Song for reasons of eating

February 26th, 2009

There were several items in the New York Times this week that got me salivating. But the one that cut closest to home was this one about the minstrel and erstwhile Zen Buddhist monk, Leonard Cohen: “On the Road: For Reasons Practical and Spiritual.”

As you might expect, the writer finds it paradoxical that Cohen has decided to re-take the stage at this late age. The story’s hook is that Cohen’s road tour is a mystical mingling of the sacred and the secular. The writer thinks that is notable, but I’m certain Cohen doesn’t. He’s not mingling anything. He is simply singing for his supper, because he’s broke.

Can anyone relate?

Cohen doesn’t pit the practical against the spiritual and make a divine quest out of it. There is no difference between the two. There is no either and no or. That ideological distinction is only in the mind of the writer. And it might be in your mind too. When you’re hungry, and you are broke or near-broke, it’s a good time to get your ideas about spiritual versus practical out of your mind and strap them to the bottom of your feet. And then walk the heck out of them.

Eating is a divine act. It is a mingling of the practical and the spiritual. Pass the ketchup.

A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger. – Zen saying

Cohen is the kind of icon to whom we all lay claim. In truth, I have no claim. I was born a poor, illegitimate music lover and I heard my first Cohen when he was all but done as a singer, living as a mountain monk, and his Ten New Songs was released in 2001. A fellow Zen practitioner gave to me. When I heard Cohen’s bottomless voice surfacing from somewhere deep beneath his navel, when I heard the pure, raw, spare simplicity of the words, I was amazed. “Damn,” I thought, “this guy has spent serious time on his butt.”

But there’s a time to get up off your butt, and it’s about the time you realize that coming or going, walking or sitting, standing up or lying down, you’re always on your butt. Run out of money and what are you going to do? Put your butt on the road.

“Past mind is ungraspable. Future mind is ungraspable. Present mind is ungraspable. With which mind will you eat this rice cake?” – Zen koan

So everyone’s struggling now. Who’s not struggling? Since last summer, every idea I had of my illustrious future has been chewed up and swallowed. Every previous source of income has vaporized. These days I do many, many things, and I do anything for money. Little dribs that come when I need it most. Little sums that get me through. Funny, I actually see more possibilities now. There’s far more tunnel, to be sure. And there’s more light that shines in from all those cracks in the way I thought my life would go.

So come on now, everybody, sing along. Let’s sing and then have supper. You’re invited to my place for dinner, you see, because it’s all one place.

Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

– Leonard Cohen

PS My friend Ted says you can find the unfiltered Leonard here. And you can find Ted here.


  1. My get off my butt time is close at hand. Thanks for the reminder. We all sing, sometimes for our supper, sometimes just to sing, sometimes for both…

    Comment by Puanani — February 26, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

  2. Zen helped him, an observant Jew, learn to “stop whining.”

    You blog helps me get off my butt and start cooking for the whole neighborhood. Yes, it is all right on the mark.

    Thank you for the attention=love. xo Jena

    Comment by jena strong — February 26, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

  3. Wow. What a great quote.

    “Eating is a divine act. It is a mingling of the practical and the spiritual.”

    I’m sending it to a friend. Thanks as always for the inspiration!

    Comment by Jeannie — February 27, 2009 @ 5:17 am

  4. So that’s what the cracks are for!

    Comment by Shalet — February 27, 2009 @ 5:55 am

  5. I love your book and have been a shy reader of your blog (“lurker” just seems harsh:)) for several months now.

    The Leonard Cohen quote at the end of this post really spoke to me today.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts – I will continue to enjoy reading them.

    Comment by Jessica — February 27, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

  6. That is the most perfect description of Cohen’s voice that I have ever read.

    I love the way you bring everything down to earth and make it real. The division between the practical and the spiritual is completely artificial, but I think that it’s a division that we often feel should be maintained. Not really sure why that is.

    Comment by Mama Zen — February 27, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

  7. Wow! Thank you! I just listened to the concert…

    Comment by Kathleen Botsford — February 27, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  8. Thanks for this. It was beautiful. People have been telling me how wonderful and full my life is lately, but I don’t know if they understand the tunnel that I’ve been going through. They see that I’ve been gathering the light from the cracks and think it’s all sunshine.

    One thing I’ve learned the past few years. The more you look for those cracks, the more light you find, the longer you keep at it, the more light there is to find.

    We’ve all got our own tunnels to dig through. We all have to search for that light on our own. We can point it out to other people, but they need to find it on their own.

    It’s been a hard road, but I think it’s worth it.

    Comment by Rowena — February 27, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

  9. as always, karen, you manage to say something to me the exact moment that my twisted, gnarled-up little heart needs to hear it.

    Comment by Holly — February 28, 2009 @ 3:36 am

  10. I feel like I’m not struggling. I’m simplifying. 🙂

    I love Cohen. There is some *there*, there.

    Comment by denise — March 2, 2009 @ 4:09 am

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