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A line he’s used for years, I know, but still more than you’d expect from a man whose songs are covered by Willie Nelson and Billy Joel. "To me," he continues, scraping at his sneakers with a knife, "the kind of thing I like is that you write a song, and it slips into the world, and they forget who wrote it. And it moves and it changes, and you hear it again three hundred years later, some women washing their clothes in a stream, and one of them is humming this tune." His conversation is like the outline of a ballad.
At last, as the 168 hours come to an end, I walk up the mountain to join the students in what will be their final session of zazen, the stars above the pines thicker than I have seen in thirty years of living in southern California. By now, nearly all of them are exhausted to the point of breakdown—or breakthrough—some of them with open wounds on their feet, others nodding off at every turn, still others lit up and charged as electrical wires.
And then, at two in the morning, on the longest night of the year, suddenly the silence breaks, and people talk and laugh and return to being math professors and doctors and writers once again as they collect the letters that have been accumulating for them and drink tea, and in the great exhalation you can hear a woman saying, in exultation, in relief, "Better than drugs!"
In his sepulchral cabin, Cohen breaks out the cognac and serves an old friend and me gefilte fish, Hebrew National salami, and egg-and-onion matzohs from a box. The two of them look like battle-hardened veterans—"non-commissioned officers," as the friend says—and it’s not hard to see how this celebrated lady-killer called an early backup band the Army and one of his sweetest records "an anti-pacifist recording."
Yet even at his most ragged here, he seems a long way away from the one who cried out so pitifully, on his 1973 live album, "I can’t stand who I am." Leonard Cohen has always seemed, or tried, to inhabit a higher zone of sorts, and his parable-like songs, his alchemical symbols, and his constant harking back to Abraham and David and Isaac only compound the stakes. In trying to marry Babylon with Bethlehem, in reading women’s bodies with the obsessiveness of a biblical scholar, in giving North America a raffish tilt so that he’s always been closer to Jacques Brel or Georges Mousstaki than to Bob Dylan, he’s been trying, over and over, to find ceremony without sanctimony and discipline without dogma. Where else should he be, where else could he be, than a military-style ritualized training that allows him to put Old Testament words to a country-and-western beat and write songs that sound like first-person laments written by God?
"I feel," says Cohen a little later, when we’re alone, "we’re in a very shabby moment, and neither the literary nor the musical experience really has its finger on the pulse of our crisis. From my point of view, we’re in the midst of a Flood, a Flood of biblical proportions. It’s both exterior and interior—at this point it’s more devastating on the interior level, but it’s leaking into the real world. And this Flood is of such enormous and biblical proportions that I see everybody holding on in their individual way to an orange crate, to a piece of wood, and we’re passing each other in this swollen river that has pretty well taken down all the landmarks, and pretty well overturned everything we’ve got. And people insist, under the circumstances, on describing themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ It seems to me completely mad."
Of course, he says impatiently, he can’t explain what he’s doing here. "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.
"Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Well, I hated it when it was going on"—signs of the snarl beneath the chuckle—"so maybe I would feel better about it now. But I don’t think so.
"What would I be doing? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.
"I think that’s the real deep entertainment," he concludes. "Religion. Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available to us is within this activity. Nothing touches it." He smiles his godfatherly smile. "Except if you’re courtin’. If you’re young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement."
Before I leave, he catches my eye, and his voice turns soft.
"We are gathered here," he says, "around a very, very old man, who may outlive all of us, and who may go tomorrow. So that gives an urgency to the practice. Everybody, including Roshi, is practicing with a kind of passionate diligence. It touches my heart. It makes me proud to be part of this community."
Before I leave the following morning, the roshi invites me, with Cohen, to his cabin for lunch. It’s a typically eclectic meal, of noodles and curry, taken quietly and simply, in a small, sunlit dining area. As ever when the roshi is around, Cohen sits absolutely humble and silent in one corner, all the tension emptied out of his face; everything about him is light, like a clear glass once the liquid’s drained.
Then he tells me a little about how he was once fascinated by Persian miniatures. He talks of the intensity of "living in a world of samples." He cleans up around the kitchen and asks his old friend, very gently, if he’s tired When we go out into the parking lot, a woman comes up and starts telling him how much his songs have meant to her, and Cohen gives her his warmest smile and leaves her with a kind of blessing.
"A practice like this," he tells me, "—and I think everyone here would say the same thing—you could only do for love."
"So if it weren’t for the roshi, you wouldn’t be here?" I ask.
"If it weren’t for the roshi, I wouldn’t be."