1969: Leonard Cohen First Meets Roshi – In A Kitchen, Of Course

In 1969, [Steve Sanfield was] married in a ceremony presided over by Roshi at the Cimarron Zen Center in south central Los Angeles… Sanfield asked Cohen to be his best man. Cohen, who was now in Nashville, never replied to his request. He did, however, send Sanfield an unusual photo of himself apparently hunting; hanging from his belt were the guts of some animal. But when Sanfield walked into the Cimarron center on the day of the wedding, Cohen was there. In the kitchen before the ceremony, Cohen was helping with the dishes when a small Japanese monk came in, took some food from the refrigerator, propped up his feet and ate. He then left and in hushed tones Cohen was told that that was the Roshi. At the ceremony there was much celebration of the Ten Precepts of Zen—a decalogue that includes no killing, no misuse of sex, no lying, and no indulgence in anger—but after the fifth precept, which states no dealing in intoxication, they broke out the saki and enjoyed themselves. Cohen’s twenty-eight-year relationship with Zen was baptized on this ambiguous note, one that would define his continued involvement.

From Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira Nadel

“A monastery is rehab for people who have been traumatized, hurt, destroyed, maimed by daily life that they simply couldn’t master.” Leonard Cohen

[The other monks are] not saints, and you aren’t either. A monastery is rehab for people who have been traumatized, hurt, destroyed, maimed by daily life that they simply couldn’t master. I had been studying with Roshi for thirty or forty years, but when I actually decided to live with him and really commit myself to the daily life—I always did that for several months of every year—but when I decided to do it full-time, I had just come off a tour in 1993, and yes, I felt dislocated. I had been drinking tremendous amounts on the road and my health was shot.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From He Has Tried in His Way to Be Free by Sarah Hampson (Lion’s Roar: Nov 1, 2007).

Much of the time, Roshi and I were two buddies drinking. He likes sake, I tried to convert him to French wine, but he was very resistant. But we both agree about Cognac and Scotch.

From I Never Discuss My Mistresses Or My Tailors by Nick Paton Walsh. The Observer, October 14, 2001

Also see

“He tells me ‘Do you know the difference between a Rémy Martin cognac and a Courvoisier?’ ‘I do not know,’ I tell him. I try it… Remy Martin may have a more feminine taste? That’s the kind of conversation we have.” Leonard Cohen Talks About Roshi

When did you first come into contact with Buddhism and Zen?

I never came into contact with them directly, they didn’t interest me. But I met a man twenty years ago, whom I enjoyed very much. He was older than me, and he seemed to know more than me. One of the things he knew was how to drink. I learned from him how to drink. It turns out he was an old Zen monk. And as he told me a few years ago: ‘Leonard, I’ve known you for eighteen years and I’ve never tried to give you my religion. I’m just using sake.’ This is what my relationship with Buddhism has been, I have no interest in Buddhism, no interest in Zen. What interests me is drinking with my old friend and to be in his company. I enjoy sitting in the meditation room because there is no phone, the incense is sweet, it’s very quiet and I can hang on my piece of wood very well when I sit there in the morning. You have the opportunity to study your self, how it rises and how it falls. But what the Buddhist theologians have to say on the issue does not interest me much.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


What are you talking about with this monk?

Well, he does not speak English, so it is very difficult to discuss theology with him. He tells me ‘Do you know the difference between a Rémy Martin cognac and a Courvoisier?’ ‘I do not know,’ I tell him. I try it. Hum… He tastes. Hum… Remy Martin may have a more feminine taste? That’s the kind of conversation we have. He has a tendency not to particularly like religion. It is difficult not to have an aversion toward religion when you see what it does to people, at what point they become satisfied with themselves, to what point it separates themselves from others. Generally speaking religion has a pretty disagreeable odor. The love of God, that’s a different story. At least two times a year I go to Mount Baldy. It looks like a monastery; it is a very intensive center for Zen training. The days are filled with meditation and manual labor. In the kitchen, in the garden, we dig, we paint. I like being part of a community once in awhile. There is nothing extra, you live the day, no theology, no dogma. You live a religious life on the inside, not on the outside. You get up at three in the morning, you sit for two hours in the meditation room, you prepare breakfast, you clean, you polish, you garden, then you meditate again. And you study yourself in your own way with the help of a teacher but not one of theology.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


From Comme Un Guerrier by Christian Fevret (Les Inrocks: Aug 21, 1991). Via Google Translate.

Leonard Cohen Identifies Himself As “One Of The First Punks,” Tells Bovine Sex Joke, Talks About Roshi, Nick Cave, Jennifer Warnes, Dominique Issermann, & More – 1988 Video Interview

Topics Covered In Interview With Christian Eckert (Munich 1988):

  • Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man album
  • Post-Modernist Disco
  • Leonard as one of earliest Punk Rockers
  • His young bull/old bull joke
  • Book of Mercy
  • “I don’t have time to think about politics”
  • How Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat rehabilitated him
  • Leonard’s attitude covers of his work
  • Nick Cave rescuing his song “to let it fall apart again”
  • His computer
  • Living in a Portuguese section of Montreal\
  • Roshi
  • Gap between public and private life
  • Critics being on trial
  • Concerns about next tour
  • Dominique Issermann’s direction of First We Take Manhattan video

View video on YouTube

Leonard Cohen Talks About “Learning What The Inside Of A Religious Tradition Is” From His Work With Roshi (And How His Yoga Injury Leads Him To “Start Studying Judaism”)


Leonard Cohen

Excerpt from Leonard Cohen of Montreal: Interview by Michael Benazon. Matrix: Fall, 1986.

DrHGuy Note: This was not Leonard’s only injury secondary to his embracement of a hallowed ritual. A month before the scheduled March, 2010  start of his European tour, he announced that those shows would be delayed while he underwent a four to six month course of physical therapy for a compression injury in his lower back suffered during a Pilates session.