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Leonard Cohen: Several Lifetimes Already

"Nine o’clock," says Leonard Cohen, "and we’ve had several lifetimes already." Over a long and brilliant career, the poet and singer has lived many lives already, from essence of hip to celebrated lover to serious Zen man. PICO IYER on Leonard Cohen’s journey from Suzanne to Sesshin.

In the falling mountain darkness, I pull my car off the high, winding road into a rough parking lot, and a man comes out to greet me: an older man, stooped a little and shaven-headed, in tattered black gown and woolen cap and glasses. He extends a hand, gives me a bow and, picking up my case, leads me off to a cabin. He worries about my "long drive," asks if I’ll be okay here, heats up a pot of tea, and slices some fresh bread for me. As night falls, he tells me to feel at home and mentions a young woman he thinks I should be married to.

Then, since I will need some clothes to join him in the austerities for which he has invited me, this Talmudic-looking gentleman leads me off into the chill, unlit night to collect a gown and cap and pair of canvas sneakers for me. His home is a markedly simple place, with a small, black Welcome mat outside its door. Inside, a narrow single bed, a tiny mirror, a dirty old carpet, and a picture of some puppies cavorting under the legend "Friends Are All Welcome."

Farther inside, a pair of scissors, a few Kleenexes, a small shoulder bag with a Virgin Airlines tag around it, and on a chest of drawers, a menorah. "This place is really quite a trip," he says, smiling. "You enter a kind of science-fiction universe which has no beginning and no end." His own ragged gown, I notice, is held together with safety pins. The small Technics synthesizer in the next room is unplugged.

Leading me out into the dark, he climbs a steep road to where there are tall pine trees and the outline of monks in the distance and a thousand stars. We slip into a cold, empty room, and he gives me instructions on how to sit. "The bottom half—the legs—should be really strong," he says. "The rest should be fluid."

Then, assessing my posture as serviceable, he leads me out into the mountain dark and into the zendo next door. Thirty or so figures, all in black, are sitting stock-still in the night. They are coming to the end of a winter retreat, rohatsu, in which they sit like this, all but uninterruptedly, for seven days. Monks patrol the aisles with sticks, ready to hit anyone who threatens to drop off. Every forty-five minutes or so, the practitioners are allowed to break from their zazen positions to relieve themselves in buckets in the woods, or in rough outhouses known and feared throughout the Zen community. Most of them use the breaks, however, to continue their meditation unbroken, marching in spellbound, silent Indian file, round and around a central pine tree. My host, I notice, is probably thirty years older than most of the fresh-faced young men and women in attendance, yet as they walk around the tree, at top speed, he seems at least thirty years stronger too.

At 2 AM, after I head back to my cabin to get some sleep, there’s a knock on my door and a flashlight in the dark, and it’s the rabbinical-seeming elderly man again, ready to vault up rough stone paths to join in morning chants. For half an hour or so, to the beat of a steadily pounded drum, the assembled company races through twenty-four pages of Japanese syllabary, my host, like many others, reciting the entire Heart Sutra from memory. Then he leads me back through the frosty night to his cabin, to show me the ninth-century text on which we’ll soon be hearing a teisho, or Zen discourse. It’s a fearless scripture, as bracing as a sudden blow to the skull. "Anything you may find through seeking," the Zen master Rinzai warns, "will be only a wild fox spirit."

The light has come back to the austere settlement, and the huge boulders outside my room look as if they’re buried in snow when I hear a knock again, and follow my sleepless host up again, through the black-and-white silence, to hear the roshi, or teacher of this community, deliver his daily talk. A small round figure in huge orange robes comes in, and two attendants help him onto a kind of throne. "What is this thing called love?" the man says, speaking in the old-fashioned tones of his northern Japanese dialect, through a translator, chuckling but unhesitating. "A child can befriend a dog and lick its rear end. Is that love? Is love just shaking hands? Dogs and cats and insects mate; is that love?

"You’ve been hypnotized," he goes on. "You’ve got to take your mind to the laundry. Get it clean." And, he concludes, "When a man is with a woman, he has to occupy her fully."

Afterwards we head out into what is now a dazzling, blue-sky day. "Nine o’clock," says Leonard Cohen, a penetrating glint in his eye, "and we’ve had several lifetimes already today."

The "Lord Byron of rock ’n’ roll," as he is too often called, has always been a man of surprises—to the point where many (and sometimes himself) take him to be a man of artful disguises. Cohen’s life has always been dangerously mythic—from the house he bought on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960 with a $1,500 inheritance, to the dramatic turning-down of Canada’s Governor General’s Award for English-language poetry when he was only 34, to the wild, strung-out days at the Chelsea Hotel, the Chateau Marmont, and other holy shrines of dissipation (with Janis Joplin "giving me head on the unmade bed").

Even those who were not surprised when this archetypal figure from the seeking sixties suddenly came back with a growl in the late eighties and started winning all the prizes yet again may be taken aback to learn of some of his adventures: that he wrote, scored and directed a short film, "I Am a Hotel," which won the Golden Rose at an international television festival in Montreux; that he played for the Israeli troops of Ariel Sharon for two weeks, during the buildup to the Yom Kippur War; that he acted as the head of Interpol on an episode of "Miami Vice."

But many would be most surprised of all to know that the definitive ladies’ man and husky poet of the morning after is now living year-round in the Mount Baldy Zen Center, 6,250 feet above sea level, in the dark San Gabriel Mountains behind Los Angeles, serving, as he says, as "cook, chauffeur, and sometimes drinking buddy" to a 92-year-old Japanese man with whom he shares few words.

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