Leonard Cohen’s Zen Vision

Leonard Cohen’s Zen Vision


Laurence Coupe



Laurence Coupe, Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (Manchester: MUP, 2007), pp 182-9

This discussion of Cohen’s work comes about halfway through  the final chapter of the book: ‘ “Eco-Zen”, or “a heaven in a wild flower”: from Gary Snyder to Nick Drake’.

The term ‘Eco-Zen’ was coined by Alan Watts, who is the subject of the first chapter of the book.

The book was obviously written long before Cohen’s death; however, I have not changed present tense to past for the purposes of this extract.




We have used the phrase ‘Eco-Zen’ to characterise [Gary] Snyder; we are testing how far it might apply to certain songwriters, while simultaneously glossing it with Blake’s hope of seeing ‘a heaven in a wild flower’, and the tensions involved in such a prospect. [Jim] Morrison and [Joni] Mitchell speak in defence of nature, and of those cultures which revere it. They see nature itself as sacred. With our third songwriter, the ecological emphasis is not so insistent: rather, we may infer a broadly reverential view of nature informed by both mythology and mysticism. There again, he is notoriously difficult to categorise, and it would be advisable not to try. I am referring to Leonard Cohen.


Superficially, his kind of art seems to form a contrast with the Beats, given his taste for formality and ironic restraint. His work, however, must be of interest to those who take seriously the ideas we have explored throughout this book. In particular, I would emphasise his ability to bring to bear on his spiritual interests the power of Zen. It is this more than anything that links him with Snyder. That said, Cohen’s approach to Zen is very much his own.


Cohen is a Canadian poet and novelist who extended his talents to songwriting in the late sixties, for which he has been mainly known ever since. When his Poems1956-1968 appeared, Kenneth Rexroth, the poet admired by all the Beats and the man who gave his blessing to the Beat movement in the mid-fifties, wrote: ‘Leonard Cohen’s poetry and song constitute a big breakthrough … This is certainly the future of poetry… It is the voice of a new civilization.’[i] Moreover, Cohen began his career reciting poetry to a jazz accompaniment in Montreal in the fifties, inspired by the example of Jack Kerouac; he subsequently moved to New York, where he made sure to attend all the Beat performances he could.[ii]


Inevitably, Cohen was touched by the Beat Zen phenomenon. It was through the Beats that he became interested in gaining an eastern perspective on the faith of his childhood, namely Judaism. That said, he was equally preoccupied with, even obsessed by, the figure of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, his approach to Christianity was in terms of myth: his first volume of poetry was called Let Us Compare Mythologies, a title which gives us a flavour of his spirit of sincere but scrupulous enquiry. His preoccupation only deepened during the sixties. Towards the end of that decade Cohen declared: ‘Our natural vocabulary is Judeo-­Christian. That is our blood myth… We have to rediscover the crucifixion. [It] will again be understood as a universal symbol… It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where man is at. On the cross.’[iii]


One cannot accuse Cohen of having only a passing interest in this subject. Twenty years later, he reflected on his view of Jesus: ‘He may be the most beautiful guy who ever walked the face of this earth. Any guy who said “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek” has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness.’[iv] What is intriguing is that he seems to think of Jesus in terms similar to Kerouac’s, identifying him implicitly with the fellaheen [the dispossessed of the given civilization, who are the true spiritual visionaries: see Chapter 2]. Again, there is the preoccupation with pain, and the appeal to the example of Jesus as a means of comprehending it. However, the difference between Cohen’s fascination with Jesus and Kerouac’s is twofold. For Kerouac, it comes out of his Christian upbringing and is associated with his idea of himself as a ‘crazy Catholic mystic’, whereas Cohen is interested in trans-cultural iconography. For Kerouac, the figure of Jesus becomes more and more important as he himself turns away from Zen, whereas for Cohen, Jesus remains a constant referent, which he finds to be wholly compatible with his interest in Zen. For him, Zen is the perfect way of realizing the potential he early on finds in Judaeo-Christianity. There is, then, an obvious affinity with Snyder, namely Zen itself; but there is also a contrast, since Snyder consistently associates Biblical faith with the oppression of indigenous communities and the exploitation of the earth.


That does not mean that Cohen is unaware of such associations. His second novel, Beautiful Losers (1966), an ambitious work of metafiction which moves between different times and places, and which employs multiple narration, centres on the historical figure of Catherine Tekakwitha (1656-80).[v] She was the daughter of a Christian Algonquin woman who had been captured by the Iroquois and then married a Mohawk chief. An epidemic of smallpox left Catherine orphaned; the disease also left her face severely scarred and badly affected her eyesight. Baptized at the age of twenty by Father Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit missionary, she was ostracized by her fellow-Indians. She fled, wandering 200 miles by foot to a Native American village in Canada which had adopted the Christian faith. Taking a vow of chastity, she acquired a reputation for asceticism and also for an ability to perform miracles. As she was dying, her scars miraculously vanished. After her death, her grave became a site of pilgrimage; she was regarded by many as a saint, and was subsequently beatified (thought not canonized) by the Catholic church.


Cohen’s choice of main character gives him, then, plenty of opportunity to explore the connection between Christian myth and Native American myth, and to investigate the way in which the values of a civilization may be internalized – but also intensified – by a colonized people. The unnamed ‘I’ of the novel is, by no coincidence, an anthropologist with a special interest in Native Americans: we learn a good deal about their myths, rituals and beliefs, which are given just as much status as the Catholic doctrines which are also explicated. Interestingly, the historical Catherine is known as the (unofficial) patron saint of ecologists, of people in exile and of people persecuted for their beliefs. Cohen in his fictionalized account gives full reign to the possibilities opened up thereby.


Returning to the question of myth, we note that in Beautiful Losers there is a comprehensive attempt to ‘compare mythologies’. Apart from the allusions to Indian and Christian myths, the novel makes an implicit identification between Catherine and the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility, Isis, who was believed to have control over both the health of the earth and the fate of the soul in the afterlife. Isis it was who restored her husband, Osiris, after he had been dismembered, and ensured his annual revival in parallel with the cycle of vegetation. Catherine too is credited with a capacity to restore earth, body and soul to a state of harmony. A more obvious association is made between Catherine and the Virgin Mary: surrendering herself to God’s will, she is granted mystical insight.


The very title of the novel is worth dwelling on. The ‘beautiful losers’ are those who achieve that spiritual beauty known as beatitude by surrendering the whole idea of a separate self; in the perspective of materialism, they are absurd, but under the aspect of eternity they are saintly. They voluntarily become victims or scapegoats, suffering on behalf of others so that they too may be granted spiritual release. In this sense, the most obvious ‘beautiful loser’ is Jesus Christ, crucified and buried as a criminal but bringing redemption by way of his resurrection. Extending the idea, we may remind ourselves that the figure who is beaten down by civilization is for the Beat writers the one who is most likely to attain, and show the way towards, the beatific vision. We sense this in the paradoxical titles of some of Kerouac’s novels, which Cohen’s Beautiful Losers neatly mirrors: The Dharma Bums, for example, or Desolation Angels. We might think also of that key phrase from [Allen] Ginsberg’s poem, ‘Howl’: ‘angelheaded hipsters’.


The paradox contained in such phrases and titles takes us to the heart of Zen itself. The Zen lunatic, the holy fool who abandons all material security to wander on ‘the Way’, is the model for all such figures. One must give up the idea of ‘I’ in order to have access to the reality of ‘the One’. This idea clearly fascinates Cohen, and his fascination only gets more intense as he proceeds. The manifestation of the sacred in the profane is his primary concern, and his major songs articulate this possibility in their various ways.


Though we have stated that Cohen’s devotion to Zen is an implicit constant, we should take account of his increasingly explicit association with ‘official’ Zen. We can trace this quite simply, from his meeting in the early 1970s with a monk called Joshu Sasaki Roshi, with whom he began studying, to his financing of the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, near Los Angeles, and finally to his ordination as a Zen monk in 1996. Cohen has always denied, however, that his dedication to Zen practice has meant commitment to a new kind of faith, quite other than Judaism or Christianity: ‘I never really felt I was studying something called Zen. I never thought I was looking for a new religion. The religion I had was fine. So it was something else’ (1993). Again: ‘There are Jewish practitioners in the Zen movement. I don’t think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive, depending on your position. As I have received it from my teacher, there is no conflict because there is no prayerful worship and there is no discussion of a deity in Zen’ (1994). Or again: ‘I’ve never been interested in a new religion… I just know that [Roshi] has provided a space for me to do the kind of dance with the Lord that I couldn’t find in other places’ (1994).[vi]


It is probably fair to say, then, that no matter which period of Cohen’s work we choose, we find evidence of his Zen instinct, if by that we mean the urge to celebrate the here and now as if it were infinity and eternity. Take the first song on his first album, Leonard Cohen (1968). ‘Suzanne’ begins as a celebration of an artistic, eccentric woman that Cohen knew and admired during his young adulthood in Montreal: she had an apartment by the St Lawrence River, near to the chapel of Our Lady of the Harbour, which is dedicated to sailors. These anecdotal circumstances make the account of visiting her and being served tea by her all the more vivid. But the central idea of the song only becomes evident in the second verse, which refers to Jesus as a ‘sailor’ who waited watching on his ‘lonely wooden tower’ (his cross, presumably) before addressing ‘only drowning men’ (those in acute spiritual need). Suzanne and Jesus each offers a sacred gift: a capacity for revelation. The world refuses it: as Cohen points out to Jesus, ‘You sank beneath their wisdom like a stone.’ But the potential for revelation remains. The third verse has Suzanne as a guide around the harbour, showing us ‘where to look among the garbage and the flowers’, and alerting us to the ‘heroes in the seaweed’. The song, then, is a classic instance of the manifestation of the sacred in the profane: it is one of the most powerful instances of the beatific vision for which one could ask.[vii]


The fact that the imagery of the song is insistently Biblical does not detract from its Zen quality. Rather, it intensifies it, Jesus being the archetypal ‘beautiful loser’ who obtains beatitude precisely by immersing himself in the suffering of this world and thereby sanctifying it. Again, in a later song from Various Positions (1984), ‘If It Be Your Will’, Cohen prays to the God of the Jews and the Christians. He seems to be espousing an orthodox monotheism, the basis of a doctrine of salvation for the righteous; but the imagery simultaneously celebrates the suffering sinners. He speaks for all those ‘on this broken hill’, dressed in ‘our rags of light’; and asks that ‘all these burning hearts in hell’ be made ‘well’ at last.[viii] A plea for mercy from a God of justice, the song dwells chiefly on the frailty of humanity; but paradoxically, this frailty is the very source of its spirituality. Only in the depths of the profane does the sacred need to be made manifest. The subtlety of such a vision has been preferred by more than one commentator to the more explicit, extensive ruminations of a Ginsberg. Here is one such judgement:

[U]nlike many Jews who found refuge in Buddhism (e.g. Allen Ginsberg), [Cohen] never lost his monotheistic convictions; indeed, they appear to have become stronger over the years… Ginsberg’s dependencies were more often than not drug-induced and escapist. Suffice it here to note that [Cohen] did not force monotheistic (i.e. one­-god) doctrines; he did not command theistic (i.e. personal-god) beliefs; nevertheless, those with ears to hear — and many without — could not fail to catch the point, ‘directly and immediately’; not out of contrivance or slick devising, but honestly — so that ‘everybody knows what’s going on.’ It was only through that ‘gateway’ that he could enter, and emerge: with a meaningful word. The songs are ‘mystical’; parabolic in their ability to say things at different levels: the sacred and the secular, the human and the divine; projecting the heavenly by means of promoting the earthly; ‘passionate romance’ and spiritual truth: an alpha and an omega – ‘understanding’ now at its peak.[ix]



Another commentator celebrates Cohen’s ability to use Biblical language while articulating a beatific vision that transcends religious categorization:

[M]uch of his life has been spent with his nose in the scriptures, whether they be Hebrew, Christian or Eastern, and has conducted his creativ­ity in the form of a meditation, a search for metaphysical meaning, whatever the implications of his more earth-bound predilections. … Cohen’s recent compositions may well be, as Bob Dylan so shrewdly observed, ‘like prayers’, but the truth is that Cohen’s songs have been painted with a Judaeo-ecclesiastical patina throughout his musical evolution. Across the panoply of his hundred songs, from ‘Story of Isaac’ to ‘Anthem’, via ‘Who By Fire’ and ‘The Law’, there are many more direct examples of his use of the nominally religious form. [x]


This same commentator is impressed by Cohen’s capacity for finding the sacred in the profane: ‘It is Cohen’s ability to locate the redemptive and the spiri­tually profound within prosaic and sometimes visceral lyrical contexts that gives his work the poignant astringency in which his fans revel and at which his detractors balk.’[xi]


One of the songs mentioned above is worth quoting briefly: ‘Anthem’, from The Future (1992). But first we should consider the significance of that title. The OED defines ‘anthem’ as follows: ‘an elaborate choral composition usually based on a passage of scripture for church use’. Cohen would seem to be deliberately subverting that idea, for his song is non-scriptural and non-liturgical; it is, indeed, modest and reflective. It does not make pronouncements in justification of a religious doctrine. Rather, it looks to the minor beauties of this world for revelation: ‘The birds they sang at the break of day/ Start again, I heard them say.’ Having then proceeded to address the horrors of the world – wars, corrupt governments, and so forth – it laments, in language derived from Christian iconography, but not confined to it, that the ‘holy dove’ will always be ‘caught’ and ‘bought and sold’ again. However, the refrain of the song tells us that, despite this, there remains the possibility of spiritual freedom if only we can learn to value profane time and space as if they were sacred, and not torture ourselves in the pursuit of a distant, abstract perfection: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring./ Forget your perfect offering./ There is a crack in everything./ That’s how the light gets in.’[xii] This is pure Zen, comprehending in its simplicity all the subtleties of Judaism and Christianity. We understand now what Cohen meant in the interview quoted, when he said: ‘I’ve never been interested in a new religion… I just know that [Roshi] has provided a space for me to do the kind of dance with the Lord that I couldn’t find in other places’ (1994).[xiii][p 40]


‘Dance with the Lord’ is a neat phrase by which to indicate Cohen’s wish to honour the monotheism of his own culture, while being open to the non-theist freedom of Zen. He implies no confinement to any given religion; nor does he imply a spirituality that is entirely without roots. It is a matter of wearing one’s beliefs lightly, and being able to let go of those that obscure the manifestation of the sacred. Always the reality which must be faced is that of the profane realm, in which we are born, we live and we die. There is no escape from this obligation. Indeed, according to Zen, enlightenment involves complete acceptance of reality. As Watts would remind us: ‘This is IT.’


Finally, then, it is worth pointing to a more recent song whose very title echoes this same idea. ‘Here It Is’, from Ten New Songs (2001), is one of Cohen’s most economical presentations of the mystical paradox that is common to Zen and to Blake alike, that ‘Everything that lives is Holy.’ Understanding this involves being able to affirm even the most degraded and demeaning of experiences, being able to grant their validity. One’s ‘love for all things’ necessarily must include ‘your drunken fall’, ‘your cardboard and piss’, ‘your bed and your pan’. The chorus sums up the Buddhist theme of impermanence with startling clarity: ‘May everyone live,/ And may everyone die./ Hello, my love,/ And my love, goodbye.’ But every word of the song – scarcely any of them longer than two syllables – brings home with great economy the meaning of ‘samsara’ (the wheel of existence, the cycle of living and dying): for example, ‘here is your death/ in the heart of your son’. Finally, we are struck by Cohen’s impulse to bring Jesus, the ‘beautiful loser’, into the picture. Cohen invokes him in the course of inviting us to embrace pain and mortality, and in so doing to know ‘nirvana’ (the extinction of ego): ‘Here is your cross,/ Your nails and your hill;/ And here is the love/ That lists where it will.’[xiv] The Biblical vocabulary is informed by Eastern wisdom. The beatific vision could hardly be made more simple (though not, we should add, simplistic).  Cohen’s instinct that Zen complements rather than contradicts Western religion is borne out by his own work. By that I mean that, right through his career, you can see a wholly consistent attempt to articulate the beatific vision in accessible and compelling language. Though Cohen is a very different writer in many ways from Snyder, they concur on essentials; and the essence is Zen. Nor should his interest in mythology and Native American lore be overlooked.


Whether one would apply the phrase ‘Eco-Zen’ to Cohen’s work is another matter: he certainly celebrates nature in a spiritual, indeed mystical, perspective; but his is not an ostensibly ‘green’ Buddhism.  However, his affirmation of the human potential to find meaning ‘among the garbage and the flowers’ is a nicely ambiguous echo of Blake’s dictum. At the very least, we may say that Cohen’s vision complements that of Morrison and that of Mitchell; and all three seem to make more and more sense as we explore their affinities with Snyder.  Taken together, all four endorse and extend what we have understood by the term ‘Beat’.


[i] Kenneth Rexroth quoted by Loranne S. Dorman and Clive L. Rawlins, Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart (London: Omnibus Press, 1990), p 213.


[ii] See David Boucher, Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll (New York: Continuum Press, 2004), pp. 15-17.


[iii] Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words ed. Jim Devlin (London: Omnibus Press, 1998), p 11.


[iv] Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words, p. 11.


[v] Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers (London: Panther Books, 1972).

[vi] Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words, p. 40.

[vii] Cohen, ‘Suzanne’, Stranger Music, pp. 95-6.


[viii] Cohen, ‘If It Be Your Will’, Stranger Music, pp. 343-4.

[ix] Dorman and Rawlins, Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart, p. 301.


[x] David Sheppard, Leonard Cohen (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2000), p 115.


[xi]  Sheppard, Leonard Cohen, p. 116.

[xii] Cohen, ‘Anthem’, Stranger Music, pp. 373-4.


[xiii] Cohen, Leonard Cohen In His Own Words, p. 40.

[xiv] Leonard Cohen, ‘Here It Is’, www.leonardcohenfiles.com/tennewsongs [accessed 3rd January 2006].