Leonard Cohen, The Baleful Buddhist

Gerry Kopelow

Some time ago I found a book about how to be happy. At four  hundred plus pages long, it was advertised as an in-depth review  of the mainline world religions, but it also examined an  eclectic assortment of spiritual systems from various cultures  and historical periods. Written by a well accredited theological  scholar,  the book claimed to be a thorough compendium of  techniques for developing happiness in this life. But after  fifteen or so minutes of study, I realized that I had not  encountered any reference to Buddhism, indeed, the subject was  not even listed in the table of contents. The index included  only one page-reference, which turned out to be a single sentence in which the author wrote, “I am not going to discuss  Buddhism in this book, because it is so sad.”

Perhaps some non-practitioners view Buddhism as sad because it  seems to be preoccupied with suffering. In fact the first  statement uttered by the Buddha after his awakening was  translated from the original texts as `Suffering is real’. All subsequent teachings flow from this first statement: The Buddha spent his post-enlightenment years disseminating techniques aimed at eradicating suffering. For those preoccupied with  avoiding rather than eliminating suffering, the word itself conjures up memories of past suffering or fears of future suffering. So Buddhism itself might seem unpleasant, and, as the author of the book mentioned above said, even sad.

Leonard Cohen, originally an angst-ridden Jew from Montreal, is perceived by some to be a world-class purveyor of sad. Usually clad all in black, a costume sonically mirrored by his darkly sombre singing voice, he and his music are not usually described as cheerful. I was present at one of Cohen’s early concerts in the late sixties: Sitting in a chair in the auditorium of creaky old Taché Hall at the University of Manitoba, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar, he played and sang quietly for about seventy five serious-looking people.  Back then I, too, was an angst-ridden Jew (from the north end of Winnipeg) and I was as serious as the rest of the audience. Happily (or sadly), I was profoundly engaged by his poetic but doleful view of the world.

Flash forward thirty-some years, and the picture has changed dramatically. I am no longer angst-ridden, in fact I am pretty happy most of the time. This I attribute to three decades of working with Buddhist meditation practices, which I now teach here in Winnipeg. During this period I followed Leonard Cohen’s  musical career, and recently I was delighted to hear that after several years without any new offerings, he has finally released another CD, entitled `Ten New Songs.’ I don’t recall ever seeing a music review on the Faith Page of this newspaper, but this interesting collection calls for a few comments.

Cohen wasn’t  producing much music during the past decade because he, too, was busy with Buddhist meditation practices. Naturally he chose a particularly austere version of Zen Buddhism, which he pursued under the tutelage of a Japanese master in a monastery near San Francisco. Because he uses a familiar English vocabulary, without technical references to Buddhist philosophy, the lyrics of his new songs read, as before, like richly textured poetry. The tonal modalities and the tempos are deep and slow, and the introspective and metaphysical reflections alluded to in the words might, once again, make the listener feel that Cohen is still focussed on the sad, the poignant, and the deeply confusing aspects of life. And so he is, but in a way quite different than before.

Buddhism is not really preoccupied with suffering. What Buddha actually said was, `Dukha is real’. In the Pali language which the Buddha spoke, `Du’ means bad, or unwholesome, and `kha’ means formations, or states. These formations are mental, physical, or emotional in nature. The unwholesomeness refers to all kinds of discomforts, irritations, frustrations, confusions, anxieties, and pains, large and small. So Dukha is a broad word that encompasses a wide range of conditions and perceptions. The goal of Buddhist practise is to replace this Dukha, these unwholesome formations, with Sukha, or wholesome formations. A close listen to `Ten New Songs’ indicates that Cohen has achieved some insight into this process.

It would spoil the fun of the dedicated listener if I was to clinically unpack the beautifully compact language that Cohen has set to music. But let me take one song, my favourite from the CD, and point to a couple of the allusions that echo a Buddhist world-view I share:

The song is called ‘Here It Is’. It is built around heavy, dukha-laden images balanced by  evocations of what seems to be their emotional opposites – “Here is your cart, your cardboard and piss, and here is your love for all of this / Here is your wine, and your drunken fall, and here is your love, your love for it all / Here is your sickness, your bed and your pan, and here is your love for the woman, the man.” All of this sounds serious, and it points to the unsparingly realistic world view of the practitioner: Yes, the world is full of all kinds of grief, but having taken a good look, we see that embedded in the unwholesome is the possibility, in fact the promise, of the wholesome.  As Cohen says in the chorus that is repeated four times, “May everyone live, and may everyone die, hello my love, and my love, Goodbye.” We Buddhists see this life as short, and subject to many discomforts, but we also see that developing a clear view of reality points us directly to love.

Buddhism is not really a religion, but rather an esoteric technology, a technology concerned with the transformation of consciousness. One’s personality or judgment is not subsumed or diminished by undertaking this work, but inevitably, incrementally, illuminated.  So Leonard Cohen still sounds like Leonard Cohen, but now he is less occupied with confusion and more interested in insight, less concerned with bitterness and pain, and more interested in compassion. Like Shakespeare, whose penetrating revelations of the realities of life were encompassed by a vast affection for humanity, Cohen has turned from cool irony to the warmth of kindness, from stylish despair to realistic optimism.