“What happened to me was not that I got any answers, but that the questions dissolved.” Leonard Cohen On His Time With Ramesh Balsekar

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He spent a year studying with Balsekar

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The model I finally understood suggested that there really is no fixed self. The conventional therapeutic wisdom today encourages the sufferer to get in touch with his inner feelings – as if there were an inner self, a true self, the real self that we have glimmerings of in dreams and insights. . . . There is no real inner self to command your loyalty and the tyranny of your investigation. What happened to me was not that I got any answers, but that the questions dissolved. As one of Balsekar’s students said, ‘I believe in cause and effect, but I don’t know which is which.’quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

Also see

Quotation from Leonard Cohen: Remembering the Life and Legacy of the Poet of Brokenness by Mikal Gilmore (Rolling Stone: 30 November 2016) The entire article – an excellent read – is available at the link. Photo by Herry Lawford

Leonard Cohen’s Spiritual Sojourn In India By Ratnesh Mathur

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Introduction By DrHGuy

After leaving the Mount Baldy Zen Center, Leonard Cohen came to Bombay late in 1998 to study with Ramesh Balsekar. During that stay, Ratnesh Mathur met the Canadian singer-songwriter and came to know him during his visits to India. In Leonard Cohen, India, & Me By Ratnesh Mathur, Ratnesh described his relationship with Leonard and aspects of Leonard’s experiences in India. Today’s post focuses on the spiritual significance of that journey. I have edited the text, primarily to put it in colloquial English and reorganized the content for easier reading.

Update: Unpublished Photos Of Leonard Cohen In India – With Ratnesh & Sangeeta Mathur And Unidentified Companion

Relief From Depression Vs Spiritual Enlightenment

Much has been written about how Leonard’s trip to Bombay cured his life long depression. Both Indian-based tribute pieces in which I was involved, Bird on a Wire: How Bombay helped Leonard Cohen find his voice again (Scroll.in) and When the light got in for Leonard Cohen (BBC India), chose titles that implicitly featured the depression cure notion.  And, indeed, Leonard himself testified to the depression and its dissipation to both Sylvie Simmons and me, but it somehow became the key aspect of his stay in India. The importance of the lifting of Leonard’s depression notwithstanding, it was actually a side-effect.

Leonard came to India as a religious seeker – not a novice but a man deeply knowledgeable about Indian philosophical thought (i.e., the Upanishads/Vedanta and Buddhism). And, here in India, Leonard found answers to his spiritual questions through a mix of street/cultural life and Vedantic and Buddhist wisdom.

wrteMy contention is that Leonard Cohen’s quest – the subject of his seeking – has somehow been shunted aside in previous reports. In realigning the focus, I have found the following articles most relevant:

Leonard Cohen On The Bhagwad Gita

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Leonard Cohen, India, & Me By Ratnesh Mathur

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Introduction By DrHGuy

After leaving the Mount Baldy Zen Center, Leonard Cohen came to Bombay late in 1998 to study with Ramesh Balsekar. During that stay, Ratnesh Mathur met the Canadian singer-songwriter and came to know him during his spiritually significant visits to India. This is Ratnesh’s account of that journey. I have edited the text, primarily to put it in colloquial English and reorganized the content for easier reading.

Update: Part 2 of this account is now online at Leonard Cohen’s Spiritual Sojourn In India By Ratnesh Mathur

Update: Unpublished Photos Of Leonard Cohen In India – With Ratnesh & Sangeeta Mathur And Unidentified Companion

Meeting Leonard Cohen – Bombay 1998

My first recollection of listening to Leonard Cohen’s music is somewhere around 1979/80, when I was 12 or 13, and definitely by my early teens. My cousins in Calcutta first introduced me to his music. I recall borrowing several cassette tapes, one of which was “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” That was around the time I started listening to Bob Dylan. Prior to this (i.e. between 1975 and1980), most of what my siblings and I heard at home was disco (Boney M, Abba, Luisa Fernandez, etc.) and  pop (Bee Gees, Carpenters, Cliff Richards, etc) on LPs, cassettes, and radio (“In the Groove” and “Date with You”).

I had a vast collection of music of many genres through my childhood. My appreciation for the singer-songwriter genre with its meaningful lyrics (Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen) came only in my late teens and early college years (between 1989 and 1993). I began writing music reviews on new rock and pop releases for newspapers and magazines (e.g., Hitavada, Connect Magazine, Economic Times). The deeper I went in understanding lyrics, the more I came to appreciate Leonard Cohen’s work. Before I met Leonard, I had heard four  of his albums and read some of his books and a dozen articles about him on the internet.

bookplus1200In 1998, I came across a newspaper article that reported Leonard Cohen was in Bombay. It didn’t give the name of the hotel but did indicate the area. I wrote to the Blackening Pages, the Leonard Cohen Fan club on the internet, hosted by Jarkko Arjatsalo in Finland, to gather details but to no avail. So, I began calling hotels in the area, and an operator actually connected me to Leonard in his room.

While Leonard declined to meet, he did agree to sign my CDs and books if I left them at reception. The next day when I arrived to leave the books, the reception desk informed Leonard, and he came down. After we met, he invited me for tea. The ensuing conversation went on for five hours.

As one might expect, it began with me donning my journalist hat to ask about details of his poems which had triggered my curiosity and the “inside story” of the 1960s rock movement (I had many questions about Woodstock, 60s sex, rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, singer songwriters like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, new bands like REM, Suzanne Vega etc.). Because Leonard was a kind man, he humored me, answering my queries.

It soon became evident, however, that he wasn’t keen on discussing his own views on other musicians or his own poetry. Instead, he shifted the conversation into the personal and after two hours of taking notes (I still have them), I stopped the documentation and let it flow as he began asking about me. At first, my answers focused on clarifying the cultural context, based on the assumption that he was new to India. I soon realized that he already knew a lot about the country & certainly a lot more than me about Indian religion. He was the first Jew I’d ever met so  I asked him some basic questions about Judaism. He even suggested a book on the history of the Jews by Herman Wouk as a starter for me.

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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

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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

Book Recommendation By Leonard Cohen: Consciousness Speaks: Conversations with Ramesh S. Balsekar

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Augenstein Hannot writes:

I once asked Leonard if there is a must book to read. Here is the book. If you read it, you do understand him in a different way.

Love, Frank

Update: Leonard also recommended this book during the Sony 2001 online chat.

Suss: Dear Leonard. Do you have any favorite books to recommend?
Leonard Cohen: Dear Suss, “Consciousness Speaks” by Ramesh S. Balsekar.

Consciousness Speaks: Conversations with Ramesh S. Balsekar by Ramesh S. Balsekar (Author), Wayne Liquorman (Editor) is available in paperback or as an e-book at Amazon and other bookstores.

  • Paperback: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Advaita Press; Fourth Printing edition (December 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0929448146
  • ISBN-13: 978-0929448145

The Leonard Cohen Reading List

This is the latest entry to the Leonard Cohen Reading List, a compilation of books commended by the Canadian singer-songwriter.

Wayne Liquorman On Leonard Cohen, Advaita, Mumbai, & Ramesh Balsekar

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In 1997 a man began attending the Talks I gave in my home about Advaita (non-dualism). He was silent at first but after a few visits began to ask questions. He stood out because he was in the habit of leaving $100 bills in the donation basket and because he was so utterly and profoundly sad! In fact, I commented to my wife, ‘I think that guy is the saddest person I ever met!’ Eventually someone told me he was a musician named Leonard Cohen and that he had just come down from living in a Zen Monastary in the mountains.quotedown2

Wayne Liquorman

 

This is the opening of a poignant account by Wayne Liquorman of his interaction with Leonard Cohen just before and during Leonard’s sojourn in India with Ramesh Balsekar. Read the entire piece at Message From Wayne (Advaita Fellowship Newsletter: Nov 22, 2016)

Credit Due Department: Thanks to Joel Singer, who alerted me to this account.