It was not until high school that large philosophical and theological questions started bubbling up inside me. As they surfaced, I took my spiritual life into my own hands; I was seventeen. At first, I thought asking questions was a sign of infidelity, but soon realized that asking questions is a sign of good spiritual health. Starting university and meeting people from radically different backgrounds, although I cannot say that I ever considered converting, I have learned much from their traditions. My constant quest for truth has led me to the faith I hold today but not without extensive research and genuine practice; that is why Leonard Cohen’s “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries” resonates with me. The poem is an interfaith meditation on aspects of religious traditions, and it is a moment of awareness for Leonard Cohen.
The music and poetry of Leonard Cohen is bursting with religious allusion and imagery. In his works can be found echoes of Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Judaism. In an interview with Border Crossings Magazine, Cohen explains that the act of comparing and blending traditions is part of his "imagination functions." Growing up Jewish, in Catholic Montreal, he was heavily immersed in Judeo-Christian traditions, “it didn’t involve a real stretch to be affected by these faiths. It was natural” he says (Cohen qtd. in Enright). At different points in his life, Cohen involved himself in these traditions. Although he says he never wanted new traditions or a new God, that he was happy being Jewish, he did find refuge in Buddhist Monasteries. In his 1965 poem “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries,” Cohen works through different teachings and concepts of Catholicism, Buddhism, and Judaism. His meditation helps him recognize his idle spiritual state and realize he needs to take his spiritual life into his own hands.
While meditating on the different influences in his life, the speaker realizes that he has not actively inquired into a religious tradition. The repetition of the words “I have not” throughout the poem suggests that Cohen has yet to delve into such rituals and traditions himself, but also that he is open to exploring. For instance, Cohen says: “I have not worshiped wounds and relics” (line 13). If Cohen had said that he would not or that he could not, it would be reasonable to conclude that he has some aversion towards religion. “Have not” allows the reader to perceive that Cohen is open to change. Cohen has shied away from disciplining himself, he has not “tamed [his] heartbeat with an exercise / or starved for visions” (lines 8-9). Up until this point, he has pondered religion at a distance. The fact that Cohen refers to God as “God” indicates that he respects God, or at least respects the sacredness others hold for God. If Cohen wanted to subtly dismiss God, he could have refrained from capitalizing the word to suggest that the word or concept itself is not significant.
The first line establishes that Cohen has not taken the time to truly absorb all that religion has to offer “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries” (line 1). Cohen is most likely referring to the crusades in the next line when he says “or discovered among the tall grasses tombs of knights” (lines 2). He does so to draw attention to the fact that he has not been ignorant to history. But he also points out that he has “not parted the grasses / or purposely let them thatched” (lines 4-5), he has not dug deep into history nor has he covered it over. Right from the very beginning, Cohen makes a deliberate effort to determine the effect he wants to have on the reader and carries that effect through all the elements of his story. The desired effect being to arouse in the reader an awareness of their spiritual state.
Cohen then moves into a brief meditation on reincarnation:
“Although I have watched him often
I have not become the heron,
leaving my body on the shore,
and I have not become the luminous trout,
leaving my body in the air.” (lines 10-14)
The dualistic philosophy of Buddhism renders the body a mere instrument humans use to act through rather than a unitive reality of body and spirit. This concept intrigues Cohen. The idea of his soul or essence, as the Buddhist describe it, moving from a man to a heron to a trout is radically different from the Judeo-Christian ideas of the human person and afterlife.
Another indication that suggests he is speaking about Buddhism is his use of the word “luminous” to describe the trout. This might be alluding to the concept of the “luminous mind” which Buddhists define as a mind that had been damaged by destructive passions but has been awakened from worldly confusion and freed from distraction. Cohen most likely includes this image to emphasize the intricate connection between all things in the natural world and indicate his attraction to the idea of emptying out oneself.
Cohen then switches back to Catholic and Jewish imagery: “I have not worshiped wounds and relics” (line 15), referring to Catholic devotional life. i.e. veneration of the relics of Saints and the Holy Lands, and devotions to the wounds of Christ. Perhaps mentioning these practices to highlight the richness and/or bizarreness of certain traditions. The two images that follow are rather graphic. First being “combs of iron” (line 16), which were tools of torture used on early Christian martyrs to tear through their skin and rip them apart; and the second “bodies wrapped and burnt in scrolls” (line 17) which refers to ten Jewish priests who were wrapped in scrolls and set on fire. Cohen includes these tales of martyrdom to draw attention to the conviction people have to die for their beliefs, which perhaps is one reality that urges him to look more closely at these ideas.
It is these last five lines that might lead one to conclude that Cohen is rejecting religion altogether, but closer analyzation suggests that Cohen is unhappy and is searching for a deeper spirituality. The speaker says “I have not been unhappy for ten thousands years,” while this kind of double negative ("not unhappy”) is considered grammatically correct, it implicates a subtle statement. The use of not together with unhappy suggests that the speaker has a few mental reservations about his own statement. It creates a nuance of meaning that would not be present had the speaker said: “I have been happy. for ten thousand years” (line 18). Cohen goes on to say that he is satisfied with the mechanics and mediocrity of daily life:
“During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.”(lines 19-22)
What seems to be suggested by line eighteen is that this is not enough for the speaker. Cohen needs to find more meaning to life, more than just laughing, sleeping, food and work. The speaker is trapped in the nihilistic life he leads, and in fact, he has been unhappy for a long time. He aches for something more profound in his life, but at this point, Cohen has not found it.
Evidently, Cohen formally took up the life of a Japanese Zen monk in 1996 choosing to seriously explore the practice of Buddhism, never forgetting his close connections to the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. The spiritual leader of the community Roshi with whom he developed a deep friendship gave Cohen the monastic name “Jikan,” meaning ordinary silence. He stayed with the community for several years while he dealt with depression. Cohen found the simple life of a monk to be refreshing, he loved the sense of order and routine. Moreover, he reveled in the rich silence. Cohen said he needed this refuge and contemplative lifestyle at that point in his life when he was battling depression. He recognizes that a lot of people are living cheerful lives and they do not need to sit in meditation for hours. They are content he knew that he was empty and breaking down.
The peace Cohen describes is something I felt much more keenly after I experienced it myself. To localize my project and to understand what Cohen meditates on in his poem more deeply, I contacted the Buddhist nunnery on PEI, The Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute. They agreed to allow me to come spend an afternoon with them. So, on March 23rd, I drove out on the TransCanada with my cousin Clare to the nunnery. The highways were flooded with vehicles; everyone was in such a rush. When we turned off the highway a large vibrant yellow sign appeared at the beginning of a lane down a narrow road. As we pulled up to the humble hideaway everything went silent, and two cloaked brown figures appeared in the distance.
Two nuns from the United States, Sabrina and Joel, came and greeted us with a bow. They first brought us to the most sacred place on the grounds, the temple. Entering the heart of the nunnery was unforgettable, the room exploded into colour. At the far wall of the temple was a large gold statue of Buddha surrounded by idols, vibrant tapestries, and wooden instruments.