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Lions Roar : May 2013
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2013 42 the truths of meditation while always acknowledging that he’s not in full possession of them (he begins his most recent album by mocking any claims to being a “sage” or “man of vision,” and admitting rather to being a “lazy bastard living in a suit”). When people acclaim him as a wise man today, it’s partly because he seems so alert to his follies; when they reach toward him for his radiance and strength, it’s not least because he is so acutely aware of how soon radiance and strength will give out. Whenever I spend time with Leonard Cohen, I’m spellbound by the droll gravitas, the warmth, the constant solicitude, and the extraordinary gift with words. But when I come away from the small house in a very rough part of Los Angeles that he shares with his daughter and grandson, I realize I’ve been most moved by what you don’t hear so much on the records: his deep commitment to his kids, the seriousness and voraciousness of his reading, especially on matters of the spirit, the depth of his silences. Many a visitor finds herself just sitting with him in his small garden, saying nothing, enjoying a communion deeper than personality or intention. I look at him from one angle and see the flawlessly cool and stylish heartthrob who made my wife weak at the knees just by offering her a cigarette. I look at him from another angle and see a very shy, bookish boy with a mischievous, rather sheepish grin. The man who has everything has always longed, it seems, to be—to have—nothing. I N THE END, of course, what matters—as Cohen himself would most eloquently stress—is the work, not the man. And from the beginning, Cohen’s two themes have been suf- fering and seeing things as they are, the latter a particularly urgent concern for one who feels so strongly a hunger for romance. Some writers—Gary Snyder, say, or Jim Harrison—have drawn upon their Zen practice to express a wide-awake, embracing transcrip- tion of all that the natural world might offer us, in its mixed beauty and capriciousness; others—such as Peter Matthiessen or Cage— have gravitated more toward the austere elevation and cutting away of illusions that Zen study fosters, as if to pare away at every excess until what remains is what is, nothing more, nothing less. Cohen, by nature and background, clearly belongs with the latter group, and has never been interested in “first thought, best thought.” He labors over songs for more than a decade and will keep making changes and adding twenty-second thoughts till the very last minute. More than eighty notebooks went into “Hallelujah.” What he’s brought to the expression of the Zen tra- dition is an undistracted and sophisticated psychological acu- ity. Insofar as Zen can try to break down our attachments to theories and notions of the self, through hard labor and relent- less discipline, Cohen has been as unwavering a student as any, finding in the monastery a perfect way to be alone in company and to unearth a silence that’s “com- municative.” Yet he habitually refers to Zen as a “hospital for the broken- hearted,” and the words he uses again and again in his songs are “panic” and “bewilderment.” He gives us a sense of what Zen training leads toward, in other words, but he never glosses over the anger and confusion that brought him to it and remain. That’s why, even after thirty years of hanging out with Sasaki, he still felt the need to come down from the mountain and amplify the teach- ing elsewhere. By early 1999, Cohen had been a monk for five and a half years, and all he felt was a depression and emptiness as deep as any, befit- ting one who’d “come to the end of the road.” His rigor and his restlessness refuse to settle for easy answers and I was impressed, talking to him in his monastery, when he told me that he had no real interest in making music again, and that he’d given up smoking and would never go to India because of its indiscipline and disorder. When I saw him four months later, he had a synthesizer in his cabin and a cigarette in his hand and, not many seasons on, he was spending five months at a stretch in India. Some of the most moving passages in Simmons’ book describe Cohen’s trips to Mumbai to sit every morning at the feet of Romesh Balsekar, the late former bank president who used to give informal talks on nondualism every morning in his apart- ment. The wandering rock star stayed in an anonymous two-star hotel and occasionally took friends to an unassuming tea stall; he declined every invitation from the rich and famous, but at one point went to a taxi driver’s home in the slums. He never went in for psychology, Simmons (herself British) points out, because “his dignity and an almost British stiff upper lip” forbade it, but he put himself through even more intense challenges in trying to break through divisions in the self and in the world. The other thing that comes across, again and again, is his kind- ness. We read of his driving across L.A. to help a receptionist he didn’t know well find her long-haired cat (and then ministering to the cat close-up, chanting into its forehead, even as his allergy to cats reduced him to sniffling and tears). He’s always tended to oth- ers with a gentleness and thoroughness he hasn’t often extended to himself. At the National Film Board of Canada, I once heard about