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
User avatar
TineDoes
Posts: 218
Joined: Wed Feb 04, 2009 2:48 pm
Location: Holland

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

Post by TineDoes » Fri Mar 12, 2010 1:24 am

The Smokey Life:
'Take a lesson from these Autumn leaves
They waste no time waiting for the snow'

Tower of Song:
'But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We'll never have to lose it again'
"There’s no forsaking what you love ...."

Rotterdam 2008; Antwerpen, Dublin 2009; Gent 2x, Lille , Las Vegas 2x 2010, Gent, Amsterdam, Dublin 2x 2012, Antwerp, Berlin, Rotterdam 2013
holydove
Posts: 1572
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

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

Post by holydove » Fri Mar 12, 2010 7:02 pm

I know this may sound absurd, or even startling, but I have to add these quotes, both from the same song (from Various Positions):

"Dance me to the end of love"
& "Dance me to the children who are waiting to be born"

I think perhaps I should briefly explain, why "dance me to the end of love": in Buddhist terms, I believe he is talking about a place/state of mind that is beyond all duality - that is the enlightened state of mind - there is no self & other, no you or me, no love or hate (the only love in that state is a love that has no object), etc. In fact, the lyric "to the end of love" implies, also, "to the end of "hatred".

And Leonard himself has said (and I am paraphrasing here) that he is referring to a place where there is no politics, no religion, where one is not "tyrannized" by love, etc. - it is a "very peaceful place" (his words).

And "the children who are waiting to be born": Tibetan Buddhism says that when an entity is ready to be reborn, it goes searching for a suitable womb, a suitable situation to be born into; it has also been described as, perhaps, not so much a deliberate search, but the entity is "magnetized" towards a particular type of situation, according to whatever karma needs to be played out in his/her impending lifetime.

Also, the title Various Positions refers to the Buddhist teaching that one should not let one's mind get locked into any particular viewpoint/ideation/conceptual "position" - that it is important for the mind to be flexible, & able to shift easily into different ("various") viewpoints, so that no concept ever becomes solidified into a perceived (but inherently illusory) reality.

Okay, difficult as it is, I have to make myself stop now. . .

And thank you, t.v.d.Does, I like those quotes.

Namaste. . .
User avatar
remote1
Posts: 2503
Joined: Wed Jul 22, 2009 3:59 pm
Location: between the snowman and the rain

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

Post by remote1 » Fri Mar 12, 2010 7:50 pm

Many thanks t.v.d.Does! Your quotation reminded me of this one, from A Thousand Kisses Deep (I think we may have already discussed it, but I'm not sure; it's one of my very favourite LC sentences):

"The Autumn moved across your skin,
Got something in my eye,
A light that doesn't need to live,
And doesn't need to die."

Will get back to you soon about your ideas Holydove. I'm ill with some sort of flu right now, but I find your posts very interesting and I have some questions. :D
"We are so lightly here"
holydove
Posts: 1572
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

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

Post by holydove » Sat Mar 13, 2010 7:02 pm

Remote1, so sorry that you are ill - you are in my thoughts/meditations - hope you feel better very soon!
User avatar
remote1
Posts: 2503
Joined: Wed Jul 22, 2009 3:59 pm
Location: between the snowman and the rain

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

Post by remote1 » Sun Mar 14, 2010 6:46 pm

holydove wrote: 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. . .
Thanks for your good wishes Holydove; it's a pretty nasty bug this one, but I feel up to typing, which is an improvement... ;-)

Thanks for your examples of Buddhist references in early songs; I had completely missed them but I can see them now.

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.

I assume this is the idea that desiring, wanting, wishing, is the source of men's suffering in this world. We are locked in our bodies and experience both pleasure and distress, unless we can free ourselves of this paradigm. Is that correct? I suppose the Christian faith teaches more or less the same thing, and probably other religions too. I think this is a running theme in Plato as well, but the wording used by Cohen here (esp. "locked" and "seal" and "balance on a wishing well") make it much more convincingly Buddhist.

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.

When you have the chance, I would be interested in "the OLD hearts part" and why this is Buddhist. As for the scalpels bit, I always assumed it meant that some girls get pregnant by mistake... But I'll have to listen to the song again...

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.

I remember your explanation in another thread about "being and not being" at the same time, and I think I get that; the shaking up of old concepts, a form of detachment from them, to experience reality differently (there is something akin to this in post-modernist thought I think, but correct me if I'm wrong anyone).

I don't understand why "I am the distance..." is Buddhist. And "I am the one who loves changing from nothing to one": could that not be referring to Christ?

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.
Could that not work with any monotheist religion?

Sorry, I'm losing track of what I'm asking now as I have three kids talking to me at the same time... Something to do with cake...
I do hope you don't mind me asking all these questions, but don't worry about answering them if it seems like too much work! :D
"We are so lightly here"
holydove
Posts: 1572
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

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

Post by holydove » Mon Mar 15, 2010 1:49 am

remote1, I don't mind your questions at all, I love your questions, & I love talking about this stuff.

I don't have time right now, but wanted to tell you that I will get back to you tomorrow. And I'm very glad you are feeling better. . .
holydove
Posts: 1572
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

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

Post by holydove » Mon Mar 15, 2010 5:41 pm

Hi remote1, I will start with the last one: yes, it could work also with monotheism; the reason I feel it implies a more Buddhist-like teaching is because western monotheistic religions imply that one should feel guilty for wrongdoings, & that one should and/or will be punished - there is even heaven/hell for after-life reward & punishment. But with this line: "I don't claim to be guilty/but I do unerstand/there's a law. . ." - I think LC could be referring to the Law of Karma (it is actually often called, "LAW of Karma"); and this teaching de-emphasizes guilt - guilt is totally irrevelant - it is pretty much a useless emotion. But, rather than guilt tripping, UNDERSTANDING of the universal law of cause and effect (which is what karma is), is what is important here; meaning that we all create our own karma, & therefore whatever is happening is connected to our previous actions or thoughts. It is a constant work in progress; there are 3 types of karma - one type has to be played out in our current lifetime (although we still have control over how we experience it, because we can change always how we perceive it or relate to it); but the other 2 types can be changed at any time, by what we do or what we think (in fact, karma is created by thought, not just by action - thought is actually considered a type of action). And I once read a quote where LC said that this song has to do with being responsible for our own actions (whereas, in monotheism, there is responsibility, but there is also the will of the creator that can be causing things to happen - in Buddhism, there is no outside creator). So it's the emphasis on understanding, rather than guilt, that makes me feel that this line & song could have Buddhist implications.

Sorry, but I miscalculated my time & I have to go now, but I will return to the other questions later. . .
holydove
Posts: 1572
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

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

Post by holydove » Mon Mar 15, 2010 10:50 pm

To continue: first, about The Law, I know that there is also the Law of the Torah and I'm sure it could be interpreted according to that also, and both interpretations could be valid.

Teachers: I think "old hearts" could be a reference to reincarnation (like "old soul") - an "old heart" would be an entity/soul that has lived many lives in this realm; one that has died and been reborn many times. It could also just mean one that has lived through alot in this one lifetime; I just think the reincarnation theory is a possiblity. Kabbalah also teaches that reincarnation is a reality, so it is not necessarily only Buddhist if it refers to reincarnation, but it would certainly fit into the context of Buddhism.
Your interpretation of the scalpel part is interesting, remote1 - I didn't think of that. I took the scalpel as a tool with which he (the narrator) was to dissect himself - because later in the song there are the lyrics: "have I carved enough my lord/child you are a bone", and I took that to mean that he was carving/dissecting his own being, and I thought there was a connection between those two verses. And I took the girls wandering into the mess made by all this dissecting, referred to the girls in his life who had become entangled with him & his life, without foreknowledge of the bloody mess in which they would find thereby find themselves. I don't see the girls wandering in as necessarily having a Buddhist connection (unless you interpret that as part of their karma) - but that was just part of the verse - I could have left that out (sorry if I caused confusion there).
But portraying all these different people as Teachers could be a Buddhist reference, because Buddhism teaches that our Teacher is not really just the Roshi/Guru/Rinpoche/or whatever the person's title might be - but the enlightened view is to see the whole world, and everyone & everything in it, as your Teacher.
And the lines: "we teach old hearts to break" & "we teach old hearts to rest" may have a Buddhist connection because Buddhism emphasizes that it is important to allow our hearts to break, to be soft & vulnerable, & really let ourselves feel the pain & the sadness that are inherently part of life in this realm (this does not preclude also feeling the joy, but we need to be able to feel both). And "we teach old hearts to rest" could be a reference to the Buddhist emphasis on training our minds to be still & quiet, because that is how we attain a state of openness & wakefulness; it is through the state of stillness that we can develop the skill of mindfulness, which has to do with really focusing in on whatever is in front of us, without distraction.
The computer is giving me a hard time now, it's making it difficult to keep typing in this space, so I will return to the other questions later. . .
User avatar
remote1
Posts: 2503
Joined: Wed Jul 22, 2009 3:59 pm
Location: between the snowman and the rain

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

Post by remote1 » Mon Mar 15, 2010 11:23 pm

Wow Holydove, you're working so hard, it's making me feel REALLY guilty (I'm not quite a Buddhist yet then, clearly!) :D
This is all extremely interesting, though, many many thanks for your patience!

I just wanted to say that until I read your last post I always assumed the lines were:
"Have I carved enough my Lord?
Child, you are born."

So I think I've got the whole song wrong anyway!

Will get back to you about The Law and other things towards the end of the week or at the weekend. And I'm still hoping that other people will contribute their interpretations of the lyrics... That would be so cool!

Thanks again Holydove! :D
"We are so lightly here"
holydove
Posts: 1572
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

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

Post by holydove » Wed Mar 17, 2010 5:00 pm

Remote1, don't worry, I am not quite Buddhist yet either (you are so funny!), none of us are; we all have a very long road to that destination! (But I see you have been doing some studying -very impressive!) Just wanting to WANT to attain enlightenment is a big accomplishment for us Westerners! And please do not feel guilty - I really am not working very hard - & it's always a good exercise to try to explain one's point of view. So, to continue:

You Know Who I Am: "I am the distance you put between all of the moments that we/you (there is a version where this is "you" instead of "we") will be" &"I am the one who loves changing. . .": I think these two lines might refer to a level of reality which, in Buddhism, is called Dharmakaya. The teaching is that there are 3 levels of reality: Nirmanakaya is the level of physical form/body; Samboghakaya is the level where our senses arise (I see it as a kind of "ghost" realm) where certain kinds of non-physical entities exist; Dharmakaya is the level of Absolute Reality, it is totally formless (often referred to as "emptiness & luminosity), it is the place from which the universe arises. It is said, to put it briefly, that phsycial form comes into being through a process by which the "energy" of Dharmakaya "condenses" & "descends" through the kayas - in the samboghakaya, it has condensed to a level where there is light & color, but no concrete physicality; then it condenses further into the nirmanakaya, where there is actual phsycial "body". It's been said that when the Buddha attained complete enlightenment, he saw the whole universe blinking in and out of existence. So the whole thing is not exactly linear, but describing it in a linear way makes it easier for us to understand - but the levels of reality really exist within each other, all at the same time. So, in the line "I am the distance. . .", if the word "distance" refers to a kind of "empty" space, and if "moments" refers to the arising & dissolution of appearances in the phenomenal world, then the narrator of this line could be the "voice" of the Dharmakaya; and it would be saying that, it is in the "empty" space between/behind/within the appearances of the physical world, that the true nature of all that exists can be perceived. So the ". . . you put.. . " part of the lyric could refer to the degree to which one is able to perceive that "space". There is a meditation technique where one focuses on the space between the breaths - & that is the space of the true nature of reality, from which everything arises. And the "descent" of the energy to the level where physical form manifests, could be the "changing from nothing to one. . ."

Anyway, I see that as one possible interpretation. I would add, though, that these lyrics could also be interpreted according to the Kabbalistic description of the creation of the universe (Buddhism & Kabbalah have significant similarities in their teachings). When you have time, I'm curious as to how this line would refer to Christ?

And I'd say your interpretation of the lines from Stories of the Street is "spot on" (to borrow a phrase from my British friends - I love that expression) - the only thing I would add is that in Buddhism, it is "not wanting" as well as "wanting" that creates suffering - it's called "attraction" & "aversion" - & they are two sides of the same thing. We create suffering by grasping at things we see as pleasurable, & rejecting things that we see as painful/unpleasant.

Have to sign off now. . . cheers! (to borrow another of my favorite British-isms; hope you don't mind(?). . . )
Lilifyre
Posts: 234
Joined: Fri May 08, 2009 7:29 am
Location: Birmingham, AL, USA

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

Post by Lilifyre » Thu Mar 18, 2010 8:01 am

I've been following this thread and have been mulling over what has been said. I'm the first to admit that I know nothing about Buddhism. Everything said here I will accept as valid for followers of that belief system/religion/philosophy/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. However, I would like to point out just a couple of things.

First, Leonard as a poet is influenced by all aspects of his life. That would definitely include his study of Buddhism, but is not limited solely to that. EVERYTHING in his life ..... his Jewish upbringing, his parents and grandparents teachings, his community both from his childhood and that which has surrounded him during his career, his use/abuse of various substances both legal and illegal, the women in his life, his children, the people of the various world communities he has been a part of, and of course his experiences within Buddhism...... ALL of these are expressed in his music and poetry.

Second, Leonard writes on many levels, or as I have expressed elsewhere, many layers. What appears at first glance is one thing, but each of his works, including his interpretations of the words of others, i.e. Garcia-Lorca, or The Partisan, reveals so much more hidden either intentionally or unintentionally.

Third, being a true poet, much of what is buried in his works is unique to each individual who reads/hears it. In that respect, there is no right or wrong way of interpreting any of Leonard's works.

I'm not criticizing anything here. I am saying that I find it interesting that from my point of view, I sometimes see something quite differently. Each of us comes to Leonard's work with our own "baggage", so I tend to see things more from a Jewish standpoint. For example, the phrase: "I'm stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay/ I'm junk but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet" is an expression of what has kept the Jewish people still viable after more than 2000 yrs of attempts to wipe us off the face of the earth. I'm sure the Buddhist interpretation of this verse may be different. That's as it should be. Again, the layers of meaning.

Holydove, we have discussed this idea of layers of meaning in other threads. From what I've learned about Leonard from this forum and from reading/hearing interviews with him, I think he would approve of our analysis. I also think he might give a sly chuckle and say we may be taking some of his words way too literally or seriously ;-) Perhaps that is what makes his songs/poems so great. They are a treasure chest of meaning. It's kind of like finding an old trunk full of old pictures and letters and piecing together the people in the pictures or the writers and recipients of the letters. Perhaps his words tell us as much about ourselves as they do about him.

Thank you all for allowing me to eavesdrop on your conversation and offer some differing views.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
holydove
Posts: 1572
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

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

Post by holydove » Thu Mar 18, 2010 9:36 pm

Hi Lilifyre - I am not saying, and have never thought, that Buddhism is the only system of thought, or experience, influencing Leonard's lyrics. I just think it's one of the many influences (some of which you have indicated) that one might infer in his work - that's why I picked out only certain lines in certain songs, which I feel might represent that influence. I am aware that even those lines can be interpreted in other/multiple ways. We all know that Leonard's mind is more complex than we can even imagine, & it would certainly be very simplistic to imply that any of his words can only be interpreted in one way.

My only purpose here is to explore those lyrics that I feel have a relatively signifcant Buddhist connection, and I am always more than happy to hear other interpretations, as well (in fact, I have explored other interpretations of those same lines, myself). I'm not trying to push Buddhist interpretations on anyone, and Leonard has clearly written, sung, & spoken many, many words that I don't think have any Buddhist connection at all.

As Leonard has been studying & practicing Zen & Tibetan Buddhism since the '60's, I don't think it's possible that there is no Buddhist influence at all in his work - that's just my personal opnion. But the purpose of this thread is not to convince anyone of anything, it's just an interesting & fun exploration. And since certain people have expressed curiosity about these ideas (because I've mentioned them in other threads), I am just offering some thoughts - it is because of our love for Leonard & his Art that we love to explore the MANY possible meanings of his beautiful words. . .
And you are not eavesdropping ( or if you are, feel free to do it anytime) - everyone's input is more than welcome here. . . I'm glad you dropped by. . .
Lilifyre
Posts: 234
Joined: Fri May 08, 2009 7:29 am
Location: Birmingham, AL, USA

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

Post by Lilifyre » Thu Mar 18, 2010 10:54 pm

Holydove, I'm sorry if I gave any impression that I object to you finding Buddhist meaning in Leonard's work. Surely it is there. In fact, I'm not really sure what my point was in commenting.... :? .......... senior moment??? :oops: I've always found your comments to be very open, thoughtful and respectful.

In rereading some of your posts here in this thread, I find that often the Buddhist views you express are not at all different from what I would see from a Jewish perspective. Funny how that happens. I'm reminded of the words of a Rabbi friend of mine. In one of his sermons for the High Holy Days, he once pointed out that the purpose of those days was to "return to G_d". He spoke about the Hebrew word, T'shuva...return or just turn. He pointed out that when you have gone as far as you possibly can get from G_d, as far as East is from West, all you need to do to return is to simply turn. When all is said and done, our interpretations of Leonard's work may be as far as East is from West, yet to reconcile them all we need do is to turn and we find they are very close indeed. Infinity extends in all directions. Who's to say it doesn't circle back onto itself?

So, for now, I think I'll go back to eavesdropping here ;-) I have much to learn and this is a good place to learn. Shalom. :D

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
holydove
Posts: 1572
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

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

Post by holydove » Thu Mar 18, 2010 11:47 pm

Shalom to you too, Lilifyre! Sorry if I misinterpreted your tone - sometimes that happens with written messages - too bad we can't somehow hear each others' tone of voice through the computer (actually we can, to some extent, but sometimes the tone gets kind of lost) - anyway, thank you for your post. I've always found your words to be very respectful & wise also, so I would be surpirsed if you suddenly shut down to a particular point of view - I should have known better!!

I totally agree that the different religious philosophies, at their core, & in their deepest essence (as far as I'm capable of seeing), say pretty much the same thing. I love what your Rabbi said about "turning" - it reminds me how in Buddhism it's said that attaining the "enlightened" view really only involves a very slight "shift" of the mind - ah, we are so close, yet it feels so far! I'm also remembering now that I saw an interview with Leonard, in front of a live audience, where he told the audience that it's not necessary to find a new religion - that your own religion is a very good one, & if you explore it you will find whatever you are looking for (not his exact words, but that was the message). Given that he said this to an audience that had to consist of people from various religions, he was saying what we are saying - that the teachings of every religion, if you go deep enough, have the same essential "nectar" at their core. They just have different ways of saying it, & of getting us closer to the "Truth". (Well, I guess I'm not exactly following Leonard's advice (lol), but I have been studying more of the Kabbalah - what little of it we peons have access to, anyway - &, like I've said, I do see some very interesting similarities between the teachings of Kabbalah & Buddhism).

And I must say, I love it when you talk about Judaism in your posts - I learn alot from your very eloquent words!

May the blessings find you wherever you are. . .
User avatar
remote1
Posts: 2503
Joined: Wed Jul 22, 2009 3:59 pm
Location: between the snowman and the rain

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

Post by remote1 » Sat Mar 20, 2010 12:46 am

I think it is in 'Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca' that T.S. Eliot describes John Donne as a magpie, who collects broken fragments of systems and uses them here and there in his writings. I need to double-check the source, but I'm pretty sure Eliot wrote something to that effect...

My feeling is that Leonard is somewhat similar to Donne in his approach to writing. This is an observation and not a criticism; I am a big fan of Donne's and Eliot's for that matter: 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins' (The Waste Land)...

Broken, found, gathered, collected bits of systems provide us with a rich, alternative perspective, and an insight into the multiplicity and potentialities of the human mind.

Lilifyre, you are not eavesdropping, as this was never meant to be a dialogue between Holydove and myself. It was fantastic to finally get some input from you. Please carry on writing. I know nothing about Buddhism either, or Judaism (unlike you), or any religion for that matter. So your ideas would be precious. This is a thread in a discussion forum which has 20671 members as of today. So nobody is eavesdropping on anybody else. And 19 people have voted to give their opinion on the question of Buddhist influence, which I think is wonderful. I would love to hear everybody else's thoughts.

Shalom to both of you Lilifyre and Holydove! 8)
"We are so lightly here"
Post Reply

Return to “Leonard Cohen's music”