Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Leonard Cohen

At age 74, the accomplished singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen is once again back on the road. He began touring last year with several dates in Europe and his native Canada; a “Live in London” CD is due out soon. Cohen’s world tour is scheduled to continue through the end of this year.

At 74, Leonard Cohen is two years older than John McCain, but he is still remarkably limber - even on the longest flights, Cohen reportedly sits cross-legged and straight-backed in his seat. Asked whether he does yoga to build strength and agility for his stage shows, Cohen smiled and replied, “That is my yoga.”

Cohen has quipped that he once tried a course of religious study, but “cheerfulness kept breaking through.” Religious devotion seems to weigh heavily in both music and life for Cohen, and it takes many forms. Performance and prayer are both treated as aspects of the same larger divine enterprise. His best-known songs mingle sacred concerns with the secular and the sexual. “Tell me again when the filth of the butcher is washed in the blood of the lamb,” he once sang.

Cohen had once left touring for a five-year stint in a Zen monastery. Cohen was officially ordained as a Zen monk on August 9, 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center. He was given the dharma name Jikan (Silent One) by Sasaki Roshi, a Japanese teacher famous for his extremely rigorous style of Rinzai Zen. “There’s a similarity in the quality of the daily life” on the road and in the monastery, Cohen said. “There’s just a sense of purpose” in which “a lot of extraneous material is naturally and necessarily discarded,” and what is left is a “rigorous and severe” routine in which “the capacity to focus becomes much easier.”

Not unlike Zen, in Cohen's songs the comforts are few (“I’ve seen the future, brother/It is murder"), and the contradiction many (“Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful/Ah, give or take a night or two”). About the meaning of those songs, Cohen is diffident and elusive. Many are, he acknowledges, “muffled prayers,” but beyond that he is not eager to reveal much. “It’s difficult to do the commentary on the prayer,” he said. "I feel it doesn’t serve the enterprise to really examine it from outside the moment.”

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in."

If he has one great love, it is his search for God. Cohen is an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath even while on tour, and performed for Israeli troops during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. When asked how he reconciled his Jewish faith with his continued practice of Zen, he replied, "Well, for one thing, in the tradition of Zen that I’ve practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief.”

Zen has helped him to learn to “stop whining,” Cohen said, and to worry less about the choices he has made. “All these things have their own destiny; one has one’s own destiny. The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.”

"I know the burden’s heavy
As you bear it through the night,
Some people say it’s empty
But that doesn’t mean it’s light."


GreenSmile said...

Ah, Shokaipedia. I always learn things here.

funny, considering how much I like some of his songs, that I did not know of the spiritual CV of Cohen.

If you have had a chance to take in the Scorsese bio of Bob Dylan, I think you might find a similar protectiveness on Dylan's part when interviewers ask about the meaning of his lyrics.

Shokai said...

I first heard of Cohen's Zen experience myself about a month ago while watching a documentary / tribute concert on cable tv. He just sort of casually mentioned "going off to a monastery for 5 years to study with Roshi." But once I realized he was a Buddhist, it all started to make sense - his austere yet soulful sound and his lyrics full of oblique Zen references, with key words like "empty."