Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums

Would you say that Leonard's lyrics are influenced by Buddhist thought?

Yes, throughout his career
26
76%
Yes, since Mount Baldy
5
15%
No, not even after Mount Baldy
1
3%
I have no idea
2
6%
 
Total votes: 34
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remote1
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Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Sat Mar 06, 2010 1:01 am

Considering Leonard Cohen's interest in Buddhism, and the fact that he is a Buddhist monk, it would not be all that surprising to find Buddhist influences in his lyrics. Are there lines, here and there, or whole songs which you believe are undeniably expressions of Buddhist philosophy? Would you say that these influences also pre-date Leonard's years at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center?
Putting my Zen glasses on and waiting for your answers. 8) Cheers!
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remote1
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Sat Mar 06, 2010 4:55 pm

Oops! Could you please vote again as I did not realise that adding an option would erase everyone's votes so far! :oops:
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Sat Mar 06, 2010 5:52 pm

Hi remote1, great idea! (I just voted) Thank you for your interest in this, & for starting the thread - good idea to have a vote first, also. It would be interesting, at some point, to explore which songs on each album, & which lines in each of the songs, have connections to Buddhist teachings, & have a look at which teachings are being expressed (but I'm sure you thought of that already!) One could also explore his poetry for these influences, but that would be a really huge task (in terms of organizing it all) because there is so much of it, so I'd say we should start with the songs.



Thank you again, you are a gem. . .
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby B4real » Sun Mar 07, 2010 12:43 am

Hi remote1,

yes, I've just voted again and my answer is somewhat related to the following excerpt from:

Cohen Between Earth And Sky
by Gilles Tordjman
Les Inrockuptibles, France, October 15, 1995

Leonard Cohen is not some new convert to a new spiritual gadget, one that the US has produced well before its touchingly naive adoption by some in the Old World. For twenty years, Cohen's life has been intertwined with that of the Zen community on Mount Baldy, without the shadow of some questionable revelation pointing to the reasons for his fascination, without the idea of religious conversion placing itself in a spirit naturally given to the most exaggerated types of refusal. "Twenty-five years ago, when I was living in Hydra, I made the acquaintance of a friend, Steve Stanfield. He was part of a small group of people who were studying Buddhist texts in a very interesting way. Upon his return to L.A., someone told him that his master had moved to the area. He began studying with him and told me about it." Spoken in a voice so deep that one can count its each individual vibration, this explanation explains nothing. This is very normal. Very Zen, in fact.

"Even though I've been living like this for some time, I have never considered myself a Buddhist. Two years ago Roshi told me, 'In the twenty years that I've known you, Leonard, I've never tried to convert you. I've been content to serve you sake.'"

"If I'm not interested in the Kabbale, it's no doubt because life is too short to compare everything. One can't drink two cups of tea at the same time, you know. Things aren't made that way. Zen arrived at a certain moment in my life; I met this old man and I liked what he wasn't saying."

Leonard seems to have been always interested in spiritual methodologies besides his own Jewish faith (starting with I-Ching) and buddism is certainly a part of it.

holydove, great idea but I can see it being a marathon like The Book Of Mercy thread!
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Sun Mar 07, 2010 2:29 am

Thanks Holydove, and thanks B4real for the enlightening excerpt!

As I have said in other posts I know very little about Buddhism, but I'll have a crack at it, just to get the ball rolling. I shall start with Anthem, which seems a fairly obvious example of Buddhist influence to a beginner, and which is the song that gave you your username, Holydove (probably not a coincidence?).

From what I have gleaned in various other posts, Anthem is a song about acceptance, about understanding that imperfection is part of the human condition, and letting go of the urge to put things right. It is also about being mindful, i.e. focussing one's mind on the present, on the here and now, and letting go of anxieties relating to the past or the future.

So here are a few lines to illustrate these thoughts (although you probably all know the song by heart)...

Mindfulness:
'The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.'

Acceptance:
'Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.'

Letting go of the idea of perfection:
'Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.'

And again:
'You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum'

And here perhaps compassion (?):
'Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.'

Feel free to tear this ultra simplistic interpretation apart. I just want to know more! 8)
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby B4real » Sun Mar 07, 2010 2:47 am

Hi remote1,

I was just re-reading my post and I think my info may influence any answers for your poll :oops: I hope not.
An hour ago my monitor blew up and as "luck' would have it, I just happened to have on hand a big 22" one and you are all now in panavision :D
I will have to think about "Anthem" now - and you know where I do my best thinking - sitting on the verandah with a cool drink overlooking the sea (it's still summer here) :razz:
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby IMM » Sun Mar 07, 2010 9:02 am

Slightly off topic - I think I can hear Mt. Baldy in the Webb's 1000 Stars.
I like their version of the song - which might be a bit of a 'sleeper' for them.
As a critique, it would be nice to hear that the Webbs have been playing around with some Inuit throat song (breath song) as a form of training? ;-)
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Sun Mar 07, 2010 3:43 pm

B4real wrote:Hi remote1,

I was just re-reading my post and I think my info may influence any answers for your poll :oops: I hope not.
An hour ago my monitor blew up and as "luck' would have it, I just happened to have on hand a big 22" one and you are all now in panavision :D
I will have to think about "Anthem" now - and you know where I do my best thinking - sitting on the verandah with a cool drink overlooking the sea (it's still summer here) :razz:
Thanks B4real but I would not worry about the poll. Any answer may influence it anyway... It's just here for the fun of it! :D
More importantly, the article you quoted sheds light on the issue, and that's fantastic! So thanks again.

I envy you and your summer, verandah and sea view. Summer seems like a very distant memory for me in the UK...
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Sun Mar 07, 2010 3:45 pm

IMM wrote:Slightly off topic - I think I can hear Mt. Baldy in the Webb's 1000 Stars.
I like their version of the song - which might be a bit of a 'sleeper' for them.
As a critique, it would be nice to hear that the Webbs have been playing around with some Inuit throat song (breath song) as a form of training? ;-)
Thanks IMM, will see if I can find it somewhere to read or listen to. ;-)
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby IMM » Mon Mar 08, 2010 2:59 am

remote1 wrote: Thanks IMM, will see if I can find it somewhere to read or listen to. ;-)
Well - it may be that the stars are Baldy rather than Buddhist - but...
I think that this link to a couple of songs has been posted here before.
http://www.directcurrentmusic.com/on-th ... sters.html
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Mon Mar 08, 2010 6:38 pm

[quote="remote1"]
From what I have gleaned in various other posts, Anthem is a song about acceptance, about understanding that imperfection is part of the human condition, and letting go of the urge to put things right. It is also about being mindful, i.e. focussing one's mind on the present, on the here and now, and letting go of anxieties relating to the past or the future.

So here are a few lines to illustrate these thoughts (although you probably all know the song by heart).

Feel free to tear this ultra simplistic interpretation apart. I just want to know more! 8)[/quote/]

Remote1, I wouldn't call your interpretation simplistic at all - I'd say it's pretty preceptive! I would only add these comments: I feel that the narrator is not just letting go of anxieties & the urge to make things right - I feel that he is really letting himself fully experience the agony of it all (which is also something Buddhism teaches - to fully experience & embrace the whole mess, but without attachment to it - pretty tricky, I might add!); & he is shifting back & forth - between experiencing/ expressing / maybe even fighting the pain or the situation; and on the other hand, the understanding that this is how reality is & the acceptance of it; there is also the line "But they've summoned up a thundercloud and they're going to hear from me", (& I hear alot of EXQUISITE rage in LC's voice here, nobody does rage & bitterness better than LC!) & I feel that this implies that the narrator does plan to make an effort to change things, which is not precluded by Buddhism - but the instruction here is to make such efforts from a place of having explored & understood one's own mind, & from a place of compassion. But my main point here is to note the shifting back & forth between utter & complete agony & rage on the one hand, & the understanding & embracing of the fact that this IS reality, on the other - done, of course, in the inimitable, extremely complex style of our dear Mr. Cohen!

there is more I would like to say, esp. about the "like a refugee" line, but I have an appointment that I am late for, so I will return later. . . And you are right, remote1, such a project could turn into a marathon; maybe we can just choose a few examples, & make our marathon a moderate one, though with our compulsion, I don't know if that's possible- we'll see. . .
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Mon Mar 08, 2010 10:17 pm

About the lines, "Every heart to love with come, but like a refugee"

I would agree that this has to do with developing compassion, & I would add that, while there could be several meanings, the words "like a refugee" can be a specific Buddhist reference, because there is a Buddhist ceremony called "Taking Refuge", where the vows are basically "I take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher), I take refuge in the dharma (the teachings), I take refuge in the sangha (the community of Budhhists)." One takes these vows to strengthen one's commitment to the Buddhist path.

But the meaning of "taking refuge" is a little complex, & potentially confusing. Basically, it means the opposite of what one might think. One does not take refuge in order to be safe; one takes refuge as a commitment to experiencing the reality of groundlessness (in other words, to be the opposite of safe). It is an expression of willingness to abandon all of one's reference points, for the sake of being totally open and totally awake. "Reference points" would refer to anything that you habitually hold onto to make yourself feel secure & stable (e.g.,an identity or identities that you have created for yourself, attachments you have developed to people & material things, concepts that you hold to be true & solid, etc.) Generally, people are not likely to let those things go, unless & until they are in a state of desperation, having seen all those things fall apart, again & again. So when Leonard says "Every heart to love will come, but like a refugee", I think the implication could be that every individual will eventually find the love that is at the core of enlightenment, but only when they become desperate enough to abandon (or flee from) their usual attachments/concepts; the way a refugee, in the usual sense of the word, flees from whatever persecution or dire situation is taking place in his/her homeland, to hopefully find freedom in another country. Buddhism would say that we persecute ourselves with our own attachments to our own concepts, and we "take refuge" to free ourselves from those shackles, & as a way of expressing our desire to be open & awake in every moment.
Last edited by holydove on Tue Mar 09, 2010 6:25 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Tue Mar 09, 2010 12:33 am

Wow, that's truly fascinating Holydove! Thanks for taking the time to explain the 'refugee' line, as well as for the clarification regarding the embracing of the "messy" side of the world; your arguments are indeed very convincing!

Holydove and B4Real, I don't think this needs to be a marathon. :D
We can take as long as we wish, to discuss this... And hopefully others will join us.

I wonder if there are other songs which are as obviously influenced by Buddhism as Anthem. And I am also particularly curious about the earlier ones, especially now that I see that there are 73% of responses supporting the idea that Leonard's lyrics were influenced by Buddhist thought throughout his career.

I would be grateful if people could just quote a line, here and there. No need to go into extensive analyses if you don't have the time... 8)
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Tue Mar 09, 2010 12:39 am

IMM wrote:
remote1 wrote: Thanks IMM, will see if I can find it somewhere to read or listen to. ;-)
Well - it may be that the stars are Baldy rather than Buddhist - but...
I think that this link to a couple of songs has been posted here before.
http://www.directcurrentmusic.com/on-th ... sters.html
I wonder if the lyrics are written down somewhere. I don't know if I'm going deaf but I couldn't understand a word they were saying (or singing)! I shall blame it on my computer's poor sound quality... ;-)
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Tue Mar 09, 2010 6:13 pm

Remote1, I would venture to say that Hallelujah contains a message very similar to Anthem; even though there is the David/Bathsheba theme, which is Judaic, and Hallelujah is a Hebrew word, Leonard himself has said that, in this song, the word Hallelujah represents the willingness to embrace the whole broken, dirty mess. In the same context (talking about Hallelujah), he says that the conflicts will never be resolved in this realm, it can't be fixed WHERE WE LIVE - I think, here, he is talking about what Buddhism calls samsara (I mentioned this in some other thread) - it refers to the recurring cyle of birth, old age, sickness & death, rebirth, etc. - it is the realm in which we exist, & a realm where nothing is ever quite right, where no matter how much we try to fix things, they will always be broken. So the verse: and even though it all went wrong/I'll stand before the Lord of song/with nothing on my tongue/but Hallelujah - this gorgeous verse stands out, to me, as encapsulating that philosophy of embracing the whole broken, agonizing mess - though all the verses in this song say it in equally beautiful, & intensely personal ways.

Remote1, I like your idea of quoting without analyzing, so for now, as you asked, I will give some quotes from LC's earllier work, that I think could be references to Buddhist teachings (if we want to, we can analyze sometime later):

Stories of the Street: O lady with your legs so fine/O stranger at your wheel/you are locked into your suffering/and your pleasures are the seal; and: with one hand on a hexagram/and one hand on a girl/I balance on a wishing well/that all men call the world
Teachers: Who is it whom I address/who takes down what I confess/are you the teachers of my heart?/we teach old hearts to rest - (esp. the OLD hearts part); and: some girls wander by mistake/into the mess that scalpels make/ are you the teachers of my heart?/we teach old hearts to break
You Know Who I Am: esp. in the Live songs version: I am not life/I am not death/I am not slave or free; & also in the other versions: I am the distance you put between/all of the moments/that we will be; and: I am the one who loves changing from nothing to one
The Law: I don't claim to be guilty/but I do understand/there's a law, there's an arm/ there's a hand

I have to leave it here for now. . .

Remote1, I also like the idea of not making this a marathon, & just carrying on the discussion at whatever pace we choose - when we have time, or when we feel like it (fortunately, there is no deadline for this thesis!); & of course, others are always more than welcome to join. . .

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