountain honey, omelette, cognac with ginseng. It's 6:00 AM, and Leonard Cohen is in fine form. The meeting could have been frontal, or offhanded, or else indicative of that special commiseration that those who occupy a special position in the world have for those that wish to have no position at all. But it's not a meeting. it's the repetition of an ancient ritual, one that doubtless lurks in the recesses of our memory. A sort of recovery of that which had been forgotten. "I have a strange sense of deja-vu with you. I know that we've already talked about all the things we are going to talk about. I recognise you. Between good omens and old the end, there is no difference."

So, then, the ladies' man, the destroyer of idols, the desecrator of holy sanctuaries, the one who sought to create a marriage between Nazi daggers and incestuous desire, the rootlessness of the metropolis and the sexes spent on unmade beds, the one who wrote the Book before burning it, lives here, under the tutelage of an old master dispensing a sort of New Age pseudo-religion to trendy Californians? The sceptic spirit has renounced his scepticism? The strategist has surrendered? This disturbing idea deserved a test against the truth. I came with my tape recorder; I left transformed. Leonard Cohen is not some new convert to a new spiritual gadget, one that the US has produced well before its touchingly naive adoption by some in the Old World. For twenty years, Cohen's life has been intertwined with that of the Zen community on Mount Baldy, without the shadow of some questionable revelation pointing to the reasons for his fascination, without the idea of religious conversion placing itself in a spirit naturally given to the most exaggerated types of refusal. "Twenty-five years ago, when I was living in Hydra, I made the acquaintance of a friend, Steve Stanfield. He was part of a small group of people who were studying Buddhist texts in a very interesting way. Upon his return to L.A., someone told him that his master had moved to the area. He began studying with him and told me about it." Spoken in a voice so deep that one can count its each individual vibration, this explanation explains nothing. This is very normal. Very Zen, in fact. There's nothing to find in the way of doctrine or interpretation. No place for passionate conviction, or the absurdities of a catechism. It's more of a great love story between a son who never had the chance to hate his father and a grandfather who never had the bad luck to have children to love. Sasaki Roshi: 88 years old; twenty-first in the succession line of Zen Buddhist patriarchy; first in line when there's something to drink.

Master Bajiao said to the assembled monks: If you have a stick, I give you a stick. If you are without a stick, I am without one also.

Twice a year, in winter and summer, the monastery opens itself to students from all over for a communal retreat called sesshin. The austerity of daily life is supplemented by an extremely strict use of time. Everyone wakes up early: during the intensive period, the monks awake towards 2:30 AM to prepare the tea, and the students follow at 3. The rest of the time, the monks wake up at 3:30 and the students at 4. People who come here are from all over and from all segments of the population, which makes this practice an interesting one. One of the most assiduous monks, for example, is a boxer. But there are also doctors, psychologists, carpenters, architects, and young university students. "The sesshin is really a period that is too intense for me to set aside time for writing. In fact, from January to April this intensity is without reprieve. As well, I'm an old man now, and no-one expects superproductivity from me..." The sesshin essentially consists of seated meditation and four hours of sleep per night. It severely drains one's reserves. The point of the exercise is, however, to prove that one possesses a greater depth of these reserves than one might think. In a way, the sesshin allows you to put your reserves, your possibilities, your will, your resolutions, and your mental stability to the test.

The days alternate between sessions of seated mediation, or zazen, and private interviews with the Roshi during which the master suggests to the student a koan, a sort of contradictory parable that the student must resolve in the most personal manner possible. All this would seem to lead to a rather run-of-the-mill spirituality and its arsenal of stock answers if there wasn't a constant maintenance of negation taking place. In the sesshin are thus found believers, agnostics, rationalists and mystics. The explanation, somewhat hackneyed, insists on the absence of all religious constraints: if the substance is Buddhist inspiration, the form is that of an individual task of self-improvement -- one of a harshness that would seem pointedly inhuman if there wasn't in the eyes of the people of Mount Baldy that sort of radiant clarity so foreign to those who live in fear. When one asks him of the seeming spread of soft Buddhism throughout the showbiz world, Leonard Cohen laughs softly: "This sort of practice will never become trendy. It's too hard. It's not exactly religion. Men need religion, because man needs something to hang on to. So if you consider the canon of the sutras or the image of God as a separate, objective thing, so much the better if it works for you. In any event, I feel that the great religions have reached their capacity of believers and that a great many people are searching for alternate forms of worship. Here, there's no worship. Even though I've been living like this for some time, I have never considered myself a Buddhist. Two years ago Roshi told me, 'In the twenty years that I've known you, Leonard, I've never tried to convert you. I've been content to serve you sake.'"

Sasaki Roshi enters the Teisho (sermon on the scriptures) lecture room in quite the ceremonious fashion considering the early hour. From his podium, the master delivers the day's parable in raspy-voiced Japanese. Shinzen Young, international Zen Buddhist luminary, carefully translates the parable's animal metaphors for those assembled. Slight laughs pierce the silence as the joke takes the place of rhetoric; this intensity is not austere. An American journalist once told of witnessing the sexual-endurance records set by a couple of the faithful. One of the first spiritual interviews between Leonard Cohen and his master had as its central concern the relative merits of Courvoisier and Remy Martin. Immersing oneself in the deepest fashion possible in bodily sensations: Zen. To impose taboos in the name of universal moral principles: not Zen.

Shinzen Young confirms: "In Buddhism, your worship doesn't come from the observation of rules; it can only come from yourself. Buddhism doesn't really concern itself with intellectual gymnastics regarding morality. Questions like "Do I have the right to kill the man that raped my wife" aren't part of the tradition. Buddhism contents itself with four basic commandments which are: don't kill, don't steal, don't cause harm and don't lie. Even these are only general, guiding principles; for the rest, it involves finding solutions to moral problems through meditation."

"The fundamental point is the following: if people need rules, it's because their vision of the world is clouded by a profound ignorance of themselves. It is much more important to work through this cloudiness and its impurities than to hope for some sort of pre-packaged moral purity expressed in rules and taboos. To sum it all up, I'd say that Buddhism is highly moral but not at all moralistic."

This morning's text read, in large letters, "There Is No Buddha." We hereby arrive at the edges of a negative theology very poorly understood in comparison to the philosophic structures of monotheistic traditions. There are certain radical aspects of the practise of Zen that ensure a greater formal beauty. The extreme negation thereby required provokes unexpected links with other familiar thoughts, also preoccupied with an interesting and modest territory: the upheaval of the world. The fact that Leonard Cohen found material here to sharpen the stone of his dialectic is suddenly much easier to understand.

"The thing that attracted me, in the first place, was this...emptiness. It's a place where it's very difficult to hold fast to one's ideas. It's very close to certain forms of extreme Judaism. Take this conviction, for instance, amongst certain of the more orthodox Jews, that one can't say the name of God, or that one cannot even define what God is. It's a movement in one's spirit that perhaps makes one more predisposed to a more clear comprehension of Zen. I always liked this aspect of Judaism, the fact than noone really speaks of God; there is this sort of charitable void that I found here in a very pure form." One then thinks, evidently, that this aspect of things might have also been found in other hermetic traditions, particularly Jewish ones. "If I'm not interested in the Kabbale, it's no doubt because life is too short to compare everything. One can't drink two cups of tea at the same time, you know. Things aren't made that way. Zen arrived at a certain moment in my life; I met this old man and I liked what he wasn't saying."

The round table on which dinner is served occupies almost all the space in the cabin. Tonight, it's the Roshi who holds court. He squeezes himself with some difficulty into a low armchair, giggles a bit and gets down to tonight's arduous task: comparing the virtues of various Californian wines. The Roshi expresses himself in a sort of pidgin English universally incomprehensible to those who have not spent more than ten years in his company. It's a dialect with recurring amusing, strange locutions. Seemingly unrelated names frequently arise. Hosen Christiane, a Quebecoise nun, warns me: "Whenever he encounters Frenchmen, he always talks about Joan of Arc and Napoleon."

"The Roshi was just saying that you look like him."

Thank you, sir. What would you have been if you hadn't become a grand master of Zen?

"A general or a garbageman."

And why a garbageman?

"Simple: if you want to experience God, live in a trash can. You will thereby under-stand the totality of things. All Zen monks are trash cans."

Leonard respectfully adds: "And you are the biggest trash can of all."

A monk asks of Yunmen: "What is the Buddha?" Yunmen replies: "A shovel caked in dried shit!"

It's no doubt due to his die-hard vegetarianism that the Roshi attacks the barbecued chicken. There's no paradox in this, since Zen is all about paradoxes; knowing life's extremes, the good and the bad, inside and outside, not to find a happy medium but "to move oneself graciously from one to another," as Leonard Cohen puts it. Someone tells a story about certain young monks who were becoming vegetarian purists; the old master hired a car and sent his disciples to the closest McDonalds, in Claremont, to get hamburgers.

The night goes on and the Roshi is becoming increasingly drunk. At the point where his wisdom meets this extreme intoxication, his laugh takes on a metaphysical quality. Is Leonard a good student?

"He's a very good student," replies the Roshi, "because he embraces the positive and the negative."

Shinzen Young adds confidentially: "I think that people who appreciate his records have no idea what Leonard's really like. He's a man that only lives for his practice." And for the ephemeral presence of the old man he gazes upon with the eyes of a child.

One cannot understand this story if one persists in reading into it the idea of a sacrifice or vows. In choosing to spend most of his time here -- his house in Los Angeles is nothing more than a crash pad between trips -- Leonard Cohen has given up nothing. And if the seeming harshness of the centre's living conditions suggests an exclusion of any possibility of the classic sentimental life, it's an error in judgement that he quickly rectifies: "In fact, I have given up nothing. This situation offers up certain erotic possibilities that haven't escaped some of the younger students. It's a lot easier than cruising the terrace cafes of Paris. For a young person with energy -- since there's not much free time -- it's a very promising environment. When I was a young student, I had a few several brief, intense liaisons here... the only problem was in attempting to make them fit into a strict schedule. It's a crazy lifestyle. Like they say, 'Don't try this at home!'" He laughs. "Having a woman, a home and a job is no doubt much easier. Here, it's sort of the land of broken hearts. There's another appealing thing for this way of life: you mess yourself up. It's so bad that you end up laughing about it. It's so inhuman that it brings out your humanity."

Abandoning writing to devote himself entirely to meditation is also out of the question: "That would be the approach of a monk, but I'm not a monk. I can very easily call someone and go out for dinner in L.A., if I feel like it. The truth is that I enjoy this lifestyle and I enjoy the old guy's company. He's my drinking buddy, you know. We've been drinking together for twenty years. So there you have it: my kids are grown up, I have fewer responsibilities, and I can use my time for my own purposes. I like drinking, I like women, and just because I wear a black robe, it doesn't make me anything other than what I have always been: a travelling minstrel. The genuine article." He laughs. The empty bottles cast a green reflection on the Roshi's smile. Outside, the cold chills to the bone. Evenings at Mount Baldy often end in a haze. Tomorrow, there will be "moving but rough mornings" all around, as the man says.

Returning to Los Angeles is a strange experience. The clean lines of the mountainside give way to a city that seems to have given up inventing a future for itself, that is unified only by compulsive accumulation, that confuses consumer with merchandise. The presence of a Zen centre, an isle of silence in what is euphemistically called a "disadvantaged area", seems even more anachronistic. It's here that the ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the Buddha's death takes place. In the silence, intermittently interrupted by the sound of slow, deep psalms, Leonard Cohen murmurs: "I have always hated ceremonies." He then bows to the floor and plunges himself with fervour into his incantations. There seems to be no place for logic here this summer.

A monk says that celebrations must always leave space for music. The altoist for a renowned quartet plays a transcription of Bach's Third Suite for the cello. There's nothing more to do; all that is left is to go out to the garden for a rather simple buffet. The sake will flow continuously until the wee hours of the morning.

At Leonard Cohen's place, near Olympic Boulevard, people hang around chatting in the corners. The limits of decency, long since dissolved by alcohol, are easily and gracefully breached. A few women, some nuns (in full habits) and Tibetan lamas are discussing/arguing/yelling at each other whilst smoking cigars. The master of the house is playing the social butterfly, refilling glasses, phoning his acquaintances, sharing a private moment with one of them, perhaps, behind a closed door. He reappears a half hour later to make sure that the party's standards are being maintained.

In the calm shelves of the library, there are few books and even fewer records. In his newly-reformatted-to-CD discography are a few interesting curiosities: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abed Azrie, Chaba Fadela, and Peret, the old master of Catalan rumba. L.A. might be home, but his heart has obviously remained on a sunny island in the Mediterranean -- perhaps in that songroom where the blonde girl is still smiling on the back sleeve photo of Songs From A Room, the one that seized for all adolescences to come that moment that has troubled more than one of them.

The hour approaches when Leonard Cohen must find Roshi once more. One inevitably thinks of what will become of his life after the old man leaves the mountain. "I could just as easily die before him. Life is so fragile... I prefer not to think about it too much. I don't know what I will do after he dies. Perhaps I will stop everything. I wait for nothing, I speculate on nothing. Seriously, if no one ever asked me that question, I would never think about it. There are some purely material matters: I have certain responsibilities concerning his funeral rites. He wants to be cremated in the traditional manner, on a pyre, and that we organise a big party. He has given me permission to keep one of his bones, if I feel like it. After all that, I might feel too old, I wouldn't be able to take the cold and I'd abandon the practice. Maybe."

The moral of the story? There isn't one. That space is left open for the "great doubt" that these people cultivate like a cardinal virtue. And so we have the right, as an epilogue, to one of those enigmatic, prophetic koans that give birth to all kinds of speculation:

"I will tell you the one I'm working on at the moment. It's an old fable. In an ancient Japanese family, there was a beautiful girl named Sejio. This girl was taught by an instructor who was in love with her. However, the family had other ideas as to her marriage. So, she decided to elope with her lover. They fled to a faraway town, where they raised two children. A few years later, she found herself still racked with guilt at her abandonment of her parents without speaking to them. She told her husband that she wanted to make peace with them. He accepted and they went back to their old town. They arrived at the door to the house. Her husband said, "Listen, Sejio, I think it would be too much of a shock for them for you to come in first; they probably think you're dead. I'll go in first; wait for me in the carriage." He went into the house, walked towards her father, and said "Sejio is waiting for you outside the door." Perplexed, the father answered: "Sejio? But she's upstairs. She's been sick for years... she's kind of a ghost, really -- she never leaves her bed and never speaks to anyone." At this moment an emaciated, gaunt Sejio appeared at the top of the stairs at the same time as the other Sejio, impatient, got out of the carriage and walked inside the house. The two Sejios approached each other and fused together. The koan is as follows: who was the real Sejio? There's no rational answer. The koan thereby creates the possibility of a coincidence between the wisdom of the student and that of the master. And which is the real wisdom? That of the student, or that of the master? What is the real world? The outside world or the one we see? Sometimes, Roshi has the answer; sometimes, he is the answer, and one must follow him. Other times, the only thing he'll say will be "when do we eat?"

*The cited koans are from the Wumenguan, published under the title of "The Book of Zen Wisdom" (Le livre de la sagesse Zen) (ed. du Rocher)

Sidebar: The Impossible Libertine

by Michel Houellebecq

During his last concert in Paris two years ago, Leonard Cohen performed standing up rigidly straight, his feet lined up together. Occasionally, in the most intense moments he bent his knees to sing, sort of lightly balancing himself on the spot. At one moment in the encore, Hallelujah, he almost had to kneel; his audience seemed to respect him. He seemed, as well, to respect his audience, and his audience seemed to deserve his respect. It was a strange ambience, tinged with an air of fraternity despite itself.

More than anyone else, Leonard Cohen is conscious of the solitude that accompanies our lives. It's enough to listen to his songs, from So Long, Marianne to Everybody Knows: this man has very few illusions. He knows egotism, and he knows cruelty. It's because of this that I found it strange, and moving, that he addresses his audience with the term "friends". Coming from him, I am prepared to accept this word like a warm greeting, without demagogy or condescension. I remember that this is the same man that had the courage, in the midst of the 60's radicalism surrounding him, to affirm that "The institutions are OK. The problem is the people inside them." Or, a long time later, to recall: "I knew well that human beings would not be able to deal with so much freedom."

If the words "political poetry" weren't loaded with unfortunate connotations, I would be tempted to apply them to certain songs of Cohen's. There is the distant sadness of The Partisan (a subtle, classic song of unknown origin); the juxtaposition of theoretical violence and eccentricity (First We Take Manhattan); the messianic voice of Democracy. None of this resembles anything else out there; it's perhaps the only poetry that applies to our painful, contradictory times.

I don't know what Cohen is trying to say in Democracy; I have the impression that he doesn't know it himself, but he presents the words that have come to him because they appear to him to be mysterious and beautiful. To do such a thing requires a very particular brand of honesty, mixed with humility (I understand nothing, but things pass through me -- messages about the times in which we are living) and also with pride (it is I who receive these messages, I am the only one to feel them in their completeness); all this has no sense outside the poetic domain, or perhaps the religious one.

I think I can guess what Leonard Cohen has in mind when addressing his audience as "friends". It's in Pascal's or Baudelaire's sense of friends in prison; but also, in a certain way, friends in struggle. Not a political struggle, not even a metaphysical struggle, really. The "twenty-seven angels" who hold him to his table and force him to write have individually visited every spectator. They have revealed to them images of beauty. After this, the audience listens to Cohen, following him, confiding in him (a confidence that isn't political or metaphysical, but a strictly artistic confidence). Up until now, Cohen has not broken this confidence. I thank Leonard Cohen for trying to speak of politics the way he speaks of love: with a profound honesty. I thank him for introducing a bit of intelligence in the midst of stupidity, a bit of depth in the midst of platitudes. I thank him for having taken upon himself the burden of culpability that inevitably attaches itself to the man who attempts to tell the truth. It wasn't easy during the time in which he started; it's not much easier today.

Sidebar: Parasite of Heaven

by Marc Weitzmann

Before being a singer, Cohen is a classical poet in the industrial era. "universal desire... violated by a pointless electricity...metal blades of bed" Well before he picked up a guitar, Leonard Cohen got himself known with lines like that one. Let Us Compare Mythologies, The Spice-Box of Earth, Flowers for Hitler and Parasites of Heaven, four volumes of poetry written between the end of the 50s and the middle of the following decade, all travel a sort of antiterritory, a no-man's-land where eroticism (as opposed to love), cruelty (as opposed to hate), softness (as opposed to tenderness), violence (as opposed to brutality), and memory (as opposed to history) are held up for continual respect and metamorphosis.

Later, after the first records, the volumes of text would punctuate albums, commenting on them and deepening them (that is, unless the process is vice-versa): a "choice of poems" after the first record, and then The Energy of Slaves, a large volume that followed Songs of Love and Hate; the book Death of a Lady's Man, a series of prose texts that serve as a sort of counterpoint to the album of the same name; and finally The Book of Mercy, between the albums Recent Songs and Various Positions. Upon rereading these texts today, what strikes the reader is their classicism -- that strange paradox of extremely precise language describing states that are at all precise.

Attempts at translation are fraught with complexity. Christian Bourgois has just re-edited all of these works, including the latest songs, into a great volume of almost eight hundred pages. It is an entirely new French translation, yet it still lacks something: the verse "Comme la brume ne laisse pas de trace" will always seem more dull than "As the mist leaves no scar", which conjures up the image of a scar in the mist. [Translator's note: when reading this last sentence, keep in mind that it was originally written in French!]

If one had to look for poetic affiliation for Cohen -- for his work is as far away from the Beat poets as it is from traditional rock lyrics -- it would undoubtedly be found partly in Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman, partly in Elizabethan poetry, and partly in a particularly Yiddish tradition that deserves closer study. One example: "I am with the snow/Fallen in the sea/I am with the hunters/Hungry and tired/And with the prey/tender and naked/..." "I am the sorcerer and I am the spell/I am the enigma that kills itself to solve its own mystery". These two poems, that could well have been written by the same person, are signed by Leonard Cohen and Moshe-Lieb Halpern respectively. Halpern was a Yiddish poet who died in New York in 1932.

Cohen's texts thus present a rather unique example of poetry passed intact through the cultural machine -- not because they are set apart, in some sort of poetic refuge, but because their author's work has consisted of combing these artificial paradises in order to be a parasite on them, to recycle them. "Now I know for certain", he writes prophetically in a text called Style, "I'll forget my style / America will have no style / Russia will have no style....etc. etc... And it is aimed at us / (I'm sleepy and frihtened)". Style and writing dive into the world and lose themselves in it in order to save it; this has been the task of Cohen, the one which has in the end been the salvation of his oeuvre. It is why we, on the other side of distrust and fear, in the days where "electronic forgetfulness" recovers everything, still read these texts more than thirty years after they were written -- texts that, because they anticipated amnesia, are now part of our memories. We remind our memories of what Cohen was writing in Disguises? : "You are all my comfort.../when I disgrace my style/when I coarsen my nature...etc. etc...(I) bring my butchered mind/to bear upon the facts."

© 1995 Les Inrockuptibles and Gilles Tordjman (Cover photo: Eric Mulet).
Translated from French by Keith Campbell, Winnipeg, Canada.