Cohen in Buddhist regalia
Celebrities and artists discussing religion is always a tricky business. Fame tends to be a of a very worldly nature and often threatens to cheapen the subject, or distract from the gravity of spiritual matters. This can go doubly awry when westerners project their exotic fantasies on Asian religions—the fantastic book, Karma Cola, by Gita Mehta is an insightful look at the phenomenon of American and European “pilgrims” traveling to India, hoping to find enlightenment. (Since people are people, anywhere you go, many of those pilgrims were defrauded by fake yogis—India’s snake oil salesman and televangelist swindler equivalent.)
However, Leonard Cohen’s narration of the 1994 documentary pair, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation, is both understated and dignified (with the first film featuring The Dalai Lama himself). Cohen, who was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in 1996, is staid in his narration of Tibetan Buddhist theory and practice, but the films are neither dry nor academic—a scene with a man in a hospice dealing with his own mortality is particularly affecting. I have to say, I initially just checked this out looking for something on Cohen’s Buddhism; what I found was an extremely respectful and compelling documentary, devoid of voyeurism, and mindful of the humanity of its subjects.
The series in its entirety is divided into five segments below, four being about 20 minutes long, with a two-minute clip in the middle.