Leonard Cohen: 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
1 September 1998

“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.

Cohen has, in fact, been a friend of Joshu Sasaki ever since 1973, though he has not made a fuss about it, and votaries will get clues to this part of his existence only from a couple of tiny elliptical vignettes in his 1978 book, Death of a Lady’s Man, and occasional songs—like “If It Be Your Will”—that, like his 1984 collection of psalms, Book of Mercy, express absolute submission. Apart from his 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year- old daughter, Lorca, the Japanese roshi seems to be the one still point in Cohen’s endlessly turning life, and now he accompanies the man he calls his friend to Zen centers from Vienna to Puerto Rico, and goes through punishing retreats each month in which he does nothing but sit zazen, twenty-four hours a day for seven days on end.

The rest of the time he works around the Zen center, shoveling snow, scrubbing floors, and—most enthusiastically—working around the kitchen (he tells me, with mischievous pride, that he has a certificate from the county of San Bernardino that qualifies him to work as waiter, busboy or cook). For the monk here known as Jikan (or “Silent One”), the things he’s famous for—a command of words, beautiful suits, a hunger for ideas, and a hypnotist’s ease at charming the world—are thrown aside.

“In the zendo,” he tells me, not unhappily, “all of this disappears.” (“This” referring, I think, to his name, his past, the life he carries around within him.) “You don’t notice if this woman’s beautiful or ugly. If that man smells or doesn’t smell. Whoever you’re sitting next to, you just see their pain. And when you’re sitting, you feel nothing but the pain. And sometimes it goes, and then it’s back again. And you can’t think of anything else. Just the pain.” He pauses (and the chanteur/enchanteur slips out again). “And, of course, it’s the same with other kinds of pain, like broken hearts.”

The icon who’s been entertained and idolized by everyone from Prince Charles and Georges Pompidou to Joni Mitchell and Michelle Phillips, the regular visitor to the top of the European charts who’s inspired not one tribute album (like most legends), but a dozen worldwide, the Officer of theOrder of Canada recently described, in The United States of Poetry, as “perhaps the continent’s most successful poet,” seems to thrive on this. Fle’s too happy to write anymore, he tells me soon after I arrive (though, one day later, he’s showing me things he’s writing, toward a new Book of Longing). And, though the face is still strikingly reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s—especially if he were playing Harold Bloom—he’s well hidden in the bobble cap that his roshi “commanded” him to wear. “This whole practice is mostly about terrifying you,” he says happily. “But there’s a lot to be gained in those terrors. It gets you so efficiently into a certain place.”

And the place is one that Cohen has been journeying toward all his life, in a sense. “There’s a bias against religious virtue here,” he assures me, grinning one morning, as bells toll outside and I smell sweet incense in the air and hear clappers knocking in the distance, “and it’s very appealing. So you never have the feeling that it’s Sunday school. And you never have the feeling that you’re abandoning some cavalier life, or getting into some goody-goody enterprise. Not at all. Not at all.” When a Buddhist magazine recently asked Cohen to conduct an interview with Sasaki, he gladly agreed, provided they could talk about “wine, women, and money.” And to be sure, we’ve hardly been introduced before the disarming sinner- songwriter is using “pussy” and “shunyata” in the same sentence.

It’s not so much that Cohen has given up the world—he still has a duplex that he bought with two friends in Los Angeles, and when I visit him at two o’clock one morning, I hear the crackle of a transistor radio in his bedroom. The man with a gift for being in tune with the times is still providing the songs that are heard on the sound track of Oliver Stone’s state-of-the-art “Natural Born Killers,” appearing at Rebecca De Mornay’s side at Hollywood functions not so long ago, and inspiring a new generation of grunge poets—to the point where Kurt Cobain famously sang, “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally.” But he’s nonetheless managed to come to L.A., archetypal center of surface and self-absorption, and turn it into a high, cold mountain training more rigorous than the army.

In some ways, he’s been there since the beginning. His songs, after all, have always been about obedience and war, pain and attention and surrender, and he’s always seemed a curiously old-fashioned, even forbidding figure who abhors clutter and goes it alone and yearns to be on his knees as well as on his toes—focused and penetrating and wild. The dark skies and spare spaces and mythic shapes around Mount Baldy feel uncannily like the landscape of a Leonard Cohen song.

Besides, the self-styled “voice of suffering” has never chosen to diversify his themes; he just goes deeper and deeper into them. The refrain that lights up his recent song “Democracy” actually appears in his novel Beautiful Losers from thirty years ago; the poem he recited as a prologue to volume one of “Rare on Air,” the KCRW compilation-album series, was one he wrote for his first book, composed in part when he was in high school. Even thirty years ago, when he was known as a woman-hungry, acid- dropping, enfant-terrible provocateur, he was writing, “Prayer is translation. A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered.”

And for nearly half a century he’s been slipping in and out of view, playing games with the entity known as “Leonard Cohen.” There’s the short, upper-middle-class Jewish kid taking lessons in hypnotism, forming a country-and-western band called the Buck- skin Boys and, while studying English at McGill, reciting verse over jazz at midnight like some wintry Kerouac. There’s the slightly older figure, scrupulously dissolute, and already the author of six books when he sang his poem “Suzanne” over the phone to Judy Collins and she eventually persuaded him to sing it himself, this uncertain-seeming theologian, appearing at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Isle of Wight Festival, and on the client list of John Hammond (the man who discovered both Dylan and Springsteen). There’s the leading young poet in Canada not only delivering “Loneliness and History” lectures and composing a whole opera in the sixteenth-century verse-form of The Faerie Queene, but also losing his rights to “Suzanne,” with the result that his first and most famous song to this day brings him no money at all.

He lived on the Greek island with his Norwegian love in the sixties. He acquired a “small, cupboard-sized room” in the Chelsea Hotel, where Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix came through now and then. He took over a 1,200-acre homestead in Franklin, Tennessee (rented from the writer of “Bye, Bye Love” for $75 a month)—and posed for photos in a Stetson. He got dissected by the novelist Michael Ondaatje in a book-length work of literary criticism; sold excerpts from his work to Cavalier, the skin magazine; appeared at one concert riding a white horse, and greeted an audience in Hamburg with the cry, “Sieg Heil!”

Cohen showed, in fact, an almost disquieting readiness to live out every romantic myth, from staying in a garret to moving to Greece (for its “philosophic climate”), to telling all his women that being true to them meant being untrue to his Muse. What this provoked, understandably, was a sense in many quarters that he was brashly courting success by pretending to ignore it. “If you listen carefully,” The New York Times said in 1973, “you are sometimes rewarded with a poet’s profound thoughts, sometimes with a pop star’s put-on.”

Undeterred, Cohen continued to subvert his success with puckish gestures, following a book of poems called The Spice-Box of Earth with another called Flowers for Hitler, scribbling up aphorisms on walls—“Change is the only aphrodisiac”—and then ascribing them to the Kama Sutra. Even his career seemed a game he was playing, as he teamed up with, of all people, Phil Spector, for a 1977 album, “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” in which dark and serious inquiries into the nature of the soul got buried under a footthumping Wall of Sound (Cohen himself called it “a grotesque masterpiece”). The final irony of all was that this overblown Vegas casino of a production actually may have paved the way for the fuller, richer sounds of later albums that brought Cohen surging back onto the charts in his mid- fifties.

Indeed, Cohen always seemed to have a gift for the last word. By the 1990s, such skeptical magazines as Entertainment Weekly, which had always found him an irresistible target for put-downs, were entitling articles “Seven Reasons Leonard Cohen Is the Next Best Thing to God.” The head of one of New York’s most prestigious publishing houses was telling me that Cohen has “the best design sense of anyone I’ve ever met,” and the man who hadn’t performed live in New York for ten years was No. 1 in Norway for seventeen weeks. Even The New York Times, his unwearying opponent for twenty-five years, was concluding, in 1995, “He is pretty extraordinary, when all is said and done.”

Now, as we sit in his cabin one cold December morning, a string of Christmas lights twinkling sadly from the roadside shack across the street, “Mike loves [heart symbol] Suzie” scrawled into the pavement, he’s telling me that he makes no claims to piety or knowledge: his training here is just a useful response to the “predicament of his life.” This “connection—the unavoidable presence of the Other—has driven us to religion,” he says, explaining why he thinks “the great religion is the great work of art.” We “form ourselves around these problems,” he goes on. “These problems exist prior to us, and we gather ourselves, almost molecularly, we gather ourselves around these perplexities. And that’s what a human is: a gathering around a perplexity.”

He sips some coffee from a cup with the logo of “The Future” on it, beside him the thick notebooks where poems hundreds of verses long will get condensed, often, into a single six-verse song. Around us, as we sit, almost nothing else except a bottle of Sparkletts water, a few candles, a toothbrush and, tucked into a light switch, a picture of the Winged Victory. Cohen has not slept, most likely, for six days. “It’s driven us to art,” he says, returning to his theme of the Other. “I mean, it’s so perplexing—the humiliations, the glories that are so abundant— and it’s such a dangerous undertaking. I was just looking through my notebooks, and I saw something nice. It was: ‘I set out for love, but I did not know I’d be caught in the grip of an undertow. To be swept to a shore, where the sea needs to go, with a child in my arms, and a chill in my soul, and my heart the size of a begging-bowl.’ ”

And even on this lofty perch, with nothing visible but rock and tree and the occasional sign prohibiting the throwing of snowballs, he doesn’t deny the “fixed self” that awaits him whenever he comes down from the mountain, and in fact goes out of his way to downplay his presence on the mountaintop. “Everyone here is fucked up and desperate,” he says brightly. “That’s why they’re here. You don’t come to a place like this unless you’re desperate.” Yet over and over, amid the calculated irreverence, the gamesmanship, and the crazy-wisdom subversiveness—one of the reasons he became a monk two years ago, he says, was “Roshi wanted me to do so for tax purposes”—I see something touching and genuine truly coming through. Leonard Cohen, I realize, is really, really trying, with all his body and his soul, to simplify himself as strictly as he does his word-drunk verses.

One morning at dawn, as we talk about Van Morrison and Norman Mailer and how “living in England is like living in a cabbage,” Cohen gets to talking of Cuba, and the time, just after the revolution, when he was walking along the beach in his Canadian Army khaki shorts with his camping knife, imagining himself the only North American on the island, and got arrested as the first member of an invading force.

“So anyway, there I was, on the beach in Varadero, speculating on my destiny, when suddenly I found myself surrounded by sixteen soldiers with guns. They arrested me, and the only words I knew at the time were ‘Amistad de pueblo.’ So I kept saying, ‘Amigo! Amistad de pueblo!’ and finally they started greeting me. And they gave me a necklace of shells and a necklace of bullets and everything was great.”

Then, suddenly, he stops. “What time is it?” I tell him and he says, “I shouldn’t be talking about my adventures when we’re about to listen to a wonderful teisho.” And Leonard Cohen disappears into the black-robed disciple again, and into a reverent silence.

Another day, another tale as short and abstract and mythic, almost, as any of his ballads about worshipping at the altar of beauty, as he suddenly volunteers to tell me about his last girlfriend. “When I met Rebecca [De Mornay],” he says, “all kinds of thoughts came into my mind, as how could they not when faced with a woman of such beauty? And they got crisscrossed in my mind. But she didn’t let it go further than that: my mind. Except it did. And finally she saw I was a guy who just couldn’t come across.”

“Come across?”

“In the sense of being a husband and having more children and the rest.” He stops. “And she was right, of course. But she was kind enough to forgive me. I had breakfast with her the other day, and I told her, ‘I know why you forgave me. Because I really, really tried.’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ ”

End of story, end of song.

At times, as I listened, spellbound against my will by this man with beautiful manners and a poet’s rare diction, moving back and forth between hippie existentialist and Old World scholar, now referring to “bread” and “tokes” and “beating the rap,” now talking in a high-pitched tone of “ancient” and “dismal” and “predicament,” I could see the coyote trickster who’s been working the press for three decades or more. I felt disconcerted, almost, by his very niceness, his openness, his courtesy, as he continually kept thanking me for “being kind enough to come here,” and tended to my every need as if I were the celebrity and he the poor journalist and referred to “what you’re nice enough to call my career.” I felt there was something excessive to his modesty, his unusually articulate and quickwitted sentences bemoaning his lack of articulateness and sharpness (“I’m sorry. You get this kind of spaciness at moments in retreats. They say zazen brings short-term memory loss.”), his claiming not to know, after twenty years in L.A., how long it takes to drive to Santa Barbara.

1 saw the seasoned seducer whom his friend Anjelica Huston recently called “part wolf, part angel,” and discovered how he could put “confidence” and “artist” together as easily as “pilgrim” and “mage.” Certainly a man so meticulous in clothes and manner was not going to be careless in his verbal presentation of self.

Yet the trouble was, Cohen seemed more wise to this than anyone. “Secretly,” he told me cheerily, “the sin of pride as it’s manifested here is that we feel we’re like the marines of the spiritual world: tougher, more reckless, more daring, more brave.” Asked about his early years, he confesses, “I think I was more interested in the poetic life and everything around it than the thing itself.” Nominating himself as “one of the great whiners,” he says that the roshi looks at him sometimes and says, “Attention to the world: need more Buddhism!”

And so, as time passes, I really do begin to feel I am watching a complex man trying to come clear, a still jangled, sometimes angry soul making a heroic attempt to reduce itself to calm. As day passes into night and day again, he comes into focus, and out again, like the sun behind clouds, now blazing with a lucent high intensity, now more like the difficult brooder you might imagine from the records. “He’s a tiger,” I remember a woman in New York telling me, “a very complicated man. Complicated in a very grown-up way. I mean, he makes Dylan seem childish.” The first time she met him, he congratulated her on a book she’d written. As their meal went on, he added, “Your writing is a lot more interesting than you are.”

Cruelty has always been as disconcerting a part of his package as perversity. Yet when I talked to the people who tour with him, I felt I was speaking to the Apostles. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as gracious, as graceful, as generous as Leonard,” says Perla Batalla, who has been singing with him for ten years. “Once I’d been out on the road with Leonard, I couldn’t go out with anyone else.” His other backup singer, Julie Christensen, left a newborn baby at home to go out on tour with him—having seen her friends who’d been in his band come back “changed, philosophically changed, really on this kind of heightened awareness level.” His longtime vocalist, Jennifer Warnes, recorded a whole album of Cohen songs she wanted to bring again before the public.

All of them talk of how Cohen the singer seems of a piece with Cohen the Zen practitioner—how he made them sing and sing and sing the same song until sometimes they’d break into tears, and wore them out with his indefatigable three-hour, twelve- encore concerts. But all speak of his tours as if they were a kind of spiritual training. “He’ll give the same attention to the president of the country, or to someone who’s just walked up to him on the street,” says Batalla, recalling how he rode on the bus like just another technician. Others mention his racing off to buy aspirin for them when they’re sick, or inviting them to his hotel room at night to drink hot chocolate made from the sink.

“In the ancient concert halls of Europe,” says Christensen, “you got this feeling that you’d really have to run if you weren’t telling the truth. It was a mystery bigger than me, and if I’d figured it out, I would be bigger than it.” Then, almost sheepishly, she adds, “I thought that kind of thing was corny before I toured with Leonard.” Batalla sometimes visits his home just to sit in absolute silence with her boss.

And so the days on the mountain go on, and every day at dawn young monks with beautiful faces appear at my door with trays of food, and every day, when I visit Cohen in his cabin, he gives me green tea in a wineglass, or shows me paintings—flowing nudes and haggard self-portraits—he’s done on his computer, or reads me poems about the dissolution of self from a book he is collecting, which, like all his best work, sound like love songs and prayers and both, addressed to a goddess or to God.

One morning, in his bathroom, I come upon The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen.

“I like the fact they distinguish between Buddhism and Zen,” he says when I come out.

“What is the difference?”

He disappears—good Zen solution— into the bathroom to clean cups. Another day, as the retreat is drawing to a close, the sky above my window gray and shriven and severe, he shows up with his hands dirty from fixing his toilet, and I try to get him to talk about his writing. “For me,” he says, his voice soft and beautiful, with a trace of Canada still hiding inside it, “the process is really more like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey-cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it. And it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful”—you can hear the cadences of his songs here—“and yet there’s something inevitable about it.” But most of the writers he admires, pre-empting one’s criticism again, “are just incredible messes, as human beings. Wonderful and invigorating company, but I pity their wives and their husbands and their children.”

A crooked smile.

As for the songs, “I’ve always held the song in high regard,” he says, “because songs have got me through so many sinks of dishes and so many humiliating courting events.” Sometimes, he goes on, holding me with his commanding eloquence, his ill- shaven baritone compounded of Gauloises, Courvoisier and a lifetime of late nights, he’ll catch a snatch of one of his songs on the radio, “and I’ll think: these songs are really good. And it’s really wonderful that they have been written, and more wonderful that they should have found a place in the heart. And sometimes I’ll hear my voice, and I think: this guy has got to be the great comedian of his generation. These are hilarious: hilariously inept, hilariously solemn and out of keeping with the times; hilariously inappropriate.”

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, “1 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 a

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is the author of fifteen books, most recently Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, twinned works on living with uncer­tainty and impermanence.