Leonard Cohen became the perfect image of a folk-singing poetic troubadour that picturing him in any other guise is a stretch of the imagination. In fact, the permanently suited and booted bohemian is the person you picture when you hear ‘musical poet’ to such extent that visualisation him in a tracksuit is akin to thinking of a new colour. It is this very notion that Buddhist monks looked to put to the test when Cohen found himself welcomed into a monastery.
“I bumped into a man many years ago who happened to be a Zen master. I wasn’t looking for a religion. I had a perfectly good religion. I certainly wasn’t looking for a new series of rituals or new scriptures or dogmas. I wasn’t looking for that,” he told NPR regarding how he found himself practising Buddhism for a period.
He continued: “I wasn’t looking for anything exalted or spiritual. I had a great sense of disorder in my life of chaos, of depression, of distress. And I had no idea where this came from. And the prevailing psychoanalytic explanations at the time didn’t seem to address the things I felt.”
Then fate set his path in motion, as he adds: “So, I had to look elsewhere. And I bumped into someone who seemed to be at ease with himself. It seems a simple thing to say he seemed to be at ease with himself and at ease with others. And without ever deeply studying at the time what he was speaking about, it was the man himself that attracted me.” From that moment the Buddhist’s helped Cohen find his moment zen.
For some reason, it is quite a comical motif to picture Leonard Cohen playing tennis, but when he absconded to a Buddhist Monastery that is exactly what the monks sent him to do. Their goal was to get him to take life a little less serious. He had been informed that he “knew how to work but not how to play.” This all led Cohen to celebrate the mantra which he continued to extol long after he hung up his racket: “Lighten up! That’s what enlightenment means, to lighten up.”
In an interview during his period living as a Buddhist monk, he remarked: “It’s a popular notion that it is exclusively suffering that produces good work or insightful work, I don’t think that’s the case. I think in a certain sense it’s a trigger or a lever, but I think that good work is produced in spite of suffering, as a victory over suffering.”
This idea of more play and less pressure is something that proved to be both a boon to his creativity and also his general wellbeing. He may not have kept up with the tennis, but finding exultation in the simple joys of life and moving away from maudlin in despair to revelling in mindfulness is something he sustained for the remainder of his days, and it is a reminder to all of us to do the same.