Trevor Leggett: My spiritual friend

Trevor Leggett: My spiritual friend

 Wherever I am my heart is my refuge;
In the real of existence my heart is king
When I despair of reason’s mischief.
God knows I am grateful to my heart.
-Ustad Khalilullah Khalili-

I first met Trevor at Shanti Sadan, the meditation centre set up by his guru, Dr. Shastri, in Notting Hill Gate. Our initial connection was through judo and our shared conviction that judo was somehow more than just a sport. Trevor had articulated this idea in his talks and his books, particularly Zen And the Ways and the Spirit of Budo. I had assumed that Trevor’s interest in Zen and meditation practice had developed as a consequence of his interest in judo as ‘shugyo’, a Japanese term to denote a character building activity, and his judo practice his. In some ways, I placed him in the sort of category of wise martial arts teacher living in semi-retirement, who could teach me the secrets of the art that would lead to overcoming my psychological and spiritual immaturity and  consequently make me successful in life. It was not really that simple and it turned out that the path he followed was not, in fact, Japanese Zen but rather an Indian school of yoga. Both the man and the path he was following encompassed much more than I had at first imagined. It also turned out that we had a lot more in common than I had realised.

I found myself standing outside the impressive front door of the huge house on Chepstow Villas that served as the meditation centre, where Trevor went to sit every evening with another older judoka by the name of Mike Woodhead. I had met Mike one evening when I was training at a dojo in Hammersmith. Mike was a slim man in his 50s who had been European champion in the 1960s. He was a student of Trevor’s, and had lived in Japan for many years. We become good friends, and he helped and encouraged me with judo and studying Japanese and naturally the conversations had turned to Trevor and what sort of teacher Trevor had been. So one day Mike asked me if I would like to meet Trevor and here we were outside Shanti Sadan ready to attend one of the public lectures held there on Friday nights. Trevor was a little bit gruff and I got the impression that he and Mike had fallen out at some point. Still, there was something I found very attractive about the place and I was interested in learning about the teachings of Dr. Shastri. There was some sense in which Mike reminded me of a son who was a little ashamed to be in the presence of a very strict father whom he had let down or disappointed in some way. Underneath all the discomfort there was clearly a lot of love and respect for Trevor. Indeed that is why their exchange was so awkward and uncomfortable. I shook Trevor’s hand and told him that I was a black belt in judo, had spent some time training in Japan and wanted to study Japanese. He smiled and was encouraging enough, but I wasn’t sure that he appreciated the intrusion. We stayed for the lecture, and I bought a book by Dr. Shastri called Echoes of Japan, which captured something of what I loved about the country. It was like a love letter to the country.

Reading the book really touched my heart. There was something about it that reminded me of the importance of beauty in life. It gave me a new perspective on things not just Trevor but on Zen and Buddhism. Buddhism is a heterodox school in Indian philosophy and Yoga is an orthodox school. Buddhism is to some degree an atheistic religion and Yoga posits the existence of God or a Universal Self. The Buddhist equivalent is the Buddha nature. In some ways, I was following philosophical recommendations of Derrida and exploring opposing arguments and opposites to understand better the nature of things. The doctrine of no-self has something in common with deconstructionist logic, which, being so de rigueur in social science, opens up the possibility of  seeing the no-self doctrine in this light. Yet, here was Yoga and Zen emphasising knowing things in the heart and indicating the limitations of the world. It pointed to something more, some way of knowing that can’t be apprehended by the intellect. Life was leading me to new learning experiences and preparing me to improve my understanding and relate properly to Trevor as a spiritual friend. Though I had gone there to practise judo, my time in Japan had kindled love for the country and its beautiful temples and gardens.

I loved everything about the experience of being in Japan. The training hall was a huge wooden building with a sloping roof with eaves that turned up a little at the end. The combination of exhaustion and the effect of post-training endorphins meant that colours seemed more vivid, food tasted better, even though the skin on my feet had blistered and worn away from the long hours of training. This time may have been the happiest of my life. Sitting silently for only five minutes of meditation with sweat dripping down my face with the sound of cicadas outside made a profound impression on me.

The six months passed much more quickly than I expected and I had made some good friends, but I was also aware that it was time to go home. I had decided that I would follow in Syd Hoare’s footsteps and study Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies. On my return, I shared my plans with Tony Sweeney, Nick and others at the Budokwai and they were very encouraging.

One way I was encouraged was when I started to do some bits and pieces of work for Nick (Nicolas) Soames. Nick was a music journalist and had set up a small company to publish books about judo. It was called ‘Ippon Books’ and the books are some of the best books on judo ever published. He was a Buddhist and ran the company from his flat in North London. He gave me a part-time job doing odd bits of work for Ippon Books, and I enjoyed it very much. The atmosphere was hard working and yet relaxed. He had a cushion and a little Buddha statue in one corner, and I decided to set up a little corner just like it in my room at home.

One day he asked me if I was up for a long and laborious task. I replied with a very enthusiastic “Yes!” without really knowing what I was going to be asked to do. The task was to go through tapes of talks given by Trevor at the Buddhist Society, going back many years, and to identify and transcribe all the stories relating to judo. I enjoyed his talks enormously. His voice had a calm confident air to it, and he had a great sense of humour. I began to understand why and how Trevor had had so much of a positive effect on people’s lives. I also understood that his view of judo was broad and that its purpose was shugyo or character development rather than to win medals and I felt that this was something very valuable. The work was an education, and it had a deep effect on me and made me very much more committed to the path of meditation. The book was published as The Dragon Mask and Other Judo Stories in the Zen Tradition.

My interest in Zen grew, and another judo friend who had studied Japanese at Cambridge University said that his uncle sat Zazen with a group at the Buddhist Society in Eccleston Square, near Victoria. I joined the group soon afterwards and practised with them for several years. Although Trevor was at Shanti Sadan I felt more inclined to practice with the Zen group as I knew he visited them to give lectures and I really like the teacher. Myokyo Ni was a round and rather imposing Austrian woman, with round glasses and very smiley face and a wicked sense of humour.

About six months later I was sitting in Trevor’s little apartment having tea – he liked Earl Grey. Nick and I were there to show him the finished book and he was very friendly and encouraging. In the course of the conversation Trevor said: “Now that the book is finished I guess you haven’t got much to do. How would you like to come and do some work for me?” and I heard myself answering: “Yes,” without knowing what the work was, just as I had when I agreed to do the transcribing of the talks without any idea of how much time it would take.

The job was actually very pleasant and I enjoyed it quite a lot. I came by the flat to help Trevor at home three or four days a week. I would run errands, help him with various chores, do some bits of shopping for him, read to him, make tea and walk him down to Shanti Sadan for his evening meditation. I did this for about three years, and I thought of Trevor as a spiritual friend – what the Buddhists call Kalyana Mittata. One thing that became very clear to me was that all his varied interests and the wide range of contributions he made were not restricted to things Japanese – he was firmly rooted in the Yogic tradition, and his vision of things was consequently much broader and more inclusive than I had realised.

There seemed to be a much clearer articulation of the importance of love in this tradition. I began reading more books by his teacher, Dr. Shastri, and found that they gave me a new, broader, more inclusive vision than that I had from the Zen practice. Another book that really struck a chord with me was A.J Alston’s translations of the Persian poet Hafiz. I have treasured the book ever since and still read the poems in it to this day. I was very attracted to Sufism, and the overlap between Zen, Sufism and Vedanta was quite striking. It seemed that Trevor was tapping into something deep inside himself through his connection to his teacher and his meditation practice. My own meditation practice was still in its early stages, but I did experience more peace of mind and a greater appreciation of everyday beauty; the light shining through the window and a cup and saucer glistening on the drainer by the sink; the sound of the water boiling in the kettle. I often spoke of these things but as my practice deepened and I came up against the more difficult side of practice; sitting with a sore back or knees and all sorts of unpleasant feelings coming up I found that attachment to both pleasant and unpleasant sensations was a problem, and my practice became much dryer and my attitude towards positive feelings and emotions a little distrustful.

It was at this point that I had two interesting conversations. One with Myokyo Ni during an all-night sitting for Rohatsu and one with Trevor in early January. It was the night of the 8th of December 1997. It was the middle of the night, the blue zabuton with round, black edition cushions in the middle sitting in neat rows, upstairs in the Buddhist Society in Eccleston Square. It was my time to go for my sanzen interview with the teacher. After she had listened to me she said: “This is not a sports training. It is a devotional practice. It is the Buddha heart school.” She encouraged me to add a short piece of sutra chanting and to burn incense before sitting. It was a simple practice that many people do first thing in the morning in Japan.

Then sitting in Trevor’s flat in Notting Hill talking over his favourite Earl Grey tea he began to tell me about his time in Japan and his own experience of Sanzen interviews with a Zen master. The teacher had said to him: “Ninjo ga tarinai”, which translates as: “Not enough human feeling.” Ninjo is a little tricky to translate as human feeling doesn’t quite convey the idea. Ninjo might translate more naturally as empathy or love. It is often paired with the idea of Giri or duty, and so the ideal way of relating to others is to have a balance between fulfilling duties and being aware of the feelings of others. Showing that you care about others, Ninjo is expressed through placing a little cake on someone’s desk at work, when they are going through a tough time, or taking extra care with washing their clothes or placing a blanket over them when they have fallen asleep. It is often expressed most deeply in small actions, done silently and without comment or asking for recognition. It also refers to gratitude for these small kindnesses and for the support of others. Ninjo is the heart of the Buddha and compassion that makes the strict discipline of Zen meditation possible. Without love, the discipline would be oppressive.

Looking back on all the small acts of kindness I experienced in life and in Japan, as well as the gratitude people expressed for small kindnesses I did for them, I realise that Ninjo is what holds Japanese society together. This side of Zen is not talked about much in the West, but it is there, especially in the tea ceremony and flower arranging. Freud wrote that mental health was basically a question of developing the capacity to love and the capacity to work. Both Trevor and I were told as young men not to forget that we shouldn’t neglect to develop the capacity to love.

Now, almost 18 years after Trevor died, I look back on our friendship, and I am very grateful for it. I miss him even though or maybe because he is always with me. There is a lot of confusion about the Buddhist and Yogic ideas of attachment. Emotional connections to others are necessary for a person to function in the world as a healthy individual. We need to love and care for others and to receive love and care in return. A person who cannot form healthy attachments with others is in a state that is actually quite negative and this kind of detachment is far removed from spiritual detachment which requires the experience of the transitoriness of things in the world, including ourselves, and the other is the experience of eternity and oneness through love. This is a very important point to make and is one of the key stumbling blocks for many people when they gain some distance from the overwhelming power of their emotions in meditation. They identify very strongly with the watcher consciousness and can become, to some degree, disassociated from emotions and have a very negative attitude towards their own emotions and those of others. This state of mind in fact strengthens the sense of separateness and makes it harder to form healthy attachments and turns ethics into something very dry and cerebral, rather than something which is clearly only really possible through empathy and sympathy for others. This is probably the best way to understand the statement that the passions are the bodhi and the bodhi is the passions. Bodhi or Buddha nature comes from the development of Bodhicitta or Buddha Heart.

 ‘In love, there is no difference between monastery and the tavern, wherever there is anything there is light of the face of the beloved’ -Hafez

© Ben Andersen


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