Leonard Cohen Talks To Ramesh Balsekar In 1999 About Roshi, Artists, Salmon Teriyaki, Songwriting, Cognac, Raising Children …

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This is an extraordinary conversation between Leonard Cohen and Ramesh Balsekar that covers a number of topics of interest to those who have followed Cohen’s career.

Those unfamiliar with the connection between these two men may wish to read the next section before going onto the conversation they held. Those who know about the relationship already can safely skip ahead to the heading, “A Resonance between Two Models – Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balseka.”

Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balsekar

In her biography of Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons writes about the period the Canadian singer-songwriter spent in India to learn from Ramesh Balsekar:

Something had happened to Leonard in India. Something–as he told [songwriter] Sharon Robinson–“just lifted,” the veil of depression through which he had always seen the world. Over the space of several visits Leonard would make to Mumbai over the next few years, returning to his room at the Hotel Kemps Corner and making his daily walk to satsang, altogether, he spent more than a year studying with Ramesh–“by imperceptible degrees this background of anguish that had been with me my whole life began to dissolve. I said to myself, ‘This must be what it’s like to be relatively sane.’ You get up in the morning and it’s not like: Oh God, another day. How am I going to get through it? What am I going to do? Is there a drug? Is there a woman? Is there a religion? Is there something to get me out of this? The background is very peaceful.” His depression was gone.

Nina Martyris, reviewing Cohen’s “Book Of Longing” in the Times of India Mumbai, August 20, 2006, notes

But of special interest to his Indian fans is the scattering of poems set in Mumbai, an unlikely Mecca for a man searching for the larger answers to life, but to which Cohen turned after being somewhat disillusioned by his sabbatical in a Zen monastery. Ten years of austerity at Mt Baldy in Los Angeles in the service of his master Kyozan Joshu Roshi came to an end when the troubled troubadour found that the base desires he had sought to escape only thrived on the rare mountain air.

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

Only Cohen could compress a world of irony into that one bald line “The only thing I don’t need is a comb”. Solace of sorts, even an entry point into understanding the contradictions of life, arrived through an unexpected route — at an up scale Breach Candy apartment, at the feet of the venerable Ramesh Balsekar, a retired banker turned philosopher-guru who didn’t even know who the old man in his morning audience was until his grand daughter hysterically informed him that this was the Prince of Darkness himself. The guru’s robust optimism was more than a match for Cohen’s mournfulness and the two became friends. “Ramesh has saved my life. I was dying in that monastery,” Cohen later told a friend, after many expoundings on Balsekar’s central theory which, like all complex thought, comes disguised in beguiling simplicity — that happiness, which is the human aim, can be achieved if one does not blame oneself or others for any happening, good or bad.

“I heard many interesting and precise ideas, which later I blurred into verse, while in the precious company of Kyozan Joshu Roshi, and Ramesh S. Balsekar. Their compelling concepts were so imperfectly grasped that I cannot be accused either of stealing or absorbing them,” wrote Cohen in the acknowledgments.

A Resonance between Two Models – Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balsekar

lc---Ramesh-Balsekar

Jane Adams, the author of A Resonance between Two Models – Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balseka, begins with this explanation:

During my visit to Ramesh in Mumbai, in early 1999, I witnessed the following conversation with Leonard Cohen, and bought the tape. After I got home, I made this transcript.

I’ve excerpted this section as a sampling:

[Leonard Cohen] I’ve been sipping at the nectar. It’s very delicious to be here. On the intellectual level, your model becomes clearer and clear to me – your conceptual presentation – and so does my old Teacher’s. On the experiential level, I feel the weakening of certain proprietorial feelings about doership.

[Ramesh Balsekar] That is a very good word! Proprietorial – me, mine! I see. Now, this weakening – how do you mean this weakening, when did it start? Did it start thirty years ago? Is that what you are saying?

[Leonard Cohen] I couldn’t characterize this seeking as spiritual. It was a kind of urgent …

[Ramesh Balsekar] You mean what started thirty years ago was not really spiritual?

[Leonard Cohen] No Sir.

[Ramesh Balsekar] I see. I see.

[Leonard Cohen] I don’t know if it is today. The description seems to pale in the urgency of the actual search, which is for peace.

[Ramesh Balsekar] Yes. Yes.

[Leonard Cohen] And you know, over the years, especially anyone who hangs around a Zendo meditation hall, is going to get a lot of free samples, as you put it. If you sit for long hours every day, and are subjected to sleeplessness and protein deficiency, you’re going to start having experiences that are interesting. It was a hunger for those experiences that kept me around, because I NEEDED those experiences.

[Ramesh Balsekar] YES! The HUNGER for those experiences. Yes! So?

[Leonard Cohen] I forget where we were. I’m sorry.

[Ramesh Balsekar] You said, experiences happened, and there was a hunger for those experiences.

[Leonard Cohen] There was a hunger to maximize, to continue, a greed to … a greed for those kinds of experiences develops. Which is what happens in monasteries.

[Ramesh Balsekar] I entirely agree, yes. There is a greed for those experiences.

[Leonard Cohen] Very much so. And I must say that my old Teacher puts little value on those experiences.

[Ramesh Balsekar] I see. In fact, did he WARN you against them?

[Leonard Cohen] Warns you, and BEATS YOU, against them!

[Ramesh Balsekar] With his stick? On your shoulder?

[Leonard Cohen] Yes Sir. We are not encouraged to take these hallucinations seriously.

[Ramesh Balsekar] But how effective are those beatings, Leonard?

[Leonard Cohen] Not effective at all. I’ve seen them more effective in the case of other monks than they were in this case. So I respect the system; it’s a rigorous system based on a very usable model, but it works for some and does not work for others.

[Ramesh Balsekar] Quite right. I see. And what you’ve been hearing for ten days, has it made some difference, do you think?

[Leonard Cohen] Sweet!

The complete transcript and more drawings of the two men can be found at A Resonance between Two Models – Leonard Cohen & Ramesh Balsekar by Jane Adams. (JaneAdamsArt: Sept 28, 2014)

Credit Due Department: Drawings by Jane Adams. Photo by Herry Lawford

Note: Originally posted Oct 1, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

4 Replies to “Leonard Cohen Talks To Ramesh Balsekar In 1999 About Roshi, Artists, Salmon Teriyaki, Songwriting, Cognac, Raising Children …”

  1. Jane

    Thank you for sharing this. I am going to enjoy visiting your site, which I didn’t know about. My transcript was very long, and so I published an abridged version in my blog. In my next post, I shall fill in the parts of that conversation which were left out … a page or two!

  2. Cass

    I do not possess the willpower to go through with a stay at a Buddhist monastery, although I would love to. So instead, I’ve kind of just leeched off of Leonard’s experiences to help shape my own life. He always has a way of making it make sense to me, whereas when I start to read some of the writings by teachers in Buddhism, I often find myself losing interest or getting confused easily. It’s wonderful to hear someone speak so sincerely about metaphysical topics and I can follow along and understand the essential ideas in these discussions. I have learned so much from him. Thanks for posting this Allan and thanks to Leonard for giving you permission to do so!