Leonard Cohen walked down many spiritual paths – but he never really found the peace he sought
In 1999 Leonard Cohen travelled to India to see a spiritual teacher named Ramesh Balsekar. Cohen was a man in search, if not exactly of faith, then of meaning. Ramesh had been educated at the London School of Economics and had worked as general manager of the Bank of India in Bombay before retiring to devote his life to propagating the teachings of advaita – a philosophy that teaches the idea that “I am the doer” of my thoughts, and actions should be constantly interrogated with the question “Who is this ‘I’?”. Cohen spent almost a year in Bombay, going almost daily to sit at Ramesh’s feet.
A fascinating transcription exists of some of their conversations, in which Cohen talks of the difficulties in his life, his writing and the “chattering of the mind” that afflicted him, “sometimes in degrees of intensity that make one gasp or cry out for help”. What Cohen seeks most of all, he says, is “peace”.
It is Cohen’s misfortune that he goes to his grave heralded as “the godfather of gloom”. But the question he was constantly asking, in his songs, poetry and fiction was “Who is this ‘I’?” – and what is this “I” supposed to be doing here, in this mess of dashed hopes, broken hearts and certain mortality?
Cohen came from a distinguished family of Montreal Jews. His grandfather, he told David Remnick of The New Yorker, in an interview four weeks ago, was a distinguished rabbi and “the most significant Jew in Canada” – a position Cohen would later assume himself. The legacy of Jewish teaching, lore – and melancholia – infused his work in ways that might not always have been obvious.
Cohen explored different paths – LSD, Catholicism, even Scientology. But the path that occupied much of his life was Zen Buddhism.
For 30 years he was associated with a Zen monaster y at Mount Baldy in California, and for almost six years in the Nineties lived there on and off as an ordained monk, under the tutelage of a Japanese Roshi (an honorific meaning distinguished teacher) named Kyozan Joshu Sasaki.
Cohen was known as Jikan, the “Silent One”. He would rise each morning at 2.30, shovel snow, scrub the floors and spend half the day meditating.
When he ever talked about having experiences that suggested an illumination, Roshi would employ the traditional method of discouragement, beating him on the shoulder with a stick. People often described Cohen as a Buddhist, but he always denied it, saying he had “inherited an extremely good religion” – Judaism. Rather, his years with Sasaki Roshi had “provided a space for me to kind of dance with the Lord that I couldn’t find in a lot of the other places I went to”.
Cohen told Remnick how his search was still on going. He continued to read deeply in the Zohar – the principal text of Jewish mysticism – the Hebrew Bible, Hindu philosophy and Buddhist texts.
It is no coincidence Cohen’s most famous song should be Hallelujah – a Hebrew word meaning “praise God”, although Cohen maintained the song was a desire to affirm “my faith in life”, not in an explicitly religious way “but with enthusiasm, with emotion”.
“The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say: ‘Look, I don’t understand a f**king thing at all! Hallelujah!’ That’s the only moment we live here fully as human beings.” He once wrote that “a man or woman lays their work at the foot of their beloved – we do everything for love”.
For all his songs and poetry, nothing in his life became Cohen more than the letter he wrote to his former lover and muse Marianne Ihlen on learning she would soon be leaving, dying of cancer: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.
“Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
Whatever the loss, whatever the “absolutely irreconcilable conflicts of the moment”, whatever the darkness – as Leonard Cohen once sang, “There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”