He's been sitting there for a while, watching me. Like a lot of them, wanting to speak, not daring. Am I that forbidding? Yeah, yeah, I suppose I am, right now.
But slowly, slowly, in this beautiful place, I am feeling that black cloud lift from my shoulders. Not entirely gone - it's still drifting around me like the soft grey clouds around the San Gabriels do so much this time of year - but lighter, less tangible, less affecting. It’s been almost eighteen months living here, thinking here – just existing and letting the peace of the natural world permeate me, and the teachings of the Masters fill my soul. It'll take a while yet, but I feel I'm getting somewhere, making sense of it all, finally.
This guy, though; I don’t get the feeling he's anywhere yet. He shouldn't be here, certainly. When he arrived a few days ago, I thought he was one of the hangers-on and fans who tried to follow me here. The monks are very good at weeding out and gently turning away those who aren't truly seeking spiritual guidance from this place. This one they let in; I think the Master knows someone who knows someone. And he certainly isn't a fan.
He seems lost in his thoughts, oblivious to much going on around him. Oh, he can meditate, all right; he's been doing a lot of that. But from the look of it, it hasn't been fulfilling. I don't think the path here is for him. There's a sense about him, a kind of bubbling excitement that he can barely keep under wraps in order to fit into this calm, secluded haven. He's clamping down on it hard, but it’s clear he has so much life, so much optimism. How unlike me, when I first came here. Yet all the same, he's searching for something.
All of a sudden, as if he's finally brought his courage to the sticking point, he jumps up and walks purposefully towards me. I keep staring out at the forest, my big scarf wrapped round me and my hat pulled low – it's pretty chilly this morning. His steps slow as he reaches me, and he clears his throat.
"Ah, mind if I join you, Jikan?"
I gesture to another log, a couple of feet away from where I'm sitting. He sits tentatively, then turns his face to the forest and lets out a huge sigh. There is a pause, and I wait for him to follow up the sigh with some half-formed question about Life and The Universe, but the pause just goes on and on, until it becomes merely a comfortable silence between us. We both gaze out onto the forest and the mountains. The low cloud is deadening sound and, for all we know, we could be the last people left on the planet.
"I'm leaving today," he says suddenly. Not turning to me, just talking outwards, as if to the forest itself. I wait for more. After a moment, he goes on.
"The Master said maybe I should talk to you, because you're a deep thinker. Deep; yeah, I wish I could do that. I can't do deep. Thoughts are fine. My brain doesn't stop with the thoughts, but I feel shallow. So yeah, I'm leaving. Crazy, huh? I get special dispensation to come here, and I'm all fired up, and yet the moment I'm here it all seems such a… man, pardon my expression, but it all seems such a waste of time. It's like, I've got to be out there, doing things. Doing these things I've dreamed of, not spending my days contemplating spirituality."
He sighs again. He's not asking questions, not waiting for me to speak. This is like a confession. He draws breath and continues.
"Told you, I'm shallow. I guess maybe if I stayed here long enough, I could find a way to that inner peace you all have, but I just can't settle. So I feel I have to go."
"I don’t have that inner peace," I say. That makes him blink, and he turns to face me. Heh, I guess I didn’t get the name "The Silent One" for nothing. "I don’t have peace yet," I continue, "but I feel that peace growing in me. I think it'll come, and when it does, I think I’ll be able to face the world better, do what I do better. Then, I'll re-engage."
"So, you think I should stay?"
Lord, he's so young, so full of vitality. I look at him direct, seeing the intense blue eyes, the air of pent-up frustration, the pulsing heart and soul of the man.
"This way is not for everyone," I say slowly, still looking at him. "I think most people are here to work out what it’s all about, what it is they should do with their lives." A sudden intuition strikes me. "But you know that already, don’t you?"
His eyes widen.
"Tell me about it," I say.
He waits for a moment, as if judging whether to take me up on this offer. Then, staring at his entwined fingers, he starts.
"I'm an anthropologist. I've made all the right academic moves, I've written all the right papers, I've schmoozed all the right Boards. My supervisors think I'll go far –" he grins a little – "to the extent that anthropologists go far in a material sense. But, you know - 'the proper study of Mankind is Man'. It moves me, it really does. Finding the differences, finding the similarities."
He looks up, for approval, maybe? Or just a sense that he's getting through to me. I nod, an acknowledgment of the quote. I've never been an academic, in his meaning of the word, but I sense a kinship in the compulsion to study Man as a spirit and a soul, as well as a base animal walking the Earth.
He looks down again. I sense the hesitation, so give him a verbal nudge.
"So what is it that's holding you back? Seems to me, if you've found what moves you, you have your path for life."
"Well, there's that," he says, wryly, "and there's the subject that really moves me. One study, one study above all things. Something I've found, and I think I may be the only person in the developed world who has thought seriously about it for the last hundred years."
He looks up suddenly, and his eyes are alight.
"It’s such a concept, man! It's something that links our modern word with something more natural, and ancient, and true. I firmly believe it’s for real, and I want to study it; study it above all things…." His voice fades a little, and his eyes drop to the ground.
"So, why don't you?"
"Truly," he says, still staring at the ground, "I'm scared. Everyone keeps telling me I'm going to ruin my life if I keep pursuing what they think of as a crazy notion. An obsession. That I'll cut off all my paths to advancement, that I'll relegate myself to a geeky, despised academic backwater. Without a paddle for my canoe, you know what I'm saying?"
He looks up again, his eyes sad now, and I cannot help but give him a curt nod. I want to reach out, to touch his shoulder in a sign of encouragement, but I'm afraid that some of my residual darkness will leach into him, and spoil the inner light I can see. Ah, obsession; I understand that so well, how it drives a man, how it consumes everything in its path, how it can make you mad. And yet it is truly the perfect intensity of the heart and soul. Why do we condemn obsession; regard it as perversion? Artists are obsessed, scientists are obsessed, poets, writers….
I think for a moment.
"And all that matters more to you?" I ask eventually. "Being in the mainstream, being accepted for conforming?"
"No!" he says suddenly, and with such vehemence that I am clear I have touched the heart of him. "No, conforming really isn't my style," he adds, his voice a little calmer now.
"So why does it worry you?"
"Because I'll be letting everyone down. Everyone who expects great things of me. Yeah, sure, I'd love to be doing great things, don’t get me wrong " – he grins at me suddenly – "but I think… I think… I want to get to that greatness doing what I truly love, not just for some academic prize. Making a difference, you know?"
I nod to myself. This was simple, all along.
"So what are you waiting for?" I ask.
He frowns at me.
"Just like that?"
"Just like that," I say. "Believe me, no one ever achieved anything worth a damn, not to themselves or to other people, when they let their heart be governed by what they think people want them to do - need them to do. You can't let your life be ruled by those sorts of considerations - not now. You have too much to do. You know you feel that, don’t you?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I do. And I feel guilty at the same time."
"Let that go," I say firmly. "That kind of guilt never helped anyone. You have to do what's in your heart. And if what you do isn’t in your heart, it won't amount to much. Trust me, I've taken enough wrong steps in my 60-odd years."
He goes back to staring at the forest and is silent for a while. I sit quietly too, waiting for him to process. Then he speaks.
"I want to amount to something. Is that wrong? Selfish?" He doesn't look at me.
"I don’t care," I reply, "as long as what you do is true to yourself. That’s what every person should strive for. Amount to something, sure, but make that something worth believing in, searching for."
He grins to himself.
"Like the Holy Grail?" he chuckles.
"If it works for you to think of it that way," I say, smiling a little.
"Yeah," he says, grinning openly now, "I can borrow from another culture, no problem."
We both turn and look out over the trees.
"Oh, man!" exclaimed Blair, staring at the obituary page. "Oh, man! No! I can't believe he's gone, too! What is it with this year?"
"Who now?" asked Jim, leaning over the table, his hand resting lightly at the back of Blair's neck, as it always did at moments like this. Then he saw the picture.
"Oh, him. He was an old guy, Sandburg. It happens." He ruffled Blair's hair and moved away again, returning to his breakfast.
"Yeah, but such a talent!" groaned Blair. "And he always seemed such a nice guy, you know? So humble, so close to people. So… oh, my God! You are so kidding me! Oh, my God!"
"What? He make you a beneficiary?"
"No, no… it’s just… Jim, I met him! Man, I never put two and two together. I met him. In – what? – 1995? Naomi got me booked into a zen monastery. I thought I needed to sort myself out…"
"Glad to see it worked," muttered Jim drily, munching toast.
"… and I met him. Had a great discussion with him. He was so helpful, just making me see what I knew all along I had to do, but was too chicken to do it. I never knew his name, except that the other monks called him Jikan, which means 'The Silent One'. "
"You just read that in the paper," said Jim, in a tone of mild accusation.
"Cross my heart, that's who I knew him as. I didn't know it was him, you know? I never knew he'd been in that monastery until now. Wow, I can't believe this! I actually met him! I was in a low place then. He really helped."
"Chief, he sings about death and despair. That helped you when you were low?"
"Jim, Jim… his songs are about the rich experiences of being human. The joys, the tears, all of it. The love, the despair, the heartache, the happiness…."
"That’s enough, thank you. I have a pretty good idea of all that already. I don’t need to listen to him singing about it."
There was a pause. Blair reached out and gently touched the quirkily smiling face of the elderly man in the newspaper photo. Jim smiled to himself.
"So, what was it he told you to do, Chief?"
"What I knew all along," replied Blair, holding Jim's warm gaze. "Being true to myself. Going with what's in my heart. I've had some false steps, I know, but I got there in the end."
"You and me both," said Jim.
Author's note: Leonard Cohen, singer, songwriter, poet and novelist, born 21 September 1934; death announced 10 November 2016.
So long, Great Man. We will miss you.
When I read this in the Guardian newspaper obit:
" In his later years he became a Zen monk and spent much of the 1990s sequestered in a monastery on Mount Baldy in California, where he was known as Jikan (the Silent One). Fans often seek spiritual guidance from their idols, but Cohen was a rare example of one who might actually have been capable of providing it."
the possibility of a chance meeting seemed too good to pass up. No offence to Mr Cohen intended for attributing thoughts to him in this fic.
And I clearly know nothing about life in a Zen Monastery. I hope that can be glossed over here for the purposes of this little story. ;)