Leonard Cohen, Smokin’, Drinkin’, Buddhist Jew

by Michael Patrick O'Leary



Colman's Column3I have recently been reading Sylvie Simmons’s excellent biography of Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man* .


According to the Montreal Mirror, Cohen, who first took an interest in Buddhism in 1960, was officially ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk on August 9, 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, an old Boy Scout camp 6,500 feet above sea level, 55 miles from LA. He was given the Dharma name of ‘Jikan’ (Silent One).



Ms Simmons describes Cohen’s relationship with Buddhism and with his Zen Master Joshu Sasaki Roshi. For years, Cohen had been telling interviewers about his close friendship with Roshi, a monk from Japan famous for his supposedly rigorous style of Rinzai Zen. Leonard liked to tell people that Rinzai monks were “the marines of the spiritual world” with a regime “designed to overthrow a twenty year old”. Cohen was sixty when he decided to sign up full time.



Reading Sylvie’s book, it struck me that Mount Baldy was an odd kind of Buddhist retreat. Cohen called it “A hospital for the broken hearted”. Further investigation showed me that Roshi was an odd kind of Buddhist.


Someone recently recommended that I go to a Buddhist meditation retreat in Sri Lanka where it was possible to eat meat and drink alcohol. Whatever happened to those precepts? Things have certainly changed since I went on a twelve-day retreat on my first visit to Sri Lanka in 2001. We were woken at four a.m. and had vegetarian breakfast at six. One was not allowed to have mobile phones, radios, i-pods, reading material, pens. There was a strictly enforced rule of noble silence. A fellow-meditator broke that rule to whisper to me: “I could murder a gin and tonic”. There was no food at all, let alone meat, after midday. Frugality got such a grip of me that I relished the nine p.m. plain tea as if it were a fine single malt.


How different life was on Mount Baldy! Simmons echoes Cohen in stressing the austerity of the regime at Mount Baldy. “It was Buddhist boot camp, grim, with all these broken young people trudging through the snow in walking meditation at three in the morning”. Monks hit meditators with sticks if they dozed off. She emphasises the simplicity of Cohen’s living quarters – a room nine feet square with no stereo, TV or radio. However, there was another room about the size of a walk-in wardrobe with a desk, an old Macintosh computer, some books, a bottle of liquor or two, and a Technics synthesiser. He had his own WC and coffee machine and could go and listen to CDs in his jeep. Roshi granted him a special dispensation to have a coffee and cigarette first thing in the morning. Sometimes he would drive to LA and have Filet-o-Fish at MacDonald’s, later washed down with wine while watching Jerry Springer on TV. Back at the monastery, Cohen was able to find time to write, draw and compose music on the synthesiser.


There was also female companionship for this renowned Ladies Man. There were nuns on Mount Baldy and Cohen admitted there were “certain erotic possibilities” but claimed that, because of his age, he “was no longer terribly active in that realm”. Chris Darrow, formerly of the group Kaleidoscope, who had worked with Cohen, lived in Claremont, the town at the foot of Mount Baldy, and saw Leonard in a Greek restaurant in the town, drinking coffee with a beautiful nun.


Cohen first met the guru in 1969 when Cohen was best man at a friend’s wedding at which Roshi officiated. According to Ms Simmons, Cohen was fascinated by the ceremony, especially the Ten Vows of Buddhism. He noted that the master ignored the vow relating to alcohol and consumed large amounts of sake. Cohen and Roshi spent a lot of time together over the years and alcohol featured in their relationship. Roshi was in the studio during the recording of Cohen’s 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. During the sessions, much ng ga pay was consumed. This sweet 70% proof Korean liqueur, reputed to be good for rheumatism , was a favourite tipple of Roshi. When Roshi was almost 100, Cohen treated him to a slab of beef tongue and a good cognac.


While Cohen was at Mount Baldy for an extended period, his assistant, Kelley Lynch was assiduously taking all his money. He dismissed her in 2004, claiming she had stolen $5m (£3.1m) from his personal accounts and investments and left him virtually penniless. The court found in his favour and ordered Lynch to pay him $9.5m, but her lawyers claimed she was unreachable, and she has never repaid the money or faced criminal charges. Lynch had to be legally restrained from harassing Cohen. She was a Buddhist, a follower of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche as was Neal Greenberg, the financier she had brought in to “manage” Leonard’s investments.


At the time I am writing this, Roshi still seems to be alive at the age of 107. It is now public knowledge that for decades he enticed, seduced, tricked or forced dozens of his western female acolytes into various forms of sexual service.


There is a reason for the Buddhist precept against alcohol. One thing leads to another – dependent origination. (Although it has to be admitted that there are teetotal, vegetarian marathon meditators who think they are arahats but are vicious to other humans on a regular basis.)he guru whose libido is out of control is also lying continually – covering up, maintaining appearances, saving face, intimidating others to do so. An entire community seemed to have failed many of the women who came to Roshi for guidance.


Susanna Stewart wrote to the Rinzai-Ji Board of Directors. “I first became a student of Sasaki Roshi in 1972 and continued until 1985, when I could no longer continue my relationship with him because of my experience of his persistent abuse of power in his efforts to destroy our marriage.” She claimed her husband wrote to the board about Roshi’s misconduct in 1993 and over time had spoken at great length about the matter. She said of the board’s denial of knowledge of the abuse, “I am shocked at this level of fabrication”. Leonard Cohen was a member of the board of directors.


Cohen succumbed to panic attacks and depression and left Mount Baldy to seek out a new guru, a Hindu one this time, in Bombay. I do not mock anyone for trying different ways of seeking the truth. Cohen had flirted with Scientology before finding Buddhism and claimed that he remained a Jew throughout his spiritual questing.


It not my intention to mock Buddhism. To follow the teachings of the Buddha is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, as with any religion or philosophy, it is possible to pervert or exploit Buddhism. I am fortunate to have the friendship of an eminent monk who is wise, compassionate and humorous and earns the respect of everyone through his tireless work for the community and his ecumenical approach to harmony with other faiths. However, I have also seen monks who have been too fond of fleshly pleasures and, in one case, ended up in prison.


I was interested to read that a government minister, Vasudeva Nanayakara, says that the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) should be proscribed by law for endangering religious harmony in Sri Lanka.


*Now available in Vintage paperback.