Leonard Cohen

‘“Nobody goes into a Zen monastery as a tourist,” Cohen told me. “There are people who do, but they leave in ten minutes because the life is very rigorous. You are getting up at two-thirty in the morning; the camp wakes up at three, but you have to light fires in the zendo. The cabins are only heated a few hours a day. There’s snow coming in under the badly carpentered doors. You’re shovelling snow half the day. And the other half of the day you’re sitting in the zendo. So in a certain sense you toughen up. Whether it has a spiritual aspect is debatable. It helps you endure, and it makes whining the least appropriate response to suffering. Just on that level it’s very valuable.”
Cohen lived in a tiny cabin that he outfitted with a coffeemaker, a menorah, a keyboard, and a laptop. Like the other adepts, he cleaned toilets…

“People have the idea that a monastery is a place of serenity and contemplation,” Cohen said. “It isn’t that at all. It’s a hospital, and a lot of the people who end up there can barely walk or speak. So a lot of the activity there is to get people to learn how to walk and speak and breathe and prepare their own meals or shovel their own paths in the winter.”…

Allen Ginsberg once asked Cohen how he could reconcile his Judaism with Zen. Cohen said that he wasn’t looking for a new religion, that he was well satisfied with the religion he had. Zen made no mention of God; it demanded no scriptural devotion. For him, Zen was a discipline rather than a religion, a practice of investigation. “I put on those robes because that was Roshi’s school and that was the uniform,” he said. Had Roshi been a professor of physics at the University of Heidelberg, Cohen says, he would have learned German and moved to Heidelberg.’ – from a recent profile in the New Yorker.

It is always interesting to read descriptions of life in other monasteries. Some of the details may be different – it rarely snowed at Tassajara, though it could be bitterly cold in the unheated cabins, and even we didn’t get up that early, though the idea of having a coffee-maker or a laptop in your cabin seems rather luxurious – but the underlying ethos can be the same. I heard a senior teacher at Tassajara speak of it as a hospital as well; everyone has some kind of damage, and while the discipline may be austere, the practice container does point to a way to be free of suffering, and a way not to whine about it.

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