Afternoons spent with Trevor Leggett

Memories and thoughts about afternoons spent with Trevor Leggett in my student days: Carrying water and chopping wood or rather making tea and cheese sandwiches.

 “Look on this time of friendship as a lucky windfall, for after this time has passed, the wheel of heaven will make many a turn and bring another day and another night.”- Hafez

 It was a spring afternoon and I had finished my lectures for the day. It was a short walk from SOAS to Tottenham Court Road tube station and then a 15-minute ride to Notting Hill Gate. I have always had an excess of energy and usually ran up the stairs at underground stations rather than using the escalator or the lifts. Today was no different. I bounded up the stairs and out into the street.  I walked into the fishmonger and picked up Trevor’s order of smoked salmon. He ordered it every week, and the man behind the counter knew me as I always dropped by to pick up “Mr. Leggett’s order”. He wrapped it up and placed it in a white plastic bag. Sometimes there was an order for fishcakes as well.

Trevor lived in Buckingham Court, a serviced apartment just around the corner. The journey from door to door was a little over half an hour. I would ring the bell, and I would hear his voice say, “Mmm…Yes, come on up,” and I could picture him in my mind’s eye in his white woollen tracksuit top, shuffing back to his armchair, leaving the door ajar for me to come in. He would be sitting there with a note, or a list of things he wanted to remember, written in a thick black pen in slightly shaky handwriting. He was a big man and walked with a stoop, and his white hair was combed back. “Tea?” I would ask as I flicked the switch of the electric kettle.  He would often say yes and then tell me what he wanted to eat. “Yes, and put some toast on. I’ll have it with some of that Jarlsberg cheese”.  He did not say please or thank you much, and he had a certain gruffness about him, but I still liked going to see him. The flat was quiet, clean and the light shone in through the windows. There were a few pictures on the wall, but it was quite sparsely decorated, with white walls and a wooden floor. The walls were lined with books.  I often thought that I would get some pearl of wisdom and that something he said in our conversations would help me be more successful, wiser, more like him. I thought some of the respect other people had for him would rub off on me. But when I look back on it, the things that stick with me are making tea, doing the shopping, running errands; the sense of being useful and the growing sense of friendship. At the time, what I thought was most important was actually rather superficial, and what was incidental and seemingly less important; simply friendship, turned out to be the most important thing. Wiping down the table surface, massaging his feet to help with the circulation; taking care of someone, even just a little, was just as valuable to me as the meditation practice or indeed the engagement with teachings on the level of mind.

Other memories that stick with me are him taking my arm as we walked from his apartment, round the corner to Shanti Sadan in Chepstow Villas. He used a walking stick made of a sort of reddish wood, and we took a long time to walk the relatively short distance and he would sit on a wall to rest at least once on the way. On that afternoon in spring, we sat on the wall, and I remarked how beautiful the area was and he said, “Yes, my teacher always used to say that the feeling in the area was very sattvic”. I had never heard people talk about anything but food or people as sattvic or rajasic or tamasic, but it made sense. There was something energetically balancing about the area. A walk in Holland Park or Kensington Gardens always made me feel more positive and balanced.  I was involved in Buddhist practice so I was not so interested in the idea of the three gunas in Adhyatma Yoga, and I was surprised to hear Trevor use these words as I associated them with a sort of health food, vegetarian or even vegan alternative culture that was not Trevor’s cup of tea.  He did talk about the effect of certain activities, people and even foods on the mind and its ability to meditate and I wasn’t entirely in agreement with him on that; largely because I had a very romantic, slightly heroic view of the Bodhisattva ideal and the idea that a good Buddhist would not seek to avoid relating to anyone or any situation. A very high ideal but one that I was not ready to take on fully and only later understood as an aspirational vow, rather than one you can realistically achieve. If you are not a strong swimmer it is better to throw a lifeline to a drowning person than to jump in and drown with them.

What strikes me now is that I placed far too much emphasis on the value of gaining a philosophical understanding of spiritual paths, and a technical understanding of meditation, than on ordinary things like service.  Now, I would say that serving others and being of service to oneself, one’s family, friends and the people we come into daily contact with are the beginning and the end of the path. It is interesting that Zen has phrases like: “Zen is nothing more than carrying water and chopping wood”. I think this has sometimes been interpreted in terms of being in the moment and in the body, doing physical tasks and being practical. All of which is true, but I also think that it boils down to the importance of being of service and it points to a way of transcending ego by focusing on something outside oneself. The pleasure comes in not feeling self-conscious, and in doing something that is meaningful. Sometimes meditators, who have been taught mindfulness of body as part of their practice will frame these ideas, not in terms of service and being of service, but in terms of concentration. If their concentration is good, then they will label it as being mindful, and if they lose concentration and spill some water, they will feel that they have failed somehow. In this way, they become overly self-conscious, and the watcher element of consciousness becomes more and more important to them. They are watching themselves like hawks. What is interesting about this technique is that it is a double-edged sword, especially in a social context where people don’t have secure attachments and feel under the threat of criticism all the time. This is sometimes said to be deliberately cultivated by Zen teachers as it builds up intensity and sometimes leads to a moment of crisis. It is often at these moments of crisis that people can have, what we might call, religious experiences, but these can be dangerous and lead to mental breakdown and mental illness. That is why concepts like the Bodhisattva vow, the idea of serving others and not gaining enlightenment for oneself are so important. It is also why the emphasis on meditation practices like metta, loving-kindness, and the virtue of koruna are essential parts of a complete path if people are to remain balanced, happy and of use to themselves and the rest of the world.

There does seem to be a tendency to focus strongly on mental states and the experience of pleasant mental states amongst many people interested in some types of popular yoga and dharmic religions and, in that sense, it is not out of place to describe it as “spiritual materialism”, the term coined by the trendy and dangerous Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa. The point being, that chasing happiness, be it in the shape of meditation experiences, drug-induced experiences or any other kinds of pleasure, is, ironically, precisely what makes people less happy and more ill-at-ease with themselves. I can’t say Trevor was always a happy person, but he was not ill-at-ease with himself and his way of life did suggest that the search for meaning was, and is, a more fulfilling path than the search for happiness. I think this is an important point as the intention behind a meditation practice can hugely influence the results. Although enlightenment is beyond our understanding, we cannot avoid the trap of holding some concept about it, or ideal about what an enlightened individual is like, and this is why some people say that there are as many paths to God as there are people. Trevor was very much a man of karma yoga or the yoga of action, and one yogic text that we did discuss briefly was the Gita.

I found our conversation about some of the ideas in the text very helpful, and the idea that the real test of insight comes when you get off your cushion and start to interact with the world again is something I want to explore. Trevor included some of that aspect of the Gita in his talks about judo. He used to say that you might step off the meditation cushion, feeling at one with the universe and feel that you had reached some great stage on the path, only to arrive on the judo mat with your head in the clouds and end up being buried on the mat! The point not being that there is a connection between being a strong judoka and enlightenment, but that taking part in the battle of life you soon find that attachment to any given mental state is of little value to you, even in the ordinary pursuit of looking after yourself, let alone others. The practice recommended in the Gita is simply to do your duty and leave the results in the hands of God. The results can include anything of a causal nature, be they winning in a wrestling contest, receiving a promotion at work, being sacked or experiencing pleasant or unpleasant sensations or mental states. The idea is simply to meet them all with equanimity. A straightforward practice to understand, but one that is very hard to realise.

There is a Sufi story of a young man who leaves his town which has periodically been laid to waste by a dragon.  The young man goes on a quest to conquer the dragon. He spends many years with trackers and mountain vagabonds, practising his sword techniques and his ability to climb and survive in the snowy mountainous regions where the dragon is said to live. After many years of dedicated searching and practice, one day he finds the dragon in an icy cave. The dragon has been completely frozen in a block of ice. He can’t believe his luck! And he ties crampons around the dragon and decides to transport the creature in the block of ice back to his town. He wants to show everyone that he has captured and conquered the dragon. Of course, when he gets home, he is greeted as a hero. However, soon afterwards, the ice block melts, and the dragon wakes up and destroys the town.

The story is analogous to immature meditation practice. The quest is the beginning of a spiritual path. The dragon symbolizes our passions, and stumbling across the dragon in the ice by accident is pretty much how we experience some tranquil calm states in meditation. We can carry our memory of that experience back into our everyday lives in the town, and we can fool ourselves and others into the idea that the dragon has been conquered, but the conditions that brought about our experience in meditation, as represented by the icy cave, are not the same in town. The dragon is not dead; he is only sleeping, and he is just as strong and powerful as he ever was.

My own practice has had its parallels with the story of the youth and the experience of deep states of absorption in meditation have only placed my passions and my faults in the deep freeze, so to speak. Service to others and helping people has been one of the most important antidotes for the disappointment that inevitably comes with a spiritual practice that focuses on oneself and one’s mind, and the mistaken notion that equanimity, in the form of frozen passions and emotions, is the aim of the path. Trevor was active through all his life, and his ability to concentrate, developed in meditation, was turned towards activities that were of service to others and were meaningful to him. His books on Zen, Shankara, the Bhagavad Gita and yogic practice, his involvement in judo and his work with the BBC Japanese service were all a source of meaning in his life.  People need to draw on different sources of meaning in their lives, and the pursuit of happiness often doesn’t provide enough meaning to fulfil us. People need a sense of belonging; they need meaning; they need to experience transcendence, and they need a sense of purpose. Trevor’s great talent was that he was able to promote these things, and in the atmosphere and influence he created around him through his involvement in judo, his work and his connection to the Buddhist Society and Shanti Sadan. Experiences of transcendence are moments of happiness; moments where we lose ourselves in what we are doing. People find transcendence in art and music, in watching the sun go down. Meditation can help us access a deeper capacity for transcendence. It can also provide us with purpose, but once we have done a certain amount of work on ourselves then this is not enough to provide that sense of purpose. This is where the ideal of Bodhisattva is essential in Buddhism.

In Hinduism, traditionally, the first stage is being a student, then you become a householder and devote yourself to serving others and the final stage is physical renunciation, when you leave behind family and home and withdraw to forest or cave to spend time in solitary meditation and yogic practice. When I look back on the time I spent with Trevor I realise that what made it special was having a genuine spirit of devotion. I wasn’t chewing through obligations, like a worm chewing through mud, unable to see anything either side of him. I was able to enjoy the sun and the breeze coming through the window. It brought me purpose, and friendship as a source of belonging. I even had a sense of transcendence when the cups and plates shone back at me as if to say thank you when I had done the washing up. The friendly interactions with the porter in the entrance to Buckingham Court and with the fishmonger, the magnolia trees in bloom as we walked ever so slowly towards Shanti Sadan all had the common thread of love running through them like beads strung on a mala. I can see him now waving to me from the top of the steps in front of the front door in Chepstow Villas, smiling.

“It may be time to say good-bye but this is a tale that never ends”- Jelaludeen Rumi

© Ben Andersen

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