Reflections on Paul Brunton
by Paul Cash
(Note: reprinted from Yoga International
Vol 3, Number 6, May/June 1994)
On every day but one during the last five months of his life, I was with Paul Brunton in the Montreux area of Switzerland. Much worth writing about happened during those months, much worth knowing about. I came to see how much more there was to him than I could glean from his books alone. Without knowing him as I did, he may well have remained just another gifted writer with whom I sometimes agreed, sometimes not. He certainly would not have become, as he is now, one whose words I take to heart even more deeply when they disagree with what I already think than when they agree.
But writing truthfully about Paul Brunton is difficult for me, as well as for others who knew him. It's not so much that we're not willing, though sometimes that too is the case. More often it's simply because we're not able. The part of ourselves that drew us to him remains deeper than we yet understand or can explain. So we end up describing that instead of him, or reacting to how awakening to its presence has affected our own lives instead of speaking truthfully about his.
Writing about his teachings is much easier. That allows a safe intellectual distance from undomesticated parts of ourselves that emerged when we were with him—good parts and bad parts, both of which inevitably crashed through the boundaries of our self-images and images of what spirituality means.
It would be easier, for example, to fashion an intellectually fascinating article by focusing on a few key points in his teaching—how Hinduism and Buddhism need each other and together form a complete doctrine, for example; or why the goal of spiritual practice can be neither annihilation of the ego nor its merger with or dissolution into the unselfed Absolute; or why equating atman with brahman is a needlessly exaggerated statement of an already sufficiently tremendous truth; or tracing his movement from what he ultimately called the "Indolatry" of his early years to his mature vision of the West's spiritual revival in terms of its own creative and native mind. In all these places he lends precision to our desire for freedom by offering clearer intellectual distinctions than have been readily available in either the West or the East for a long time.
His scholarship was excellent, after all, though in his writing he deliberately forsook the academic style. He had the benefit of in-depth practice, study, and dialogue with many great teachers—including Ramana Maharishi, V.S. Iyer, Atmananda, M. Hiriyanna and T.M.P. Mahadevan among the Hindus and Ananda Metteya among the Buddhists. He also kept abreast of the latest developments in modern scientific thinking, both inner and outer, and could speak knowledgeably about such things as the effects of Heisenberg's spontaneous experience of nirvikalpa samhadi.
It would be even easier to write about the outer glamour of parts of his life: his extensive travels in both hemispheres—by steamship, donkey, camel, etc.—seeking out faithkeepers and advanced practitioners of esoteric teachings long before such journeys were even heard of, let alone popular. There are engrossing stories about his intimate relationships with Asian and European royalty, and with groups of oppressed seekers behind the Iron Curtain who would have been imprisoned if caught with him or his books. There are the reasons Somerset Maugham sought his advice about whom to visit on his trip to India—and why Paul Brunton sent him to Ramana Maharishi's ashram, where Maugham had the experiences he wrote about in The Razor's Edge.
There are also instructive stories about how his two marriages played out in the imaginations of would-be disciples who couldn't accept them and what they meant for Brunton himself. There are his early experiments with occultism, culminating in his being the first European to spend a night alone in the Great Pyramid. (He later observed that he was extremely fortunate to have gotten through that phase without losing his sanity.) There's also the little-known fact that one of his first spiritual teachers was an Iroquois Indian, and related stories of his extensive experience with North American shamans.
But for me, as I reflect on him today, all these things seem too much on the surface, too "outer." They hold no promise of conveying the dynamic peace I felt in his presence—a peace so rich that it calmed the entire emergency room of the hospital where I brought him at the end.
They tell nothing, or too little, of how he was not only an astonishing source of information but also of life-changing inspiration; nothing or too little, about how this intellectual giant—this charming, kind, and sophisticated British gentleman—was also an authentic spiritual presence.
Admittedly, the Paul Brunton I knew was the one in which an extraordinary life had nearly completed itself. I first met him in 1977, when he was seventy-eight. So I'm not a source of firsthand information about steps along the way—or about "mistakes" as we might call them, that he made en route. There are many versions of many things about his life. Others tell those better than I can, each adding his or her own two bits to the mixture of myth and reality a secondary literature is sure to produce.
But perhaps I can convey something of what makes this man so hard and yet so important to understand, and why the voluminous writings he left us behind deserve special attention. If so, it's likely to come across best if I simply tell a few stories.
One bright day in the spring of 1981, P.B. (as Paul Brunton was affectionately known) was walking me toward a vegetarian restaurant in Lausanne. A Lebanese man in his early twenties quickly crossed the street just ahead of us and then cautiously approached from a short distance ahead.
"Hello," he said tentatively, and then paused for an
uncomfortably long time before P.B. answered, "Yes?"
"Can I please...just spend a little time with you?"
P.B. looked at him silently for a moment, then asked, "Why
should you want to do that?"
"I don't know," the young man answered. "I just
have a feeling that if I do, something wonderful might happen."
"If something wonderful happens," P.B. replied, "it
will be because of you. I don't do anything."
As it turned out the young man worked in the restaurant we were heading to, joined us for lunch, and saw that we got the best food the place had to offer. Until the night before, he had no conscious interest in things spiritual; but that night a friend had given him a copy of Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men, and he stayed up all night reading it. "When I saw you across the street," he explained, "I said to myself, 'I don't know how I know, but that's one of those guys!’"
That was the first of several meetings we had with that young man, whose name was Nouki. When he arrived for a third meeting at a tea house in Lausanne, he was so exuberant that his face didn't seem large enough to hold his smile. P.B. asked him what he was so happy about. Nouki replied that being with P.B. filled him up with love.
"Why do you think that is?" asked P.B.
"Maybe because you love everybody?" Nouki answered.
"No,"P.B. replied. "I am not that advanced. I don't love everybody." Later in the day when P.B. and I were alone, P.B. said of Nouki: "That young man has already acquired half his wealth in his temperament. Now he only needs the intellectual understanding." At this point Nouki didn't even know P.B.'s name or that he had written books.
One morning as the three of us were walking together, a Swiss German man who wrote on spiritual topics approached us. He knew of P.B.'s literary work and wanted to ask some questions. P.B. seemed somewhat reluctant but finally said, "All right, I
will have a cup of tea with you."
That afternoon, the four of us met for tea. P.B. sat at my left; Nouki sat across from me; the Swiss writer sat across from P.B. Nouki, as usual, was enjoying the atmosphere of being together. The writer was eager to pin P.B. down about certain doctrinal issues, particularly about Krishnamurti's formulation of the teaching. P.B. seemed more interested in hearing how the Swiss man liked his tea, but the only answer he got in that regard was a quick "Oh, it's fine" as the writer persisted in trying to get the answers he wanted.
Nouki began to get annoyed, and started to criticize the Swiss
man's demeanor. And then things got particularly interesting.
"Well," P.B. said to Nouki, "how would you answer that
From that point on P.B. began to look physically different to me depending on which of them he was talking to. When he turned to Nouki, it was to make him aware of how important the writer’s questions were and how Nouki really needed to think about them. With the writer, it was mainly to ask yet again how he liked his tea or if he could understand why Nouki thought the question was irrelevant.
Facing Nouki, he was firm and strong, like a stern Western professor. He seemed inches taller, broader in the shoulders, and at least twenty pounds heavier than when he turned toward the writer and, like an unassuming Oriental tea master, slipped away from the question and expressed concern about the tea getting cold.
When the pot of tea was finished, P.B. said time was up for the meeting. The writer was clearly frustrated and unhappy with the "evasive" answers. As we parted, P.B. told him gently, "I said I would have a cup of tea with you, but it seems you didn't want to have a cup of tea with me."
I couldn't help imagining how differently Nouki and the writer would describe this man to others. Or how long it would take either of them to get his point.
My own first experience of P.B. came in 1977 while he was visiting my teacher, Anthony Damiani, in upstate New York. Anthony had been devoted to P.B. since the mid-1940s and drew a great deal of inspiration from him even though P.B. was adamant about not being anybody's "guru." P.B. consistently presented himself as simply "a writer and researcher, with some experience in these matters—that is all." But Anthony was well aware that P.B. invested the word "researcher" with a good deal more meaning than most hearers were likely to understand.
In 1971, Anthony had founded Wisdom's Goldenrod Center for Philosophic Studies, in Valois, New York. He liked to have pictures of saints and sages from various traditions on all the walls, and he rotated them regularly. When P.B. first visited the place and he saw his own picture on the mantle over the fireplace in the meditation room, he took it down immediately. He told us that displaying his photograph was "inappropriate," and recommended that those of us who needed that kind of inspiration should use a photograph of Ramana Maharishi instead.
P.B. stayed in the area for more than a month, and had at least one private interview with each of Anthony's students. He never addressed us as a group and, to my knowledge, did not address groups in his later years. His work other than writing was solely with individuals, and he made it clear that he had no interest in having disciples.
In my first interview with him, I asked about how to cultivate and recognize inner guidance. He said there are two steps.
"First," he said, "you have to be able to make yourself completely humble. If you can't do that, then it's a moot point: there won't be any guidance." He paused long enough for me to realize that the humility he meant went much deeper than I understood.
"If you can do that," he continued, "then you need to be able to do nothing. Doing nothing isn't the same as not doing anything. It's active, inwardly attentive. You can go about your normal affairs, but you refrain from any decision or action on the specific issue about which you're seeking guidance."
"There's no telling how long you'll have to wait. But if you do it right, then when the guidance comes there will be no doubt about it. It will be vividly clear. And the strength needed to follow it will also be there."
In the same interview he asked me, "What particular shade or aspect of the word 'truth' is most meaningful to you?"
By that time (nearly twenty-nine), I had pretty much decided that the word truth wasn't a meaningful one for me. I could relate to the idea of "honesty," based on reflecting on one's own experience and deepest desires; but "truth" seemed too much to ask for. I could demand honesty from myself and others, no more and no less. Everyone had and was entitled to their own opinion. While I certainly thought some opinions better than others (particularly my own!), I profoundly doubted the usefulness of the word "truth."
But as I sat across from P.B. with that thought in my mind, it seemed absurdly false. The doubt lifted, and I heard myself say something that sounded much more than just honest. It sounded like it came from a core of me that knew what it was talking about. From that time on, I've had no doubt that the word does have appropriate content, and that understanding it is an essential part of being fully human.
It was a simple question, about a word others—including Anthony—had used many times. But in P.B.'s presence it took on a whole new dimension. Others who met him had similar experiences. I suspect that's part of the reason, as soon as P.B. left, Anthony put his photograph back on the mantle of the meditation room.
A few years later, just before Thanksgiving in 1980, Anthony asked me if I would go to Switzerland to help P.B. with some work. P.B. had deliberately not published anything since The Spiritual Crisis of Man in 1952, although he had been writing nearly every day. Now he was beginning to organize the work he had done in the intervening years, and Anthony wanted to offer him some help.
In March of 1981, I arrived in La Tour de Peilz, thinking I was there to function as a good editorial assistant. P.B. soon made it clear that "the literary work," as he called his writing, had about the same status in his daily routine as a tidy and orderly apartment, clean dishes, and good preparation of the freshest possible food. Only after I was more or less up to speed on helping him on that side of things did we spend time working on his writings.
For the first few weeks, I felt that I was not the best person for his actual day-to-day needs; and that probably was indeed the case. It took me a while to realize that the point was much more that he was the best for mine.
I wasn't really aware of the extent to which part of me was reaching out to him through the early weeks for some sort of "answer," some sort of ultimate insight that could be expressed in intellectual terms. As long as that was going on, things didn't go smoothly. One of the first breakthroughs came through food.
He liked his fruit at the peak of ripeness. Most of what I served him was either too green or too ripe for his taste. So one day I approached him with a basket of fruit before serving any of it with lunch.
"Do you know some way of telling if one of these is just right?" I asked. When he answered yes, I was so relieved! Now I could be sure of giving him only the ones he would actually enjoy! Then he said kindly, and with a smile, "I have to bite it."
I can't explain how, but in addition to being very funny, that remark brought the term "sense-knowledge" to a whole new light.
Later he told me that up through the writing of The Wisdom of the Overself (published in 1943), he had been content to quote authority when he was not certain from his own experience about the truth of certain things. He had relied, of course, on his own judgment of whom to take as an authority, but from that time onward, he felt an increasing inner pressure to write only what he knew was true from firsthand experience (i.e., "research").
That process gradually identified the gaps in his own development. What had he already written, for example, that he was not absolutely certain was true? Or what might he be writing on a given day about which he had even the slightest remaining doubt?
Many writers may have been content in such a circumstance to admit that there are some things they shouldn't write about. But in his case, it enabled him to focus and energize his efforts. His desire to know more fully, and to help others by writing more precisely and more clearly, came to its full strength. Part of what this meant was that at the peak of his literary career, he began withdrawing from the trappings, obligations, and privileges of fame to focus on filling those gaps.
To my mind, this is the point at which he began to become a man difficult to write about truthfully, and where his words begin to become priceless. He was no longer interested in defending any doctrine, but only in what he could say with certainty.
"No one can explain," he wrote in his notebooks, "what the Overself is, for it is the origin, the mysterious source of the expanding mind, and beyond all its capacities. But what can be explained are the effects of standing consciously in its presence, the conditions under which it manifests, the ways in which it appears in human life and experience, the paths which lead to its realization."
Nonetheless, because he considered it so fundamental to meaningful living, he wrote often about what he meant by the term "Overself." Here are a few of my favorites from the first volume in his posthumously published notebooks.
"The point where man meets the infinite is the Overself, where he, the finite, responds to what is absolute, ineffable and inexhaustible being, where he reacts to That which transcends his own existence—this is the Personal God he experiences and comes into relation with. In this sense his belief in such a God is justifiable."
"The Overself is the point where the One Mind is received into consciousness. It is the 'I' freed from narrowness, thoughts, flesh, passion, and emotion—that is, from the personal ego."
"Because of the paradoxically dual nature which the Overself possesses, it is very difficult to make clear the concept of the Overself. Human beings are rooted in the ultimate mind through the Overself, which therefore partakes on the one hand of a relationship with a vibratory world and on the other of an existence which is above all relations. A difficulty is probably due to the vagueness or confusion about which standpoint it is to be regarded from. If it is thought of as the human soul, then the vibratory movement is connected with it. If it is thought of as transcending the very notion of humanity, and therefore in its undifferentiated character, the vibratory movement must disappear."
"It is a state of pure intelligence but without the working of the intellectual and ideational process. Its product may be named intuition. There are no automatically conceived ideas present in it, no habitually followed ways of thinking. It is pure, clear stillness."
P.B. is so difficult to speak about because, at least to me, he seems always tuned to the reality he describes in these writings. So describing what it was like to be in his presence is like trying to describe what it is like to stand—or cook, or work, or shop, or eat, or think for that matter—in its presence. On one hand, there was an ego, a highly individualized person, that I could relate to (in his case a remarkably refined, sophisticated, educated, and gentlemanly one); on the other, there was simply no ignoring a pure, clear stillness in the presence of which nothing—especially myself—could be seen in the same way as before. The relationship at the more ordinary level was interesting enough; but it was how he helped people discover themselves in that other presence that made him so extraordinary.
The constant presence of this other "dimension" was sometimes exquisitely nourishing, sometimes terrifying. On occasion it made for an intimacy infinitely greater than I have ever felt with any lover. There were moments when I knew his thoughts, felt at least some part of his peace, and he knew I knew and felt them. There were other times when it was painfully clear that thoughts or feelings I would have liked to hide were plain as day to him. How things went at any given time depended on how much I clung to out-of-synch habits and desires, and how much I could let them slip away and open up to the rhythm of that particular day.
He seemed sometimes amused by the process, at other times not so amused. But tears came like never before when I first realized that despite his seeing all my flaws he also saw something much deeper in me—something I had always hoped was true—and that his bottomless love for it was always there. When I could love it like he did, all the rest was forgiven. I don't mean he forgave me—there was no sense of his having the slightest thought or feeling that he needed to forgive me for anything. It was simply that in the light of that deeper something, so capable and worthy of love, the rest is nonessential; the best was all that was really worthy of attention, and it could be lived.
I write reluctantly about this, and only because others have since told me they had the same experience with him. At bottom, it says much more about him than it does about us.
The Sage's Mind
One afternoon I asked him, "What exactly is it about a sage's mind that makes that mind so different from the rest of us?" It was one of many questions I asked that he didn't originally seem to intend to answer. But I persisted and finally he asked me, "Well what do you think it is?"
I said that I had never been able to believe that it could be omniscience in the sense of knowing everything at once; but I didn't think it unreasonable to conceive that when a sage wants or needs to know, he could turn his mind toward it in a certain way and that knowledge would just arise.
P.B. laughed heartily and answered, "It's not even that good!"
"Well, how good is it?"
"It has really nothing to do with knowledge, or continuity of intuition, or frequency of intuitions. It's that the mind has been made over into the Peace in an irreversible way. No form that the mind takes can alter the Peace."
"You could say it's a kind of knowledge," he continued, "in this sense. If the mind takes the form of truth, the sage knows it's truth. If it doesn't, then he knows that it's not. He's never in doubt about whether the mind has knowledge or not. But whether it does or not, his Peace is not disturbed."
I asked if that meant that someone could go to a sage for help and the sage would be unable to help them. He replied that sometimes the intuition comes, sometimes it doesn't; he explained that when it doesn't come, the sage knows he has nothing to do for that person. The continuity or frequency of the intuitions has to do with the sage's mission, not with what makes a sage a sage.
"You must understand," he said, "that there is no condition in which the Overself is at your beck and call. But there is a condition in which you are continuously at the Overself's beck and call. That's the condition to strive for."
As he spoke these words, he was the humblest man I had ever seen before or since. For all the extraordinary things about him, all the glamorous inner and outer experiences, all the remarkable effects his writings and example have had on others, that humility is what seems to be the most important fact about him.
It was the first key he turned when he turned his mind to write. And fortunately for me and many others, it often sufficed for the door to open and let a sacramental presence illuminate doubts and questions common to us all.