I had no trouble betting
On the flood against the ark
You see I knew about the ending
What happens to the heart
A new Leonard Cohen video, Happens To The Heart, has just been released and it may be the most Buddhist music video ever created. The short, arresting video is both faithful to Buddhist tradition and to Cohen’s own biography as a practitioner of Zen.
It begins with what appears to be a silhouette of Cohen himself walking through a verdant forest. But the figure disrobes, and a weeping young woman is revealed beneath the signature dark trench coat and suit. She walks deeper into the green wilderness throwing away more and more of the layers of her clothing until she meets a Japanese Zen monk who gently clothes her in a monastic robe. Calm now, she walks to an overlook, where she sits in meditation posture overlooking the human world before gently levitating above the rocky cliff edge.
The video was directed by Daniel Askill, who has worked with the musicians Sia and Phoenix. “I wanted to make something that spoke to Leonard’s years as a Zen monk,” Askill said in a statement. “This film is a quiet, symbolic narrative that charts the letting go of ego and the trappings of fame.”
The work is the second released from the posthumous album Thanks for the Dance, which comes out November 22. The song mourns what happens to the heart over the course of a lifetime. Cohen alternately warns against the damage and grows weary of caring about it. He returns to revisit and prod the issue throughout the song, like all of us do throughout our lives, and as usual, Cohen does this for us with a graciousness and depth that is both warm and bracing.
Cohen was a student of Rinzai Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi for decades. He spent almost five years living as a Zen practitioner on Mount Baldy, Sasaki’s monastery, in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California. For two of those years, he was a fully ordained Buddhist monk and went by the name Jikan, meaning “ordinary silence.” Although he ultimately left the monastery, he never gave back his robes.
Related: Leonard Cohen’s Zen Practice
The video faithfully depicts how Cohen was drawn to Zen practice by suffering: “Suffering has led me to wherever I am,” Cohen once told his biographer Ira Nadel. “Suffering has made me rebel against my own weakness.”
The narrative of the video—the recognition of one’s pain, the shedding of worldly entanglements, the passage into the wilderness, the taking up of the renunciants’ robes, and the pursuit of meditation—applies to the lives of millions of people who have taken up the Buddha’s way for millennia. Although one can easily imagine Cohen himself balking at the video for being as straightforward—almost pious—as it is, I found the depiction of the Buddhist quest stirring. The video couples perfectly with Cohen’s gentle, melancholy, and darkly witty musings over “what happens to the heart.”
The imagery is also an intelligent update and homage to some of Cohen’s earlier work. The mourning woman in the video is an echo of the suffering woman in chains and flames featured on the back cover of Cohen’s first album, Songs, which Cohen said symbolized the “‘Anima Sola,’ the lonely spirit or the lonely soul…the spirit being that beautiful woman breaking out of the chains and the fire and prison.”
Cohen suffered from clinical depression—his own chains and fire and prison—for decades. “When I speak of depression,” he told Dorian Lynskey of the Guardian, “I speak of a clinical depression that is the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse.”
Cohen never stopped looking for a way out of the “background of anguish” that haunted him, and late in life, after many years of Zen practice—as well as of Advaita Vedanta, which he spent three years studying under the guru Ramesh Balsekar after leaving Mt. Baldy—he described a change to journalists and friends. Speaking to Lynskey, he said, “I’m happy to report that, by imperceptible degrees and by the grace of good teachers and good luck, that depression slowly dissolved and has never returned with the same ferocity that prevailed for most of my life.” Although Cohen never claimed the mantle of sage or offered easy answers, later songs like Born in Chains and Love Itself depicted the sense of liberation and the dissolution of the self that Cohen experienced in meditation and in life.
Related: A Buddhist Playlist
The video is the latest in a series called Nowness, a partnership between the Cohen estate and Sony Music Canada that was established to create visuals to accompany tracks from Thanks for the Dance. The album was produced and developed by Cohen’s son, Adam, with the aim of completing the “bare musical sketches” that Cohen left behind from his critically acclaimed final album You Want It Darker. Adam recruited longtime Cohen collaborator Javier Mas, whose Spanish guitar can be heard on the track, as well as Daniel Lanois, Damien Rice, Beck, Feist, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, Bryce Dessner of the National, and others for the widely anticipated project.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.