Leonard Cohen: Ballad of the Absent Mare

Many rock and pop songs contain spiritual aspects. Leonard Cohen’s Ballad of the Absent Mare is special because it does not only highlight one or few aspects of spirituality, but describes the full path, from becoming a seeker to the ultimate fulfillment, a radical transformation and transfiguration.

Released in 1979 on the album Recent Songs, Leonard Cohen based it on the Ten Bulls or Ten Ox Herding Pictures from the Chinese tradition of Chan Buddhism.

A Cowboy without his mare: Becoming a Seeker

Cohen transforms Ten Bulls into a modern cowboy story, in which the lost ox becomes a horse, a mare.

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls 1: In Search of the Bull
Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s Ten Bulls 1: In Search of the Bull Source: Wikipedia, Ten Bulls

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray

Like many tales of loss and love, this can be understood on various levels. Some may see a parable of a partner lost and found again. From a spiritual perspective, we may say the narrator has lost contact to his inner treasure, the core of his soul. We are not told when this happened – maybe long ago. The important aspect now is that he realizes his loss. He becomes a seeker.

A difficult search begins

As it turns out, the search commences in difficult conditions.

But the river’s in flood
And the roads are awash
And the bridges break up
In the panic of loss.

Everything is in turmoil. The river could be a symbol for the blood: Streets and bridges are destroyed, like the original connection between heart and head.

And there’s nothing to follow
There’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer
Gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking
His heart with their song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls 2: Discovery of the Footprints
Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s Ten Bulls 2: Discovery of the Footprints

So he is disoriented, even desparate (“the night is all wrong”).

Then, a slight idea emerges:

Did he dream, was it she
Who went galloping past
And bent down the fern
Broke open the grass
And printed the mud with
The iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet
When he was the lord

Was it a dream? Memory of a former, more glorious state of being slowly returns: There once was a time when the mare followed his commands. This type of memory is not limited to the lifetime of one human being – rather it is the voice of the immortal spark deep in his heart that knows about a different realm. At least he finds traces now …

Unaware how close the mare actually is, he looks for her everywhere:

And although she goes grazing
A minute away
He tracks her all night
He tracks her all day
Oh blind to her presence
Except to compare
His injury here
With her punishment there

An Open Heart

The immortal spark is within man and therefore “nearer than hands and feet” (see, for example, Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Higher Pantheism). However, it is usually not recognized because man has become blind for its presence – it is invisible to the rational mind. But the seeker is serious in his approach. A bird’s voice opens his heart, and soon his state is much transformed, compared to the initial turmoil .

Then at home on a branch
In the highest tree
A songbird sings out
So suddenly
Ah the sun is warm
And the soft winds ride
On the willow trees
By the river side

Now he can finally perceive the mare.

At the Border of the Mortal and Immortal Realms

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls 3: Perceiving the Bull
Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s Ten Bulls 3: Perceiving the Bull

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide

She is located exactly at the border between light and darkness. In order to catch her, he needs to become a specific type of “cross-border commuter” himself.

In Rosicrucian symbolism, this is the intersection of the cross: the place where the horizontal bar of mortal life is crossed by the vertical bar of a higher realm. This is where Rosicrucians place the rose of the heart: the place within man that is susceptible to these impulses – the place where the mare is grazing.

And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky

The mare is no earthly being – she moves about in higher realms. (Cohen, however, chose the term sky rather than the more religious heaven.)

Catching the Mare: a two-fold Sacrifice

Now the task is to catch her. This is not easy, for her longing drags her away from this dense material world.

Interestingly, Cat Stevens was also inspired by the Ten Bulls and judged his own progress on the path in the album title Catch Bull at Four.

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls 4: Catching the Bull
Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s Ten Bulls 4: Catching the Bull Source: Wikipedia, Ten Bulls

And she comes to his hand
But she’s not really tame
She longs to be lost
He longs for the same
And she’ll bolt and she’ll plunge
Through the first open pass
To roll and to feed
In the sweet mountain grass

For the spirit-soul, it is a severe sacrifice to bind herself to the material world and a mortal human being (“time for the burden”).

Or she’ll make a break
For the high plateau
Where there’s nothing above
And there’s nothing below
And it’s time for the burden
It’s time for the whip
Will she walk through the flame
Can he shoot from the hip

She needs to carry the horseman and deal with his moods and his crudeness (“time for the whip”).

But there is no other way. The spirit-soul cannot break free from the cycle of birth and death without the help of a human personality. She is bound to sorrow and transitoriness even though, in principle, she is immortal.

The human personality, on the other hand, realizes her task: to help the spirit-soul. Her sacrifice is to let go of her own ambitions and entrust herself to a new purpose in life.

Both of them cannot help it – they have to connect and join forces.

A New Connection

So he binds himself
To the galloping mare
And she binds herself
To the rider there

This results in an almost impossible state: The immortal binds itself to mortality.

And there is no space
But there’s left and right
And there is no time
But there’s day and night

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls 5: Taming the Bull
Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s Ten Bulls 5: Taming the Bull Source: Wikipedia, Ten Bulls

A human in this state essentially lives two lives: He still needs to follow the laws of nature, he remains tied to time and space. At the same time, a new being blossoms within him, one that can rise above these narrow limits. In its native land, terms like left, right and time are meaningless. The taming process symbolizes a conscious decision in favor of this strange connection. (We may think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince and the taming of the fox, which means to accept responsibility.)

Returning Home

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls 6: Riding the Bull Home
Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s Ten Bulls 6: Riding the Bull Home

And he leans on her neck
And he whispers low
“Whither thou goest
I will go”
And they turn as one
And they head for the plain
No need for the whip
Ah, no need for the rein

Now the homecoming begins. Both have decided voluntarily – so now there is no more running away, no more crudeness, no different goals. They have become one.

In the symbolism of the Ox / Bull, the tamed beast is associated with the tamed ego – a will that evolved in separation to the creator’s plans.

Unity and a Complete Transformation

The following sections are increasingly difficult to express in words. The two beings merge, they are ever harder to distinguish. Leonard Cohen necessarily writes more lyrically and more vaguely.

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls 8: Both Bull and Self Transcended
Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s Ten Bulls 8: Both Bull and Self Transcended
Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls 7: The Bull Transcended
Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s Ten Bulls 7: The Bull Transcended

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls 9: Reaching the Source
Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s Ten Bulls 9: Reaching the Source

Images 7 to 9 hint at a complete transformation, or transfiguration, as it is called in the New Testament of the Holy Bible (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9). Nature offers a beautiful image in the development from the caterpillar to the butterfly. This may console all those who feel unworthy to embark on this glorious path: It is not the eating-addicted caterpillar that is being deified. This fat being with its tiny hair will never be able to fly – even if it feels a longing to do so. And she doesn’t have to: She only prepares the path for an entirely different creature. Within the cocoon, the old structures are dissolved. For the butterfly embarking from the cocoon, flying is natural.

Where did all of this happen?

But my darling says
“Leonard, just let it go by
That old silhouette
On the great western sky”
So I pick out a tune
And they move right along
And they’re gone like the smoke
And they’re gone like this song

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls 10: Return to Society
Kuòān Shīyuǎn’s Ten Bulls 10: Return to Society Source: Wikipedia, Ten Bulls

Maybe it all happened within the narrator rather than out there on the plain before him …

The Chinese cycle does not end with disappearance in Nirwana. The newly-born sage returns to the world to help his fellow human beings in their quest.

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