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Joni Mitchell and Buddhism Print-ready version

by Wonji Dharma
Zen Mirror (Blog)
July 4, 2013

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In 1985 I was driving home from work, in fact just getting off the freeway, when a familiar voice came on the radio. It was undoubtedly, Joni Mitchell, she has always been one of my favorite artists, which at that time had been about ten years. Yet this song was unfamiliar to me and assuming it to be new I listened quite intently. As those who are close to me know, I treat music as poetry, so the lyrics have always been the most important part of any song. As I listened closely the chorus came around and she sang, "At least the moon at the window, the thieves left that behind." I immediately recognized this as one of the most famous haikus by the Japanese Zen Buddhist priest Ryokan (1758-1831):

The haiku entitled "The Thief Left It Behind" is as follows:
The thief left it behind
the moon
at my window.

In this haiku Ryokan is laughing at the absurdity of the theft. "The thief left it behind," he foolishly couldn't recognize the one great treasure the poor monk possessed — "the moon," enlightenment — and, instead, took an armload of worthless junk. To point out what a petty haul it was, Ryokan even ran after the thief with a cushion the thief had missed. Any sort of theft of Ryokan's possessions was a pointless act because, of course, who can take the moon from his window? Ryokan is amused and invites us to join in his laughter.

I quickly bought the new CD which was titled, WILD THINGS RUN FAST. From that point, over 28 years, until a few days ago, I had always wondered if Joni Mitchell had either dabbled in Buddhism or was a Buddhist herself. Back in the 1970's, after the first time I heard HEJIRA, it became one of my all time favorite albums. Because I don't spend much time listening to music anymore, I hadn't listened to the album fully in a few years, someone posted the YouTube video for HEJIRA on Facebook, so I gave it a casual listen, at least that is what I thought it was going to be. The song left me in tears, I could hear the introspection, the anguish of watching others self destruct, and the futility of trying to change anything outside of us. This world we live in is an ocean of suffering and very few of us transient travellers are willing to be honest with ourselves about it. Joni has always managed to capture this in her words and her moods of music as they slide up and down and back and forth. She has been a mirror for me in my lifetime, and I honor her as much as I do Basho, Hanshan, Ryokan, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Kabir, Hafiz, Ghalib and Jelaluddin Rumi. Surprisingly, this recent experience motivated me to search the internet and to find out the truth about Joni Mitchell and religion. After the first song below I list the results I uncovered.

(This live version is from the How Do You Stop CD Single)

Moon At The Window

by Joni Mitchell

It takes cheerful resignation
Heart and humility
That's all it takes
A cheerful person told me
Nobody's harder on me than me
How could they be
And nobody's harder on you than you

Betsy's blue
She says "Tell me something good!"
You know I'd help her out if I only could
Oh but sometimes the light
Can be so hard to find
At least the moon at the window
the thieves left that behind

People don't know how to love
They taste it and toss it
Turn it off and on
Like a bathtub faucet
Oh sometimes the light
Can be so hard to find
At least the moon at the window
The thieves left that behind

I wish her heart
I know these battles
Deep in the dark
When the spooks of memories rattle
Ghosts of the future
Phantoms of the past
Rattle rattle rattle
In the spoon and the glass

Is it possible to learn
How to care and yet not care
Since love has two faces
Hope and despair
And pleasure always turns to fear
I find
At least the moon at the window
The thieves left that behind
At least they left the moon
Behind the blind
Moon at the window

© 1982

Reader's Digest: Excerpt of Interview with Joni Mitchell

RD: Did you ever have problems with drugs or addiction?

Mitchell: I did, briefly. I didn't get involved for years, and then I went on Rolling Thunder and they asked me how I wanted to be paid, and I ran away to join the circus: Clowns used to get paid in wine — pay me in cocaine because everybody was strung out on cocaine. It was Chögyam Trungpa who snapped me out of it just before Easter in 1976. He asked me, "Do you believe in God?" I said, "Yes, here's my god and here is my prayer," and I took out the cocaine and took a hit in front of him. So I was very, very rude in the presence of a spiritual master.

RD: And he was able to...?

Mitchell: His nostrils began to flare like bellows, and he a rhythmic breathing. I remember thinking, what's with his nose? It was almost hypnotic. They have a technique called emanating grace ways. I assume he went into a breathing technique and a meditation. I left his office and for three days I was in awakened state. The technique completely silenced that thing, the loud, little noisy radio station that stands between you and the great mind.

RD: And when you came out of that awakened state...?

Mitchell: The thing that brought me out of the state was my first "I" thought. For three days I had no sense of self, no self-consciousness; my mind was back in Eden, the mind before the Fall. It was simple-minded, blessedly simple-minded. And then the "I" came back, and the first thought I had was, Oh, my god. He enlightened me. Boom. Back to normal — or what we call normal but they call insanity.

RD: It was his breathing technique and he managed to pass it on to you. And when you came out of your three days, you were no longer cocaine?

Mitchell: Yes. Ten years later when I learned he was dying, I went back to thank him.

Friend of spirit: Joni Mitchell discusses Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in an interview:

He was the bad boy of Zen. I wrote a song about a visit I made to him called Refuge Of The Road. I consider him one of my great teachers, even though I saw him only three times. Once I had a fifteen-minute audience with him in which we argued. He told me to quit analyzing. I told him I couldn't — I'm an artist, you know. Then he induced into me a temporary state where the concept of "I" was absent, which lasted for three days.

[Later], at the very end of Trungpa's life I went to visit him. I wanted to thank him. He was not well. He was green and his eyes had no spirit in them at all, which sort of stunned me, because the previous times I'd seen him he was quite merry and puckish — you know, saying "shit" a lot. I leaned over and looked into his eyes, and I said, "How is it in there? What do you see in there? And this voice came, like, out of a void, and it said, "Nothing." So, I want over and whispered in his ear, "I just came to tell you that when I left you that time, I had three whole days without self consciousness and I wanted to thank you for the experience." And he looked up at me, and all the light came back into his face and he goes, "Really?" And then he sank back into this black void again.

Refuge Of The Road

I met a friend of spirit
He drank and womanized
And I sat before his sanity
I was holding back from crying
He saw my complications
And he mirrored me back simplified
And we laughed how our perfection
Would always be denied
"Heart and humor and humility"
He said "Will lighten up your heavy load"

I left him for the refuge of the roads
I fell in with some drifters
Cast upon a beach town
Winn Dixie cold cuts and highway hand me downs
And I wound up fixing dinner
For them and Boston Jim
I well up with affection
Thinking back down the roads to then
The nets were overflowing
In the Gulf of Mexico
They were overflowing in the refuge of the roads

There was spring along the ditches
There were good times in the cities
Oh, radiant happiness
It was all so light and easy
Till I started analyzing
And I brought on my old ways
A thunderhead of judgment was
Gathering in my gaze

And it made most people nervous
They just didn't want to know
What I was seeing in the refuge of the roads

I pulled off into a forest
Crickets clicking in the ferns
Like a wheel of fortune
I heard my fate turn, turn, turn
And I went running down a white sand road
I was running like a white-assed deer
Running to lose the blues
To the innocence in here

These are the clouds of Michelangelo
Muscular with gods and sungold
Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads
In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon

And you couldn't see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all

You couldn't see these cold water restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads

Joni Mitchell in person by Alexandra Gill — Feb 16, 2007

Her agent is now in L.A. shopping the new album around, but Mitchell still doesn't have much time for the music business. Other things seem more important. A self-described Buddhist-Gnostic hybrid, she was introduced to Buddhism through a mind-bending encounter with the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual master Chogyam Trungpa while performing on Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour. It was 1975 and she was being paid in cocaine during a brief dalliance with drugs.

The monk asked her if she believed in God. "Yes," she replied, snorting a line right in front of him. "Here's my god and here is my prayer." The monk flared his nostrils and "zapped" her into an awakened state of consciousness with rhythmic breathing. For three days, she had no sense of self.

"My mind was back in Eden, the mind before the fall. With the 'I' gone, you no longer have a divisional mind that goes 'good, bad, right, wrong.'

"I am of the 'God is within' school," Mitchell adds, explaining that she sometimes gets close to re-entering a similar state, which she now calls the dazzling darkness, while painting or playing pinball.

"I see the entire world as Eden, and every time you take an inch of it away, you must do so with respect. We've just whittled it down to nothing, so that it can no longer support us. We are a disease upon its back, and it's calling on all of its immune system to get us off."

Oct 11.11 Jane Fonda blog:

Had dinner with Joni Mitchell Saturday night. Never met her before but she's known Richard for ever. I can't remember when I've had a more intense, far-reaching, multifaceted conversation (right from the moment we sat small talk with Joni) - from Christianity, Buddhism, the Gnostics, different forms of meditation, Ego as the original sin, to living in the wilderness north of Vancouver, the beauty of blue herons, our Black bear encounters (mine more dramatic than hers), medical challenges (hers more dramatic than mine), Georgia O'Keefe (she stayed with her in New Mexico when O'Keefe was 90), painting (Joni paints), innovators versus copy cats and music. It thrills me to listen to musical people (Joni and Richard...or Keith Richards in his autobiography) dig into the minutia of creating musical art. Much is Greek to me but they got into what it meant to have started on the banjo (Joni) and how that influences chords and tuning. She talked fascinatingly about how she always liked to do what hadn't been done musically-unresolved chords, etc, that often made the music honchos nervous. I should have taken notes. Jane Fonda


Hejira was the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 which marked the beginning of the Muslim era; the Muslim calendar begins in that year. In its common usage today it means a journey to escape from a hostile environment. In this way, Joni Mitchell's epic album HEJIRA was about her journey out of self delusion and into a place of self-discovery. The album was written on a road trip across the United States from Maine to Los Angeles, in an effort to come back to herself. This trip played on the heels of her stint with Bob Dylan on the "Rolling Thunder Tour," a tour where many were sucked into a group cocaine frenzy. It has always appeared to me that Joni Mitchell was following in the footsteps of all of the fellow travellers that go out into the wilderness to discover simply what appears. Buddha, Laozi, Jesus, Mohammed, Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti just to name a few.

I have made the trek from Los Angeles to New York twice in my life. The first time was in 1966 in my Dad's 1964 Mercury Comet. What a treat it was for a fourth grader to be on such an epic journey across the U.S. What amazed my young eyes were the cities full of lights that appear, seemingly out of nowhere, on this journey. We ate at some great local restaurants and stayed in lots of cheap motels on that trip. I loved every minute of it getting to see this country from the window of my father's car.

Later, in 1976, when I was 19 I made the drive with my wife. We were driving my 1964 Split Window A100 Van. It had a 225ci Slant Six between the front seats and had a 3 speed column shift. It also had a Pioneer Super Tuner mounted on the engine cowling, and I had Bose 301 speakers in the back. It was my hippie wagon and I ended up shipping it to Germany, but that is another story. I won't bore you with anymore of this story as we have to get back on subject. Let us just say that again, the depth and breadth of this country left a lasting impression on me.

Much like "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac, her writing is inspired by both the beauty of what appears and the insight that the solitude of the road can afford us. I have been listening to this woman, as a spiritual guide since 1975 and she has never let me down. Always digging deeper and discovering some undiscovered insight and relevance. This is our path as spiritual seekers, to question everything. Most believe it is questioning that which exists outside of us; however, those who have stumbled into the path know it is always about looking inside and moving forward into a more loving and compassionate state. I hope you enjoy all of this, as she has brought me tremendous joy throughout my life.


by Joni Mitchell

I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away
There's comfort in melancholy
When there's no need to explain
It's just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much could not be expressed
So now I'm returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Just at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a ballroom girl

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Now here's a man and a woman sitting on a rock
They're either going to thaw out or freeze
Strains of Benny Goodman
Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees
I'm porous with travel fever
But you know I'm so glad to be on my own
Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger
Can set up trembling in my bones
I know no one's going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tributes to finality to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for my immortality
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There's the hope and the hopelessness
I've witnessed thirty years
We're only particles of change I know I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I'm always bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
From the window of a hotel room

I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way

© 1976; Crazy Crow Music

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Added to Library on July 27, 2013. (4398)

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