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
holydove
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Tue Jun 15, 2010 5:45 pm

TineDoes wrote:[.
Holydove, I would be interested to hear from you “what constitutes kindness”.
TineDoes: I was not, by any means, implying that I know what constitutes kindness, or that there is any definitive, or objective answer to that; I was saying that it may not always be so clear, what would constitute kindness, in certain situations. As a former teacher of young children (with special needs), I can try to give a fairly simple example: There were always basic ground rules in my classroom (as in all classrooms), & there were consequences for breaking ground rules. I always tried to maintain a logical connection between act & consequence, whenever possible. So, for instance, one ground rule, for a kindergarten class, might be: if you deliberately spill paint on another child's head, you are not allowed to use the paint for the rest of the day. Let's say a child (call him child#1) who has very little impulse control, & very shaky understanding of ground rules, pours paint on his friend's (call him child #2) head, thinking that is a really fun way to play with his friend. His friend is very upset, & doesn't think that is so much fun. So, as adult in charge, you take the paint away from child #1. But child #1 really loves to paint, & is very upset about the paint being taken away from him. By the way, this is not the first day of school, this ground rule has been explained hundreds of times, & child #1 has already broken this rule many times. In fact, the rule was created because of the past actions of this particular child. Twenty minutes later, the child is still crying about not being allowed to paint. Thirty minutes later, the child is still crying. Of course, you do all you can to comfort the child, explain why the paint was taken away from him, how he upset his friend & ruined his friend's clothes; you tell him he will have another chance tomorrow, to show that he can use paint appropriately; you offer him many other activities & materials - he can draw with crayons or magic markers, he can make a collage, he can play a game on the computer, he can read a book, he can build with legos, etc., etc., but nothing else interests him - he only wants the paint; you explain that if there is no consequence for his action, then everyone might think it's okay to pour paint on another child's head, etc., etc. Lunchtime comes, & food is a temporary distraction, but after lunch, same problem. Remember: this child has very low impulse control, his intention was not to hurt anyone, he thought he was playing, & you are not sure he even really understands the connection between his action & the consequence. But, the rule/consequence has been explained repreatedly, he has broken the same rule several times (in addition to breaking several other rules, because of his low impulse control). So, what would constitute kindness, on the part of the teacher, in this situation? Do you let him go on crying, believing that kindness/compassion, in this situtaion, has to do with helping this child understand that his action was not acceptable, & that there are consequences for such acts in this world, & thinking that understanding this concept is what will help him the most, in the long run? (But he may or may not be capable of this understanding, right now - you can't know for sure that he will "get it".) Or, because you can't really get inside his head, & know what he will understand, does kindness/compassion mean ending his suffering right now, letting him have the paint, & hoping that he now understands the concepts involved (or will understand some time in the near future), & that this time (or next time, etc.) he will use the paint only on the paper.

Maybe to some people, the answer is obvious. To me, the answer is very unclear. I don't know if this is the best kind of example, but to me it represents many potential situations that have arisen, & could arise in this world. And I'm just saying, I think there are many situations where "what constitutes kindness" might be a question that is very difficult to answer.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby TineDoes » Wed Jun 16, 2010 1:12 am

holydove wrote:I think there are many situations where "what constitutes kindness" might be a question that is very difficult to answer.
Very difficult indeed. Thanks Holydove for the reply.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Wed Jun 16, 2010 1:45 am

holydove wrote:
TineDoes wrote:[.
Holydove, I would be interested to hear from you “what constitutes kindness”.
Of course, you do all you can to comfort the child, explain why the paint was taken away from him, how he upset his friend & ruined his friend's clothes; you tell him he will have another chance tomorrow, to show that he can use paint appropriately; you offer him many other activities & materials - he can draw with crayons or magic markers, he can make a collage, he can play a game on the computer, he can read a book, he can build with legos, etc., etc.

Maybe to some people, the answer is obvious. To me, the answer is very unclear. I don't know if this is the best kind of example, but to me it represents many potential situations that have arisen, & could arise in this world. And I'm just saying, I think there are many situations where "what constitutes kindness" might be a question that is very difficult to answer.
In my humble opinion Holydove (and I certainly am not claiming that the answer is obvious or that "kindness" is a fixed, well-defined notion), the teacher's response as you describe it above, is the kindest and most compassionate. The child is being comforted and cared for; the situation is explained to him and he is given alternative activities. Obviously, you say that he may not understand exactly why it is that he is not allowed to paint any longer, but other children need to be protected from his disruptive behaviours. It is not as if he was told off and asked to stand facing the corner of the classroom for an hour. There is genuine nurturing and engagement from the teacher and he can't fail to be aware that his sadness is being respected and validated, even if he does not understand the rest. So I think there is both kindness and compassion at play here, both for the little individual and for his mates. And maybe he will be inconsolable for a day all the same, but we all feel like that occasionally, and then we turn the page and move on...

Interesting how the discussion on Leonard Cohen and Buddhism has progressed recently, with on the one hand the question of the meaning of compassion for various religions, and that of the meaning of kindness more generally. I am truly enjoying reading all the posts and learning so much from the various points of view!
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby rubenken » Thu Jun 17, 2010 7:34 am

Zen Buddhism is a subtraction rather than a body of thought. When all the ideas are stripped away, what's left can write songs like Leonard (with a ton of sweat equity invested).
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Thu Jun 17, 2010 9:46 pm

Remote1, thank you so much for your "kind" & wise response. I realize that the fact that I used that kind of example means that, as a former teacher, I have struggled with the issue of whether I've been as kind as I should be/want to be/can be with the children (although I wasn't fully aware that I'm still thinking about that, until I made that post). I know, from things that you've said, that you have children of your own, so I value your thoughts, as I'm guessing you've contemplated those issues too. The empathy you manifested in your post made me cry (not out of distress, but because of the love that came through) - I felt consoled by what you said, & I thank you for that!!

Rubenken: thank you for your post, you make a very interesting point! I think you are talking about the place to which Zen meditation (& any Buddhist meditation) aims to bring the mind of the meditator - a place beyond, or before, conceptual thought. And Zen does de-emphasize the "study" aspect, while placing much more emphasis on the "practice" aspect (as opposed to Tibetan Buddhism, which emphasizes both as equally important.) Having said that, I would say that there are, in fact, many volumes written on the concepts/philosophy behind the practice of Zen - so there must be some thought involved; & I'd also venture to say that it is, if not crucial, at least helpful, to understand the concepts behind the practice. And the very wise people who created/developed the practice of Zen had to have a conceptual basis, out of which they developed the practice. Even the idea of "no concept" is a concept in itself.

Buddhism does teach, however, that all sentient beings (even ones not capable of "thinking", or thinking abstractly) have Buddha -Nature; which means all sentient beings have the "seed of enlightenment" within. I once asked a teacher something to the effect of "does that mean a fish can become enlightened?" & the teacher said "yes, it would mean a fish can become enlightened. How a fish would become enlightened, I don't know . . . " (I have since wondered if maybe fish don't have to become enlightened, because they are already naturally enlightened, because they don't have "thoughts" getting in the way of that allegedly pure & natural state; or maybe a great being from the "Buddha realms" can reach in with their energy, & zap them with enlightenment). There is also a story about a so-called "retarded" person who became enlightened as a result of his great devotion. This all brings up the question of what exactly is the experience (or non-experience) of enlightenment - that state of openness/emptiness/no-thought/etc. I guess we can't really know until we get there, if we ever do. . .

I would certainly agree, though, that writing the kinds of songs/poems that Leonard Cohen writes, would require a familiarity with that very deep place of the heart, that one might access, when all thought is stripped away. So your point is well-said, & well-taken!!
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Sun Jun 20, 2010 2:25 am

holydove wrote:I realize that the fact that I used that kind of example means that, as a former teacher, I have struggled with the issue of whether I've been as kind as I should be/want to be/can be with the children (although I wasn't fully aware that I'm still thinking about that, until I made that post).
Hi again Holydove, I'm glad that my response as a parent was helpful to you. It was particularly interesting that you gave a real life situation to outline the fact that "kindness" is a relative concept and not one which lends itself easily to fixed definitions. The question of what constitutes kindness is a huge one, and it certainly would be great to know how Buddhism defines "kindness" (if it does and if this differs at all from "kindness" as generally and consensually understood). This might actually bring us back nicely to Lili's analysis of the nature of the unusual selflessness which appears to be put forward in Famous Blue Raincoat...
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby humbled » Mon Jun 21, 2010 1:54 am

Perhaps you need to spend a bit more time practicing that Buddhist form of compassion yourself, Humbled, and accept the Jew in Leonard Cohen.
HollyDove
First of all I don’t aspire to that type of compassion. Second, I have no more problem with Cohen being a Jew than I do him being a Muslim but based on making the mistake of viewing the “politics” section I am assured that not many who post here could make that same statement. If you want to know how really far removed that I am from those things it wasn’t until 10 years after I discovered him and I heard Cohen sing “I’m Your Man” on Austin City Limits when he changed the words to “if you want a JEWISH doctor…” that I finally realized with the name Cohen he was a Jew. It certainly hasn’t caused me to like him the less or the more.
Your assessment of religions other than Buddhism is based on a lack of knowledge of those religions.
You are free to have whatever views that you would like about my humble abilities. But a major part of my day job is document analysis or teaching same to others so I am not sure why it would break down so utterly when I analyze mythological documents but there you are. I am as apolitical as it gets and also a-religious (sic). I always only speak in terms of the basic mythology and history rather than in religious terms. In all its kind of funny because it wasn’t too many posts ago that you noted your feelings at the depth and the breath of my knowledge of mythology. Apparently only when you give it your blessing. I guess that does point to one universal truth that I have learned: The righteous ain’t always right.

To take your conclusion of what Jewish mythology is saying would certainly set mythology on its ear. The major documents were written at a time and place that had constant warring between tribes. For ANY mythology to then contain, as a whimper, let alone as a major premise the idea of universal compassion is ludicrous. With due regards to your opinion of my scholarship, myths systems just aren’t built that way. They are built to bring a higher level of “authority” to those ideas and laws that already exist in a society, they do not predate them. Since you are so well read and I so ignorant please list one, just one, other myth system of that area and era which contains these traits, you will be searching for the rest of your life.

It is a bit incongruous, at least for those with my limited intelligence, to understand how you are expected to honour universal compassion when you’re god tells you to rape your victims.

And as for me making some type of great leap of illogic, how is one to take (in paraphrase)…

“when you come to a city give them ONE chance to surrender and if they do makes slaves of them use the women as you will and take all the booty, for the lord your god has brought you to this place. If they don’t surrender kill them all, destroy the city and do what you will with everything there.”

…as showing universal compassion? As you know better than my ignorant self I could have given you the exact chapter and verse, along with a plethora of others on the subject. As I said this is not analysis it is reading comprehension. If you want to come along now millennia latter to “scratch beneath the surface” to find a meaning that is more conducive to the modern “cumbya” that is your right. I know how to read and I know what it says. If you think you can put a happy face on Deuteronomy, please be my guest!

Based on the parable of The Good Samaritan I guess Jesus got Jewish mythology all wrong too. I may be dumb but at least I am in elite company!

Had I not made the mistake of reading the politics section where I discovered you have to be a rabid far-right-wing apologist of every and anything Jewish to peacefully coexist here I would have been shocked at the personal nature of your comments. Now, sadly, it doesn’t surprise me.

For what it was worth my idea was that Cohen had passed the limited us against them mythology of the Jews to something greater and more pure, how that could be a dig at Cohen I’ll never know.


So let me just put in the requisite mea culpa to all for my egregious defilement of Jews everywhere by trying to discuss mythology. I came here for discussion but as you have so kindly pointed out I am far to dense for that and since I will never be able to be “taught” the world as you or SeaDove see it I’ll bow to the greater cognition and I will just say goodbye to all. For a little while it was fun.
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby Lilifyre » Mon Jun 21, 2010 3:41 am

Humbled, it was not Holydove, but I, Lilifyre who responded to your post. My main objection to your post was your statement:
I believe that trying to equate Buddhist compassion with that of Judaism or equating Leonard Cohen’s songs with a deep base in Judaism denigrates both Buddhism and Cohen, making both of them no more than “One thin Gypsy thief”.
In particular, your statement that "...equating Leonard Cohen’s songs with a deep base in Judaism denigrates both Buddhism and Cohen,..." smacks of arrogance and an anti-Jewish bent. Certainly, there is a drawing on Buddhist philosophy in many of Leonard's songs, but as I pointed out, there is at least an equal drawing on the Judaism that has been a lifelong part of his very being. Throughout his childhood, as Leonard has said on many occasions, he stood with his father chanting such lines as "If it be your will..." and "Who by fire..." He heard and sung the psalms of David and listened to the "Story of Isaak". Those experiences cannot be divorced from his Jewishness and are certainly no denigration to the man or his music.

As for your statement that you are quoting "major documents...written at a time and place that had constant warring between tribes..." I would have to say that you are referring to material that was spread by oral tradition for at least hundreds of years before being written, and that even when written has been translated countless times since the first writing. Quoting chapter and verse is meaningless. The Torah can only be fully studied when the remaining oral portion of it is taken into account. So unless you are an expert on reading/understanding ancient Aramean and are a scholar of the Talmud and accompanying documents, you are quoting only partial information.

As for your observations concerning Christianity, I would only say that the Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible is totally different from the Jewish understanding.
Had I not made the mistake of reading the politics section where I discovered you have to be a rabid far-right-wing apologist of every and anything Jewish to peacefully coexist here I would have been shocked at the personal nature of your comments. Now, sadly, it doesn’t surprise me.
I have no idea what you are referring to here. You certainly have me confused with someone else. I have NEVER been "far-right-wing" anything! As for "peacefully coexisting" here, I've had no problems with anyone else on any of the threads on this forum. Yes, I am Jewish and proud of that fact. Do I agree with everything Judaism espouses? No, and I'll be the first to say that. Are there some parallels between a Jewish thought process about some of the topics of Leonard's songs and a Buddhist view of the same topic? Yes.

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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Tue Jun 22, 2010 10:12 pm

Hi Lilifyre - thank you for so kindly informing Humbled that you were the one who made that post (lol!) - (though it doesn't really matter to me, who he thinks wrote that, since I agree with all that you said - but thank you anyway!)

Remote1 - to your question about the Buddhist view of kindness/compassion - it has to do with the "selflessness" you mentioned. True compassion would involve really dissolving one's sense of "I", or "me-ness"; which means dissolving one's sense of separateness from others; our perception of separateness is considered an illusion, & that illusion, or false perception of reality, is the root of all the pain/conflict that exists in the world. What we view as our "selves" is really a conglomeration (translated as "heap" in many texts) of mental concepts, which seem very solid & real to us, but are really very diaphanous & insubstantial. So, if we could become aware of the non-existence of the our "selves", there would be nothing to defend & nothing to attack; & there would be no such thing as "self-interest"; then, we would naturally be able to feel & understand the pain of others, & we would naturally act according to the needs of others. This is similar to the view of kindness/compassion in other religions/ systems of thought, & to the idea of kindness in general. The only possible difference, I think, would be that the idea of "selflessness" might be more literal in Buddhism, & there are lots of techniques in Buddhism, that one can use, to attain that state of selflessness, or "egolessness", which is the often-used english translation of the Tibetan/Sanskrit terminology.

That's a general, basic description of compassion in Buddhist context, & how we apply whatever stage of compassion we are at, to daily, real-life situations, would have to do with accessing that place of the heart that is beyond concept - beyond ego - & trusting the "funny voices" we hear in the "tower of. . ." (well, you know the rest. . .)

I've been thinking about the lines from Avalanche: "you who wish to conquer pain, you must learn what makes me kind. . ." I take this to mean, possibly, that pain is not something to be conquered, if one wishes to be kind. In order to cultivate true kindness, one has to be willing to feel one's own pain, & the pain of others. We are ordinarily inclined to "conquer" pain, to fight it, push it way, erase it, etc. In the teachings/practice of Buddhism, it's crucial to develop the willingness & ability to really explore the experience of pain, in all its shapes & forms. I'm aware that there is alot of Christian imagery in this song(or at least it can be seen that way), & perhaps this is another instance where Leonard combines imagery from different systems of thought; or maybe this way of dealing with pain is both Christian (or at least taught in some form/branch of Christianity) & Buddhist; & maybe it's Judaic too -( maybe Lili can inform us about that!) It's also possible, of course, that the imagery is neither Buddhist, nor Christian, nor Judaic, & that these lyrics refer to a kind of mystical or divine spark/soul/figure/place, that is not connected to any of those systems. Either way, what a GORGEOUS lyric - I think we'd all agree about that!! That whole song is so beautiful, haunting & intense, & the way Leonard sings it, it sounds like he's really coming from some other world - it even scares me sometimes (as many of his songs do) - but it's a kind of "good" fear, that participates in transporting my mind to whatever & wherever that place is. . . okay, time to stop. . .
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Tue Jun 29, 2010 2:31 am

Many thanks for the detailed explanation Holydove, and also for your interpretation of "you who wish to conquer pain, you must learn what makes me kind", which I find quite convincing. I was wondering, based on my meagre readings on Buddhism so far, and what you yourself wrote above, where self-compassion comes in here. As far as I understand, "compassion for the self" is equally as important as "compassion for the other" in Buddhism, unless I've got that totally wrong. And so, whereas Christianity (again, as I understand it, but correct me if I'm wrong) seems to advocate a sort of extreme humility and self-effacement (a different type of "selflessness" altogether), Buddhism appears to cultivate a gentler, or more compassionate, approach to the self. In Famous Blue Raincoat, I do not see any self-compassion, but what I see is a more extreme type of self-effacement, or even self-denial. In that sense, I would view the song as closer to the Parable of the Good Samaritan as quoted before: "If someone forces you to go one mile, go two miles with him", or the teaching that "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also"... I wonder what you think? Hopefully this makes sense. Sorry if it doesn't! [It's half past midnight but there is no time to write during the day...]
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Wed Jun 30, 2010 11:19 pm

Remote1, you make alot of sense, indeed! You are absolutely right - compassion for oneself is very important in Buddhist teachings (I see you are doing your homework!) In fact, the implication is that compassion for oneself is a pre-requisite, if one is to manifest compassion for others. In the practices used to cultivate compassion for others, if you find you are having alot of difficulty feeling compassion for someone, the instruction is to try to cultivate the feeling for yourself first, & then go back to cultivating it for the other(s). Going back to Avalanche for a moment, I think the line that comes next ties in with this concept: "the crumbs of love you offer me/ are the crumbs I left behind"; I take this to possibly be the "narrator" saying that the only reason anyone is able to offer any love at all, to the narrator(christ/god/divine being - whoever it is), is because of the love that this being has given to us/him/her (whoever that entity is speaking to in the song). So it is only when we have received compassion, that we are able to offer it; we can receive it from others, & we can also receive it from ourselves.

When you have time, I'm curious as to what makes you interpret the lyrics of Famous Blue Raincoat as indicative of self-effacement/self-denial?
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Fri Jul 02, 2010 1:52 pm

holydove wrote:When you have time, I'm curious as to what makes you interpret the lyrics of Famous Blue Raincoat as indicative of self-effacement/self-denial?
Ok, here we go Holydove and whoever else is interested!

I understand this letter to be written by a man whose wife fell in love with his best friend, a type of "Jules and Jim" scenario. His own interpretation of the event is that his wife was "stolen" by his close friend, a man he regarded as his "brother", but who turned out to be "one more thin gypsy thief, with a rose in his teeth". He is clearly deeply affected by his friend’s betrayal, so much so as to refer to him as his “killer”, and to refer to their current relationship as one of enmity. I think self-effacement and self-denial come into play here towards the end of the song. In spite of his obvious suffering, he bothers first to convey Jane’s message to her lover (“She sends her regards”), but also to go the extra mile by actually thanking the traitor for making the woman he loved happy, and in fact also stating that he is glad this man came in between him and his wife. He is also displaying self-effacement when he lets the other man know that he himself is not going to stand in their way (“his woman is free”). As for self-denial, it is apparent in all of the above, but especially I think in “Your enemy is sleeping”, which is a manner of denying his own presence as a wounded man, angry or hateful, in this three-way relationship, and especially his existence as a man in a situation of conflict. He is repressing his own feelings and forgiving his enemy. I guess that’s why I said that I did not see any self-compassion in Famous Blue Raincoat. By contrast, I believe there is a lot of compassion, e.g. when he notices that the raincoat is torn at the shoulder, or simply wanting to know if the man who betrayed him is feeling better... I would say that he is compassionate towards the two people who made him suffer, but his (perhaps excessive) humility and selflessness are nothing like the gentler, self-compassionate approach to one’s own suffering which seems to be encouraged in Buddhism alongside compassion for others (I’m glad I did not get that completely wrong; the homework is paying off!). ;-)

Just a thought... or two!
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby holydove » Mon Jul 05, 2010 10:38 pm

Remote1, thank you for your response, that's an interesting interpretation. I'd have to say (as you've probably surmised from my question), that I didn't interpret the lines you mention as an expression of self-effacement. I hear a kind of dichotomy in this song (as in so many of LC's beautiful songs/poems): in my perception, the narrator is expressing bitterness & sadness, not just in the words, but in the general atmosphere, or tone of his voice. I hear a struggle going on - while he felt, or still feels, sad & bitter, he wants to, or is trying/starting to, come to terms with the situation, & not hold on to the anger. I feel that these two kind of opposing emotions (he is sad & angry, but also misses, & wants to forgive & feel compassion for his friend) are expressed in those very lines: "what can I tell you/my brother my killer. . .I guess that I miss you/I guess I forgive you/I'm glad that you stood in my way. . ." So I didn't hear it as self-effacement because I think he is acknowledging his pain & anger, & my sense of it is that he has been feeling the pain for a long time, & only after much soul-searching, though he still feels the pain of loss & betrayal, has now begun to come to terms with the events, & is expressing his wish to forgive the others involved, & to continue to consider the other man a friend (especially as he sometimes ends the song with "sincerely, a friend", instead of "sincerely L. Cohen" - although I prefer the L. Cohen ending because I love hearing him say his name, & it feels so poetic to me that way!) For a long time, I actually thought that he might be expressing a bit of sarcasm with the above-mentioned lyric (esp. the "I'm glad that you stood in my way" line), but I've decided that it's more an expression of emotional conflict/struggle (and/or realization that there is a positive side to all of it) than sarcasm. But mainly, it's because I think he is expressing the pain/bitterness/sadness/feeling of loss, that I don't hear it as self-effacement or self-denial. And I would see his allowing himself to feel the full extent of the anger/sadness, & the subsequent (or simultaneous) attempt to dissolve the anger & resolve the conflicts (with himself & with his friend) as a form of self-compassion.

But I like your interpretation too - it's just more evidence of how great LC's poetry is - that it can be interpreted in many different ways. . .
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Re: Are Leonard Cohen's lyrics influenced by Buddhism?

Postby remote1 » Tue Jul 06, 2010 11:03 am

holydove wrote:But mainly, it's because I think he is expressing the pain/bitterness/sadness/feeling of loss, that I don't hear it as self-effacement or self-denial. And I would see his allowing himself to feel the full extent of the anger/sadness, & the subsequent (or simultaneous) attempt to dissolve the anger & resolve the conflicts (with himself & with his friend) as a form of self-compassion.
Yep! I particularly like that bit! Thanks for this alternative perspective... very insightful!
Sorry can't write more now, but I really liked your analysis. :D
Cheers now!
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