Leonard Cohen and Zen

1. Meeting Leonard I met Leonard Cohen—then a Zen monk—on a dirt road in the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles at the edge of the Mojave Desert. From the main road to the Master’s quarters was a gravelly avenue, dusty in the summer, shaded in parts by 100-year-old sugar pines that leaned high, toward each other, and seemed to whisper amongst themselves. Manzanita shrubs scaled the gentle climb of the mountain above and below the rocky drive. And occasionally a pickup truck or SUV would zip through the narrow way, driven by an ardent monk with an important sense of purpose: to, say, deliver asphalt shingles from Home Depot so that we could hammer them without delay to the hot tar-papered roof of the meditation hall, which we called by its Japanese name, the zendo. At the top of the road, I was walking with Andy, a bedraggled, long-haired, bearded, red-headed fellow initiate—more of a comrade than a friend—who ran about the Zen Center in the manner of his Chinese astrology sign, explosively, like a rabbit. I felt a car approaching and tensed. But quite unusually, the car slowed to a roll that met our walking pace. The engine quieted, and almost stopped. My body began to relax. Making its way past us, the Nissan Pathfinder’s window came down. The driver revealed his face, and spoke in a tired, dulcet voice, “Excuse me, friends.” It was Leonard. And then he pulled forward, leaving the gravel, dirt, and pedestrians unperturbed. 2. The Flame Since then, Leonard—his body—has passed. No more live concerts. No new songs, or poems, except those that might be posthumously published by his estate. His son, Adam Cohen, has now assembled and anointed The Flame. The Flame is a book whose completion Adam tells us was his father’s “sole breathing purpose at the end.” It was a project for which Leonard “renewed his commitment to rigorous meditation so as to focus his mind through the acute pain of multiple compression fractures and the weakening of his body.” Leonard died on Nov. 7, 2016. And I agree with Adam when he writes, “It feels darker now, but the flame was not killed. Each page of paper that he blackened was lasting evidence of a burning soul.” 3. Invoking the Realm of Chivalry Aside from his manners and his suits, Leonard invoked the realm of chivalry and romance, such as when—in a dining hall with fold-up tables and a flaking linoleum floor, in honor of his Zen Master Roshi’s 35th anniversary of teaching in America—he presented a wooden, silk-lined box of perfectly stacked rows of gold coins, generous in amount. The gift, offered with an over-dramatic speech about how the Master (who is now dead) had prevented a monk’s suicide, invoked the atmosphere of ancient song—like an offering at Solomon’s temple. And this seemed to be Leonard’s way. He transformed the world into his image of it. And those of us who were around when he did so were brought into a land of ancient poetic lore. It was fun to be transposed by his projections into a universe that seemed deeper—or at least more merry, rich and imaginative—than ours. Leonard augmented the atmosphere with an almost histrionic, celebratory air. He was resolute in wanting to avoid a dissolution into mundane lifelessness. He was vigilantly aware of the “great inevitable defeat that awaits us all,” and he wished to express this awareness “within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.” I’m pretty sure that Roshi was aware of Leonard’s effect, and certainly proud—one might even say boastful at times— to have the celebrity by his side. He used the poet for his own enterprise, and often to great effect, as did we all in our own little ways. [millions_ad] 4. A Relationship in Silence Leonard was gracious, and he let us use him. He let us feel good about ourselves by being friendly enough to us to allow us to say of him that he—Leonard Cohen—was our friend. And yet one never knew where he stood. He seemed nice enough. One felt close to him, but then we’d pull his Book of Longing from the shelf at Borders Books in Montclair Plaza beside Interstate 10 and read of his time among us: I was known as a Monk I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early I hated everyone but I acted generously and no one found me out He was very kind to me. Upon graduation from my training I started a temple in San Francisco. It was a meager affair, but warm and sincere, made so by its dear attendees. And to support this gathering Leonard contributed a significant regular donation, without my having asked. Unsolicited, there arrived in the mail a purple card with the picture of a Spanish-looking guitar—very much like the one on Page 269 of The Flame. In the card was a check signed, “Leonard Cohen.” And every month thereafter, another donation arrived. I thanked, him, of course. My benefactor. I recall a moment when we dressed together, putting on our monk-robes for a formal talk by the Master, and he said, as if we were about to be inducted by a cult, “They’ll never get us.” He was implying by this, I think, that though we fled as refugees from American culture, because it degraded our standards of beauty and life, we would not—in turning to a Zen Buddhist alternative with powerful rituals and traditions—be taken in by another. But if Leonard let us take of his graciousness, he took of us. He drew inspiration from the world he created, but he needed us to create it—to nourish his G-d (as he always wrote it), his Spirit of Song—which, I believe, is what he truly worshipped. I think—and not in a bad way—that in a culture as broken and empty of meaning as ours, Leonard sought to cobble together a secular poetic religion. Such a thing demanded spaces in which his thoughts could live. The physical, worldly connections to his teacher, to us, and his fans allowed him to realize, incarnate and serve what he lived for: the Lord of Song. And this is one of the reasons that I think we love him—not for the excellence of his poems—but for his valiant effort to preserve through his imagination the importance of inner life, and the sources from which meaning and kindness are born. In this sense, his struggle and longing serve as a kind of heuristic device, a form of self-compassion that grants us permission to reflect on ourselves—on our solitary situations (our failures and our brokenness)—alone, together. Leonard was a Pop Prophet, and we love him for that—for honoring, respecting, enjoying and understanding life enough to keep The Flame alive. 5. Leonard’s Effect on the Princess of Spain My favorite piece in the book is Leonard’s thank you speech to Spain, the “Acceptance Address for the Prince of Asturias Award.” There is a line in that speech in which he tells us of the time he lifted his Conde guitar, light as helium, from its case. “I brought it to my face. I put my face close to the beautifully designed rosette, and I inhaled the fragrance of the living wood.” He was gracious, noble, a master of charm. And I think he knew it. But if he was a seducer, it seems to me that he worked to seduce us back to ourselves—to life and to living, to the creaturely meaning of our life, so that we might express thanks for it—and, in the spirit of surrender, mercy to G-d for his cruelty (for knowing that we ourselves can be as cruel, and to underscore the fact that however bleak our life may be, at the very least it’s life, and that as long as we have it, it’s our life, however small it may seem compared to the hugeness of time). All this while pointing us to the recognition that one of the great redeeming things we hold in our power, which allows us to rebel against our end, is our capacity for friendship. 6. The Greedy Monk in Our Midst I recall standing next to him, gathered for a group photograph after a Buddhist ceremony in L.A., happy to be there with Jikan—as Leonard was called by the “Zens”—as a person who had showed me so many small kindnesses in the midst of a challenging career. But as this joy settled in, a monk who prided himself on writing and who had written two poor (in my opinion) books about life as a monk quietly pressed his angry body against mine, to shove me off balance so that I might lose my spot beside Leonard for him to take. I found out later that Leonard wrote an introduction to one of this monk’s books. Leonard gave endlessly, and, one felt, indiscriminately, kindly, and generously. I was not thrown off balance, physically—but I was surprised by the monk’s behavior. Since then, it turns out, he seems to have abandoned his monastic calling, having used—maybe as Leonard had—Buddhism as a ruse, and as a source, for secular content. 7. Leonard’s Gift: Modesty, Majesty, and Love As it’s come to America, Buddhism has been cheapened. Psychologized, romanticized, popularized. If Leonard’s imagination was anemic in its ability to generate true religious content, it was nonetheless kind. And in the end, I think it is the spirit of his kindness that we’ll keep. Leonard’s attitude, his values, his vulnerability, and his seemingly sincere desire for humanitarian agreement, peace, decency, healing and connection are his legacy. And if that is what he provided as a voice, it’s a voice I believe we need, and one, maybe, that sings us in the right direction. A spiritual stem cell, perhaps, still to be developed in its various forms—but in the direction of gracious modesty, majesty, and love. Thank you for your care, Leonard. And thank you for L. Cohen—our friend. Image: Flickr/Bill Strain

The Irreplaceable Human Voice: Louise Glück Gives Form to Devastation

As a Buddhist priest, I find in Louise Glück’s American Originality words for an increasingly bewildered and besotted country—a series of meditations on poetry’s power to orient, understand, heal, celebrate, and preserve the self’s “Individual, irreplaceable, human voice.” 1. America in Situ Glück’s America is “famously, a nation of escaped convicts, younger sons, persecuted minorities, and opportunists.” Nursed on “images and narratives of self invention,” our invented selves are insecure. Stretched between the need for distinction on the one hand and corroboration on the other, Americans dart about, encumbered by a hustler-complex: “Under the brazen ‘I made up a self’ of the American myth, the sinister sotto voce, ‘I am a lie.’” Thus the American is wonderfully original, aware of herself and her life as being both the origin—the place, the raw material from which she culls meaning—as well as the originator: the poet who mines herself, as it were, from nothing, to justify her purpose for being. This situation generates panic, as with Richard Siken, in whose poems (from Crush) “desperate garrulousness delays catastrophe...Everything is a trick...everything is art, technology—everything that is, can still change.” Of those who face the apparently contradictory task of creating an original—primary and distinct—self while burdened by that self’s need for broad accord: “The [American] artist must look like a renegade and at the same time produce, whether by accident or design, an aesthetic commodity, a set of gestures instantly apprehended as new and also capable of replication.” “The cost of this pressure,” says Glück, “has been immense.” 2. Louise Glück’s View “Against the background of the eternal, the void, stories are musical phrases, simultaneously completed formal shapes and inconclusive fragments,” Glück writes. America’s is the culture that forces the self to sell. One is made significant by virtue of having been copiously consumed (replicated). Given this state of affairs, the self’s substance is determined by consumer demand. Intuitively, we loathe and rebel against this situation: for the limitation it imposes on our freedom, for its disinterest in our claim to, need for, and enjoyment of particularity, and for its assault on our dignity. Witness Glück on Jay Hopler, whose “dreamy obscurities and rapturous effusions share with his more direct speech a refusal to be groomed into uncommunicative cool”—who, for protecting spiritual and artistic purity, “writes like someone haunted or stalked,” who “wants, simultaneously, to hide and to end the anxiety of hiding, to reveal himself...to give himself away.” 3. Voices In Part 3 of her book—“Ten Introductions”—Glück provides a series of 10 essays: introductions to collections she encountered during a busy-sounding period of her career, when, from 1999-2010, she served as judge for three separate prizes: the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, a first-book competition overseen by the American Poetry Review (1999), the Bakeless Prize, supervised by Michael Collier (2003), and the Yale Younger Poets Prize (2003-2010). She reports that these introductions were “thrilling to write,” for having felt that in the poet she introduced, she “had discovered an immense talent”; so that her act of describing the artist “took on a genuine urgency, not unrelated to messianic fervor.” In her choice of winners, one finds the poetic sensibilities Glück appreciates as answers to the American’s troubling dilemma: If Aristotle is correct, our meaning is found in community and connection, which is to say historically, temporally, and by corroborative consensus. How, then, does one preserve an individual sense of self while at the same time participating in a society that—in the name of order, security, subsistence—must pigeonhole and hammer flat its citizens’ edges, curtail their freedoms, and this the very society upon which the self depends for meaning? Glück’s answer to this dilemma is that we ought to live with awareness that the truths which hold society together—and in which we necessarily find ourselves enmeshed as its members—are not fixed. They are bound to an eternal cycle of change: forever subject to both deterioration and invention—a mirror, in fact, of the very same processes by which the self is governed. Our answers to the question of human purpose and meaning, for Glück, ought not to resemble the fixed, well-packaged commodities—the ideologies—thrown down for the sake of preservation, in the self’s and civilization’s march through time. Rather, they should constitute a performance that resists this tendency, that accurately assesses and provides a creative response to the activity which takes place at the self’s and society’s inception: a response to the event at our origin, in the tension between lyric and narrative possibilities—where, out of void, what has been recedes to make way for what’s new. One example of this is the poetry of Jessica Fisher, whose poems (from Frail-Craft) “move like dreams or spells” where momentum “seems less a function of will than an evolved form of passivity...that condition in which freedom from decision and choice makes possible a unique flowering of attentiveness and reflection.” From Fisher's “Journey”: Because the valley spreads wide, ridged with signs we read; or because what we needed was always at hand— reach down and there was a book, there a slipper, there a glass of ice cold water. Hopefully we walked the paths laid before us, there was a burr-bush, there a blue jay, quail and other creatures, too many to follow. Where did they go once we lost their lead? Which is to say, where did we not go? Quick, quick, they called to us, but we heard only the sound of our boots on dried leaves, and were mesmerized; we spoke to one another of things in the path, we chucked to our horses, when we had them, and when we had hats we took them in our hands and hallooed to the passersby (brahma bull, bright green bird) though we were not yet out of the wood, instead it closed in around us, deep were its streams and the trees thick around and thick together... [millions_ad] 4. Rilke et al. “Contemporary literature,” writes Glück, “is to a marked degree, a literature of the self examining its responses,” and in her essay “American Narcissism,” she traces the origins of this literature back through Freud, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, and especially Rainer Maria Rilke, who postulated “a void, an absence into which the world flooded.” For Rilke, “The future had begun to disappear, and would continue—terrifyingly—to do so...all figures for continuity and trajectory began to seem false...[He] maps out a spiritual terrain never before visible or audible, never before necessary...an art that placed the self, actually or emblematically, at the center of lost time (the moment, the instant, just past).” 5. Poet as Secular Priest Born of “the moment, the instant, just past,” Rilke’s subject is unable to witness its own inception—only, rather, the trail of afterbirth assembled post-genesis. It only knows itself as an effect: as having been the result of—and subject to—time. Aware of itself, its environment, its history as having been granted by time, this self is equally aware that time, for all its generosity, will come to reclaim its gifts. Thus, in Arda Collins’s It Is Daylight, “The self in the present, always both performing and taking notes, becomes the self that acted and the self that remembers, the shift in tense making each self potentially whole. This, together with the atmosphere of searching or incompleteness, makes, despite the poem’s sadness, a model for hope. If something can end (the before of before and after), something can begin; time can begin, feeling can begin.” Time is such that gain necessitates loss. And Glück would have us see that what we use—what we do—to appease such loss is poetry. This is the sense in which it can be said that poetry, for Glück, is religious: “By giving form to devastation, the poem rescues the reader from a darkness without shape or gravity; it is an island in a free fall; it becomes his companion in grief, his rescuer, a proof that suffering can be made somehow to yield to meaning.” As a kind of secular priest, the poet strives to preserve by his expression what is worthy of edifying and sharing: that which, without his words, will otherwise perish. “His belief in art, and investment in art, in the dream of articulation, project him constantly into the future—the hypothetical moment in which comprehensive darkness acquires limits and form,” Glück writes. The life that has been granted, knowing it’ll be lost, invents itself through voice, narrative, words, bringing to its community and to its death a meaning that inspires “the compensatory fantasy that one can make a new self…The poem is a revenge on loss, which has been forced to yield to a new form, a thing that hadn’t existed in the world before.” 6. Two Examples Two examples of such “new form” are Katherine Larson and Spencer Reece. Here is Glück on Larson: A grave passivity infuses [Radial Symmetry]; experience is less sought than received. The poet is a kind of dazed Miranda, so new to the world that its very ordinariness seems an emblem of wonder....I think a reader will remember these poems for their beauty, the profound sense of being in the present that their sensuality embodies, and a sense, too, of its cost. [From Larson’s “Broke the Lunatic Horse”:] “The Milky Way sways its back across all of wind-eaten America like a dusty saddle tossed over your sable, lunatic horse. All the plains are dark. All the stars are cowards: they lie to us about their time of death And do nothing but dangle like a huge chandelier over nights when our mangled sobs make the dead reach for their guns. I must be one of the only girls who still dreams in green gingham, sees snow as a steel pail’s falling of frozen nails like you said through pipe smoke on the cabin porch one night. Dear one, there are no nails more cold than those that fix you underground. I thought I saw you in the moon of the auditorium after my high school dance. Without you, it’s still hard to dance. It’s even hard to dream.” And on Reece: How are we to master suffering? Over and over, the poems in The Clerk’s Tale discover in modesty a discipline by which the desire to affirm can overcome repeated disappointment that threatens to become withdrawal or despair. They take solace in simple decency; they admire dignity, as they admire the natural forms in which spontaneity survives...I felt emanating from Spencer Reece’s work a sense of immanence that belongs to religious passion; it is a great thing to have it again in art: [From Reece’s “Chiaroscuro”:] “When the ficus beyond the grillwork darkens, when the rind cools down on the lime, when we sit here a long time, when we feel ourselves found, .... “we will turn at last, we will admire the evening’s fading clues, uncertain of what dark portends as another season ends and the fabulous visitors depart in luxury cars, we will savor the sharp light from the summer stars, we will rejoice in the fronds tintinnabulating down these empty streets, these beautiful streets with all these beautiful names— Kings, Algoma, Via Bellaria, Clarendon, Via Vizcaya, Via Del Mar, El Vedado, Banyan, El Brillo, El Bravo, Via Marina.” 7. On the Relationship of the Poet to Her Art Part 4, the final section of Glück’s book, includes three essays: “On Revenge,” “Estrangement,” and “Fear of Happiness.” Here Glück offers a kind of confession. It is not an offering she makes lightly. She has worked for it—on our behalf. She’s suffered awkwardness, anxiety, insecurity, darkness, despair. And yet she did not settle for, stop, or indulge these states. Rather, she examined them, and examined herself examining them. She clearly sought to understand their meaning, origin, and purpose, to move beyond—to shed—herself into art. And if her drive for such understanding was not initially motivated by an urge to educate, it seems she came to learn through self-understanding that her purpose—and purpose universally—requires one to make paradigmatic one’s suffering without losing the anecdotal particularity by which it commands temporal, corporeal substance, significance, meaning, and force. The essays of Part 4 are offered with a kind of “take these thoughts if you want; I found them to be a helpful working-through, and perhaps you will, too” attitude, exemplifying the humor, detachment, and modesty Glück extols as protections against narcissism. We are called to, summoned, invoked into ourselves by way of this poet’s contemplations—offerings, it seems, as equally fitting for “Goodbye” as “Hello.” Here is, perhaps, Glück’s conclusion: “Nothing in [the] past can be changed or restored. But the present can change the way it is thought about. In this new enactment, presence can replace absence, which is the best that can be managed in human time.” Let me leave you with her: “Occasionally something will give pleasure, will actually charm or divert or entertain, will, to use that terrifying word, disarm. Insofar as our fearful compulsive, rigid natures allow, I think we should welcome what follows.”