John Levy: friend and contrary guru
John Levy was a striking Englishman who spent many years in India by his guru Shri Krishna Menon. John Levy did not learn how to be a yogi from Krishna Menon, but to bring the knowledge about advaita to the west in an accessible form. John Levy helped Krishna Menon with the English versions of Atma Darshan and Atma Niviriti, texts which have strongly inspired Wolter Keers and John Levy.
John Levy lived in London until his death around 1980. There is not so much known about his students. Amigo spoke with one of his students the 63 year old film director Peter Vos.
Who was John Levy?
Amigo: What kind of a man was John Levy?
P: I spent many years with him. He came from a rich, Jewish, aristocratic family and was an expert in the field of Asiatic folk music, especially from India. He had a sizeable source of income from publishing a series of gramophone records about Indian folk music. In addition he had his own radio program about this subject every two weeks on the BBC. There was a room in his house in London full of music instruments: harpsichords, pianos and so on. He also could play quite well on them. He also supported people, among others in India, for whom he had admiration. He gave away his entire fortune and lived for a time in India with only a loincloth. He met Krishna Menon during this time. John Levy assisted Krishna Menon in the giving of instruction. It appears that Krishna Menon gave him an instruction to; 'Live only for a short time as a yogi, because I think it is important for you to unlearn people about being yogis.'
Amigo: How did people come to know about John Levy?
P: Maybe by means of the two books about advaita that he wrote*. I don't know how people came to him. That didn't interest me. A lot of things about John Levy needed no explanation for me, I never asked any questions about them, it was just like that. Nevertheless he did sometimes throw people out, he was rigorous, he could feel when people were not sincere and had other intentions. He pulverized my ego so thoroughly that here (Peter Vos points to himself) there is nothing left to pulverize, I no longer exist.
Amigo: How did you meet John Levy?
P: That story begins with Wolter Keers. I had known Wolter for many years and had great respect for him. Still the advaita instruction didn't reach deep enough for me. Wolter told me a lot about Krishna Menon. Wolter Keers and John Levy were students of Krishna Menon at the same time in India. John Levy was the absolute favorite pupil of Krishna Menon. He helped Krishna Menon to put the texts of Atma Darshan and Atma Nivriti on paper. Wolter said to me: 'actually you should go to John Levy'. At that time I was living in London. I had dug up everything that had to do with philosophy in the library. There I read John Levy's first book: 'Immediate knowledge and happiness.' I thought it was beautiful. Unfortunately it is no longer available. I had a number of questions about that book and that was the reason I wanted to come in contact with John Levy.
I shall never forget the moment. It was a misty day, the sun shone as a big red ball through my window and I thought: I'm going to go find John Levy, I'm going to succeed alright, and today. I didn't even know the address, and Levy is a very common name in London. I grabbed the telephone book. I thought that he must live in a stylish neighborhood. I picked a Levy out, called and it was him... , I thought: maybe a strange beast would attack me after all the exciting stories, but he was a very cultivated man. I said; 'I read your book and I have a number of questions about it.' I was received in a beautiful house, he was so immensely friendly. within five minutes I knew, this will be my guru. He took away my questions, without any trouble immediately. With John Levy I could go a little further. For example, the strength and radiation of a guru, he finished that for me in one blow, unsparingly. He said: that is the difference between a saint and a sage, between a holy one and a wise one.
Amigo: What did he mean by that?
P: A saint is still busy trying to go beyond his body with techniques, to let go of it, and a sage, that is someone who knows it, who is it. And I have never seen anything so beautiful and direct as that moment with John Levy, and many moments after that also
Amigo: You didn't need to go back to him again after that?
P: No, that's not true, that was only the beginning. But when I realized that I felt completely at home, I told him that: 'I have come home'. I also asked him in that first quarter of an hour if he would be my guru. He said; 'I would be delighted'. I was very young at the time, maybe John Levy's youngest student. You must not forget, we know very little about John Levy, but people from all over the world came to him.
In the beginning I wanted to know a lot about Krishna Menon, I kept asking about him. John Levy asked me once: 'Why do you actually want to know everything about Krishna Menon?' I broke out in tears suddenly... I realized: I am in the presence of a very special person. At once all that business of wanting to know about someone else was gone. For me that was the realization that I had made the right choice.
Amigo: Do you still know other John Levy students? One hears relatively little from that direction.
P: I don't know that. I have never been interested in that. John Levy was very enthusiastic about Claus van der Pas. Then there was also Rick Mathews (one of Peter's class mates in London who also designed a number of record covers for John Levy. Ed)., and Jeffrey the undertaker. Ruud Jacobs was also with him for a time, I just don't know, I was there for very egoistic reasons (ha ha)
Peter before and after John Levy
Amigo: You experienced a yo-yo period; sometimes you were connected with your essence and sometimes the connection was broken. Did John Levy play a role in that?
P: Yes that was a very long period, I have to give thanks to John Levy for everything. Some people visit various gurus, but I had no hankering to do that, I no longer had the need to go to any other teacher.
Amigo: When you lived in London you visited John Levy regularly. Was that structured, or did you just call him up?
P: We lived in the same city. He had his work, I had my work. I wanted to see him as often as possible, so I always called on him when we were free.
I was almost always alone with him. Sometimes there were other people from other countries. Sometimes I called because I wanted to speak with him. Then he would say: 'just come, I have to bring my auto to the garage, so come along'. The teaching just went on, on all sorts of levels, certainly in the last period when he was in a wheel chair, then he could be love itself, so kind. I shared so many nice parties with him, all kinds of professors, erudite people, and then I would bring my English wife along. Those were really nice evenings and not a word about advaita was spoken. All the times that John didn't speak about advaita I learned a great deal from him, just from his presence: that he dropped a cup coffee on the floor, that he bungled his milk-glass eyeglasses. sometimes he would get mad about the most innocent things.
Amigo: For the disciple the guru is an idealized person. John Levy was (sometimes) just an ordinary man who got angry about trivial things, was it not confrontational to see the ideal image smashed to pieces?
P: That is what he meant by the difference between a holy man (saint), and a wise man (sage). The truth after all has nothing to do with what kind of people we are. And he was such a good example of that, he let me see everything that people are capable of.
Amigo: Didn't that cause any reactions?
P: John Levy always said: people see me at the level where they themselves are. Often people expect that a guru should have a tremendous radiance; look, here he comes inside, wow... and then somebody who bumps into the furniture suddenly comes in.
Amigo: But did he fulfill your expectations or did he deliberately go against them?
P: He always went precisely in against expectations. For me he cleared up all the things where I was stuck on the level of the person. By John Levy everything could happen, the lamp could fall from the ceiling so to speak, he remained undisturbed and just acted in the moment. Isn't that what it's about?
During the first years he was always extremely kind and hospitable with me. Sometimes he gave me presents, but apparently at a given moment he found it necessary to show me another side. He cooked for me one afternoon and I saw a beautiful bottle of wine that he had opened and I said: 'Gosh John, what a surprise that you have opened such a beautiful bottle of wine for me!. 'This one is not for you', he said and got another cheaper bottle. I have thousands of example of this, that he played this kind of little 'jokes'. I once took him to the Kröller Möller museum at the Veluwe. There stood and African statue. John Levy said: 'Oh, that is a statue on which to drum' he picked up a stone and began to tap on the statue: tap, tap, bang, bang. A museum guard arrived immediately ... 'My friend is a musicologist, can he tap on the statue a bit?.. he said. He was just a kind of child, but apart from that, there was always a kind of strength present, but that was there only for those who could see it. Actually a guru is just a person, a skin that walks around, but one personality is not the same as another.
Amigo: John Levy gave you insight into the daily reality?
P: Primarily it was about the insights in the advaita philosophy, but in addition I had to get used a lot to his ways. Sometimes he got mad at me and he would say; 'Beat it, we have talked enough, just go away...' Then I was completely broken, I couldn't sleep at night, until one moment in the middle of the night when I suddenly thought: you can't affect me because we love each other too much for that. Then everything fell away. The next time I saw him he was love itself, as if nothing had happened. That is the beauty of a guru.
Amigo: What did John Levy's death mean to you?
P: I had no reaction to it. The last time that I saw him alive, I said my goodbyes to him in a wonderful way. At a certain level I had much compassion for him. He was confined to a wheelchair, with much discomfort and pain, because that continues, advaita is not a recipe for getting rid of your pains. There was a lot of trouble with that body of his. He was a shining example for me. Behind the wretchedness of that body you could feel the volcano that lay within it. John Levy got irritated with me because I was sitting chatting amiably with a woman. Suddenly he said; 'It is high time that you left.' He sat in the wheelchair unable to do anything. At such times the person came through, and disappeared immediately after that, but his reactions were very primary. The last thing that he said was; 'give my regards to your wife.' I left then. I felt irritated, I thought; That is no way to say goodbye'. When I sat in the airplane I just became high, I thought: you can send me away twenty times, but you can't really send me away, you can't do that to me, I just stay with you, we are bound together for eternity. He was dead a month later. I was actually very glad for him.
The Advaita tradition
Amigo: Did John Levy give instruction following a tradition, out of a school?
P: The strength of a real guru is that a guru no longer gives something through, a guru Is the self. The intention is that as disciple you learn to stand apart. At first the student looks up to the guru, until he realizes that the he is the teacher. Then you get the process that the student translates everything to his own experiences, to his own adventures. Then there can be periods involving the things that the guru has said, and that can also become one's own discoveries, feelings and conclusions. Then you no longer think; what did Krishna Menon say about that? Just the opposite, John Levy has translated advaita completely for the West.
Amigo: Was John Levy a jnani or a bhakti guru?
P: John Levy was very fond of women who cared about Vedanta, women are much more direct than men. Men are doubting Thomas's, they want to have everything proved. women are intuitive beings.
My wife thought that I was completely disturbed when I was 'searching'. I did a lot of yoga, stood on my head against the door, then she would deliberately come in so that I would roll over the floor. When I met John Levy one of the first things he said was; 'I am also going to invite your wife'. He wanted to take the thought away from her that we maybe had a homosexual relation. He took away all the vagueness and he invited her to a dinner party and then my wife said: 'what a nice man, I also want to know more about him'. She had two conversations with him the following week about advaita. Actually I spoke very little with my wife about advaita. 'Why should one speak about it' she said, 'It is as it is.'
Amigo: Did John Levy find that it was important to spread 'the truth'?
P: I don't know. In the time that I knew him he found it completely unimportant. I can imagine that he found it important prior to that time, otherwise he wouldn't have written those books. His first book consisted of a number of talks that he had written for the radio in India. He served in the British army in India during the colonial period. During the time that I was with him in London he actually said just one thing: 'I am like a cow, you have to milk me like a cow'. With that he meant: just ask questions, then I know at what level I need to answer.
Peter Vos and advaita
P: I had a Christian upbringing, but I saw many contradictions around me. I didn't believe in it one single bit anymore. I was twelve years old then and I went to the minister and said, I'm sorry, but I'm not coming anymore. The minister said to my mother: 'Don't worry, Peter is going to come out OK'. I started to read all kinds of books about yoga and Zen, a friend and I had a subscription together to a magazine about India and about yoga which we would read until it fell apart.
Amigo: During your first meeting with John Levy all your questions disappeared (for that moment). After that you visited him for many years, you have learned everything from him. Did you then make the illusion for yourself that with advaita you had a sort of tool with which you could still do something in the world?
P: Yes and no, it has absolutely nothing to do with the other. On the level of existence I realized that when my wife died and my oldest son died two years later. I went through all the grief processes. I cried immensely, I felt intense sadness, but I also know that in essence nothing has happened, that the essence is not touched. That is the core of everything, that you are already dead, that you have already settled with life. Nothing can be taken away from you. Afterwards you can also have the courage to tackle everything, to do everything, because in essence nothing happens. I can accept all the happiness and pleasure, but I can also accept all the sadness in life. Life is like a puppet show, Punch hits Judy, one moment you are laughing, the next moment it is deeply tragic, then someone gets hell and then you are laughing like a child. So as far as life is concerned: jump in, go in for it, enjoy it, but don't take anything home with you.
Amigo: Was there a need to share it with others?
P: No, that was immediately discouraged by John Levy. I realized that there is only one thing: that everyone has the responsibility to search that out for themselves. That is the great difference between a religion and this philosophy. Such a religion is disseminated, but then you also created the seeds for war. Do you realize that? Then there comes a we and them into being. And we know it so well, because we know the truth. When I first came into contact with advaita I spoke with everyone about it, but now not at all any more. I only speak about it when people ask me. I will never begin anything myself.
Amigo: What is now the meaning of advaita for you?
P: So as you see me here sitting it means that I have come to rest. I enjoy talking about it, but I also enjoy not talking about it. I have come to rest as far as philosophy is concerned, as far as that is concerned I have no ambition whatsoever. The rest bubbles, sparkles and pops up further in daily life.
* 'The Nature of Man according to the Vedanta' (1956).
Biography Peter Vos (1939)
Peter Vos was educated as art director in the Art Academy in London. Thereafter he worked for three years for an English film production company.
He came to Amsterdam at the beginning of the sixties as a creative manager. He developed advertising campaigns for the Netherlands and international markets. He has been active as a film director since 1996.
His specialty is making commercials for charity causes.
[september 2002, Johan van der Kooij & Kees Schreuders]