About Paul Brunton
Paul Brunton’s story is the perfect example of the radical transformation that spirituality underwent in the 20th century. At the beginning of that century, when PB was but two years old, spirituality—even in far-off India—was exclusively the domain of nationalistic, myopic religions, rarely willing to entertain dialogue with other faiths, much less attend to the spiritual lives of women and other second class citizens. Since then we’ve seen a huge awakening in the West, first to Hinduism, then Buddhism, and most recently to Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time there has been a commensurate adaption of Western technology to the cultures of the East.
Nowadays, truly ecumenical conferences abound, while eclectic and independent spiritual teachers, guides, gurus, and coaches are no further away than our phone books. Even while the West was first looking to the East for mysticism, it began to discover that even its own primary religion—science—was unstable, intangible, and deeply interlocked with the consciousness of the observer. And of course in these lattermost years, the Internet has created an entirely new level of interchange, information access, and inspiration.
We see the record of this change in PB’s own journey. He began life with a natural skill in meditation, some occult talent, and a strong background in Christian Science. He was born with an open heart, a powerful will, and a sense of the true meaning of consciousness—and the power buried therein. These traits stood him in good stead as he, like few before him and many, many after him, made the journey to the Spiritual East, starting with India and Egypt. Over the course of his life he lived on every continent, camped in well-worn tents, dined with Kings and Rajahs in their palaces, and chatted with common folk across the globe. A man of boundless energy and infinite curiosity, he crafted a peripatetic life like no other. We know that he lived in Mexico, Bolivia, New York, California, Ohio, Hawaii, Japan, China, Greece, New Zealand, Australia, India, Tehri Garwhal, Egypt, Austria, Spain, Italy and finally Switzerland; but, since he kept no record of his whereabouts, it is likely that this is only a partial list!
Such a wide exposure to the cultures of the world created a cumulative perspective on humanity’s character, foibles, and needs. These he balanced with his own ever-increasingly impersonal quest for the truth. Just as we know a little, but not all about the places he visited, lived in, or simply made pilgrimages to, the same must be said about his studies. For example, in the last months of his life PB was reading philosophic, theological, and even occult journals, books, and articles. Perhaps the text that held his greatest attention was MacKenna’s translation of Plotinus. He read a variety of newspapers as well; sometimes he read the local paper and sometimes the newspapers of a particular nation that held his interest, but most frequently he read the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. His command of current events and popular spiritual movements was extraordinary.
Similarly, the serious spiritual quester of today must ensure that our pursuits are not blind to the needs and events of our modern times, even as we will benefit from delving ‘wide and deep’ into the wisdom of the world. Gone are the days of single-minded pursuit, indifferent to the teachings outside one’s own, and indifferent to the sounds of suffering—and evolution—outside one’s own window, or from across the globe. In 1900 few sincere philosophers had even the slightest awareness of the variety, breadth, and disconcerting contrariety of the spiritual doctrines deeply held by tens of thousands of seekers in other times and other places. We think nothing of these necessities today—other than being utterly daunted by them, that is—but at the beginning of PB’s life the ‘other’ was largely unknown, and if known was ridiculed and often damned as well. While these tendencies are obviously still strong in the collective psyche, they are no longer natural nor to be expected amongst the educated, much less in the spiritual seeker.
But PB could hardly be defined by these intellectual studies. They served several purposes: to enrich his own inner search, to confirm, challenge, or correct his own understanding, and to give him access to the minds of other seekers, great and small. His preference to be called a “researcher” is indicative of his basic drive, which was to search out, know, and love the Truth, and thence to re-search the how of sharing his understanding and experience with others, regardless of their ‘advancement’ along the spiritual path. PB was at once an elitist and a pure democrat. He was an elitist insofar as the Truth, the Real, and the Overself are concerned; he had little patience with the lazy ignorance of so-called teachers who believed that they had ‘arrived’ at a point of perfection. He viewed humankind as an eternal journey of exploration, incapable of completion, not due to inadequacy, but because of our literally infinite potential. He was democratic in that he assumed nothing, was open to everything and blind to little, and he rarely offered criticism untempered with a balancing positive observation or suggestion.
From time to time he effortlessly dropped all these extraverted stimuli and withdrew thoroughly from the world for days, or even years. The magic of a sage is their uncanny ability to know exactly when to start and stop and how much to undertake at a given time. Would that we all were blessed with that single skill! But this was not a skill that PB had from the start; he tells us that during his adolescence he was gifted with a natural ability to sink into a psychic sort of meditation or contemplation. At some point this skill was lost, and for a long while afterwards, the effort to meditate was as intimidating and as frustrating as it often is for the rest of us. PB had to work hard, hard, hard to pierce the subtle world of dreamy mysticism and to enter the truly intangible realm of Silence. Once there, he didn’t stop. We should keep in mind that, like all authentic philosophers, PB only wrote about that which he experienced. Ergo, he experienced Mind Alone. The transition from the Silence of the Overself to the Impenetrable mystery of Mind required a literally super-human effort. In fact, at the moment of transition, his student Anthony Damiani abruptly woke up and told his wife, “PB is gone.” When she said, “He’s dead, then?” Anthony replied, “No, he’s not like us anymore.” At a later date PB said to another student, “You cannot transcend the Overself and touch Mind without sacrificing all that is human.” These are simple words, but the tone in which they were delivered went some little ways towards communicating the extraordinary pain, focus, and grace involved in that moment.
We often say in these sorts of articles, “But he wasn’t a saint. He was human like the rest of us.” That is not true. PB was—is—a new paradigm of what humankind can achieve, and if anything, he is more than a saint—he is a sage of the ages. Was he perfect? No; at least not in the sense that he, or anyone, can overcome the infinite potential of humankind and bring all evolution to a dead halt. And is that a goal we really want? Is PB the ‘final word’ in spiritual growth? Again, no. He bristled at any such suggestion and tended to avoid those who insisted on thinking so. PB was, perhaps only for a short while, the next stage of spiritual evolution—and, ironically, he was exactly the stage that knows it’s a stage! As such, it is to our benefit to learn what we can of him, his journey, and most of all, the Mystery to which he is bound.
See also the Biography of Paul Brunton.