I don’t think anybody really knows why they’re doing anything. If you stop someone on the subway and say, “Where are you going — in the deepest sense of the word?” you can’t really expect an answer. I really don’t know why I’m here. It’s a matter of “What else would I be doing?” Do I want to be Frank Sinatra, who’s really great, and do I want to have great retrospectives of my work? I’m not really interested in being the oldest folksinger around.
One need not have lived a rock n’ roll lifestyle to be familiar with its pleasures and pitfalls. That heady mix of drugs, sex, and public adulation isn’t sustainable. Some can’t survive it. Some retire to a more staid domestic scene while others are left chasing a spotlight that’s unlikely to favor them twice. But rarely do you find one who chooses to give it all up to become a Buddhist monk.
Well, not all.
As director Armelle Brusq’s 1996 documentary, above, shows, singer-songwriter—and yes—Zen monk Leonard Cohen’s routine at the Mount Baldy Zen Center outside Los Angeles extended beyond the usual mindfulness practice. His simple quarters were outfitted with a computer, printer, radio, and a Technics KN 3000 synthesizer. He sometimes doffed his robes to enter the recording studio or enjoy a bowl of soup at Canter’s Deli. Comparatively, his worldly attachments were few, divvied between the professionally necessary and the fond. Still, calling his daughter, Lorca, to pass along a veterinarian’s update, Cohen sounds every inch the doting Jewish dad.
Celebrity devotion to Kabbalah or various Eastern spiritual practices often stinks of the superficial, a passing fancy that won’t last more than a year or two. Cohen’s relation to Zen Buddhism is enduring, a gift from his longtime friend and teacher, Mount Baldy’s Roshi, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, who died last year at the age of 107.
One of Cohen’s responsibilities was helping Roshi with the myriad small details the elderly abbot would have had difficulty navigating on his own. Cohen seems entirely at peace in the roadie role, keeping track of luggage while on tour, and fetching cones for the entire party from a nearby ice cream truck.
The poem Cohen penned in honor of Roshi’s 89th birthday is of a piece with his most enduring work. Think Suzanne’s oranges were the only fruit? Not so:
His stomach’s very happy
The prunes are working well
There’s no one left in heaven
And there’s no one going to hell
Filmmaker Brusq is chiefly concerned with documenting Cohen’s spiritual reality, but she tosses in a few treats for those hungry for pop iconography, particularly the impromptu show-and-tell at the 25-minute mark, when the crew peeks into the legend’s memorabilia-filled LA office.
The soundtrack, too, is music to a Cohen fan’s ears, and lyrically inspired given the subject:
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Happy 18th birthday to her favorite formerly-17-year-old playwright! Follow her @AyunHalliday