“Do you want to know what the ambition of our generation is, Wanda? We all want to be Chinese mystics living in thatched huts, but getting laid frequently.” – Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game, 1963.
Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Leonard Cohen’s Zen teacher and close friend, died Sunday 27th July in Cedars Sinai Hospital, Los Angeles at the age of 107. I went to the LA Zen Center several times to hear him teach – it was a few years ago when he was a mere 103 or so; I’d gone in the hope of talking to him for my book I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. When I spoke to Leonard shortly afterwards, I had to admit that, impressed though I was that the old man was still teaching, I couldn’t make sense of anything he said. Leonard laughed and said no-one could. “He doesn’t give you any astounding truths that we come to expect from spiritual teachers, because he’s a mechanic, he’s not talking about the philosophy of locomotion, he’s talking about repairing the motor. He’s mostly talking to the broken motor.”
Since posting that on my Facebook page two days ago, I’ve been contacted privately by a musician friend whose broken motor Roshi helped fix. And I’ve also been contacted by a major newspaper wanting to talk about the late guru’s sex life. What did Leonard Cohen have to say about it, they asked me, and I could honestly answer: “Nothing.” The last interview I did with Leonard for my book was more than a year before the New York Times broke the story alleging that Roshi had been sexually abusing female students at the monasteries for decades. http://tinyurl.com/bg2rfd7. But, whatever Leonard might have thought about this in private, it’s hard imagining him having anything to say publicly on a man he loved. His 45-year relationship with Roshi was one of the most durable and devoted of Leonard’s life.
They met in 1969 at Leonard’s friend’s Buddhist wedding – same year that Leonard met Suzanne Elrod, the future mother of his children, at a Scientology class. It seems ironic when not long before Leonard had told his friend that he was suspicious of holy men. He said he knew how they did it: their schtick, the showmanship, how they managed to draw people to them, because to a degree he could do it himself. One question I wish I’d thought to ask Leonard was when and how the cynicism in that line at the start of the blog that he gave to his alter-ego Breavman in The Favourite Game began to change.
I did try to interview Roshi for I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. I had spoken to two of Leonard’s rabbis and I wanted to talk to his Zen teacher for his insights into the man he made a monk. I went to the Mount Baldy monastery and stayed in a hut on the hill – but Roshi was away, teaching at another of his monasteries. Towards the end of writing the book I attended a series of talks Roshi gave at the Zen Center in L.A. – he looked so frail it seemed like a possibility that he wouldn’t make it through the teisho. Afterwards one of the head monks told me that Roshi did not give interviews, but he offered to pass on a letter. So I sent one with a list of questions. There was a great deal I wanted to know, like why he decided Leonard ought to be ordained (it was idea, not Leonard’s) and what the significance was of renaming him Jikan, meaning “Ordinary Silence: was it more than just a Buddhist joke? Or what it was like when the two of them were on the road together or in the monastery, the intimacy and the distance of such a relationship as this. Or his reaction when, after five and a half years Leonard told him he was leaving. Or what they talked about when Leonard came back to visit after spending months in India with a new guru, Ramesh; did they compare and contrast the different teachings? I was advised to narrow it down to one question. So I settled on the “more sad” question [see below]. Sadly he didn’t answer.
Leonard answered some of them though, in various interviews. And since I promised on Facebook that I would find a few more things that Leonard said about Roshi, here they are.
SS: Roshi gave you a new name?
LC: Roshi has given me a few names. When I was ordained as a zen monk, Roshi gave me the name Jikan.
SS: Is that the one that’s been variously translated as Silent One and Solitary Cliff?
LC: No, the other one was ‘Solitary Cliff’. But you know, Roshi doesn’t speak English very well so you don’t really know what he means by the names he gives you and he prefers it that way because he doesn’t want people to indulge themselves in the poetic quality of these traditional monks’ names.
SS: That’s cruel – I’d want to throw myself into the deep end of their poetic qualities.
LC: Yes, that’s the trouble. I have asked him what Jikan meant many times, at the appropriate moment over a drink, and he says ‘Normal silence’ or ‘Ordinary Silence’ or ‘The silence between two thoughts’.
SS: Dangerously poetic.
SS: So you became Ordinary Silence after Solitary Cliff?)
LC: I was Solitary Cliff for a while. You can just call me Cliff!
SS: You’ve quoted Roshi as saying “The older we get, the lonelier we become and the deeper the love we need”. Is he referring to impersonal, benign love or person-to-person love?
LC: I think that he was referring to the personal love.
SS: What are your feelings right now on personal love. Is that still an important aspect of your life or has that changed?
LC: It’s the most important. I don’t know if it ever changes. I think one becomes more circumspect as one gets older about everything – I mean you become more foolish and more wise at the same time as you get older. But I don’t think anyone masters the heart. No-one gets a handle on it. And Roshi’s often described himself as an old, love-sick monk.
SS : Did you discuss the teachings of Ramesh with Roshi when you returned from India?
LC: No, no. Roshi doesn’t discuss. He doesn’t discuss his own teaching. Roshi is direct transmission. It’s the owner’s manual. He’s not interested in perspective or talking. You either get it or you don’t. His teisho, the things you listen to, the best way to absorb them is from the point of view of the meditater – he’s really talking on the in breath and the out breath through the whole teisho. He’s speaking to the meditative condition, so if you hear him from the outside it’s kind of gibberish and it’s kind of repetitive and it’s very hard to penetrate. He doesn’t give you any astounding truths that we come to expect from spiritual teachers, because he’s a mechanic, he’s not talking about the philosophy of locomotion, he’s talking about repairing the motor. He’s mostly talking to the broken motor.
SS: Now you mention it, I remember that repetition, that sense of rambling. I blamed it on me zoning out or him being a very, very old man.
LC: But if you’re sitting in the right position and you’re breathing, then it’s like you’re in a hole and he’s saying: ‘Here’s a little indentation; put your right foot there, and you’ll see that little twig, and pull up there, and try to put your foot in that other little spot where the rock is sticking out, now take the left hand and put it up there.’ That’s what he’s saying.
LC: I don’t know if I told you this story. I was in the recording studio with Roshi. We’d been travelling to Trappist monasteries – at that time there was a rapprochement between Catholicism and Zen under the tutelage of Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk who wrote beautiful books – and I would go with Roshi and he would lead these weeks of meditation at various monasteries. We happened to be in New York at the time and I was recording parts of Various Positions and Roshi came to the studio – he was already an old man at the time We were drinking this Chinese liqueur called ng ka pay and he was nodding off most of the time and I was doing vocals.
SS: What did Roshi think of the recording?
LC: The next morning when we were having breakfast I asked him what he thought – this was the time when people were saying they should give away razor blades with Leonard Cohen albums because it’s ‘music to slit your wrists by’ and that I was ‘depressing a generation’. And he said, ‘More sad’.
And that was it. Roshi didn’t tell him what he meant by “more sad”, Leonard said, and Leonard didn’t ask. When I said I guess I would have to ask Roshi, he smiled and wished me luck. As to whether he did as his teacher instructed, Leonard said, “Not ‘more sad’, but I thought, ‘you’ve got to go deeper.’ “