Rediscovering Paul Brunton
This spiritual seeker was a pioneer architect of the East-West bridge
by Barbara Platek and Steve Soiffer
(Reprint East West Journal, October 1986)
It is 1985. Ten thousand miles across the globe, a visitor
enters a modest courtyard that serves as a meeting place for one
of India's most respected spiritual leaders, the Shankaracharya
of Kanchipuram. Making his way past the entourage of attendants
and followers, the visitor reverently greets the ninety-one-year-
old yogi and silently hands him a photograph. The Shankara looks
down at the faded picture, and a slow smile steals across his
kindly face. The photograph is of Paul Brunton.
The West has gone East. Zen centers and vegetarian restaurants
are everywhere, suburbanites are meditating, yoga, karma and guru
are household words. Trace the origins of this eastward turning,
however, and names like Watts and Suzuki come to mind--not Paul
Brunton (1898-1981), the author, philosopher, and pioneer
architect of the East-West bridge.
Since the early 1930's, Brunton's books on Eastern thought
and Western culture have sold nearly two million copies. His
first book, In Search of Secret India (now available in paperback
from Samuel Weiser, Inc.), is credited with introducing the
philosophy of yoga to Westerners. The American Theosophist has
hailed Brunton as "one of the West's most perceptive thinkers and
deepest students of Ancient Wisdom." Yet he remains oddly
unknown to an entire generation of Western spiritual seekers.
Or perhaps not so oddly. In 1959--with the publication of
his final book and at the height of a career filled with offers
to found ashrams and to establish journals--Brunton disappeared.
Once a journalist bent on traveling to strange lands to report
about Eastern spirituality, he chose to abandon his worldly role
and to traverse instead those regions of the heart where all
traditions become one.
What did he discover during this two-decade journey into
his own being? No one can say for sure. We can only guess at
the magnitude of the changes he underwent by the clues in the
legacy he left behind--his notebooks--some 10,000 pages of what
Brunton describes as Brunton described as a more "mature" version
of his earlier work. Since 1984, Larson Publications has
published a complete set, sixteen volumes of The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, entitled
Perspectives; The Quest; Practices for the Quest and Relax and
Retreat; and Meditation and The Body; Emotions and Ethics and The Intellect;
The Ego and From Birth to Rebirth; Healing of the Self and The Negatives;
Reflections on My Life and Writings; The Human Experience and The Arts in Culture;
The Sensitives; The Orient; The Religious Urge and The Religious Urge and The Reverential
Life, Relativity, Philosophy and Mind, Inspiration and the Overself,
Advanced Contemplation and The Peace Within You; Enlightened Mind, Divine Mind.
To read the "new" Brunton is to rediscover an old friend.
Wise and compassionate, he offers candid advice about the
pitfalls and possibilities of spiritual practice. And just as the
world changed enormously over the last twenty years of his life,
so did Brunton evolve and adapt his approach to better meet the
needs of today's seekers. Although still looking to the Orient
for inspiration and guidance, he does not believe that Westerners
need shave their heads or sit cross-legged in a forest to attain
spiritual fulfillment. Rather, he offers a simple,
straightforward guide to how philosophical insights of East and
West can help to create beauty, joy, and meaning in our lives--as
we live them, not as they might have been lived had we been born
at another time.
Brunton began his career quietly, as a London journalist in the
early decades of this century. Although he was an inquisitive,
talented reporter, his interest lay not in politics or current
events but in the ancient riddles that have challenged
philosophers through the ages: What is the meaning of the world
and experience? What am I? What is the object of existence?
Unlike many of his jazz-age contemporaries, Brunton recognized
these questions as more than just abstractions to muse about over
cognac and cigars. For him they were vital issues. From his
youth they compelled his attention.
Other journalists of his time wrote about debates in
Parliament or the successes and failures of British colonialism,
then in its heyday. Brunton investigated the uncharted regions
of the soul. To his task he brought a full range of journalistic
skills, deliberately seeking out those individuals--philosophers,
scientists, mystics--who might have the answers he wanted. It
was not unusual to find him earnestly paging through a copy of
Emerson or slipping softly into a meeting of the London
But Brunton's quest was hardly a conceptual shopping spree.
An inner force gripped him, irresistingly driving him to probe
beneath life's surface. With his characteristic thoroughness, he
set about tracking down every lead available to him. He pondered
all manner of recondite texts--on Platonism, Taoism, Vedanta--and
investigated such then fashionable trends as parapsychology,
occultism, and positive thought.
Many reference works that are easily available today were,
of course, yet to be translated. People who have grown up during
the last twenty years may have trouble realizing just how
esoteric these studies once were. But Brunton's research was
exceptional; an acquaintance who knew him during his later years
observed that Brunton's address file contained the names of
virtually every individual and organization even remotely connected with things
Indeed, Brunton did meet many people--recognized authorities
such as D.T.Suzuki, C.G.Jung, and Annie Besant--but he
steadfastly refused to give exclusive allegiance to any of the
paths he explored. He conducted his research with a mind as
keenly analytical as it were openly receptive. If he was
unwilling to relinquish his privacy and independence by joining
groups or cults, he was yet prepared to acknowledge genuine
spiritual impulse wherever he found it: in other individuals, in
the beauty of nature, and in the hushed depths of his own
Searching In India
As he pursued his work during the late twenties and early
thirties, a single image arose again and again in Brunton's mind.
India, then considered by many to be a land of sleepy-eyed snake-
charmers and yellow-robed wanderers, tugged at his thoughts. He
had long revered India's rich philosophical heritage, and it was
by the banks of the Ganges that he hoped to discover a living
To get to the Ganges, or to any other part of India for that
matter, was no simple task in those days. One didn't just catch
a flight out, booking a room in advance at the Calcutta Hilton.
Travelling to India required a great deal of time and more money
than a freelance journalist could easily scrape together. For
many years Brunton's dream remained unrealized.
It was a chance conversation with an erudite Brahmin that
convinced Brunton that, in spite of the obstacles, he could no
longer resist the call of the East. Notebook in hand, he eagerly
set sail to continue the search in his longed-for India.
What an odd sight he must have been, a smartly dressed
Londoner squatting in the sand beside loin-clothed yogis,
oblivious to the scorn of his fellow British. But it was
Brunton's nature to penetrate appearances, not to uphold them.
He persevered in his trek--often by donkey or oxcart--with his
characteristic pioneer spirit.
And he was rewarded for his persistence. Traveling the back
roads of the Indian subcontinent, he witnessed strange
performances--yogis buried alive without apparent harm, magicians
restoring life to dead animals, fakirs piercing their skin with
skewers yet showing no signs of pain or blood. Brunton was
impressed by these superhuman feats and by the extraordinary
mental and physical discipline they suggested. Nevertheless, he
knew there must be more, that beneath these circus-like antics
there waited another India, more awkward looking and silent.
He sometimes felt he glimpsed this other India--in the
devotion of even the most flamboyant practitioners, for example.
Yet he was not satisfied. He had witnessed enough exotica to
fill the pages of a sizable travelogue, but Brunton had begun to
suspect that his trip had been in vain.
India, however, seems to have had its own plans for him.
Just as he was preparing to go on with his journey, Brunton was
encouraged to consult yet one more holy man. The advice came
directly from the Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram, the spiritual
leader of South India. The sage was Ramana Maharishi.
With the Sage of Arunachala
How rare it must be to meet a sage--someone of lofty
attainment who can give a glimpse of enlightenment. Ramana
Maharishi was such a person. In years to
come, Brunton would meet other legitimate guides. Some would
initiate him into the highest levels of philosophic mysticism.
Yet it was Ramana who always held a special place in his heart.
Brunton's book, A Search in Secret India, would soon bring the
world's attention to this unprepossessing wise man. But when
Brunton first journeyed up the mountain Arunachala to meet him,
Ramana Maharishi was known only to a handful of his followers.
Upon arriving at the simple mountain ashram, Brunton found
Ramana rapt in deep meditation. This in itself was not
surprising--many adepts he had approached had appeared to be
similarly absorbed. But as Brunton took his place in the long,
quiet hall, he became aware of something unique: the Maharishi
radiated a rare and palpable peace even as he sat transfixed.
As Brunton basked in that silence, he felt his distress, his
unanswered questions, the strains of his search slipping away.
At last he was certain of the higher possibilities open to
As Brunton was to write in later years, "The divine nature
reveals itself anew in every human life. [People] make formal and
pretentious enquiry into the mystery and meaning of life, when all
the while each bird perched upon its green bough, each child
holding it's fond mother's hand, has solved the riddle and
carries the answer in its face."
Brunton spent many hours with the Maharishi and gained great
insight into the reality underlying each individual and all of
nature. He affirmed that this reality can be directly
experienced and that communion with it is every person's
Little is known about the remainder of Brunton's days with
the Maharishi. Clearly, however, when the hour arrived for him
to leave Ramana, when at last it was time to place his palms
together in the customary gesture of parting, he did so with
feelings of deep gratitude and heartfelt sadness. It was
tempting to remain with the man who had, in Brunton's words,
"returned him to his soul." In fact, he would visit Ramana again
in later years. But, for now, Brunton could feel his search
drawing him on. As his oxcart headed slowly down the mountain,
though, he knew he would one day journey back to the Sage of
Home in London
With the memory of the Maharishi fresh in mind, Brunton
returned to London in the late 1930s. Anyone who has ever
emerged from a restful vacation into the harsh, frenzied
commotion of a city can no doubt imagine how shocking it must
have been to move from a secluded Asian ashram to the turbulent
metropolitan center of the British empire. Brunton, however,
held on to the peace he had found. He had perfected a method of
inner quiet that enabled him to remain inwardly calm even as he
moved about a city caught in the anxious preparations for a
second world war. Yet his detachment did not eclipse his
compassion. As he looked into the tension-filled faces of his
fellow Londoners, he felt a deep urge to share his serenity.
Setting quickly to work, he wrote five books in three years-
-books he hoped would be a vehicle for other's enlightenment as
well as a foundation for a new East-West understanding. Drawing
on the discoveries of Sir James Jeans, Sir Arthur Eddington, and
other eminent scientists of the time, he skillfully sought to
bring the uncompromising mind of Western science into a new
alignment with the tenets of mysticism and Eastern psychology.
Through his writings, thousands of Western readers learned for
the first time about meditation, karma, and the spiritual aspects
But Brunton did more than simply translate foreign teachings
into English. He labored to rescue them from the obscurity of
time and cultural distance and make them meaningful--living an
rationally understandable--to the modern West
Interest in his books spread quickly among scholars and non-
scholars alike. Monk Gibbon recommended The Quest of the
Overself as "by far the safest and most rational exposition of
Eastern metaphysics and the practice of mental discipline that I
have yet met." The London Times commended Brunton for presenting
his ideas with "the least possible ambiguity in untechnical
language." He rapidly gained a solid reputation as a
knowledgeable and influential exponent of East-West thought.
Brunton, however, was searching for Truth, not fame. Even
as his books were going in to print, he was once more pursuing
his quest for living caretakers of the timeless wisdom--turning
now to Egypt, to North and South America, and twice again to
Asia. As he sat with adepts and teachers around the world, he
deepened his vision of a synthesis of Eastern and Western
philosophical thought. His life had now become a focused quest
for the broadest possible understanding of human spiritual
With each of his eleven books, Brunton incorporated the
results of his investigations into an increasingly comprehensive
philosophical system. Over time, the form of his writing changes
noticeably. He had once recounted adventures--his night in the
Great Pyramid, his hair-raising ride through Cairo traffic with a
blindfolded sensitive behind the wheel. In later books--The
Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga, The Wisdom of the Overself--he put
forth a sophisticated discussion of the principles underlying
individuals and the world. Yet consistent threads still ran
through his work. Foremost among these were a sincere and an
unfailing reverence for the sacred and an unshakable faith in its
benevolence towards all beings.
Individuals, wrote Brunton, can come to know a sacred
presence both within and without. Each person carries a ray of
his presence within the heart. He called this ray the
"Overself." The closer one comes to his higher self, the more
fully and directly it bestows its blessing and guidance. With
this guidance, individuals can begin to see a divine wisdom
unfolding in the universe and their own lives in a meaningful,
orderly way. Brunton believed people are connected to all things
through the law of karma, but his view of this law is not
fatalistic. He saw all experience working to bring each person
closer to self-awareness and a recognition of the individual's
true place in the cosmos. For Brunton, the cosmos was "superbly
intelligent beyond human invention, mysterious beyond human
understanding, and...divinely holy." Each instant, every point
of creation, from the stars above to each cell in the body, can
be known as the unfoldment of a mind of infinite intelligence and
eternal power. And as breathtaking as creation may be, it only
hints at the greatness of that which lies beyond it. In
"There is but One God, One Life, One Infinite
Power, one all-knowing Mind. Each [person] individualizes it but
does not multiply it. He [or she] brings it to a point, the
Overself, but does not alter its unity or change it's character."
Skirting Public Attention
The world had endured the Depression and the second great war.
Many disillusioned people found hope, solace, and meaning in
Brunton's writings, and many sought his personal guidance. But
just as he refused to have his name associated with any
particular religion or movement, so Brunton rebuffed attempts to
turn him into a philosophical guru. He spoke of himself as "a
writer and researcher, with some experience in these matters, and
that is all." Nonetheless, he was always willing, in his quiet
way, to share his understanding with fellow seekers, to make
their paths a little easier if he could. Those who met or
corresponded with him over the years came to greatly love and
admire the gentle, gracious man they knew simply as PB.
By mid-century, increasing numbers of individuals and
societies had begun to take an interest in Brunton. Despite hi
expressed wishes, he continued to receive offers to become a
public spiritual focus for others. He was repeatedly invited to
establish ashrams, edit journals, and found schools based on his
books. He never pursued any of these offers.
In 1959, a few years after the publication of The Spiritual
Crisis of Man, his final book, and at the height of a spiraling
career, Brunton disappeared from public view. So effective was
his withdrawal that obituaries appeared in major newspapers. But
Brunton was not dead. He had merely abandoned his worldly
profession in favor of a quieter, more private kind of work.
This work--much of which he carried out within his own
heart--made it necessary for him to retire into complete
The Later Writings
In the mid-1960's, Brunton surfaced in Switzerland, where
he was to live for the rest of his life. The friends and
students who visited him during this period were aware that he
had undergone a profound change. Although they still saw before
them the kindly British gentleman with the mischievous smile,
they knew they also stood in the presence of something more rare.
And indeed, respected authorities such as T.M.P. Mahadevan
(then head of Madras University) and the Shankaracharya of
Kanchipuram began to refer to Brunton as a genuine holy man.
Brunton dismissed such references. He led a simple life,
travelling here and there, granting private interviews, and
writing, always writing. He wrote daily: insights, observations,
and suggestions on matters concerning the spiritual path and
self-realization. After Brunton died on July 27, 1981, his
notebooks--what he called a more mature version of his earlier
work--became available for publication. Volumes 1 and 2 were
published by Larson in 1984 and 1986, and up to a dozen more
volumes followed. The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation
will complete this project during the next several years.
The culmination of his lifelong search for wisdom, Brunton's
notebooks are a final eloquent summing up of his experience.
They are also an unparalleled resource for others who are seeking
understanding. In page after page, volume after volume, he
brings together age-old truths and contemporary common sense,
expounding an ethical, sane, and compelling approach to spiritual
practice. His keynote is balance, and his uplifting message
encompasses all phases of human experience.
Brunton's later notes take the form of brief, succinct
passages--seed thoughts, he called them. Wishing to bring
profound ideas into sharp focus, he formulated passages that
would draw his readers into a state of introspective thought and
quiet contemplation. His topics range from metaphysical
subtleties to practical instruction, yet they are, in fact, a
harmonious whole. In sum, they affirm the divinity within each
individual and show a way to self-realization.
Brunton's work is contemporary. He knew that the 1980s,
certain to be a decade of increasing global complexity, would not
be a time to withdraw from the world. He also knew that humanity
could no longer afford to proceed, unchecked by deeper values, on
its destructive course. Thus he stressed the need for
individuals to work collectively to affirm the sanctity of human
existence even as they search privately and in solitude for the
source of their own selfhood. In this way, he believed, this
generation could lay a foundation of a much-needed new world
Brunton offers no short cuts to the goal, no instant
realization. Neither does he offer occult powers or a miraculous
end to the troubles of daily life. But he does offer
understanding, hope, comfort, and an invitation to the greatest
adventure of all--self-discovery.
"Learn to penetrate within yourself, your deeper, almost
unknown self," he says. "It will need patience to return day
after day; not stopping until the truth is reached, the peace is
felt, the blessing descends. It will need perseverance until the
source of the strength is found. Thereafter it will take you
over: this is grace. But remember--with each return from the
day's efforts you will be confronted by the world again, by its
harsh reality yet glorious beauty, its stark conflicts yet benign
interludes. So--know this world in which you have to live, its
petty minds and noble souls. Learn from both. And when you have
seen enough of the world's surface, ask for its tremendous
Selected Notes from the Works of Paul Brunton
"The first step is to discover that there is a Presence, a
Power, a Life, a Mind, Being, unique, not made or begot, without
shape, unseen and unheard, everywhere and always the same. The
second step is to discover its relationship to the universe and
"I have gathered my materials from the west as well as the
East, from modern science as well as ancient metaphysics, from
Christian mysticism as well as Hindu occultism...My researches
were made not only amongst modern books and ancient texts and
living men. They were also made in the mysterious within-ness of
my own consciousness."
"Synthesis of Oriental and Occidental ideas, but also a new
creative outlook that will
transcend both. A world civilization will one day come into
being through inward propulsion and outward compulsion."
"I wish, therefore, to put before readers the fundamentals
of this hidden philosophy in concise form and plain
phrasing...put them in possession of the basic principles and
provide them with an Ariadne's thread to guide them through the
maze of life and its problems of reflection and experience. Nay,
even if I fail to do this but succeed in kindling within them
something of the love of Truth, that passionate quest for the
meaning of all of life, all experience and all this wonderful
world, I shall have accomplished enough to justify our coming
together in these pages."