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Part 6: Leonard Cohen's Bad Guru

Leonard Cohen dropped out of society and became a zen monk for six years...

In 1994 Leonard Cohen dropped out of society and moved into the remote Mt. Baldy Zen center high in the mountains near Los Angeles. Oliver Stone, Richard Gere and Ram Dass had all trained there. Two years later he was ordained as a monk and given the name Zikan, meaning “ordinary silence.” Cohen lived at the center, run by Joshu Sasaki Roshi for nearly six years.

His poem “The Lovesick Monk” reflects his conflicted nature about the path.


I shaved my head

I put on robes

I  sleep in the corner of a cabin

sixty-five hundred feet up a mountain

It’s dismal here

The only thing I don’t need

is a comb

“I don’t think anybody gets into this kind of activity unless their personal level of distress reaches a certain unendurable point,” Cohen said, referring to his rigid monastic life. “Nobody gets into a very rigorous activity unless they’re suffering.”

Cohen struggled with depression and anxiety throughout his life, leading him to seek spiritual solutions. His first significant music performances were a disaster, wracked with nerves and uncertainty. He had been a writer, achieving somewhat of a cult hero status with his book Beautiful Hero in the mid-1960s. But he wasn’t a performer.

His official debut as a singer was on February 22nd 1967 at the Village Theatre. It was a benefit concert that featured Tom Paxton and July Collins. When the organizer asked him to perform Cohen replied, “I can’t sing and I certainly can’t perform.” He eventually changed his mind but he flopped. He walked on stage and his guitar was out of tune. Cohen tried tuning it but couldn’t so Collins gave him her guitar. But then his voice broke, perhaps the guitar was in the wrong key. “I can’t go on,” he said and walked off only to return later and Collins sang “Suzanne” with him. “Leonard was very, very nervous. Shaking like a leaf. He hadn’t sung in public before like this.”

“I finished somehow and I thought I’ll just commit suicide,” he wrote to his friend. “Couldn’t get more than a croak out of my throat.” Cohen was happy, ironically. “Everybody backstage was very sorry for me and they couldn’t believe how happy I was, how relieved I was that it had all come to nothing, that I had never been so free.”

“I never thought I could sing,” Cohen said in a interview years later. “I never thought I was a singer.” During the 1950s and 1960s Cohen was a poet and novelist, publishing several books in his twenties. "I decided I'm going to be a songwriter. I want to write songs," he told a TV producer in 1966.

A short time later, despite his hesitations Cohen was signed to Columbia records by John Hammond to a four-record deal. “Watch out Dylan,” Hammond shouted during the first recording session in Studio E.

In July of 1967 Cohen performed at the infamous Newport Rock Festival. Despite telling the organizers he couldn’t sing he pulled it off. “Tonight my guitar is full of tears and feathers,” he announced to the crowd. He then sang “Suzanne” and stole the show. “He told me he was terribly nervous,” said Aviva Layton. The New York Times reviewed Cohen’s performance by saying he was an “extremely effective singer, building a hypnotic, spellbinding effect.”

Cohen’s first album received mix reviews. "There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three flaming shits,” wrote Rolling Stone. It spent nearly a year on the UK charts, peaking at 13 and reached 83 on the Billboard 200. Cohen’s early music didn’t reach anywhere near the success that Columbia had hoped.

Cohen lived a “rigorous and disciplined existence,” at the monastery. Waking up at 3 a.m. they had just minutes to get ready for meditation. The first session began with an hour of very long chants. Throughout the day there were six, hour-long meditation sessions known as zazen. Biographer Sylive Simons who wrote I’m Your Man, describes the regimented schedule. “Monks carrying sticks patrolled the room on the lookout for anyone who appeared to be nodding back to sleep, whom they would return to consciousness by giving them a sharp rap on the shoulder. After the meditation came more meditation, kinkhin, walking meditation, outdoors, whatever the weather…sometimes there were hailstones the size of limes. Then came the first of several daily sanzen, individual meetings with Roshi for instruction and koan practice…After lunch came shower break and work duties; after dinner there was geode—simultaneous walking and chanting meditation-and more zazen and sansei until nine, ten, maybe eleven at night, depending on how long Roshi decided it should continue.” They ate their meals in silence.

Cohen was first introduced to the guru of the monastery, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, by his friend Steve Sanfield who was a devotee. Sanfield recalls an evening in 1967 where he was praising Roshi highly. He said Cohen was suspicious of holy men, and spoke of their abilities to hypnotize people. They went for breakfast at 4 a.m. and ran into Prabhupada, founder of the Hare Krishna movement, in full robes. Leonard asked him, “How does that tune go again?” And then Prabhupada sang “Hare Krishna.” Sanfield says, “we picked it up and continued walking down he streets, singing it ourselves.” Prabhupada would later become George Harrison’s guru. He had first come to New York in 1965 penniless but quickly grew a following around him.

Cohen met Roshi a few years later in 1969 when he officiated Sanfield’s wedding. “Leonard appeared fascinated by the ceremony, particularly the Ten Vows of Buddhism, and how Roshi ignored the one about not indulging in drugs and alcohol by drinking an impressive amount of sake,” writes Simmons. Cohen would later say, 'Much of the time, Roshi and I were two buddies drinking. He likes sake, I tried to convert him to French wine, but he was very resistant. But we both agree about Cognac and Scotch.'

In 1972 Leonard asked Sanfield about his guru. “Would you bring me to your teacher? He’s been on my mind for a long time.” They had tea at the Los Angeles Zen Center. “It was mostly silent,” said Sanfield. “Then Roshi said, ‘You bring friend to Mount Baldy. So a couple of days later Leonard and I drove up there in his jeeps and Roshi said to Leonard, ‘Okay, you stay here.’” Cohen stayed a week, but abandoned the winter snow for sunny Acapulco.

Over the years Cohen would go on retreat at the monastery, or the L.A. Cimarron center spending more time with Roshi who he was becoming friends with. In 1977 he recorded at Whitney Studios and brought Roshi with him. “He was the kind of man you wanted to be around, funny, kind and disciplined-special,” said Ronee Blakley. “Leonard was also serving as Roshi’s driver. He was learning to serve.” Cohen had tried to convince Blakley to sit at Mt. Baldy, telling him “that it saved his life.” Soon Cohen and two other students of Roshi bought a house near the L.A. zen center. He’d meditate at Cimmaron and then come back to the house and write.

Later Roshi would be at Cohen’s concerts. “He was there backstage,” said guitarist Jeff Beck. “It’s very odd, his presence was at once large and yet almost invisible at times. Not a lot of words were spoken, and he seemed to disappear into the wall of the greenroom. He is really a Zen master!” On another occasion Cohen and Roshi were drinking brandi and he shared how painful the writing process was. “You look up at the moon, you open your mouth, and you sing,” Roshi replied.

“I was never interested in Buddhism,” Cohen said in an interview. “I had a perfectly good religion but I was interested in Roshi’s remarkable and unusual interest in other people because I didn’t feel I was at home anywhere. So I wanted to avail myself of that hospitality. If he’d been a professor of physics at Heidelberg, I would have learned German and studied in Heidelberg but he happened to be a Zen master so I put on the robes and I entered the monastery and I did what was necessary and appropriate to be able to enjoy his company.”

He taught him more than Zen. “He taught me how to drink,” Cohen said. “People ask me what did I learn from him: how to drink cognac.” He recalls something Roshi said to him once, “Leonard, I never tried to give you my religion. I just poured you saki.”

When on tour with Cohen in 1979, Roshi was in the dressing room with him drinking cognac. “I was drinking a tumbler of cognac like it was water. He hit my thigh very hard and said, “Body important.”

Cohen also recalls drinking heavily with Roshi early in the morning at the center. One one occasion Roshi had him brink in a monk who was shoveling snow at 4 a.m. and they sat around drinking cognac until the next work period.

He wrote a poem about drinking with Roshi:

When I drink
The $300 scotch
With Roshi
It quenches every thirst
No more, I cry, no more
But Roshi fills my glass again
And new passions consume me

Biographer Sylvie Simmons notes the impact of studying with Roshi. “The long hours of meditation and study Leonard had put in with Roshi had not cured him of depression but had helped him view the situation from a more useful perspective. He had come to recognize his depression “had to do with an isolation of” himself—an isolation he had tried to address through his various spiritual pursuits. The hard part was making it work in the world of restaurants and toilets.”

His girlfriend at the time Rebecca De Mornay said, “he tried every form of escape, be it drugs, sex, music, fame, money, all the usual things—but, early in his life compare to most people, he was brave enough to sit in the suffering, and write out of it, and live out of it, and not try to escape from it.”

In September of 1994 he quietly moved to a “small, bare hut on a mountain where he had chosen to live as the servant and companion of an old Japanese monk,” writes Simmons. Living there his friendship only deepened as Roshi’s personal cook and assistant. He remained a “consistent and serious disciple” of Roshi until he died at age 107 in 2014.

Nikki Stubs worked and lived at the Mt. Baldy Zen center from 2003-2006. Speaking to the New York Times in 2013, she said Roshi would fondle her breasts during the one-on-one sansen spiritual meetings. And he asked her to massage his penis. Another woman named Susanna Steward also alleged Roshi touched her sexually during private spiritual meetings. It led to “years of confusion and pain, eventually resulting in my becoming unable to practice Zen,” she said. Roshi tried to break up her marriage to one of the priests, suggesting he should have an affair.

“There were many accounts of Sasaki asking women to show them their breasts as part of ‘answering’ a koan or to demonstrate non-attachment,” the report about Roshi’s abuses found. “There were accounts of forced sexual and physical assault,” they wrote in their report. Saying this resulted in a report to the L.A. district attorney’s office and one to a rape crisis center. “There was one report to a child welfare agency concerning Sasaki and a sexual encounter with an underage girl.”

The center conducted an official investigation into the abuses interviewing 25 women who had practiced at Roshi’s centers from 1960-2012. The final report found disturbing abuses: “Kissing, groping of genitals or breasts, viewing genitals or breasts, oral sex, intercourse….Eleven respondents gave first hand reports of attempted or actual sexual contact, thirteen respondents gave second hand reports of sexual contact.”

The report also found gross distortions of Zen teachings including, “recommending pornograpy as practice; offering sexual relations as a zen teaching; arguing, berating, or insulting women to insist their compliance with his demands for sex; Offering to marry love interest; physical force; interfering in marriage/relationships.” The report found Roshi was highly manipulative and would threaten to resign from the monastery. He also justified his sexual touch as that of a doctor. Roshi retaliated against critics by demoting them, removing them from practice centers, and banning them from studying at Mt. Baldy.

Despite following the scandal closely as it unfolded in 2013 Cohen never spoke publicly about it. He had moved out of the monastery in 1999 but was still close with Roshi and in charge of Roshi’s medical care at the time. Cohen also knew that Roshi had slept with several women despite being married. The only thing he offered was a poem, with vague reference to the scandal.

During Roshi’s sex scandal (he was 105) my association with Roshi was often mentioned in the newspaper reports.
Roshi said:
I give you lots of trouble.
I said:
Yes, Roshi, you give me lots of trouble.
Roshi said:
I should die.
I said:
It won’t help.
Roshi didn’t laugh.

In a 1993 interview Cohen warned about the problems with gurus. In response to a question about why so many Eastern teachers have failed he said, “They all got wrecked in the West. I don’t want to name their names, but many Zen masters became alcoholic or began sleeping with their students or the wives of their students. Many Indian masters fell into the spell of American women and practices.”

Little did he know but his statement was prophetic; predicting exactly what his own guru would be accused of.


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