March 25, 1996 12:00 PM

VISITORS TO THE ZEN BUDDHIST monastery on California’s Mount Baldy usually come seeking enlightenment. But with the retreat’s entrance sign all but hidden in a stand of pines off the roadside, they often ask first for directions.

Here, 6,500 feet up in the San Gabriel Mountains, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, the air is cool and crisp and all is quiet, so the racket emanating from a small, weathered cabin at the end of the rocky driveway seems especially out of place. And so, initially, does its occupant—Leonard Cohen, the 61-year-old, Canadian-born poet and singer whose music, rich with metaphor and melancholy, has made him an enduring cult hero to successive generations of fans. But then, Cohen has always been something of an otherworldly figure in the pop milieu, a musician with a touch of the mystic whose haunting sound, sonorous, meditative voice and lyric imagery of love, death and salvation make him seem not so jarringly out of place in the monastery as, say, the sight of Jon Bon Jovi in sandals and monk’s robe.

A longtime friend and follower of the monastery’s Roshi, 89-year-old resident Zen master Joshu Sasaki, Cohen had been a frequent visitor at the retreat, home to about 20 other adherents. Then, two years ago, following the end of his winter-spring romance with actress Rebecca De Mornay, 36, he decided to make the austere enclave his permanent address. Though he continues to compose poetry and music—on a synthesizer set up in his small, two-room wooden cabin—Cohen keeps the same rigorous schedule as the other disciples. Rising daily at 2:30 a.m., after just four hours sleep, he spends most of his day meditating and performing chores: shoveling snow, scrubbing floors, cooking and working in a communal kitchen. “This kind of life is hard to understand from the outside and can look punitive,” says Cohen, a practicing Jew who regards Buddhism as “wisdom teaching” that illuminates his Judaism. “From the inside, it’s a very nice schedule. I never think of myself as a Buddhist, but I like the actual study that people are engaged in here. It’s a lot like learning an instrument.” For Cohen, the meditation that the monks practice not only heightens his spiritual awareness, he says, it also helps the poet commune with his muse. From the beginning, says Cohen, always an advocate of art over commerce, “I didn’t want to write for pay. I wanted to be paid for what I write.”

He has succeeded nicely. The author of nine books of verse and two novels, Cohen released his debut LP, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967. Since then he has released 11 albums—his most famous song being “Suzanne.” First recorded by Judy Collins in 1966, it is an ode of longing for a mysterious beauty who has “touched your perfect body with her mind.” That song and others, including “Bird on a Wire” and “Sisters of Mercy,” are part of a new tribute CD, Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. With renditions of his tunes by U2’s Bono, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Billy Joel and Suzanne Vega, among others, the CD, Cohen says, is designed to expand his audience in the U.S., where his albums, million-sellers worldwide, have done only a fraction of that business. Vega is among a new generation of musicians who regard Cohen with a respect that approaches worship. “Laypeople find his music depressing,” Vega says. “But I find it strange and melancholy. You sense he’s a guy who lives by what he believes, who has struggled with himself.”

The turmoil and trouble Cohen expresses in song spring not from worldly circumstance, however, but from what Rolling Stone critic Paul Evans called his “dark nights of the soul.” The son of a wealthy Montreal clothing manufacturer, Nathaniel, and his wife, Masha, Cohen grew up in comfort, enjoyed playing piano and clarinet and, as a teenager, sang and played guitar with a country band, the Buckskin Boys. He wrote his first book of poems while he was in high school. Published in 1956, the year after his graduation from Montreal’s McGill University, it was awarded that year’s McGill Literary Award. Soon after, he traveled to Europe and spent most of his $3,000 prize money on a house, which he still owns, on the Greek island of Hydra. Settling in New York City, Cohen began turning his poems into songs, among them “Suzanne.” “There was indeed a woman named Suzanne, who was married to a sculptor, and they lived near the river in Montreal,” says Cohen, who launched his own career after Collins’s success with the song. “It was straight reportage, except we were never lovers.” In 1969, Cohen met Suzanne Elrod, a painter many fans believe was the song’s inspiration. “I’d actually written ‘Suzanne’ before I met her,” he says. “I suppose I summoned her.”

Though they never married and have lived separate lives since the mid-’70s, the couple, whose two children are grown (Adam, 23, is a musician in New York City; Lorca, 21, is a painter and sculptor in L.A.), remain close. “I always felt married,” says Elrod, who now lives in Paris. “Leonard is the most responsible human being imaginable. He’s always been there for the children.”

Following the split, Cohen was struggling with depression when he met and became a follower of the Roshi. But his eventual decision to become his Zen master’s full-time student was not spurred, he says, by his rupture with De Mornay, an old friend turned lover. “She kind of got wise to me,” Cohen says enigmatically of their breakup. “Now it’s just a friendship again.” Nor did he shave his head and move to Mount Baldy to escape from the frenzied world below. “I never had a sense of overwhelming daily tumult I needed to escape from,” he says. “In fact, I like tumult.”