A Year With Trevor Leggett

“You can do anything in this life you put your mind to it – anything”.

So Trevor implored, having grasped hold of my hands as I was leaving his flat. It was some years ago after a short visit but it left a strong impression on me. I remember replying with an obliging “Yes”.  I hardly believed it of myself and it was that lack of confidence he perceived and spoke to. I have reflected since, that the special poignancy of this message for me was connected to losing my father at 13 years old. Here was another father giving me, at 29, that fabled father-to-son encouragement for life I thought I’d missed out on.  But the real and lasting power of these words lay in the fact that Trevor was a living example of their truth.  As it says in his book ‘Zen and the Ways’, here was a man not just with a dragon head but a dragon tail behind him.

Many people tell stories of how Trevor has touched their lives.  One good Japanese friend of Trevor’s a former Judo pupil, now President of the Students Judo Association in Japan, asked Trevor, “You’ve done so much for me, how can I repay you?” He was taken aback by the reply, “Please do something for someone else”. Trevor reached many people from many walks of life – through teaching Judo; through 27 years of BBC radio broadcasts to Japan; through decades of inspired lectures on Buddhism and Yoga; by some thirty published books and latterly two websites which he would update monthly with new stories. Those who spent some time in his presence were deeply impressed even from the smallest encounter. A flippant remark over a cup of tea would generally provoke a serious question from Trevor. He was never short of a wonderful anecdote or story to stimulate and raise the level of the conversation from mundane chit-chat .Someone told me recently of his one encounter with Trevor ten years ago at the Buddhist summer school. Trevor saw him frowning, went to him and asked what the trouble was. “I just want to get things clear” he replied. “Is that all?” came the Zen reply. But it was Trevor’s actions that were his biggest teaching – a sermon of no words. Everyone at the Buddhist summer schools was inspired by his sheer example of arriving at the meditation hall on time, every time, a twenty minute journey from his room ending with 30 steps to climb on very weak and tired legs.

So here I am at 33 having spent a privileged year close to a remarkable man. What have I learned?  In asking myself this question I realise I don’t know yet.  Perhaps writing this will shed some light on the question.

In sharing my experience with Trevor Leggett, I am acutely aware that Trevor would always avoid focus on himself, wishing to point to something far bigger. We need to get out of the way, so that there’s a chance for the light to come through”.   Clearly I am offering something personal and from an imperfect viewpoint, but I hope it also serves to point at something bigger.  What follows then is an anecdotal run through my time with Trevor, liberally quoting him in the hope some of the many qualities I learned to admire in him, his approach to problems, life and the spiritual journey shine through.

“You have a theory I suppose”, said Trevor humorously, when he noticed me cooking porridge in the microwave rather than on the hob. It was September ’99 with the Notting Hill Carnival in full swing outside the door.  I had just moved in and was contemplating a very different lifestyle to the one I’d enjoyed in Scotland. But it was Trevor, a fiercely independent man who, after living on his own for the last 20 years had much more to adjust to – not just microwaved porridge, but living with me. He would say “If you have a common purpose, something higher than you, then you can deal with all manner of things, but without that then even small irritations become insufferable”.  Patience, Trevor said, was not a virtue he had acquired easily, but he certainly demonstrated it in abundance with me.

A routine was quickly established when I arrived. Trevor believed this was crucial.  After a morning meditation and breakfast, the day would always start as it would end, with me reading from a spiritual text (Trevor was practically blind in his last years). We read from diverse sources including, The Bhagavad Gita, Hakuin, the New Testament, Rumi, St Teresa of Avila, and indeed Trevor’s own books.  These I can say were very special parts of the day. Trevor warned against narrowness, encouraging reverence for all the great traditions – and for him this also meant looking deeply into the texts. He would pose questions like “What was it Jesus wrote in the sand?” in reference to the story in the New Testament of the woman accused of adultery and to be stoned. He had meditated on this and had a solution. Most of us would not recall that Jesus wrote in the sand at this incident, but these details can provide a key to a spiritual insight in much the same way as a Zen koan. “Jesus taught in parables because he wanted us to think, to meditate and penetrate his meaning”. Trevor was rigorous in his study, insisting that we must have accurate knowledge about the teachings. In order to be able to usefully offer your own insight it needs to be rooted and in harmony with the texts. And this is true, all the more, if you are trying to make a point apparently in conflict with the more common interpretation of the texts.

While days with Trevor were relaxed, often fun and always full of stimulating conversations, no time was ever wasted.   If I was out, Trevor would either meditate, have some Japanese text set up on the enlarger or listen to a tape of the ‘New Scientist’ or Chopin, whilst at the same time exercising his legs. “I make it a rule to learn something new every day”. From an 85 year-old man, so learned in so many areas, this had a humbling effect on me. Even listening to Radio 4 or a seemingly casual conversation could be the source of his next training story – you never knew. He kept a notebook and pen on him at all times, never letting a good idea slip by.

One afternoon we read on the subject of ‘non-locality’ in quantum physics (after lunch was another reading slot, usually concerning science or history). Experiments have unequivocally demonstrated that quantum entities such as electrons or photons, once having been “entangled”, maintain a correspondence with each other (measured by certain characteristics such as anti-parallel spin) across any distance. That distance could be halfway across the universe with the “spooky action at a distance”, as Einstein termed it, occurring not only faster than the speed of light but instantaneously. Cause and effect is not confined to your local neighbourhood in a quantum universe.

The next day he was dictating to me a short piece on the subject which, in fact, was used in the last lecture he gave to the Buddhist society. In summary, he said that in Buddhism and Yoga, we’re told things we simply don’t believe. For instance, the oneness of everything, that everything in the entire universe is interconnected, interdependent.  But these are not philosophical statements or theories – they are insights gained from direct experience. As in the case of non-locality in quantum physics, “If it wasn’t for the experiments you wouldn’t believe it”.      By meditation we can do the experiments and find out things for ourselves we might otherwise dismiss as unbelievable.

Trevor had a brilliant memory though not as good, he would always say, as the Indians. The tradition of passing down the teachings orally was systematic and reliable. Even today, people can remember books by heart, and in early times Brahmin priests could memories the four Vedas – a phenomenal amount perhaps equivalent to 8 Old Testaments. Trevor had cultivated his memory and put it to good use. Every morning just before eating breakfast he would listen to a couple of verses of the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit that he had dictated onto tape in anticipation of his failing eyesight. He could, pretty well, recite the whole of the text in Sanskrit. He had quite a store of poetry too from Lewis Carol to Shakespeare, from Rumi to Basho. He encouraged me to memorise poems such as Zen Master Hakim’s ‘Song of Meditation’ and the Heart Sutra. “These things can be an inner resource.  One verse might come up for you at a time when you really need it, it might save your life!”

There are times I run through in my mind all the things Trevor achieved in his life and my jaw drops. There are just so many outstanding things.  One example, is his taking up Sanskrit when he was fifty-five. He then spent fifteen years translating a massive text, ‘Shankara on the Yoga Sutras’. He recounted how people had told him, you can’t learn a new language at 55. “Can’t, can’t, can’t,” he mocked, “It’s like a chorus of crows.”

But there are some lesser-known facts about Trevor that never fail to inspire me when I think of them. One summer school I was attendant on Trevor and confessed inconsistency in the meditation practice. Since his response I have not missed a single day of meditation. To borrow one of Trevor’s phrases “It helped me, so I pass it on”. Trevor told me he had meditated every day since he was 14.   It was his 84th birthday that day making seventy years of daily meditation practice.

He showed unstinting dedication not just to his teacher Dr. Hari Prasad Shastri, but to the establishment and continuation of Adhyatma Yoga brought to London by Dr. Shastri, who founded a centre for its practice in 1929. Adhyatma means ‘concerning the Inmost Self’ and the tradition is based on Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta as developed by Shankara’s school of Yoga (circa 700 AD). Every night, that is to say 7 days a week, since Trevor had joined Shanti Sadan, at the age of 23 in 1938, unless he was away or very ill, he attended the hour long devotional Yoga meeting there. In earlier days this meant running the 2 miles from the Budokwai in Kensington. Where he taught Judo after his BBC day job.  When I was with him it meant a twenty-minute routine after tea to change and get ready; then the short drive to Shanti Sadan where he had a flight of stone steps to climb (he refused to use the lift) – steps, incidentally, he had washed fortnightly for twenty years. Before he went out of the door he would always assess himself “No I think I’d better have both sticks tonight”, or, “One will do”. Again he would never take his coat or scarf unless the weather demanded it.

With these little things, of which there were many, Trevor was teaching us to resist the gravitational-like pull to let things slip, not just in old age, but in general. This should not suggest Trevor faced the changes that old age brings with anything but graceful acceptance. “When the deterioration occurs, you have to adjust”. He was interviewed a year ago for a NHS documentary on dealing with disability and old age. In this he said, “It’s not society telling us that we’re old and useless. The problem is we tell ourselves that. If youth and adulthood is a time of searching and action, old age can be a time of creativity”. He then gave examples of historical figures whose best work was done in old age and spoke about Japan’s annual national poetry competitions. “Everybody enters them, hundreds of thousands, but especially the older generation. It’s creative. I remember the haiku that won the competition two years ago:

Playing with my grandchildren,
Even I am a Buddha,
For a while.”


At the age of 32 Trevor suffered a severe stroke from which he was lucky to have survived. It was soon after his return from serving in India during the war. I am told his teacher, Dr. Shastri elicited a promise from Trevor at this time for him to fight for every day he had given to him.

So Trevor did not lead a charmed life as one might imagine judging from his achievements.   He had to deal with ill health following his stroke including migraines, loss of peripheral vision and for a time had to use a walking stick. For over ten years Trevor attempted the translation of the Japanese material for his first book but he found it impossible: “With the headaches I’d lose focus and have black outs – eventually I gave up”. Then Trevor suffered a great disappointment in regard to a major Judo project he had been working towards for years. At this point he said he didn’t care if it killed him, he was going to finish the book. Well, it didn’t kill him and he completed what is now considered a classic in Buddhist literature:  The First Zen Reader.

Incidents like these gave the power behind one more of his lion roars. “When the disaster comes and the entire cosmos seems to have given you a kick, when perhaps you despair in human nature itself – that is the time for your Buddhism.”  And referring to that time he said, “As an old man now I would wish the young man not to miss that disaster.  If the young man were here he would be incensed, ‘How cruel of you to wish this on me’, but I as an old man say with a smile ‘No, I do wish it on you’, knowing it is what he needs.”

Trevor had taken a vow of lifelong celibacy at 32 following the traditional role of the Indian Brahmachari. With no family commitments he was the only one of three brothers who could look after their mother when she became ill with diabetes. He lived with and looked after his mother for twenty years up until her death. (Dates*). This was true devotion but, he said, “She was happy in the knowledge that, such was my character, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t want to”.  After her passing he had a dream that she had returned asking if she could still stay with him, “Of course you can mother, of course.” he had replied in the dream. “It gave me peace, “Trevor said, “Knowing this was in my heart”.

He took quite a hard and controversial view on the subject of relationships, marriage and having children – “there simply isn’t time, look around you – see how much time it takes up”. He did accept the same criteria as mentioned above; that is to say that if there is a common purpose, something higher than the couple, then there can be a fruitful partnership.

But in practice, he rarely saw this achieved and thought it an exception to a rule.  It was partly Trevor’s influence on me in this matter that meant I was in a position to stay with him. Though harsh in one sense, it was a refreshing influence, an antidote you might say to the substantial pressure from society, family and friends to accept that mindset, which assumes relationships and having children are a necessary prerequisite for a happy and fulfilled life.  If we have the choice and an inkling to follow a spiritual path, we might give ourselves time to explore this collectively held notion – after all, a little bit of restraint never did any harm.

This was not the only subject that Trevor took a strong line on and we didn’t always see eye to eye.     Indeed it would be misleading to suggest I always found Trevor an easy man to be with.   On the funny side, despite his blindness nothing seemed to slip by him. For instance, if I’d forgotten to warm the teapot before making the brew or I’d sneaked some extra chocolate into the flat for myself. He also didn’t give out compliments unless he meant them, although he would seldom criticize unless invited. A few weeks before Trevor became ill, he asked me what the Buddhist teaching was on right speech. I stumbled out the forth precept, that it should always be truthful, should not cause discord; then I became a bit woolly, but he pressed further. “Should words always be kindly – saying nice things?” he asked. I said, “No, but rather that it should always be directed to help the others’ enlightenment.”  He was irritated that I could not back this point up from the Buddhist texts, though he didn’t disagree with me. I was aware at the time that, behind this questioning, was an invitation to ask him his views on my strengths and weaknesses.   It was an opportunity not to be turned down lightly, but I did not take it. I imagined I would ask him when I felt more robust – after all there was plenty of time!

Trevor always said he wanted to go like a ‘one-horse show’ – that is everything at once: the wheels, axles, and cart and horse, all to dust. And this he did, after a long life of service to the end.  In the year I spent with Trevor he had maintained a stable level of health and was able to be very productive. In the last few months he had five book proposals in with the publishers, he was giving lectures and constantly coming up with new material. Then, in the space of 10 days he went into hospital twice, underwent a series of harrowing medical procedures and spent the final days in a busy disorientating ward without complaining once. He kept his humour, dignity, extraordinary clarity of mind and generous attitude throughout. Such was the man. When I visited on the Tuesday evening before he died he was very tired but discussed enthusiastically the web sites, told me he thought the nurses were doing a heroic job and thanked me for phoning the ambulance. When I phoned his bedside on Wednesday morning and was told the news I was shocked. Believe it or not I hadn’t actually considered that he might die. – He was so alive!  I was with some friends but went quietly to a room and sat some time.  I was shaken and knew I was in for a rocky emotional time. But before these emotions arrived, sitting there, I smiled. I saw an expanse of blue sky with some clouds brewing on the horizon and these words came clearly to mind: “Thank you Trevor, for being you, for the example of your life and the friendship you offered. Thank you.”

Of course we know that Trevor Leggett has not died. His spiritual body will continue to live in the many people he has touched, and will continue to · touch, through his books and other work. The spiritual qualities so strongly developed in him are not subject to birth and death. They lie in all of us, even if they seem, as yet, dormant seeds. Teachers like Trevor Leggett, using many means, help us to identify these seeds in ourselves.  They give us instruction on how to take care of them, provide them with good soil, water and protect them from harsh weather. But best of all, by their own lives, demonstrate that these seeds can actually grow into strong trees and produce much wholesome fruit. In my asking then of what have I learned during my time with Trevor I realise this is not a good question. Trevor can continue to be a source of strength and wisdom for me, this is my inheritance. He is alive in me and should I forget this, I shall see him in others, which will remind me.

Finally I return to Trevor’s lion’s roar: “You can do anything you put your mind to – Anything”. Of course, what we choose to put our minds to is crucial here. In his early twenties Trevor told his teacher he had used meditation to get results in Judo.  Dr. Shastri admonished him with a quote from the Bible: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven”. Likewise as followers of the Buddhist path, what we seek must surely be directly connected to our vow of compassion, the bodhisattva ideal.

Hakuin’s ‘Song of Meditation’ ends immortally with “This very body, the Buddha”. Aware of our heritage – which all our ancestors are to be found in this very body, including the wonderful Trevor Leggett, we can all say with utmost confidence: “We can achieve anything we put our minds to – Anything.”

Ben Boucherat

December 2000


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