Reincarnating Leonard Cohen

Singer Alexandra Burke recently won top honors on Britain's X Factor TV talent competition, and she drove Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" to the top of the pop charts. Ruth Gledhill of The Times asked her colleague Alan Franks to reflect on Cohen's spiritual life.

Franks adds little to a profile he wrote of Cohen for The Times Magazine in October 2001 (Gledhill links to it). The profile, though, is a tour de force as Franks writes with amazement that Cohen would spend much of the 1990s living as a Zen Buddhist monk on Mount Baldy with Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

The profile becomes amusing as Franks keeps returning to the paradox that Cohen, who rightly or wrongly has the reputation of a prolific seducer of women, would subject himself to celibacy.

Franks makes more fuss about it than Cohen, who is an expert in the concise and cryptic sound bite:

If you told any other icon or rock star that he must cook every day for an old man and rise at an hour when most good parties are just getting going, he would probably think he had died and was being punished for a life of excess. Presumably Cohen was on the run from just such a life, the complexities of which he has often mapped in his lyrics. He replies that this was not the case, that life in the monastery was essentially the same as everyone else’s life -- “same emotions like love, hate and jealousy that you get in close contact with anyone” -- but lived under a microscope and with no escape.

And no women. This must have been difficult for him.

“There were nuns.”

Precisely. I nearly ask him if it was the celibacy and other privations that have eventually driven him back down from the mountains and into his Los Angeles duplex, but this line of enquiry would be glib and dated. He insists he is not the ladies’ man that he used to be, and that anyway he was always rather surprised by his reputation as Lothario.

Leonard_Cohen.jpgThere's not nearly enough about Cohen's life as a monk, but what Franks offers is solid:

As a monk, Cohen’s name was Jikan, meaning The Silent One. The days there were evidently long and arduous, like some of his songs. “Well, actually, each day was more like two days,” he says. “If you are a senior monk with specialised duties, you get up at 2.30am. The general wake-up is 3am. I would get up a little earlier so that I could brew some coffee and smoke a couple of cigarettes before getting into the day. Then the bell would ring and one would get into robes and go into the meditation hall. Then there would be chanting for an hour, then two hours of sitting meditation, then breakfast in formal silence with a ritualised use of bowls and napkins, then a 15-minute break before the work bell, when you would turn up for the duties of the day. These really involved the maintenance of the facility -- plumbing, shovelling snow, painting walls, making candles, cleaning and cooking.

“That went on till lunch, then there was another small break and an afternoon of work, then dinner and another evening meditation for two or three hours. The days would follow, one upon the other. After a stint as the meditation hall leader, I ended up as Roshi’s cook, or attendant. His diet was very specialised, but I’d known it for years. There was no private space and virtually no private time, we were all working shoulder to shoulder. It was a very simple day. There is a Zen saying: “Like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another.”

And then, many hundreds of words later:

“I’ve never been married, but I’ve lived a married life. It hardly matters. I remember Roshi saying to the monks, ‘You lead hard lives, you rise early, you spend hours on stone floors, but if you want to try something really hard, try marriage. That is the true monastery. Try the monastery of marriage.”

One other note: The lyrics as sung by Alexandra Burke draw from a closing verse composed by the late Jeff Buckley rather than Cohen's original.

For a tour of this song's evolution, listen to a bit of Cohen's version (iTunes), then some of Buckley's cover (iTunes), then Burke's gospel-flavored award-winner (YouTube). Even the irascible Simon Cowell looks floored.

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