There is a certain kind of thinking that the Buddha called “monkey mind,” a state in which our nervous habits become compulsions, hauling us around this way and that, forcing us to jump and shriek at every sound. It was exactly this neurotic state of mind that Leonard Cohen sought to quell when in 1994 he joined Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles and became a monk: “I was interested in surrendering to that kind of routine,” Cohen told The Guardian in 2001, “If you surrender to the schedule, and get used to its demands, it is a great luxury not to have to think about what you are doing next.”
There at Mt. Baldy the journalist and cosmopolitan raconteur Pico Iyer met Cohen, unaware at first that it was even him. In his short Baccalaureate speech above to the 2015 graduating class of the University of Southern California, Iyer describes the meeting: After showing him fond hospitality and settling him into the community, Iyer says, Cohen told him that “just sitting still, being unplugged, looking after his friends was… the real deep entertainment that the world had to offer.”
At the time, Iyer was disappointed. He had admired Cohen for exactly the opposite qualities—for traveling the world, being plugged into the culture, and living a rock star life of self-indulgence. It was this outward manifestation of Cohen that Iyer found alluring, but the poet and songwriter’s inward life, what Iyer calls the “invisible ledger on which we tabulate our lives,” was given to something else, something that eventually brought Cohen out of a lifelong depression. Iyer’s thesis, drawn from his encounter with Leonard Cohen, Zen monk, is that “it is really on the mind that our happiness depends.”
Iyer refers not to that perpetually wheeling monkey mind but what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi called “beginner’s mind” or “big mind.” In such a meditatively absorbed state, we forget ourselves, “which to me,” Iyer says, “is almost the definition of happiness.” Cohen said as much of his own personal enlightenment: “When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you.” After his time at Mt. Baldy, he says, “there was just a certain sweetness to daily life that began asserting itself.” Iyer’s short speech, filled with example after example, gives us and his newly graduating audience several ways to think about how we might find that sense of repose—in the midst of busy, demanding lives—through little more than “just sitting still, being unplugged” and looking after each other.
Note: You can watch a European documentary on Cohen’s stint as a buddhist monk here.