Leonard Koan
Influences and trends of Zen Buddhism in the songs of Leonard Cohen

(oddly enough i came up with the title before seeing this node. How delightfully convenient}

The first song on Leonard Cohen's first album, and one of his better known songs in general, "Suzanne," parallels the experience of a woman and the experience of Christ, saying of Christ that, "You think maybe you"ll trust him," and of Suzanne, the woman, "You know that you can trust her," because both have, "touched your perfect body with {their} mind{s}." From the beginning Cohen's lyrics are a blend of the sacred and the sensual, flowing back and forth between them often as if they were the same thing. This mixture of sense and sacred, often crystallized in moments and things, seems present in most of what Mr. Cohen writes. Knowing this, it becomes especially interesting to note that between 1994 and 1999, Cohen lived at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, spending much of his time in meditation, and ultimately becoming an ordained Zen monk . Looking at the often ascetic practices of Zen Buddhist monks as well and the Zen doctrine of emptiness, it seems difficult to see how a man who"s vision of the sacred is so bound up with his vision of the world of sense and emotion and whose lyrics often ring with notions of ineffable presence and intangible essence could align himself with, or perhaps consign himself to, Zen Buddhism. It is the hope of this essay to, by looking at the album Cohen composed during his time at the center in comparison to his earlier work, trace some thread of experience through the music, to see how Zen has affected Leonard Cohen's worldview.

Cohen's album The Future , the last album he released before his retreat, is full of grand sweeping songs with grand sweeping subjects and language. Songs with titles such as "Democracy" and "The Future" attempt to be no less bold than their titles imply. Both songs seem near prophecy, in "The Future" saying, "Your servant here, he has been told/ to say it clear to say it cold/ it"s over it aint going any further ... get ready for the future:/ it is murder."(lns 24-27,30,31) and in "Democracy" he spells out the places and sources of this Democracy which he sees "Coming to the U.S.A." These are songs of ideas, ideas on the scale of nations. Ten New Songs , the album released after his time at Mount Baldy, by contrast is very personal in its lyrics. The first three songs are in the first person, drifting into the second person as he addresses some other in the past or present. In the first song, "In My Secret Life," he begins with, "I saw you this morning/ You were moving so fast."(lns 1-2) In the second song, "A Thousand Kisses Deep," he notes that, "summoned now to deal/ with your invincible defeat/ you live your life as if it"s real."(lns 5-7) In the third song, "That Don"t Make it Junk," he asks, "How come you called me here tonight?/ How come you bother with my heart at all?"(lns 9,10) The "you"s that Cohen addresses in these songs are real figures, characters he must interact with, and by virtue of his pronouns, he draws the listeners and readers into the song, making the lyrics tight and intimate, different from the sweeping topics of his previous album. No longer is he the lone prophet of an apocalyptic future, but rather a simple person living his life in relation to others.

Looking closer at the lyrics of, "The Future," we see not only a lonely voice but a longing voice, spelled out for us plainly. The song opens with, "Give me back my broken night/ my secret room, my secret life/ it"s lonely here, / there"s no one left to torture." He says here plainly that, "it"s lonely here," but it is augmented with the qualifier -- the loneliness is due to a lack of subjects to torture. This is not a song of interrelation, but a song of self. The only relation to others in the song is these requests, these, "Give me"s which get quite graphic and destructive, and the statement, "You don"t know me from the wind/ you never will, you never did." Compare this to the relation to the 2nd person in, "In my Secret Life," where he tells the subject, "And I miss you so much./ There"s no one in sight." There is no missing of others in "The Future," except as tools. Yet the wording and the ideas are curiously similar. In both songs, he tells the subject that he feels alone and that there is no one else around. To draw the parallel further, the first stanza of, "In My Secret Life," ends "And we"re still making love/ In My Secret Life," while the first stanza of, "The Future," ends, "And lie beside me, baby./ That"s an order," followed in the next stanza by, "Give me crack and anal sex." These are both shown, in this way, to be songs of loneliness and longing, but they take the same feeling in very different directions. The narrator of, "The Future," takes the path of, "absolute control over every living soul"(ln 5) requesting the subject, perhaps even the world, to give to him despite their lack of intimacy with him. "In My Secret Life," deals with the longing in a personal way, acknowledging the other and dealing more with the past as opposed to the path of, well, the future. There is no desire to control in, "Secret Life," only a sort of passivity, an acceptance. The narrator of "Secret Life" requests nothing, and only bites his lip and buys what he"s told. (lns 34,35)

Another theme that presents itself in The Future is a notion of some sort of essential nature. While not immediately obvious, many of the songs are suffused with this notion. Take firstly the refrain of, "Anthem:"

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That"s how the light gets in.
This presents a very interesting take on the notion of essential nature, and colors our reading of other passages. Cohen here calls attention to the imperfect nature of existence but at the same time uses this imperfection to point out the true beauty of everything. There is some thing, some light that enters things by virtue of their imperfection. The line, "Ring the bells that still can ring," emphasizes this, implying bells that no longer can ring and yet exist toward some ineffable purpose, perhaps only to exist as beauty.
The song, "Democracy," probably illustrates this best. Firstly, all but the last stanza of the song begin, "It"s coming," referring to Democracy. The song attempts to describe this Democracy by describing where it is coming from, "a hole in the air ... those nights in Tiananmen Square...from the fires of the homeless, from the ashes of the gay." (lns 1,2,8,9) In the song itself Cohen talks somewhat directly about his conception of this Democratic essence, saying, "I"m sentimental, if you know what I mean:/ I love the country but I can"t stand the scene."(lns 51,52) Cohen here separates the reality of the United States from his ideal conception of it, saying he loves the ideal but the place itself, the "scene" he can"t stand. Cohen here clings to a conception, an essence that lies behind a reality. His exact view is further elaborated with the lyrics earlier on in the song, "it"s coming from the feel/ that it ain"t exactly real/ or it"s real but it ain"t exactly there."(lns 3,4) Something that"s real but isn"t exactly there touches exactly on this subject of essence, Democracy as the song envisions it is an ideal, is a reality behind reality, is an essence.

It is important to note that the recognition of essences is bound up here with the recognition of the past and the passage of time. Moments and people have essences here, have deeper truths than the realities that they encompass. This can be seen in the song, "Closing Time." This song is the description of a single moment, that of Closing Time at a bar, in terms of that time"s true reality, that is the aspects of that single Closing Time that extend outwards to greater significance. Cohen himself described closing time as, "that wild, or beautiful, or terrible time when things reach their maximum point of expansion, and then begin to contract." The language of the song shows this with typical Leonard Cohen over the top of sensation language, "and I swear it happened just like this:/ a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss./ the Gates of Love they budged an inch/ I can"t say much has happened since/ but CLOSING TIME." This time, as described here, is not just once closing time at one bar, though it partakes of that. It is a thousand closing times in a thousand different bars and, indeed, the same experience modified to fit a thousand other scenarios. It is an idea, time made into essence, or perhaps the essence found behind a time. Thus are essence and time bound, at least in this body of work though by no means exclusively.

This notion of essence is also present in Ten New Songs -- in an altered form. Instead of holding onto and exalting definitions that are not quite present and instead behind, as The Future seems to, Ten New Songs recognizes essences as at least somewhat mutable, recognizes life as changing, if somewhat reluctantly. We already saw, in, "In My Secret Life," a certain attachment to past coupled with an acceptance of the progress of time and definition. In many ways, the notion of the, "Secret Life," can be seen as a way to come to terms with the changing nature of essences, of time. The second stanza illustrates this most clearly:
I smile when I"m angry
I cheat and I lie.
I do what I have to do
To get by.
But I know what is wrong,
And I know what is right
And I"d die for the truth
In My Secret Life. (lns 9-16)
The assertion that he does what he has to, "to get by," without regard to his personal moral and ethical code, shows in some way the speaker"s acceptance that life is to be lived as it comes and using the means one has at one"s disposal. However, these actions oppose, rather than becoming, the personal code. The Secret Life here is the preservation of this individual"s morality in the face of a world where it is not necessarily applicable. This still shows an attachment to some sort of essence, to the, "secret life," and the holding of this life in some position away from public life. The next stanza, however, addresses this, saying, "I"ll be marching through the morning,/ Marching through the night/ Moving cross the borders/ Of My Secret Life."(lns 20-23) The song ends with the lines, "And it"s crowded and cold/ In My Secret Life." (lns 48, 49) The first quote begins the process of integration of this inner world with the outer one, moving across the borders of the secret life and making it one with the other life. The second quote leaves us with a Secret Life that"s altered, and no longer enough -- the secret life, while he may still be making love in it and may still be with the subject he addresses, the Secret Life has become crowded -- perhaps he addresses multiple past lovers, keeping them in his secret life, and perhaps the burden has become to much for him. Whatever the reason, the secret life has lost the warmth associated with it, and is simply cold, cold and crowded with memory and dream -- no longer enough.

The next song on the album, "A Thousand Kisses Deep," is in some respects an answer to, "Secret Life"s conception of the essence of time. Like, "Secret Life," it introduces in its titles some sort of alternate state, this time the state of being a thousand kisses deep. Yet unlike the secret life, being a thousand kisses deep is less connected to the past and to places in time, and more connected to the act of being. In the first stanza, we are given the lines:
The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat.
You win a while, and then it"s done --
Your little winning streak.
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat,
You live you life as it it"s real,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.(lns 1-8)
In the first two lines, Cohen equates love, or at least romance, with simple betting, with luck and finance, and by saying the odds are there to beat implies some sort of essence behind the act of trying, trying for love or for success. In the next two lines, however, the song acknowledges the transience of these pursuits -- one may win at them for a while, and one may lose for a while but ultimately it"s arbitrary. In other words, this too shall pass. The rest of the stanza marks the addressee"s dealings with his defeat at the hands of an arbitrary existence or, as the song puts it, an invincible defeat -- and the solution is to live life as if it were real, in this state of being referred to as A Thousand Kisses Deep.

But what exactly, is this state. We know that it is a means of dealing with the invincible defeat suffered at the hands of randonimity and that it is, in part, living one"s life as if it were real. Living one"s life as if it were real brings us once again this notion of essence, this time bound up wholly in the passage of time; no longer are we dealing with the essence of a single moment in time, nor with nations and grand ideas, but with life and the things that make it up -- the odds which are there to beat. To live one"s life as if it were real implies that the reality of life is a falsehood. Coupled with the statements earlier in the stanza, those pointing out the arbitrariness of existence and the pursuit of love and material goods, a definition of being a thousand kisses deep is constructed. It is a state of realization, knowledge of reality and life as a procession of odds and chances that, if one is to accept it, one must live life in the knowledge of this state and yet denying it for practicality sake -- to live one"s life as reality in the face of the knowledge of its falsehood. This is, in many ways, an answer to the problem of the secret life; it is maintaining the secret life to hold memory and meaning and yet keeping its borders permeable and, indeed, knowing that the borders are false, that the secret life is a mere convenience of existence, if a necessary one.

Looking at Cohen"s music this way, and having deciphered at least in part his language of the mind and self, the Buddhist influences on his work begin to show themselves. In particular, resonances become apparent between Ten New Songs and the condensed language of the Heart Sutra, a text of Mahayana Buddhism, of which Zen is a part. The core of the Sutra presents these words describing existence:
Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is not other than emptiness. In the same way, feelings, discriminations, compositional factors and consciousness are empty ... In that way, all phenomena are empty, without characteristics, unproduced, unceasing, undefiled, not undefiled, not decreasing, not increasing. ... In emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no discrimination, no compositional factors, no consciousness, no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no form, no sound, no odor, no taste, no object of touch, no phenomenon. There is no eye constituent, no mental constituent, up to and including no mental consciousness constituent. There is no ignorance, no existence of ignorance, up to and including no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. In the same way, there is no suffering, no source, no cessation, no path, no exalted wisdom, no attainment, and also no non-attainment.
This passage gives something approaching a logical argument, each step following from the last, from the supposition that form and emptiness are essentially the same thing. After all, feelings are and perceive forms, and thus are themselves empty. If the feelings are empty, so must be the organs of feeling, and the mental processes that organize these feelings together, up to and including the highest levels of the mind. Thus, all thoughts, even those not connected to the world, are empty of any true essence. For this is the nature of emptiness: the notion that forms are simply forms and nothing else -- forms are emptiness and emptiness is form, in the language of the Sutra. By destroying the notions of attainment and path by dissolving them along with the world, so that even acknowledgement of the conflation of emptiness with form as the proper path to wisdom is an empty path, the Heart Sutra seems to set up an unassailable reality, or irreality. In other words, it sets up for its follower a sort of "invincible defeat".

Using this key we can now truly unpack the phrase, "invincible defeat," and see how much indeed this method of thought has impressed itself on the poetry of Ten New Songs. It means firstly what it seems to mean, a defeat that is itself undefeatable, for it is the ultimate realization of a universe of emptiness. At the same time, however, it is a defeat that grants invincibility to the defeated, but opening the victim"s eyes to the truth of reality. Thirdly, it is unifying contradiction, an undefeatable defeat, and fits into the language of the Sutra, which juxtaposes opposites within definitions: it is both attainment and nonattainment, both victory and defeat. This notion of form and emptiness united joins with the conception of essence seen in Cohen"s work on this album. The secret life with permeable and illusory borders is a recognition of the form of the world and life while at the same time realizing the irreality of this form, the illusory nature of the secret life. Likewise, living a thousand kisses deep, living one"s life as if it were real is some means of addressing a world that one has acknowledged as empty. This is a far cry from the sometime solipsistic prophecy of The Future, which regards the world as governed by unseen hands and forces, or perhaps by forces seen only by the narrator.

Cohen"s particular reaction to these Zen revelations is not, however, an ascetic withdrawal nor is it a passivity assumed in response to a world which does not exist. Instead, Cohen chooses to live in the world as he once did, acknowledging it as a place of empty forms but nonetheless immersing himself in it, living his life as if it were real, A Thousand Kisses Deep. Another verse of "A Thousand Kisses Deep" goes:
Confined to sex, we pressed against
The limits of the sea;
I saw there were no oceans left
for scavengers like me.
I made it to the forward deck.
I blessed our remnant fleet --
And then consented to be wrecked
A Thousand Kisses Deep(lns 17-24)
Confined to sex and pressing against the limits of the sea opens images of Cohen's earlier work, exploring truth and the sacred, exploring notions of reality through his experience of women and sensuality -- and through his senses. And yet he ultimately finds this sea of reality and sex to be too confining, finding no oceans any longer. Yet, rather than returning to land and rather than continuing to sail the same seas he has sailed, he sinks the ship, going to the depths of these oceans -- still the oceans of sex, truth, and sensuality -- until he sinks A Thousand Kisses Deep, to this lower stratum beneath the previous truths and yet simultaneously never leaving them. Indeed the language "A Thousand Kisses Deep" implies a depth found beneath and yet still within the language of sensuality that has marked his body of work. It is, to him, proceeding through the old realms on a new level and with a new realization -- a knowledge that there is a way out by going within.