Book of Longing

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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.

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

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