My friendship with Trevor Leggett

I first had the good fortune to meet Trevor in the early 1970’s when, with my wife-to-be, we made weekly trips from Kent to London to attend talks given by speakers from Shanti Sadan at the Friends’ Meeting House in Hampstead.  A different speaker was chosen for each talk throughout the six week termly series and as – unsurprisingly, since most members of Shanti Sadan had no prior experience of public speaking – the quality varied greatly, it was always with delight that we saw Trevor taking the chair. And anyone who has listened to the recordings of Trevor speaking on this website will readily appreciate just how much his audiences enjoyed his talks.

At that time Trevor was in his fifties with a personality and presence that inspired both awe and attraction.  In our early years as members of Shanti Sadan, although he was always approachable, we spent little time in his company and he seemed rather remote – dedicated primarily to his work which at that time constituted authoring his early works on Yoga, Zen and Judo.

But some years later, in the early 1980s, he invited us to spend a week away on retreat in the country with a few other Shanti Sadan members.  Our first retreat was unforgettable – in a modest house close to the coast at Dymchurch.  The house was incredibly cold and damp – so cold, that at nights in my room I took the cover off the pillow and pulled it over my head to stop my face from freezing.  But for Trevor, these conditions were not only perfectly acceptable but ideal for training purposes.  As we assembled for meditation on the first morning at 6.00 a.m., the French doors of the communal room were flung open, and Trevor sat there, immobile, impervious to the freezing draught.  We tried timidly to emulate his stoic stance, shivering silently.  Notwithstanding these rigours, after the week was up, we awaited the next invitation with impatience.

Over the years we were privileged to attend several retreats with him, settling into a well-oiled routine of study and meditation.  Every day began early with an hour’s meditation followed, after breakfast, with a lengthy study period, focussed on the philosophy of Adhyatma Yoga and often using writings by Shri Shankara or the founder of Shanti Sadan, Dr. Hari Prasad Shastri.  After lunch might come other training exercises – for example, filling a sheet of paper with images of the holy symbol ‘OM’.  The evening would comprise a group meeting, including meditations and readings and the day rounded off with a little convivial chatter, but not without a spiritual focus.  Meal-times were void of conversation – replaced instead by the continuous reading of spiritual works, taken in turns by group members.

In these retreats, Trevor’s teaching methods probably closely followed his Judo and Zen training.  He would never spoon-feed us – there was no question of the sessions merely representing the acquisition of theoretical knowledge.  For example, in discussing an apparent paradox in the spiritual teachings, or one of Jesus’ parables, he would ask us to explain the meaning, urging us to think for ourselves.  Although we well knew that he had an answer for himself, he would rarely offer it to us, instead dropping hints to help us – as an abbot might to a monk struggling with a koan.

He was very careful to ensure that any regular meetings should not develop a purpose for anyone other than that of Trevor’s own intention.  To explain this, he remarked once about a man who attended the Budokwai.  He never missed a session, was always punctual and invariably stayed on after the other members had left, in order to help put away the training mats.  One might have thought he was an ideal member – but Trevor said he rarely engaged in the actual fighting.  It was clear that his attendance was a means of filling a gap in his life, perhaps a social need.  When Trevor told him that joining in the physical training was mandatory, the man left.

So with us, in developing our speaking skills, he would give us many different exercises with little or no time for preparation.  For example, we might be asked – on the spot – to give a 5 minute talk on a particular topic, not necessarily spiritual; or he would take a phrase such as ‘You need to dig deep to bury your daddy’ and get us to speak it in as many different ways as possible.  In the beginning it was rather daunting, but every moment of it was valuable training for our public speaking in Shanti Sadan.

In the 1990s we were invited to spend Sunday mornings with him over coffee, and these meetings developed into studies in Sanskrit.  While he never made any claim to be an expert, his knowledge of the language was impressive as he led us through untranslated works, such as the Bhagavad Gita commentary by Bhaskara, a contemporary of Shri Shankara.  It was typical of him that, while holding firm to the philosophical stance of Shri Shankara, he would chose a work from an opposing position in order to strengthen our understanding of Advaita Vedanta.  I can only wonder at his patience as he repeatedly explained grammatical points that seemed ever to elude me as I struggled with each new section.

He clearly intended these meetings to stimulate us to produce and publish our own translations, often reminding us that original texts would continue to be unearthed in the future.  I recall him saying that it was far more important to get a translation of a spiritual work out, even though not perfectly polished, than to spend years trying to get everything right.  In Adhyatma Yoga, one prime target of the practice is to reduce the influence of one’s ego, and in this regard, Trevor demonstrated his self-mastery.  As a professional author and broadcaster, he set his reputation on the line in publishing translations that would stand alongside others by eminent Sanskrit scholars. Yet, with no formal training in the language, he was prepared to disregard any potential personal criticism in his primary aim of releasing new texts for appreciation and study by genuine seekers of spiritual knowledge.  Needless to say, with Trevor’s deeply analytical mind and his attention to detail, his translations continue to be widely appreciated.

As he approached a very dignified old age, Trevor undoubtedly became less remote and gave up ever more time to offer valuable instruction to those around him, both spiritual and, to some extent, practical.  He wasn’t in the habit of probing into people’s day-to-day lives outside Shanti Sadan and yet he seemed nonetheless to get the measure of a person.  While he knew little more than the type of career I myself carried out, he clearly understood the nature of the obstacles I faced, and the development needed to help me face the challenges it presented.   He was also fully committed to supporting Shanti Sadan as a centre.  He rarely missed the daily evening meetings, and in addition spent a considerable time meditating at the centre, following Dr Shastri’s aim that Shanti Sadan would become a vehicle for a group conducting continuous meditation practice, as a focus for bringing much-needed spiritual light to the world.

One aspect of his character that became more apparent in his later years was his sense of humour, clearly something that was always with him, but now began to spring up more and more, both in his talks and his teaching methods.  One anecdote from his time training in a Zen monastery (mentioned in one of his books) is when he was given the task of sweeping up the leaves from a tree-lined courtyard.  He began enthusiastically sweeping and clearing up the leaves and when finished he looked around proudly, only to see that the wind had brought down fresh leaves on the paths.  So he set to once again to collect those ones.  Again the wind brought down more, and then an idea struck him.  He went round each of the trees shaking them vigorously to remove those leaves likely to fall in the next gust of wind.  At that point, one of the monks came into the courtyard and said to him simply, “We don’t shake the trees, we just sweep up the leaves that have fallen.”  Although the image is very amusing, Trevor inevitably saw an important spiritual point embedded in it.

Despite his increasing frailty in later years, Trevor never lost the skills and reactions he had developed in his early years of Judo training.  One evening at Shanti Sadan as he struggled to pull on his coat, someone put their hand behind him to help.  By that time largely blind, he nonetheless sensed the movement and was instantly transformed as his body spun round and his arm lifted to parry the supposed attack.  Seeing the shock on the member’s face, Trevor immediately apologised explaining that his judo training had developed an instinctive reaction to unexpected movement – adding solemnly that the consequences could be serious. Even in his eighties no-one doubted that!

The wonderful thing about Trevor was that, while there are thousands of books on the subject of spiritual knowledge, he was one of very few people who could sweep away the dusty veil of mere theory, and demonstrate the truth in practical terms.  It was a skill he tried to pass on to us – frequently asking us to think of practical examples from everyday life to illustrate points in a spiritual text.  When we read a text, such as the Bhagavad Gita, it is all too easy simply to pass over conundrums and paradoxes – of which there are many – blindly accepting what is written, without truly understanding the meaning. But as Trevor’s own talks developed over the years, each took on a framework of a bundle of teaching points with lively, often humorous, anecdotes or stories to help bring the texts alive, explain the points and fix them in the minds of his audience for subsequent recall.

One enduring image from his final years is of Trevor seated at an oak table with a duster in his hand, gently polishing the surface.  He was often to be seen in the library at Shanti Sadan in this manner.  Although it might have looked rather comical to any stranger entering the room, he was demonstrating a fundamental training method for gaining awareness of our inner being.  With the right attitude, slowly and deliberately polishing the table represents an interior polishing of the mind.  And, in a repetitive task such as this, that requires no active engagement of the mind, we can begin to break the tenacious identity of ourselves with our bodies and our minds – the goal of Adhyatma Yoga.  And in going beyond that identity we can begin to sense the light within.  Right up until his final days, Trevor fully devoted his time and resources to helping others to progress on this path.  His passing represented an incalculable loss to all those who had benefitted from his friendship and company, however tenuous that contact might have been.

J.M

 

 

 

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