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:
Ramesh – You live in a Zen monastery, I am told?
Leonard – That’s correct, yes.
For how long, three or four years?
I’ve been associated with this institution for about thirty years – and about four and a half years ago, I was ordained as a monk.
I see. I see. Would you say it is a pretty stiff discipline?
It’s – very rigorous.
But you like it?
Not particularly, no.
Well that is honest. So what I would like to ask is this: the understanding before you came here, and what I talk about – how does it compare?
It was the resonance between the two models, yours and my teachers’, that led me to study your books with some diligence. And because of the experiences I received from your books, and because of the advanced stage of my Teacher and yourself, I felt it would be appropriate to come and sit with you.
I see. But you used the word ‘resonance’. Can you explain that a little bit, Leonard?
I found that during some of the rigorous retreats that we’re subjected to, I would find myself opening one of your books, specifically The Final Truth; and I would find that your writing would illuminate the discourses of our Master, and vice versa. It became urgent that I …
A similar thing happened to me. When I was with my – Nisargadatta Maharaj. You know Wei Wu Wei?
Particularly one book which a friend of mine gave me twenty years ago, which I knew was a treasure, but I couldn’t understand it – I kept it aside. So that was what used to be – what Maharaj said, and what was said in the book – amazing. … You’ve been here for ten days!
But you’ve been so silent!
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.
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?
I couldn’t characterize this seeking as spiritual. It was a kind of urgent …
You mean what started thirty years ago was not really spiritual?
I see. I see.
I don’t know if it is today. The description seems to pale in the urgency of the actual search, which is for peace.
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.
YES! The HUNGER for those experiences. Yes! So?
I forget where we were. I’m sorry.
You said, experiences happened, and there was a hunger for those experiences.
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.
I entirely agree, yes. There is a greed for those experiences.
Very much so. And I must say that my old Teacher puts little value on those experiences.
I see. In fact, did he WARN you against them?
Warns you, and BEATS YOU, against them!
With his stick? On your shoulder?
Yes Sir. We are not encouraged to take these hallucinations seriously.
But how effective are those beatings, Leonard?
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 useable model, but it wortks for some and does not work for others.
Quite right. I see. And what you’ve been hearing for ten days, has it made some difference, do you think?
Some difference in this greed? Can you explain that a little bit, please Leonard?
Your emphasis on the disidentification with the sense of doership, is crucial to the weakening of – the modification of that greed. And by the grace of this activity, I have experienced …
You have tried it, during the last ten days? I see.
Yes. Of course, greed arises. The hunger arises, legitimately, and without my bidding. The greed for peace, for equanimity, for balance, arises spontaneously. But I feel that somehow I don’t have any leverage on the apparatus. Somehow there is a sweetening of the whole experience.
I see. You see, what happens is – Wayne and I had a very brief talk a couple of days ago; we were both walking on the roof. He made a point that while certain practices bringing about these free samples, inflate the ego, could these practices also not inflate the ego to an extent where it bursts? Which is one way for the annihilation of the ego.
That is a very excellent characterisation of this kind of practice.
I see. That is what it is supposed to do. But I told Wayne, the explosion will happen if that is the will of God, and if it is the will of God, that that bodymind organism follow THAT PATH. … … Ramana Maharshi used the words “Who am I” because in English there is a marvellous distinction between ‘I’ and ‘me’, but in the Tamil language and most other languages I am told, this distinction is not there. So when Ramana Maharshi said, “Find out who am I”, he really meant, “Who is this me I’m so concerned about?”
If this process starts, it is the will of God. And if this process reaches a certain depth – every step is God’s will and the destiny of that body-mind organism – the actual arising of this question is there a me, out of DEEPEST FRUSTRATION, is what is perhaps called THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL In the time lag between the arising of the question and the arising of an answer, the deepest frustration is the dark night of the soul. And the dark night of the soul awakens you into the answer: “There never has been a ‘me’. There is thinking, but no thinker. There is doing, but no doer.” The thinker, the doer, the experiencer, comes later, and becomes proud, or has a feeling of guilt. Thinking happens. A thought arises and leads to some action. And later on, the individual ego doer comes in and says “I had a brilliant idea which I put into practice, and now I am Bill Gates, making five hundred dollars every second.” That is how thought occurs. But the one who says ‘I thought’ comes later. And it was God’s will and the destiny of the mindbody organism that that should happen. Albert Einstein in his total humility, has gone on record as saying the equation came to him from outside.
I think that’s the experience of every artist and mind worker.
Yes. Nureyev the ballet dancer has said, “Nureyev dances best when Nureyev isn’t there.” And the same thing is said by I suppose, any artist in whatever field … … Bhagavad Gita says this: “Out of thousands of people there is one seeker. Out of the many seekers, there is ONLY ONE who knows me in principle.” … … Many Gurus, unfortunately, tie down their disciples, saying “Now you have come to me. You wanted to be initiated. Now our relationship is life-long.” You see? But to me, that is ridiculous. You initiated him, but who sent him to you? That Source certainly has the right to send that disciple somewhere else! Who is this Guru, to bind him for life?
In the Zen tradition as you know, monks went from one Master to another, in search of different aspects of the teaching. I don’t feel I am betraying my Teacher by being here.
Yes. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. In fact, Wayne told me, you told your Teacher.
Yes. He asked me to cook him one last meal. Because I’m his cook.
And what is his favourite dish?
Uh – salmon teriyaki.
Oh. Well, that’s – that’s my favourite dish too. I mean, the particular dish you mention, I don’t know what it is, but … salmon.
It’s just marinated in soy sauce and saki, ginger, pepper, for a certain period of time, and then battered.
So is cooking one of your talents?
It’s not a talent, it’s a duty. I cook for the old man.
So it is your duty to cook salmon for your Guru.
That is correct.
And it is the Guru’s duty to eat it, whatever way you cook it!
He is very cavalier with his duties.
I see. Yes. YES. So, Leonard, is he likely to ask you when you go back, what did you learn?
My understanding, he will discern exactly. I think the issue more urgent, is whether I stay there or not.
Yes. But if he does ask you – which is not impossible, is it? – what would you say, Leonard?
Well, we have – I would try to convey to him in the terms that – but he doesn’t speak English.
So you speak Japanese?
No. He speaks very very little English. I speak very little Japanese. But we’ve been studying together and drinking together for a long time.
What is his favourite drink?
I tried to introduce him to vintage French wine, which I consider a refined beverage, but he insists on drinking saki.
If you ask me, I’d prefer Scotch or sherry.
I agree with you. He did – he was very discerning about cognac.
He liked cognac, and he established masculine and feminine qualities to the different brands. For instance he thought Remy Martin had a feminine expression, while Courvoisier had a masculine expression. None of these designations were taken too seriously after the third or fourth drink.
You see, that is the whole point, Leonard. The whole business is taken far too seriously. That is the ridiculous thing about it. There’s nothing serious about it, because there’s no seeker! And who is serious about it? – the seeker! You see? The seeking goes on, on its own course. So, if this question were asked you Leonard, is there a specific point which you learned from Ramesh – which is NOT what you had earlier – what would you say? I don’t want to suggest an answer …
I would probably gasho to him. (Bows deeply) And depending on the truth of the moment, whether I could step aside from the understanding and let the understanding communicate itself …
The answer is, “I don’t know”. Is that what you meant?
Then that is absolutely correct: “I don’t know what answer will come out.”
He has, you know, the Japanese rigour. So he would question, he would listen carefully to my saying “I don’t know”. Because “I don’t know” is the answer to many koans.
No no. What I’m saying is: “I don’t know” is your answer to me. … … Must be a pretty hard life there?
I’m given many privileges that the younger monks don’t have, because I have a family and obligations, so although I’m not free from the general form, which is very early waking up and long hours in the meditation hall and lots of work, I’m allowed to go down, into the city from time to time, to take care of my affairs and see my children.
Yes. I see. Yes. You have a family?
I have two children.
Two children. I see. And a wife?
I never married.
I see. So the two children are grown up?
They’re in their middle twenties.
Oh I see. But they’re on their own then, yes? – You have to help them?
They’re on their own, but I feel I can be of use to them. It’s difficult raising children in America. It’s a difficult manoevring and navigating through a lot of dangerous waters. So I’ve tried to stay close to them through some very difficult periods. A child growing up in America with money.
They have their own money?
No, I mean, in a comfortable surrounding.
Yes. What is your relationship with your children? What advice do you give them – depending on the circumstances? The point is, how does one raise one’s children with the total acceptance that each child has its own destiny? Each child is programmed in a unique way. And yet you have to do your duty, as a father. What has been your experience, Leonard? Was it interesting?
My experience is to rely on instinct at the moment, and discard principles I myself received from my own parents, which were quite effective in their own way. I find for instance, that that the way I did it, or the way it was revealed to me –
Do they live on their own?
My daughter lives in my apartment, and I live on the mountain, and my son lives around the corner.
And you provide the money for them, or do they work?
They work. They work hard.
And they earn their own living then?
Yes, Sir. But they grew up in a privileged environment. They didn’t have to work. They didn’t have to struggle.
They didn’t have to earn and learn?
No, they didn’t have to earn and learn, and not only that, but they were exposed to things very early in their lives, as many American kids are. I had been through that myself. So I was able to react in a way that was unconventional. But having understood something …
From personal experience?
From personal experience, I established a connection with the child on the basis of that common experience, rather than on a principle of right or wrong.
Quite right. Yes. It worked?
And fortunately, it seemed to work.
Oh? I see. In other words, you talked to your children not like a father to a son or daughter, but as one person who has experience of what they are experiencing.
Yes Sir, that’s correct; not only that, but having taken that course, it’s enabled a real usable friendship to develop.
Yes! Yes! In fact the relationship itself must have taken a beautiful turn.
It has! My daughter says, like “You’re really cool, Dad.”
That is the highest compliment, isn’t it. Cool. And the curious part of it is, this word is really the definition of the traditional word ananda. The traditional word ananda is translated as “bliss”. But my objection to the word “bliss” is, it raises expectations in the seeker.
It’s a tyranny.
Calm. Cool. Well, this is a great compliment from your daughter!
It was, it was.
You are cool, Dad. And what about your son? What do they do?
My daughter runs a store for antique deco furniture. She goes to England and buys furniture and brings it back and sells it. She got a job with an antique dealer two years ago, who apprenticed her. And my son has just put out his first record with a big record company.
Oh well! So he inherited your talent for music?
Well, I don’t have much talent for music, but he has. People who know my work will, er … I have a kind of croaking delivery. But he actually is very musical.
What you are saying is, your son is better than you are – were.
He has strengths that are much more apparent!
And you have told him that? So he must ALSO have said “Dad, you’re cool.”
The son being praised by the father. So you have a very good relationship with your children!
Thank God, I do.
Again, God’s grace. You know what I say about God’s grace and God’s will? We use the word God’s grace when something nice happens. When something not so nice happens, and we know we can do nothing about it, we put our head down and say God’s will. So now, if somebody asks you Leonard, “how do you live your life?” – you are about sixtyish?
Getting to be sixty-five.
I see. How do you live your life? Does living your life present a problem? What would be your answer, from personal experience? Is living your life now, with this understanding, a difficult thing?
Well, if it is – and it’s been the experience of this being, that things come with difficulty rather than with ease – so I think the perspective on that programming is changing.
I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that. Things come difficult?
Yes, for instance I’m a song writer by profession …
You still write?
Yes Sir. And I’ve always found that I write one word at a time. With sweat and difficulty.
Like pulling out teeth.
It’s like pulling teeth, and it takes a great effort. I’ve written some decent songs, and people ask me about song writing, you know, they say “How do you write a good song?” And I always say, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I would go there more often.” I don’t know where they come from. I know that I have to sit at my desk or in my café or wherever it is, and sweat over it. Other song writers greater than I – and I’ve had this conversation with them – will give me completely different information. They’ll say, like “I wrote it in the back of the taxi cab” – you know, a great song. So it seems to be my experience, that things are difficult in just the way this programming works.
That is correct.
So the understanding now is, that this programming, unless it is the will of God to change the programming, is going to be as it is, but I don’t have to get involved in the programming. I can work at my desk as I’ve always done, but without that additional tyranny of disapproval of the method; because this is the method that …
… is supposed to be for you
… is supposed to be for me.
I tell you how I understand it. What you are saying is this: writing a song comes easy for some people. They can write one in a taxicab. For you it becomes much more difficult. But what you are saying, I think, is, that there is no wish that you could do what that other fellow is doing. Isn’t that right?
No. There is no wish.
That’s the whole point. You have accepted the way YOU write your songs, and you have accepted the way someone else is able to write the songs.
And deeper than that, Sir, there is – I’ve always had a sense of this – this perception of this bodymind orgasm – organism … !
The American pronunciation!
… has been that there is a background of anguish, of mental anguish, that does not seem to respond to any methods that I impose on it. So as that understanding deepens, I try less to impose any methods; and although the chatter and the activity of the mind continues, it doesn’t seem to have its poisonous sting.
Say that again, please? The chattering of the mind goes on?
The chattering of the mind, and the alleged anguish of the mind continues to operate sometimes in degrees of intensity that make one gasp or cry for help …
But with this understanding that is dawning, it seems that I am less willing to criticize or impose.
I see. Again, the same thing. You write the songs the way YOU are programmed to write, but there is no wishing that YOU could do what some others can. Doesn’t the same thing apply here? Isn’t that what you are saying?
Yes Sir. (Bows deeply). Yes, Sir.
Exactly the same thing. The chattering of the mind happens, but there is no wish that the chattering of the mind should become less. Isn’t that what you are saying? So whatever happens is accepted. Alright, there IS the chattering of the mind! It is the nature of the mind to chatter. It is the nature of the monkey to moan. So you let the monkey moan – the way he wants to! Therefore, the chattering of the mind may be there, but there’s no anguish. Is that what you are saying – as I think you are?
It is. But even if there is anguish …
You mean, accept even that anguish is acceptance? Quite correct. Even if the anguish does happen, even if the involvement does happen, acceptance of it means “the cutting off of the involvement, when it is accepted.”
So, even the involvement has to be accepted. Involvement happens – oh, alright, so it is happening … Thank you very much, Leonard. That is exactly what I was hoping I’d get from you. (Obeisance).
First published in Ramana Maharshi Foundation UK Journal
“Self Enquiry”, summer 1999
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