A chakra song tribute to Leonard Cohen on what would have been his 84th birthday. He was a poet and writer before he was a musician, and he would often compare poetry to polishing shoes in that if you want others to have shiny shoes, you have to leave some pretty good instructions.
When it came to those good instructions, I was introduced to Cohen’s music and Zen meditation at about the same time in my life. I was about twenty-five, and it was a pretty dark time. And although I could familiarize myself and understand both intellectually, I did not fully practice and appreciate either until I was older. With experience comes some wisdom, sometimes.
Lucid wisdom was not immediate for Leonard Cohen either, and I am drawn by this connection point. After a lifetime of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll,” the bookish singer retired to Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles, and was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1996.
His monk name was Jikan or “noble silence.” At the monastery, Cohen cooked, cleaned, and sat. His life became routine, which was a relief for him in not having to think about what to do next. Structure is very important to me as well; when I lose that, it’s a lot like treading water. Sitting in meditation in the Zen tradition was an aim to tame what monks through the ages have called the “monkey mind,” the all-over-the-place kind of thinking, or studying the self in order to forget the self. “When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you,” he once said. “It happened to me by imperceptible degrees and I could not really believe it.” Just like with anything, it takes practice, sometimes a lifetime of practice.
Cohen’s thoughts, which plagued him and became his poetry, inspired millions, including Bob Dylan. Kurt Cobain sang, “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally.” After his death, Cohen said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t have spoken to the young man. I see a lot of people at the Zen Centre, who have gone through drugs and found a way out that is not just Sunday school. There are always alternatives, and I might have been able to lay something on him.”
The world needs spiritual artists like Cohen now more than ever, artists who are afraid of something other than their own failure. Leonard Cohen was truly genuine in an age of anything but. He said, “music is the emotional life of most people” and his music offers me catharsis and a sense of understanding. He gave voice to my dark times, but what I could once only perceive with my “monkey mind,” I now understand with my heart, with my soul, noble silence indeed.