A Day in the Life of Zen Monk Leonard Cohen: A 1996 Documentary

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. 

- Leonard Cohen, speak­ing to author Pico Iyer in April 1998


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:

Wait­ing for The Mir­a­cle


A Thou­sand Kiss­es Deep 


The Future


Dance Me to the End of Love

Clos­ing Time

Nev­er Any Good

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Leonard Cohen’s Stint As a Bud­dhist Monk Can Help You Live an Enlight­ened Life

Leonard Cohen Nar­rates Film on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Fea­tur­ing the Dalai Lama (1994)

Ladies and Gen­tle­men… Mr. Leonard Cohen: The Poet-Musi­cian Fea­tured in a 1965 Doc­u­men­tary

200 Free Doc­u­men­taries Online

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

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