Hallelujah, yesterday's rebel
poet is today's Zen master
Times of India, Bombay, February 7, 1999
by Khalid Mohamed
MUMBAY: Sharp. A coal-black Armani evening suit, a cloud-grey silk shirt, an
unlit cigarette dangling between forefingers - Leonard Cohen materializes
magically in the lobby of a low-profile downtown hotel.
Itīs chilly out here, the legendary baritone comments, glancing ceilingwards
at the air-conditioning ducts. Ushering me, as courteously as Sir Walter
Raleigh, straight into an empty dining hall for a cup of masala chai, he
folds his hands repeatedly into namaskars for the elevator boys, stewards and
bell-hops who canīt conceal the question marks in their eyes.
Obviously theyīre wondering if the close-cropped snow-haired guest is a
celebrity or not. The hotel staff, which has been serving him for over a
fortnight now isn't aware of Cohenīs imperishable influence over an entire
generation which grew up on his songs of love and hate through the late 1960s
and ī70s. Alongside Bob Dylan and Joan Baez Cohen acquired the dimensions of a
cult figure, rewriting as he did the rules of protest and rebellion.
Almost like a tidal wave, his lyrics, music, books and poems swept the
consciousness not only of the bloomtime flowers children but also of strait-
laced souls quietly yearning for an escape route from the status quo. The
Canada-born messiah won the adulation of youth the world over, from Montreal
and Mombasa to Milano and Mumbai (Mumbai is another name for Bombay/Jarkko).
The adulation lingers even as Cohen now 64, pursues a relatively sedate
spiritual mission. He is in town to inscribe the Vedanta tenets from Ramesh S.
Balsekar, a guru domiciled in a sea-facing apartment off Breach Candy.
Handing me a slim volume by Balsekar, Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharadja,
the disciple asks me if Iīm interested in the metaphysical, swiftly adding,
If youīre not, donīt struggle with the book. Keep it away and maybe some day
youīll pick it up again.
Admittedly my interest of the moment is to know more about Cohen. Instead of
the angst-ridden poet, Iīm face to face with a man who has clearly squelched
the savage spiders of the mind. Smiling, benignly, he reminds me that he was
ordained as a Zen monk four years ago.
Today, he is anchored in a hillside monastery, south of Los Angeles, where
he relishes rustling up meals. I love community living. He says gently.
Itīs a joy to cook salmon, Japanese soups and teriyaki for my guru there. He
is quite fond of fish.
Ask him about the mellowing of Leonard Cohen and he says succinctly, Getting
older is the interesting thing, itīs an unpredictable process full of pleasant
and unpleasant surprises. Either way, those grey cells of anxiety diminish.
Yes, itīs true that I had a suicidal steak in me once, I would go through deep
bouts of depression. But all that seems so far away now.
His book, Beautiful Losers continues to be a veritable Bible for those
looking for answers to turbulent man-woman relationships.
Published way back in 1966, its frank sexuality was far ahead of its times.
If it did not stir up a controversy then, that was because very few people
bought it, he notes wryly, In Canada, it sold a few thousand copies and in
the U.S., the number was in the hundreds. Over the years of course, it has
sold over a million of copies.
Cohen remarks that he wrote the book in a fury, as if Iīd been hit by a
sunstroke. Normally, it takes me very long to write. I sweat over every word.
With a touch of self-deprecation, he remembers that it took him over a year to
write the song Hallelujah, which was performed at a concert by Bob Dylan.
I met Dylan backstage after singing one of his songs called I and I. He
flashbacks, and he told me it took him just 15 minutes to write. I guess some
have to toil while others are natural-born writers.
Some more self-whittling. Cohenīs sparse voice, unfettered by an orchestral or
electronic backbeat, has been his hallmark. Yet, he insists, I could never
sing to save my life. Whenever I did, I could hear some inner voice telling
me, Why donīt you just sit down and shut up?
His justly classic ballad, Suzanne he says was inspired by a woman who,
according to the lyrics, brought him tea and oranges, but not all the way from
China. That China-bit was something I just added on..
Prod him about the identity of the woman of tea and oranges and I can sense
that itīs a routine he must have endured a countless times before. Yet gamely,
he states, She was beautiful, but her name wasnīt Suzanne. It was someone,
the world need not know about
And what about that stunning apparition on the album jacket of Bird on a wire?
(Actually the title of the album is Songs from a Room/Jarkko)
That was Marianne, she was also very beautiful and generous the poet
replies. We were together when someone clicked her picture sitting at a
Curiously or coincidentally, the woman Cohen has lived with for the longest
time is also named Suzanne. They have two children - son Adam, a singer who
will shortly release his first album, and daughter Lorca, who runs an art deco
boutique on chic Melrose Avenue in L.A. (Adam's album Adam Cohen was released in June, 1998/Jarkko)
Intermittently during our conversation, Cohen wants to know about me. Are your
married? And why not? To my non-committal mumbles, he responds avuncularly, I
strongly recommend marriage, though I have not gone through it myself. I find
my relationship with my two children very agreeable. I might as well have
married Suzanne. I look after her through the year, through our lives
I ask Cohen if he has perceived a change in the nature of relationship over
the decades. I am not a sociologist, he replies as if to avoid any
gratuitous generalisation. All I can say is that nothing changes, only our
styles of relating to one another do quite often. I feel out of the loop. I
tend to relate to things which my generation did.
Perhaps thatīs why he lists the great Ray Charles, Edith Piaf and Van
Morrison - as his all-time favourite singers. His literary tastes are
eclectic, ranging from browsing through a published transcript of Internet
erotica to enjoying Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.
Cohen studied English Literature at Montrealīs McGill University and New
Yorkīs Columbia University, publishing his first book of poems Let Us Compare
Mythologies in 1956, and following that up to seven years later with the novel
The Favourite Game.
Formal university studies didnīt help me as a writer, he emphasises - But I did
meet some great professors and people. - Among the poets he admired as a young
man, he mentions, Irving Layton, smiling sagely as he says, Chances are that you
havenīt heard of him.
But I have heard that his anthemic song Democracy was performed six years ago
by rock star Don Henley at NTVīs inaugural ball for President Bill Clinton.
Oh yeah, that was flattering, he laughs in low register. Maybe if it
wasnīt, the President wouldnīt have been in so much trouble today.
Teacups drained. Leonard Cohen repairs to his hotel suite, answering my last
question on his stay in Mumbai with a shrug. Itīs been a kind of escape from
my monastery. Itīs my first time in India, but I canīt say how long Iīll be
here - it could be five minutes, five months or five years.
Ramesh S. Balsekar
A former bank president who at the feet of Nisargadatta exploded the myth of his own being.
Ramesh Balsekar was born on May 25, 1917 in India. He studied in Bombay and London and made a career as the director of a major bank in India.
Later, after retiring, he became a student of Nisargadatta Maharaj in 1978.
Right behind were Ramesh sits, in his house in Bombay, is a small cupboard with vase of flowers.
Next to them is a Laminated board with these words written in Large Letters:
Self-Realization or Enlightenment is nothing more than the deepest possible understanding that there is no individual doer of any action - neither you nor anyone else. Also you are not the thinker of any thoughts, nor the experiencer of any experiences - they happen. When IT happens, no bright lights are likely to flash in your head!
Other quotes from Ramesh:
The universe is uncaused, like a net of jewels in which each is only the reflection of all the others
in a fantastic interrelated harmony without end.
Self-Realization is effortless. What you are trying to find is what you already are.
Enlightenment is total emptiness of mind. There is nothing you can do to get it. Any effort you make
can only be an obstruction to it.
If you but cease from useless conceptualizing, you will be what you are and what you have always
Seeing truly is not merely a change in the direction of seeing, but a change it its very center, in
which the seer himself disappears.
The only ultimate understanding is that nothing is, not even he who understands.
For enlightenment to happen the perceiver must turn right around and wake up to the fact that he
is face to face with his own nature - that HE IS IT. The spiritual seeker ultimately finds that he was
already at the destination, that he himself IS what he had been seeking and he was in fact already
Concepts can at best only serve to negate one another, as one thorn is used to remove another, and
then be thrown away. Only in deep silence do we leave concepts behind. Words and language deal
only with concepts, and cannot approach Reality.
Between pure Awareness and Awareness reflected as consciousness there is a gap which the mind
cannot cross. The reflection of the sun in a drop of dew is not the sun itself.
Ceasing to conceptualize means ceasing to perceive objectively, which means perceiving non-
objectively. It is to see the universe without choice or judgement and without getting into subject-
object relationship. What happens then? Nothing, except that you are what you were before you were
When the apparent but illusory identity called a person has disappeared into the awareness of total
potentiality that it is and has always been, this is called enlightenment.
Manifestation may adopt any number of forms but the substratum of all the myriad forms is
Consciousness, without which there cannot be anything whatsoever.
Nothing can have any meaning, or even any existence, except in terms of something else.
The man of wisdom is devoid of ego even though he may appear to use it. His vacant or fasting mind
is neither doing anything nor not doing anything. He is outside of volition, neither this nor that. He
is everything and nothing.
Your doubts will never be totally destroyed until perception has gone beyond mere phenomenality,
and such perception is not a matter of will but of Grace.
Only that which was prior to the appearance of this body-consciousness is your true identity. That
is Reality. It is here and now, and there is no question of anyone being able to reach for it or grasp
The same Consciousness prevails at rest as the Absolute and in motion as duality. When the sense
of "me" disappears completely, duality vanishes in ecstasy.
To any conceptual problem there cannot be any valid answer except to see the problem in
perspective as an empty thought, and that there is no such thing as a "problem" which is other than
An experience is never factual but only conceptual. Whatever an experience may be, it is nonetheless
only a happening in consciousness.
The manifest phenomenal aspect of what we are and the unmanifest noumenal Absolute are not
different. Phenomena are what we appear to be. Noumenon is what we ARE.
The essential basis of self-realization is the total rejection of the individual as an independent entity,
whether it comes about as a spontaneous understanding or through an utter surrender of one's
Taken from the website
Ramana Maharshi and other Advaita