Pico Iyer on Leonard Cohen's Years as a Buddhist Monk
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
The New Yorker – extracted from the article in the October 17, 2016 Issue Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker By David Remnick
For forty years, Cohen was associated with a Japanese Zen master named Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. (“Roshi” is an honorific for a venerated teacher, and Cohen always refers to him that way.) Roshi, who died two years ago at the age of a hundred and seven, arrived in Los Angeles in 1962 but never quite learned the language of his adoptive home. Through his translators, though, he adapted traditional Japanese koans for his American students: “How do you realize Buddha nature while driving a car?” Roshi was short, stout, a drinker of sake and expensive Scotch. “I came to have a good time,” he once said of his sojourn in the States. “I want Americans to learn how to truly laugh.”
Until the early nineties, Cohen used to study with Roshi at the Zen Center, on Mt. Baldy, for periods of learning and meditation that stretched over two or three months a year. He considered Roshi a close friend, a spiritual master, and a deep influence on his work. And so, not long after getting home from the Château Latour tour, in 1993, Cohen went up to Mt. Baldy. This time, he stayed for nearly six years.
“Nobody goes into a Zen monastery as a tourist,” Cohen told me. “There are people who do, but they leave in ten minutes because the life is very rigorous. You are getting up at two-thirty in the morning; the camp wakes up at three, but you have to light fires in the zendo. The cabins are only heated a few hours a day. There’s snow coming in under the badly carpentered doors. You’re shovelling snow half the day. And the other half of the day you’re sitting in the zendo. So in a certain sense you toughen up. Whether it has a spiritual aspect is debatable. It helps you endure, and it makes whining the least appropriate response to suffering. Just on that level it’s very valuable.”
Cohen lived in a tiny cabin that he outfitted with a coffeemaker, a menorah, a keyboard, and a laptop. Like the other adepts, he cleaned toilets. He had the honor of cooking for Roshi and eventually lived in a cabin that was linked to his teacher’s by a covered walkway. For many hours a day, he sat in half lotus, meditating. If he, or anyone else, nodded off during meditation or lost the proper position, one of the monks would come by and rap him smartly on the shoulder with a wooden stick.
“People have the idea that a monastery is a place of serenity and contemplation,” Cohen said. “It isn’t that at all. It’s a hospital, and a lot of the people who end up there can barely walk or speak. So a lot of the activity there is to get people to learn how to walk and speak and breathe and prepare their own meals or shovel their own paths in the winter.”
Allen Ginsberg once asked Cohen how he could reconcile his Judaism with Zen. Cohen said that he wasn’t looking for a new religion, that he was well satisfied with the religion he had. Zen made no mention of God; it demanded no scriptural devotion. For him, Zen was a discipline rather than a religion, a practice of investigation. “I put on those robes because that was Roshi’s school and that was the uniform,” he said. Had Roshi been a professor of physics at the University of Heidelberg, Cohen says, he would have learned German and moved to Heidelberg................
“My project has been completely different than my contemporaries’,” he says. His circle in Montreal valued modesty. “The minimum environment that would enable you to do your work with the least distraction and the most aesthetic deliverance came from a modest surrounding. A palace, a yacht would be an enormous distraction from the project. My fantasies went the other way. The way I lived on Mt. Baldy was perfect for me. I liked the communal life, I liked living in a little shack.”