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Matters of Vital Interest
A Forty-Year Friendship with Leonard Cohen
By Eric Lerner
Read by William Dufris
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Leonard Cohen passed away in late 2016, leaving behind many who cared for and admired him, but perhaps few knew him better than longtime friend Eric Lerner. Lerner, a screenwriter and novelist, first met Cohen at a Zen retreat forty years earlier. Their friendship helped guide each other through life’s myriad obstacles, a journey told from a new perspective for the first time.
Funny, revealing, self-aware, and deeply moving, Matters of Vital Interest is an insightful memoir about Lerner’s relationship with his friend, whose idiosyncratic style and dignified life was deeply informed by his spiritual practices. Lerner invites readers to step into the room with them and listen in on a lifetime’s ongoing dialogue, considerations of matters of vital interest, spiritual, mundane, and profane. In telling their story, Lerner depicts Leonard Cohen as a captivating persona, the likes of which we may never see again.
SAINT JOSEPH’S ABBEY IN Spencer, Massachusetts, is a magnificent complex of fieldstone buildings surrounded by rolling acres of working farmland, a monastery of the Catholic Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, whose monks, popularly known as Trappists, live a cloistered life of prayer and contemplation. In the 1970s some of the more eclectic members of the order invited the Japanese-born Rinzai Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi to visit the abbey once a year and lead them in an intensive Zen retreat known as sesshin.
Joshu Sasaki Roshi came to America in 1962, dispatched by his superiors at a prestigious temple in Japan—some later said it was to get rid of the troublemaker—in response to a request for a teacher from a small group of Southern California Zen enthusiasts. He arrived speaking no English, carrying a beat-up old Japanese-English dictionary. His supporters established Cimarron Zen Center a few years later in a dicey part of Los Angeles not far from the scene of the 1965 Watts riots. In 1971 the group purchased an old Boy Scout camp about an hour east of the city, high up an eight-thousand-foot mountain. The Mt. Baldy Zen Center was intended to re-create the atmosphere and training practice of a traditional Japanese Rinzai Zen monastery.
Rinzai is a distinct “school” of Zen, which is a distinct school of Buddhism. In its formal practice, Rinzai demands the precise execution of every ritualized group activity. Students wear identical black Zen robes and sit in meditation—zazen—in the zendo, the meditation hall, on identical black mats and cushions facing each other in parallel rows, everyone maintaining the identical meditation posture: spine erect, legs in half or full lotus, hands cupped with the thumb tips touching at the top of an open circle held above your navel, never dropping into your lap. Head is tilted slightly down. Eyes are half open, focused on a spot on the floor in front of you, never, ever wandering, especially in the direction of anyone else. Once zazen commences there is no moving, no sniffling, no coughing. Any infraction is subject to the immediate disapproval of the officer of the zendo—the jikijitsu—who periodically shouts: No moving! Quiet!
At times he prowls the zendo carrying a polished flat wooden stick, elbows flared like a samurai swordsman’s, as if daring a student to nod off or let his hands fall. Then he pounces, lightly tap-tapping the shoulder of the miscreant. Mutual bows precede the famous Rinzai whacking with the stick. The chastised student bows again in thanks. The jikijitsu stalks on.
Walking meditation is similarly choreographed: hurry up in lockstep, hands held tightly chest-high, a long, black caterpillar marching around outside the zendo no matter the weather. Group meals in their exacting formality of silent bows and hand gestures are no break at all from the intense concentration on not fucking up. The purpose of all this, along with the sleep deprivation, is to induce a profound desperation that convinces you to launch some kind of kamikaze attack on your ego.
It is not Mindfulness for Corporate Advancement or a form of stress reduction. It’s not supposed to make you feel particularly better until you break through in an instantaneous flash of enlightenment.
At any rate, that’s the hype.
Summoned by the rhythmic sound of heavy wooden clappers—slow and ominous at first to grab your attention, then steadily increasing in tempo to cause panic—the Zen students filed into the makeshift zendo, a carpeted reception room of the abbey repurposed for this “informal” session. I was among the half dozen first-time students stumbling at the doorway to make sure we correctly executed our newly learned bows before finding our places, bowing again, and getting into zazen posture as the sesshin commenced. It was April 1977.
I didn’t realize that the spot I’d claimed next to the window was directly opposite the jikijitsu, the zendo leader, until I noticed the low table placed beside the empty cushion with a bell, an incense holder, and a lighter. I heard footsteps descending the stairway behind me. Keeping my head down as instructed, I stared at his bare feet. His lower body dropped into the frame of my vision. I could see his hands make sharp, sweeping movements as he snapped the hem of his robe over his knees and tucked it under his feet, turning himself into an impressive black pyramid. I lifted my gaze surreptitiously to glimpse his face.
It was Leonard Cohen.
His was a famous face, prominently displayed on the cover of his first record album that everyone owned in 1968, his thick helmet of black hair hanging practically to his dark brows over eyes with sparkles of light staring at you, the Semitic nose protruding over curious curved lips in a pose reminiscent of a nineteenth-century French poet. I’d heard nothing new from him since his second album in 1969, the one with the white cover and “Bird on the Wire” on it. I had no idea what he’d been doing since, but his face was older, tighter, leaner and more purposeful.
The zendo leader is supposed to act as if he’s not even breaking a sweat during the day’s arduous schedule to make everyone else feel even worse. Leonard sported a look of placid, resigned indifference, even when his feet fell asleep and he struggled to rise to lead the group out of the zendo for the regimented walks. His robes looked as if they’d been pressed each morning, and his white collar remained crisp and spotless for the entire week.
By the fifth day, the effluvium of tortured minds and bodies suffocated the zendo. After lunch there was a break for showers, a short nap, or wandering around outside contemplating your predicament. I’d found a little path that led to an isolated area behind the main building where I could be alone. I rounded the corner to my spot. Leonard was up ahead, smoking a cigarette in a stately posture, one hand supporting the elbow of the hand that held his cigarette. I was about to go back and leave him alone, but he turned toward me and shrugged: It’s okay, no need to split.
I sat down on the fieldstone wall and gazed out at the rolling farmland, glancing occasionally at him. He continued to smoke and seemed to be deeply considering some matter with furrowed brow. I knew nothing then of his life, and since I was twenty-seven at the time, even less about the life of a forty-two-year-old man.
He finished his cigarette and stubbed it out on the ground before neatly depositing the butt in the big cuff of his robe. I could hear his huge sigh from where I was sitting. I got up to return to the zendo. He turned and we stared at each other. His serious face pantomimed bewilderment. I smiled at his silent question: What in the world are a couple of smart Jewish boys like us doing here?
Thirty-five years later, while I was working on a novel fashioned as a biography of a fictional New Age teacher, I reread the books that originally sent me careening down the spiritual path, dropping out of Harvard in 1969 to make an overland pilgrimage to India. The book that resonated most strongly now was The Varieties of Religious Experience, written in 1902 by the founder of modern psychology, William James.
I asked Leonard if he’d ever read it.
“Of course. But I can’t recall a word. Does it shed any light on our predicament?”
“Listen to this.” We often read stuff to each other over the phone.
“According to James, there is a marked contrast between the two ways of looking at life, between those we call the healthy-minded, who need to be born only once, and the sick souls who must be twice-born in order to be happy.”
“Twice-born, eh?” He never lost that Canadianism. I think it has infected my own speech. “That’s pretty good.”
I went on. “The healthy-minded temperament has a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering, and its tendency to see things optimistically is like a water of crystallization in which the individual’s character is set.”
“I used to be one of those guys, y’know?” he offered.
“Playing upstairs in my bedroom with my chemistry set at the age of twelve. Then I wandered into the fog of sexual desire from whence I’ve yet to fully emerge.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Of course you do.”
“Here’s the best part,” I went on. “James says the twice-born have a more morbid way of looking at the situation. It is as if there were in their human consciousness a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call: something there more deep and general than any of the special and particular senses by which the current psychology supposes existent realities.
“The psychological basis of this twice-born character seems to be a certain discordancy or heterogeneity in the native temperament of the subject, an incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitution.”
“That’s not a bad description of IT.”
Some years before, Leonard had named the peculiar and particular condition that ailed us: IT. After much consideration, we agreed that IT had little to do with clinical depression or even a neurotic disposition. We weren’t inherently dark souls (he had a hard time contradicting this popular misconception), nor were we stubborn refuseniks of happiness. Rather, as William James perfectly described, we possessed some feeling of an internal presence that contradicted what the allegedly healthy-minded perceive and feel.
To us IT was a certainty not an uncertainty, a certainty that there is something ineffable yet more real in the universe than anything we could touch, taste, or fuck, a certainty we could not dispute no matter how hard we tried. IT was a spectral, brooding presence at the half-open doorway, an incessant reminder that we could not dwell in any provisional refuge, because in these ill-furnished, meager huts our lives could only be lived as if, pretending that the paper-thin scrim we hid behind was reality, while the presence at the half-open door mocked our beliefs, mocked the drugs we ingested to silence it, mocked the cum we spent trying to drown it, even mocked the applause we sought to dissolve the bewildering anguish, the feeling of loss for what we’d never possessed.
“Does the good Dr. James prescribe a cure for our malady?” Leonard asked.
“Get this. He says the twice-born must experience religion… not as a dull habit, but rather as an acute fever.”
“I was hoping he prescribed beautiful young women.”
I met Joshu Sasaki Roshi at the same time I met Leonard at that sesshin at Saint Joseph’s Abbey in 1977. Roshi is very short, almost as wide as he is high. At 107, the last time I saw him shortly before he died, his cheeks and shaven head were as smooth and soft as they were when I met him at seventy. His face is on acid. Really. It’s not your mind that is tripping. His face morphs in an instant from an expression of distant communion with the cosmos to bored but kindly attentiveness to you, and it changes just as fast to an expression of adamant certainty when he insists you must comprehend what he’s telling you.
He wears impeccable white robes that emit a whiff of fresh laundering. He sits on a slightly raised platform holding a small curved stick of polished hardwood that you try not to notice, much less stare at, because you’re trying not to stare at anything, even though there are all kinds of interesting things to check out in the room, all kinds of distractions, and he’s the biggest distraction of all, but you are resolved not to be distracted from the reason you’re kneeling before him, the reason you’ve spent the past three hours deep in zazen.
This is sanzen, the meeting with the master.
How do you realize your true nature when you are looking at the pine tree?
As far as I know he gave this first koan to everyone, though I’m sure there are exceptions and contradictions to all the facts about him I’m presenting.
Roshi’s English left much to be desired. He repeated the koan again slowly, his eyes nearly closed, enunciating each word with an apologetic smile that I would learn was really a wickedly sarcastic denial that he might ever apologize for anything. Nevertheless, the purpose of this first encounter on the first morning of the sesshin was for me to at least get the words of my first koan right. I nodded, indicating that I understood what he’d said.
Then he opened his eyes and asked my name and repeated it. Elic. He almost never forgot a student’s name. That was the end of the small talk. He looked at me in the expectant way all teachers do after posing a question, as if this one was on a par with, say, Who was the second president of the United States?
Even though I wanted further clarification about which pine tree in particular he was referring to, I intuited that anything I might ask would be a lame gesture on my part.
“True nature,” he surprised me, breaking the silence. His eyebrows, weird little black birdwings that clung to his forehead, rustled and his eyes opened wide, struck by inspiration. He leaned toward me: Psst, I’m gonna tell you a secret.
I rose from my heels as he intoned, “True nature same as Buddha nature. Same as true self.” He seemed pleased, as if he’d never put it exactly that way before, which of course was nonsense; he’d probably said the same thing a thousand times.
But it was our little secret.
Then he reached for his small bell and rang it softly. Our meeting was officially over. I prostrated with upraised palms, got up, backed away, bowed again, and left. I was excited because it’s always exciting when someone tells you a secret. You feel special for the confidence, even if someone revealed they have cancer. The downside to a secret is that you’re dying to tell someone. I’m exuberant by nature and not good at keeping secrets. The problem was that this was only the first day of a week of silence, and besides, sanzen is a strictly private encounter akin to the Catholic confessional.
I returned to the zendo, unable to entirely wipe the giddy smile from my face. As I sat down and folded my legs, I was aware that Leonard was glancing at me inquisitively. I gave him a small nod to indicate that I felt our time spent in this enterprise was indeed time well spent. He seemed pleased.
“Ah, Elic. Hai. Koan.” Roshi greets me. We meet four times a day in sesshin.
Eric replies, “How do I realize my true nature when I’m looking at the pine tree?”
“How DO you realize true nature when looking at the pine tree?” Roshi demands.
I am still clueless.
Roshi turns his head slowly and looks up. He is looking at a pine tree, demonstrating to me how to realize your true nature when you’re looking at the pine tree.
For the next six days Roshi pantomimes his interest and awe in his imaginary pine tree. He repeats, sometimes with irritated impatience, that my true nature is the same as Buddha nature, the same as true self.
During my last sanzen on the last day of the sesshin, I am practically falling asleep in front of him. Roshi once again looks at his imaginary pine tree, but this time he isn’t pantomiming. Roshi is realizing his true nature as he looks at the pine tree in the sanzen room.
I catch a glimpse, inhale a whiff, and feel the breeze of true nature across my face.
I return to the zendo. Leonard stares at me. I nod. He seems relieved.
Roshi, Leonard, and I were quite drunk, lying in triangular proximity on the floor of the thickly carpeted upstairs room, recently the inner sanctum of realizing true nature but now the scene of an equally important ritual of Sasaki Roshi’s—imbibing cognac. Leonard had casually invited me to join the party after the sesshin ended that afternoon. Old students dropped by to thank Roshi, presenting him with gift-wrapped bottles and having a glass with him. Now only the three of us were left; four, counting Roshi’s translator who was passed out in a corner.
I was thrilled, not just for my intimate proximity to the master, but also for the revelation that we both loved alcohol!
In the fall of 1973 I’d flown to Mumbai, India, to practice Buddhist Vipassana meditation as taught by S. N. Goenka. I went on to meditate with his teachers in Rangoon, Burma, and then I spent time in a rural monastery in Sri Lanka. I returned to America riding a swelling wave of interest in the teachings of Eastern gurus and masters and the versions taught by their young Western acolytes who had studied with them.
I gave short shrift to every other method, ism, and practice than the one I embraced. Unable to contain my enthusiasm, at the tender age of twenty-six I wrote a spiritual memoir: Journey of Insight Meditation: A Personal Experience of the Buddha’s Way. Despite its clunky title, it was warmly received in the burgeoning world of the New Age spiritual awakening.
I tried to be a good old-school Buddhist. I gave it my best shot for several years, adhering to the Dharma, plodding along its precise Path of Purification with its Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Noble Path, and exacting enumeration of all the things you must do and refrain from doing. It’s more like a ladder than a path, up up up or down down down in the endless cycle of birth and death and rebirth, as you rise to or backslide from your goal of Nirvana, the cessation of these endless rebirths.
I’d returned to America, Land of Freedom and Home of the Brave, and I was going to be free and free my countrymen. George Washington Buddha!
I probably could have joined Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield and a host of others whom I’d come to know well and assumed the mantle of an American Teacher of Buddhism. It was a good gig in a growth industry.
“More cognac, man?” Leonard held out the bottle, not as a question but a prompt for me to lift my empty glass so he could get a better angle to refill it. Roshi gestured for him to keep pouring. I was impressed by Leonard’s steady hand. We all raised our full glasses and Roshi explained the salutary properties of cognac in barely comprehensible Japlish. Then we toasted Leonard.
“Mmmmm.” Roshi wiped his lips with the back of his hand.
If I’d still been a Buddhist, for this blatant transgression of various rules and regulations pertaining to inebriation and mental foggery I was risking rebirth as a salamander in my next life.
Reincarnation. Tibetan fairy tale. Roshi told me a few years later.
“Let’s try this one. Roshi likes Courvoisier but I find it a bit sweet.” Leonard held up a new bottle, Rémy Martin, which I’d never heard of before. My education was proceeding by leaps and bounds. Roshi was lying on his side, balancing his round body on some point of the sphere where his hip might have been, anchored by his chin resting on one hand, elbow planted in the soft carpet, leaving the other arm holding his glass free to direct activities without spilling a drop.
This is no tale of the magical powers of a master, only an account of a really impeccable drinker, which had always been one of my aspirations in life since I’d begun the activity in earnest at fourteen.
Roshi sussed out that Leonard was touting the virtues of Rémy, so he picked up a new bottle of Courvoisier that had enough X’s and O’s on the label to play tic-tac-toe. We held a lengthy tasting. I preferred the Rémy, but Roshi denigrated my preference. Was he calling me a pussy in Japanese?
Earlier that day, at the group’s final gathering, Roshi’s translator announced that since this was an “informal sesshin,” Roshi would answer questions regarding “the practice of Buddhism.” I was looking forward to it. He’d yet to say a word about Buddhism. I had my question ready.
“Roshi, we’ve been here a week and you’ve never once mentioned sila. Why is that?” It was admittedly pretentious on my part, using the ancient term for “right conduct.” After my first pilgrimage to India in 1969 ended with a failed hashish-smuggling scheme hatched in Teheran, I returned to Harvard and changed my major from History and Literature to Sanskrit and Indian Studies.
Roshi listened with his make-believe interested face as the translator relayed my question to him in Japanese. Then—and I swear I’m not making this up—he stared at me across the room, and his right hand darted out and slapped his forehead. With great satisfaction he removed a squashed mosquito that had been buzzing in his proximity, a heinous breach of right conduct if ever there was one. Roshi seemed unperturbed by the implications of his action for his future rebirths and proceeded to answer my question. In translation it went something like this:
“You are a baby in a big body. And you have a very big head with a big brain. Don’t ask me what to do. Figure it out yourself.”
The three of us were lying on our backs beside three empty bottles of cognac. Perfect symmetry. Somehow Roshi found another bottle and roused everyone for yet another toast. Leonard and I obediently held up our glasses as Roshi poured. My tongue was numb.
“Not bad, eh?” Leonard turned to me.
When I met him in 1977, Leonard was already intent on keeping his private life as far removed from the limelight of his career as possible. He cultivated a semi-mysterious persona for the stage and interviews and lived outside the music scene, or any scene for that matter. Only a few of his friends even knew about his relationship to Sasaki Roshi, much less that he had moved to Los Angeles from Montreal not for the music business, but for Roshi.
Leonard considered himself part of history’s long lineage of serious poets. He’d achieved early success in that regard in his native Canada, and as a literary novelist as well—Beautiful Losers is a fantastic read—but his aggregate audience amounted to only a few thousand. Until he picked up a guitar.
“To get girls,” he told me, half joking, on several occasions. Leonard Cohen, scion of a prominent, highly respected old Jewish family of Montreal, never believed any of the hype of the sixties. He wore a suit and tie—he was an early Armani adapter—not as an Elvis Costello–like costume, but because he was a graceful man of impeccable old-world manners who wasn’t rebelling against anything.
His intense involvement with Sasaki Roshi presented a delicate situation for him. Leonard was keenly aware that his participation in a New Age religion could be publicly embarrassing. At that time Allen Ginsberg and other poets and artists were embracing the brilliant Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, but Leonard wasn’t Ginsberg, who loudly, joyously exhorted the world to come and join him. Even though other noted poets had their Zen connections, Leonard didn’t want to talk about his. Newly religious enthusiasts of all stripes always sounded a bit foolish to him. It wasn’t until twenty years later that he spoke about Roshi publicly, and even then elliptically, despite Roshi’s profound and enduring influence on his life. I didn’t know it that evening, lying on the floor with the two of them, but Roshi would have that effect on me as well.
Leonard poked me out of a brief doze-off. Realizing that Roshi was addressing me, I managed to sit up. Was sanzen about to begin? Was Roshi going to embarrass me by demanding I answer my koan in front of Leonard?
“Yes, Roshi?” I managed.
“You come to Mt. Baldy.”
I squinted at him. Was this my new koan?
He squinted back, imitating me, until I understood it was neither a koan nor an invitation, but simply a statement of fact.
“Ooooold Leonard,” I responded to his greeting on the phone.
He wasn’t that old when he’d anointed himself Old Leonard, nor was I when he added the honorific to my name, but over the years the fifteen-year difference in our ages kept shrinking until now, some thirty-five years after we first met, we’d become, in our minds at least, two old guys.
We spoke only on landlines. If I was out when he called, he’d leave a baritone parody of his singing voice on my voice mail: It’s Oooooooooooooooooooold Leonard. Speak to you later, man.
“How are you doing?” he inquired with mock good cheer.
“Not bad. Yourself?”
“I can’t complain. Wait a sec. I’m going to pour myself another cup of coffee. Don’t go anywhere.”
I heard him put the phone down on the table while he rattled around in the kitchen.
“Here we are again. What a lovely day outside. It’s terrific!” he declared, like one of those shipwrecked guys in a New Yorker cartoon, washed ashore on a patch of sand with a single scraggly palm tree, surveying the vast empty ocean surrounding him to the horizon: It’s terrific!
I knew he was sitting at the small antique pine table, distressed like us, tucked into the little nook formed by the tiled island beside the sink in the kitchen in the top-floor apartment—identical to the one downstairs—of the duplex in Los Angeles we purchased back in the summer of 1979. At the time its most attractive feature besides the price was its proximity to Roshi’s Cimarron Zen Center, a ten-minute drive away. We would always refer to the house by the name of the street it was on: Tremaine.
- "Matters of Vital Interest is a portrait of a decades-long friendship, and the vision of Leonard Cohen that emerges from it is much like the persona he invents in his songs--seductive, knowing, hyper-articulate, not always likable but always fascinating. More than a foil, Lerner is the singer's partner in crime, spiritual questing, and, until Leonard Cohen's death, sheer survival. They are brothers, and this is their story, told from the heart."--Anthony DeCurtis, author of Lou Reed: A Life
- "A remarkably intimate and insightful portrait of one of the world's greatest songwriters--but more than that, a genuine and moving chronicle of friendship, spiritual aspiration, aging, and love."--Alan Light, author of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah"
- "An affectionate, closely observed memoir.... A sensitive portrait of a sly, charming, complicated man."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Lerner's tender, moving memoir reveals Cohen as a devoted friend and father, a side of him not often seen in public."—Publishers Weekly
- "[Matters of Vital Interest] is wonderful...There is a lot of beauty in this book, the beauty that exists between two old friends who love and understand one another."—New York Journal of Books
- "An entertaining memoir...[and] a poignant account of a friendship and the last days of a remarkable life."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Oct 16, 2018
- Hachette Audio