Leonard Cohen In India
by DAMIAN WEBER
After leaving Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Leonard Cohen went to Mumbai, India to hear Ramesh Balsekar talk.
Ramesh was a teacher of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, who held a daily satsang at his apartment, answering questions. These sessions weren’t meant to convert and sometimes he would chide someone if they came too often. One of his main teachings was to get on with your life, to not be obsessive. “Don’t you have anything better to do? My main message to you is that God is everywhere, so you can’t just focus on religion, you don’t keep meditating your way to God.”
Ramesh was a general manager at the Bank of India until he was 60. After retiring he followed the sage, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, translating his works. Before Maharaj died, he instructed Ramesh to start giving his own talks. Ramesh’s talks were transcribed into books and one of those books, Consciousness Speaks: Conversations with Ramesh S. Balsekar, was given to Leonard when he was living on Mt. Baldy. It caused him (called him) to leave his best friend and love of his life, Roshi.
This branch of Hinduism taught a type of mysticism (please forgive me if I misunderstand) where we don’t seek to join with God because we are already joined with everything. In Consciousness Speaks, Ramesh said, “Before the final understanding arises, all sorts of concepts come into play. It is assumed that it is up to the individual to make efforts to join himself with God. At that level of subject and object, nirvana and samsara are treated as two. Therefore, they speak in terms of the sea of samsara, misery, which has to be crossed. The jiva has to cross it and it can do so only by doing sadhana of one kind or another. So the seeker goes through sadhana, the whole series. For years he practices. For years he watches what is happening, and finds himself in a state of pride and self-conceit. Ultimately, when he settles down in contemplation, he throws aside everything. As the Sufis say, there is a sort of ceremony, a burning of all that he has learned and all that he thinks he has achieved. So, in the third stage, it is realized that the world is both real and unreal. When that understanding arises, the knowledge settles down and in that organism where enlightenment has taken place there is no longer any active desire to tell the world about it, to change the world.”
Sounds like Roshi’s Buddhism.
Leonard wrote a note to Roshi that read, “Dear Roshi, I’m sorry that I cannot help you now, because I met this woman. Please forgive my selfishness. I send you birthday greetings, deep affection and respect. Jikan, the useless monk, bows his head.” Leonard made a drawing on the note of the Hindu temple dancer—a woman. But Leonard didn’t slip out with only a note—no he told him months in advance. And Roshi wasn’t the type to be heartbroken—he was Buddhist. (That note is in his book of poems, Book of Longing, which was written on Mt. Baldy by a Buddhist monk still getting beat by delicious desire.)
Leonard Cohen said of leaving Roshi, “We are very close friends, Roshi and I. We were the two oldest guys up there, even though there were many years separating us. I had been cooking for him and looking after him for some time. So when I asked his permission to leave … disappointment is not the right word. He was sad—just like you would be if a close friend went away. He asked me why I wanted to leave. I said, ‘I don’t know why.’ He said, ‘How long?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, Roshi.’ He said, ‘Don’t know. OK.’”
Roshi taught at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, 50 miles outside LA, a form of Japanese Buddhism called Rinzai. Leonard lived on Mt. Baldy for six years, acting as a cook for Roshi, a secretary, and travelling companion. Leonard thought the time was right because Roshi was almost 90 years-old—might be his last chance. Roshi lived to be 107.
“I went up to the monastery in 1993, after my last tour, with the feeling of, ‘If this works, I’ll stay.’ I didn’t put a limit on it, but I knew I was going to be there for a while. Also, I was there because I had the good fortune to study with Roshi. He’s the real thing, man. He is a hell-raiser—there’s not an ounce of piety about him. This guy is smart enough to be rich, and yet he lives in a little shack up there in the snow. He’s a very exalted figure.”
Also, the time was right because Leonard was reeling from the break up with actress Rebecca De Mornay—they were engaged to be married. But he would never have said that was the reason he was depressed.
“The truth is I went up there to address the relentless depression that I’d had all my life. I’d say that everything I’ve done—wine, women, song, religion, meditation—was involved in a struggle to somehow penetrate this depression, which was the background of all my activities. But by imperceptible degrees, something happened at Mount Baldy, and my depression lifted. It hasn’t come back for two and a half years. Roshi said something nice to me one time, he said that the older you get, the lonelier you become, and the deeper the love you need. Which means that this hero that you’re trying to maintain as the central figure in the drama of your life—this hero is not enjoying the life of a hero. You’re exerting a tremendous maintenance to keep this heroic stance available to you, and the hero is suffering defeat after defeat. And they’re not heroic defeats: they’re ignoble defeats. Finally, one day you say, ‘Let him die—I can’t invest any more in this heroic position.’ From there, you just live your life as if it’s real—as if you have to make decisions even though you have absolutely no guarantee of any of the consequences of your decisions.”
“You can read the life you’re living but you cannot change a word.”
Life on Mt. Baldy started early, before sunrise, to meditate and cook and clean and shovel snow. He lived in a little cabin with a bed, a desk, a pile of notebooks, and a keyboard (Technics KN 3000). He said that the monks were a social group, and that Roshi would always have a glass of cognac ready, to be hospitable, that his hospitality was impeccable. “There is no one here who is not, in a certain sense, broken down, who has not found that he doesn’t know how to deal with the things you have to face in ordinary life. So they come here. It’s not at all an isolated situation. In ordinary life down the mountain sometimes you finish your day’s work, you go home, you shut your door, you watch the TV … and you’re really alone. Here you’re never alone. There’s little private space, very little time to yourself. There’s a saying in Zen, like pebbles in a bag, they polish one another. We’re doing that all the time here. So one doesn’t have the sense of isolation here.”
“A monastery, of the kind Roshi runs in any case, it’s more like a hospital. And he’s the doctor. He cures the illusion that you’re sick. And he was successful in my case. He cured the illusion that I needed his teachings.”
But Leonard was still Jewish. “A lot of people who think that I’ve changed my religion look very suspiciously or even scornfully or even express great disappointment that I’ve abandoned my own culture, that I’ve abandoned Judaism. Well, I was never looking for a new religion. I have a very good religion, which is called Judaism. I have no interest in acquiring another religion.”
“My father and mother, of blessed memory, would have been disturbed by the description of me as a Buddhist. I am a Jew. For some time now I have been intrigued by the indecipherable ramblings of an old Zen monk. Not long ago he said to me, “Cohen, I have known you for 23 years and I never tried to give you my religion. I just poured you sake.” Saying that, he filled my cup with sake. I bowed my head and raised my cup to him crying out, ‘Rabbi, you are surely the light of the generation.”
He would read Jewish scriptures and light candles for Sabbath every Friday evening. “I was never interested in Buddhism. I had a perfectly good religion but I was interested in Roshi’s remarkable and unusual interest in other people because I didn’t feel I was at home anywhere. So I wanted to avail myself of that hospitality. If he’d been a professor of physics at Heidelberg, I would have learned German and studied in Heidelberg but he happened to be a Zen master so I put on the robes and I entered the monastery and I did what was necessary and appropriate to be able to enjoy his company.”
When Leonard was ordained, Roshi gave him the monk name of Jikan, which is Japanese for “silent one.” Leonard said, “Since his English is very poor, I never really found out what that means. It’s got something to do with silence, but normal silence, not special, holy, righteous, renunciated silence. Just ordinary silence. Or the silence out of which everything evolves, the silence at the center of things.”
“Since Roshi doesn’t speak English, it’s almost impossible to discern what he means.” Roshi spoke in a stilted English like a verbless koan. “As he said to me in one of our first personal encounters, ‘I not Japanese, you not Jewish.” So, Roshi not Zen master, and Leonard not Zen student.”
“If you have an appetite for that kind of simplification in your life, to hang out with a guy who doesn’t really speak good English, whom you like very much, is a good way to discipline your speech or writing. You’ve got to get very, very clear if you hang out and drink with somebody who doesn’t really speak English. So the conversation gets very intuitive and very clear. And to be able to write that way is a great goal.”
Roshi’s teisho were similar to Ramesh’s satsang, not only in style, but in content also. Leonard said, “Roshi doesn’t discuss. He’s not interested in perspective or talking. You either get it or you don’t. He doesn’t give you any astounding truths that we come to expect from spiritual teachers, because he’s a mechanic—he’s not talking about the philosophy of locomotion, he’s talking about repairing the motor. He’s mostly talking to a broken motor. Roshi is direct transmission.”
Ramesh too. Sylvie Simmons wrote in I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, “Ramesh was a straight-talker. He dealt with his satsang audience much as you might imagine he would his employees at the bank, imparting information and instructions in a direct, no-nonsense manner.”
In Ramesh’s Consciousness Speaks, he said, “Silence is what I needed with Maharaj. If I were alone with him, that’s what he would give me. Silence is the most powerful medium for transmission of this knowledge, for this knowledge to arrive intuitively. Silence is the most potent medium, but in many cases it is not enough. In the spiritual evolution a certain amount of guidance is necessary, and for those who needed this guidance Maharaj would use various concepts. Incidentally, silence doesn’t mean not talking. Silence is silence of the mind. Silence is absence of questions, absence of thinking, true meditation. That is the most potent medium for this understanding to take place. When the inquiring mind, intellectually creating problems, gradually comes to the understanding that the more problems it creates the more veils it creates between the Self and the understanding, then there is silence.”
Jikan, the silent one, stayed at a two-star hotel called Kemps Corner, in south Mumbai, with a bed, a chair, a desk, and a TV. He left in the morning to go to the satsang, which lasted two hours, and the rest of the day was his. He usually went swimming and then back to his room to read, meditate, and write. Usually books either written by Ramesh or recommended by him. He ate vegetarian. He visited the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. He didn’t sightsee.
The satsang were held at Ramesh’s apartment, where less than 40 people could fit. The question and answer session was in English and would begin with Ramesh asking a newcomer why they had come. Leonard spoke up the first few times but remained silent after. The sessions would end in song, followed by tea.
Leonard won’t say that it was India, or Hinduism, or Ramesh Balsekar that cured his depression. But he said, “by imperceptible degrees this background of anguish that had been with me my whole life began to dissolve. I said to myself, ‘This must be what it’s like to be relatively sane.’ You get up in the morning and it’s not like: Oh God, another day. How am I going to get through it? What am I going to do? Is there a drug? Is there a woman? Is there a religion? Is there a something to get me out of this? The background now is very peaceful.”
Before he left Mt. Baldy he had a revelation that he didn’t have a spiritual goal, that he was done being a seeker. “I found with a sense of relief that I had no gift for the spiritual life. I didn’t have to seek for anything. And with the search, the anxieties attendant on that search ended. I don’t know if happiness is the word to describe the feeling; maybe applied indifference.”
Leonard stayed in India for five months that first trip. After returning from India, he visited Roshi again, and lived on Mt. Baldy for a time. They drank cognac — Roshi’s hospitality was always impeccable. “When I came back he invited me up to the mountain and we had a formal dinner. All the senior monks were there. And after they left, he said to me, “Jikan, when you left, half of me died.” I just winked at him and he winked at me back. Because these are just words. Nothing really changed between us.”
They did not talk about India or Hinduism, nor did they talk about Zen Buddhism.
“My association with the community, of course, doesn’t end. I see Roshi a lot. In fact, he was down in Los Angeles. He wasn’t feeling well so I made him the chicken soup that he likes.”
Leonard went back to India several times over the next few years, and he visited Roshi also, but more and more he lived in L.A. He recorded a new album. He fell in love with Anjani Thomas. He lost a lot of money and made it back by going on tour. He didn’t even mind touring this time. His friends were amazed how happy, serene, he was. His friend Nancy Bacal said, “he was like a kid when he came back from Baldy—suddenly he could come and go as he pleased, do whatever he wanted. It took him a moment or two to figure that out, but when he did, it was a delight to see him so happy and so joyous. Baldy was wonderful for him. Now it was time to take the next step.”
“It’s lovely to sleep in past three o’clock in the morning. It’s a delicious feeling, although I often get up at three just out of habit. But that kind of discipline I never lacked. I was always disciplined in regard to my work. It was the wider sense of a life and I put on a pretty good show. My cover story was pretty good. It looked like my life was orderly because it revolved around writing and recording. But the interior sense I had was of deep disorder and that’s one of the reasons I went up to Mount Baldy and why for thirty years I would spend a part of each year up there, just to depend on the routine so that I could stop having to improvise. It was the improvisation of the life that finally got me. But we began to work almost immediately after I came down. So the days have been very, very structured.”
Back in L.A, Leonard went to the Jewish synagogue of Rabbi Mordecai Finley, who said that Leonard “grew up in an ambience of deep, serious, Jewish study. He was up-to-date, he knew who the great Jewish thinkers were and understood their arguments. There are obscure parts of Kabbalah that we actually differed on and sometimes we would be talking about one thing and come back to that thing, ‘Here we are again.’ He could be a great teacher of Judaism. If that were his thing, to be a rabbi, he had it in his power to have been one of the greatest of our generation.”
“Modern students of Kabbalah are very interested in Leonard’s work, because they see Leonard as not a professor of Kabbalah, not a theologian, but someone who really understands Kabbalah from within—the best poetry on the Kabbalah they’ve ever read. He gets the inner ethos of brokenness and healing and the tragedy of the human condition, in that we’re not particularly well suited for this life but you still have to find your way through.”
“He’s deeply well-read, very committed to understanding Kabbalah and—in a very similar way that I do—is using the Kabbalah not so much as a theology but as spiritual psychology and a way to mythically represent the Divine. If you understand that human consciousness is basically symbolic, then one has to find some kind of symbol system that most closely articulates one’s understanding of all the levels of reality.”
(Leonard is buried in Montreal at Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery next to his parents.)
Buddhism and Hinduism have many forms, many branches, but Leonard found two teachers who taught him what he needed—to be himself, to not meditate too much, to let go, and to be happy.
“Lighten up — that’s what enlightenment means — that you’ve lightened up.”
Damian Weber is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find his website here. He last wrote in these pages about Dark Side of the Moon.