It’s 1996, and I’m only one hour into an all-day meditation retreat at a Zen Buddhist temple in Los Angeles. My knees already ache, I’m heartsick over my failing relationship, the room is too warm, and Leonard Cohen’s song “Bird on the Wire” plays relentlessly in my head. On the cushion to my right sits my friend David, who recently returned from studying Zen in Japan for several years. And on the cushion to his right sits none other than the “Dr. Kevorkian of Song” himself, Leonard Cohen. Cohen is scheduled to address us with a brief talk at some point this morning, affording us a merciful few moments to unhitch our legs from the half-lotus position. I discreetly lean forward and glance over at him. He is motionless, transfixed by the terra cotta floor tiles. I sit upright again and continue marking time until that fleeting reprieve.
Such are the random memories that have been coming back to me since Cohen’s death in November. In addition to grieving the loss of a national treasure, I’m finding myself recalling the handful of occasions in which I was fortunate enough to spend time in Cohen’s company at Rinzai-Ji Zen Center in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. I am reminded of his humility, of his intuition and of his fierce devotion to his spiritual practice and the lasting example that it set for me.
It was David who first introduced me to Rinzai-Ji Zen Center and its enigmatic founder, Sasaki Roshi, who died in 2014 at the age of 107. A man of few words, David made no mention of the fact that Cohen had been a student of Sasaki’s since the early 1970s and that he was now a full-time Zen Buddhist monk under Sasaki.
As a huge fan of Cohen’s music, I was at first bewildered to find him in that unlikeliest of venues. Seeing him standing before me for the first time in cumbersome monk’s robes and shaved head was deeply unsettling, and for some reason I harbored doubt about his legitimacy as a Zen monk. However, it would very quickly become evident to me that he was, in fact, the real deal.
Cohen was genteel and kind, and had an air of melancholy that felt very familiar to me. I would come to learn that he had struggled with clinical depression his entire life, just like I had, and that he had tried every remedy imaginable. The only measure of lasting relief he had found came from the training that he’d intermittently sought from Sasaki through the years. At age 60 Cohen had resolved to confront his depression head-on by devoting his life to studying under him.
Under Sasaki’s watchful eye, he immersed himself in Rinzai, the thousand-year-old, incredibly rigorous form of Zen Buddhism that was practiced by samurai and shoguns. Rinzai requires grueling hours and days of motionless sitting in the “Zendo” (Zen meditation hall), contemplation of Zen riddles in order to transcend the trappings of the habitual mind and the occasional whack with a stick issued by an elder monk whether you deserve it or not.
“A lot of people are living perfectly cheerful lives,” Cohen told French filmmaker, Armelle Brusq. “They don’t need to sit in a Zendo for 18 hours a day. I just needed that kind of hospital environment.”
Cohen and Sasaki lived in unheated cabins at Sasaki’s compound atop Mount Baldy in the Angeles National Forest outside L.A., and would start their meditation at 3 a.m. daily. After living thusly for two years, Cohen was ordained by Sasaki as a Rinzai Zen monk, and was given the Buddhist name “Jikan,” which means something akin to, “The silence between thoughts.”
I had heard Sasaki described by turns as a sadist and a savior by his students at Rinzai-Ji, and I saw evidence that both descriptions were accurate. He would often seek to publicly humiliate one or another of the ordained monks, calling them “lazy bums” and “phonies.” Cohen received his fair share of this, but he wholeheartedly embraced the derision of his old-world Zen master. No stranger to self-deprecation, he would assist Sasaki in the endeavor by referring to himself as “Silent Jikan the Worthless Monk.”
“He’s both the friend and the enemy,” Cohen said. “He just is what he is. And of course he’s going to be an enemy to your self-indulgence, an enemy to your laziness, and a friend to your effort. He’s going to be cutting, he’s going to be charming, he’s going to be lovable, he’s going to be deceptive. He’s going to be all the things that he has to be to turn you away from depending on him.”
I had also heard about Sasaki’s powers of intuition, and of uncanny, heart-opening experiences that people would have in his presence. My aforementioned tumultuous morning at the all-day meditation retreat would turn out to be an instance in which it felt like I had received a dose of Sasaki’s juju myself, and that Cohen somehow colluded with him in the administering of it.
In the predawn hours of that particular morning, I had the painful realization that the relationship I had been in for the past several years was ending and that I needed to start looking for my own apartment. This brought feelings of isolation and remorse for being incapable of not hurting the people that I get close to, and these feelings are what had called to mind Cohen’s song, “Bird on the Wire.”
Sleep-deprived and forlorn, I was tempted to skip the all-day meditation retreat, but I decided to go in the hopes of finding solace in the company of familiar people in a familiar place. I arrived to find that Cohen and Sasaki had come from Mount Baldy to participate, as they sometimes did, and that accompanying them was Anjani Thomas, who had sung and played with Cohen on some of his most famous recordings. We all silently took our places on the cushions, the bell sounded, and our long day of meditation began.
I knew from previous experience that this was going to hurt. And my knees and spine did indeed begin to register, all too soon, the blowtorch-grade heat that accompanies prolonged periods of sitting bolt-upright in the half-lotus position. What I hadn’t foreseen, however, was that the day would also mark the onset of a triple-digit heat wave that would make our open-air Zendo increasingly hellish as the morning wore on.
The sweltering air began to make my head swim. White-hot joint pain vied with grief and guilt for my errant attention. I felt lost. Homeless. “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir,” sang the mournful young Leonard Cohen in my head. I tried again and again to return my attention to my breathing, but it got more and more difficult to grab ahold of the oppressive heat with my lungs. “Like a baby stillborn,” he pined, “like a beast with its horn, I have torn everyone who has reached out for me.”
An all-consuming panic slowly rose inside of me. It started to feel as if my very life were going up in flames. And like a man trapped in a burning building, I yearned to leap to my feet and make a break for the door. Mind you, all this time I was taking care to maintain impeccable Rinzai sitting posture, lest I appear to the on-looking Sasaki as other than one who was steadily awakening into enlightenment.
Somewhere amid the din I heard the sound of rustling robes and I realized that Cohen was finally making his way toward the front of the Zendo. As he walked past Sasaki, I noticed that Sasaki seemed to be staring at me through his half-open eyelids. I wondered if his trained eye might have discerned some treacherous nuance in my posture that belied my otherwise Zen visage.
Cohen’s face had a rosy hue from the heat, as I suspect was true of us all at that point. I remember very clearly his opening incantation, and how tenderly he spoke it.
“May you forget who you are, and why you came here today,” he said.
I looked again at Sasaki. He was still gazing at me. I looked back over at Cohen to find that he was now looking at me as well. It occurred to me that, for some ungodly reason, neither David nor anyone else around me was availing himself of this sanctioned opportunity to escape the pitiless clench of the half-lotus position. I gritted my teeth and opted out as well.
“Make no mistake,” Cohen continued. “There is no escape from suffering for any of us who are here today. Not in this austere Zendo. Not out there beyond these walls.”
I felt at once tormented and comforted by his words. I wished he would look at someone else while he spoke.
“There is no home for any of us but this heat,” he said. “We have not but to go directly to it — to sit in it until we’re burned away entirely.”
A lump rose in my throat as I glanced back and forth between him and Sasaki. I tried to gulp it down, but it held fast. It is not uncommon for people to have emotional breakthroughs during meditation retreats, to burst out crying, but I was not one of those people. I was a samurai. A shogun in training.
I can’t recall verbatim the remainder of Cohen’s words, and I want to be cognizant here of the fact there is a special place in hell for those who would presume to paraphrase his eloquence. Suffice it to say that they pertained to the fact that attachment to ego causes us suffering by dividing us from everything and everyone, and to getting out of one’s own way in order to experience true love.
He concluded with, “So I say to you once more, may you forget who you are, and why you came here today.”
As he walked back to his cushion, he nodded at Anjani, and she stood up. She closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and began to sing a sweet, slow rendering of “Bird on the Wire.”
It felt as if I were dreaming. I looked again at Sasaki. He still had that fearsome gaze fixed squarely on me. Tears welled in my eyes and ran down my face.
When Anjani had finished, she seated herself again on her cushion. The bell sounded and the meditation resumed. Through tears I looked again at Sasaki. He now had his gaze downturned, evidently satisfied that his Criss Angel Mindfreak theatrics had sufficiently upended me for the time being.
I sat next to Cohen at lunch that day. As we ate in silence, I kept looking for a nod or a knowing look that would indicate that he had some inkling of what had transpired for me that morning. He gave no such indication. He instead plied the totality of his being to his meal. I followed his lead.
Cohen had already lived full-time in this heady atmosphere for several years by this point in time, and would continue to do so for several more. In 1999, he would leave Mount Baldy and Sasaki’s instruction. Ever partial to a Biblical allusion, he would characterize it as the day that he “went down from the mountain.”
When pressed by interviewers, he would say that there simply came a moment when he realized that he no longer needed to study under Sasaki. And of the lifelong depression that he had sought to confront there, he would simply say that it had passed. He didn’t seem inclined to speculate at length on the particulars of these developments.
After leaving Sasaki’s tutelage, Cohen would write a collection of poems called Book of Longing, which he dedicated to Sasaki. The following is an excerpt from “Leaving Mount Baldy.”
I left my robes hanging on a peg
in the old cabin
where I had sat so long
and slept so little.
I finally understood
I had no gift
for Spiritual Matters.
It seems that he had forgotten who he was and why he had come. May we all be so blessed.