The meaning of “Jikan,” the name Roshi gave Leonard Cohen when the Canadian singer-songwriter was ordained a Zen monk, has arisen numerous times since Leonard’s death. While not an exhaustive elaboration, the information below provides some insight into the mystery.
On August 9, 1996, Leonard Cohen was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk at the Mount Baldy Zen Center. A contemporaneous Montreal Mirror article, The Ordination Of The Artist Formerly Known As Leonard Cohen by Ann Diamond, reported
From now on he’ll be known as “Jikan”, a dharma name meaning “Silent One”.1
In Ode to Leonard Cohen, From a Fellow Zen Monk by Shozan Jack Haubner (New York Times: Dec. 6, 2016), we read
His monk’s name, Jikan, means “noble silence”
Ordinary Silence, Normal Silence, Just Ok Everything Don’t Sweat It Silence
In Feb 22, 2005, Jarkko Arjatsalo posted Leonard Cohen’s message to him on the subject at LeonardCohenForum:
I never suggested that Jikan meant ‘The Silent One’
that somehow got into the air
and was taken up by journalists –
whenever I’ve been asked
I’ve given Roshi’s bad English translation
which is something like:
“ordinary silence, normal silence, just ok
everything don’t sweat it silence”
Roshi always got pissed off when people wanted to explore the deep meanings of the names he’d given them – new versions of their self-importance he wasn’t trying to honour you with some poetic revelation of your adorable nature that he had discerned he was just trying to give you a name that he could remember and he has his own private associational method I won’t go into the matter, but Jikan was someone in his own life that he knew very well.
In The silence between two thoughts, Sylvie Simmons reports this conversation with Leonard Cohen:
SS: Roshi gave you a new name?
LC: Roshi has given me a few names. When I was ordained as a zen monk, Roshi gave me the name Jikan.
SS: Is that the one that’s been variously translated as Silent One and Solitary Cliff?
LC: No, the other one was ‘Solitary Cliff’. But you know, Roshi doesn’t speak English very well so you don’t really know what he means by the names he gives you and he prefers it that way because he doesn’t want people to indulge themselves in the poetic quality of these traditional monks’ names.
SS: That’s cruel – I’d want to throw myself into the deep end of their poetic qualities.
LC: Yes, that’s the trouble. I have asked him what Jikan meant many times, at the appropriate moment over a drink, and he says ‘Normal silence’ or ‘Ordinary Silence’ or ‘The silence between two thoughts’.
SS: Dangerously poetic.
SS: So you became Ordinary Silence after Solitary Cliff?
LC: I was Solitary Cliff for a while. You can just call me Cliff!
Most redently, Remembering Leonard Cohen by Shinzen Young (shinzen.org: December 28, 2016) offers these thoughts on “Jikan:”
There’s a bit of discussion on the internet about the meaning of Leonard’s Buddhist name, Jikan (自閑). In East Asia dharma names consists of two Chinese characters read in the local pronunciation (Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean, Sino-Vietnamese, or Chinese itself). The first character in Leonard’s Buddhist name, 自 (read ji- in Sino-Japanese), means natural or spontaneous. The second character, 閑(read –kan in Sino-Japanese), is a little harder to translate. It implies the temporal analog of spaciousness—an effortless, unhurried mode of being. So a loose translation might be something like Spacious Spontaneity. The name is apt. You sense it when you listen to him sing.
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Jan 4, 2017.