Remembering Leonard Cohen

As you probably know, the world recently lost Leonard Cohen, poet extraordinaire and old dharma bud of mine, who passed away on November 7.

You can find many interviews with Leonard on the internet, but they seldom delve deeply into the Zen practice which was such a big part of his life (and the basis for the connection we shared spanning almost three decades). However, recently I came across an extended interview with him conducted by this Swedish journalist. The interview took place at Mt. Baldy during the period in Leonard’s life when he was living there as a monk with the Buddhist name Jikan. In that video, he talks quite a bit about his meditation practice and its relationship to his art. The content of what he says is quite interesting, but what I most appreciated was the contour of how he said it. You can sense the spontaneity and bounce that he’s riding on as he interacts with his interlocutor. Watching this video was a very nostalgic experience for me because most of it took place in Leonard’s cabin at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, which was also my cabin whenever I went up there to serve as an interpreter.

Several of Leonard’s songs are known all over the world – Hallelujah, Suzanne, Dance Me to the End of Love, Sisters of Mercy – but my personal favorite is a song called Love Itself. I offer a Buddhist interpretation of that song here.

There’s a bit of discussion on the internet about the meaning of Leonard’s Buddhist name, Jikan (自閑). In East Asia dharma names consists of two Chinese characters read in the local pronunciation (Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean, Sino-Vietnamese, or Chinese itself). The first character in Leonard’s Buddhist name, 自 (read ji- in Sino-Japanese), means natural or spontaneous. The second character, 閑(read –kan in Sino-Japanese), is a little harder to translate. It implies the temporal analog of spaciousness—an effortless, unhurried mode of being. So a loose translation might be something like Spacious Spontaneity. The name is apt. You sense it when you listen to him sing.