Dr Paul Brunton: Life and work

Dr Paul Brunton: Life and work

The soul of Paul Brunton “exchanged a tranquil existence for a troubled one” (as he puts it) somewhere in London in the year 1898. We cannot tell anything about his family background, his education, even his name at birth, for “P.B.” (as he preferred to be called) did not share them with his readers or visitors. His twenty-eight books offer scant aid and less encouragement to a biographer. But this is of small moment in comparison with the panorama they unfold of the inward and spiritual quest to which his entire life was dedicated. Respecting his own sense of proportion, therefore, this introduction is based exclusively on what P.B. chose to tell his readers about himself, often incorporating his actual words.

P.B. tells us that his first intimations of the quest came in boyhood through reading: he mentions the inspiration he found in St Pauls letters, Bulwer-Lytton´s occult novel Zanoni, and especially The Awakening of the Soul (or Hai Ebn Yokdan, the Self-Taught Philosopher) by Ibun Tufail. It was the latter, a Sufi work, that gave P.B. the general idea of meditation, a subject on which he would become the foremost modern authority. Unguided, uninstructed, he began to practise, groping his way in what at first was absolute darkness. After six months of daily meditation, and eighteen months of burning aspiration for the Spiritual Self, he underwent a series of mystical ecstasies.

The glamour and freshness of these youthful illuminations subsided after a few weeks, but left P.B. with a continual awareness which he carried within him for a further three years. P.B. now met an advanced mystic, an American living in London, who invited him to undergo certain tests that, if passed, would lead him on to the next degree of illumination. The result was a failure, and P.B. entered thereupon into the state called by the medieval mystics the Dark Night of the Soul. For three years he had neither time nor capacity to meditate, or even to sustain aspiration.

An unexpected event shocked P.B. out of his spiritual depression. He again took up the practice of meditation, and after some weeks recovered, in a memorable session, the degree of consciousness that he had earlier enjoyed. But now it was with increased knowledge and understanding. He began to see clearly the patterns and significances behind his own life and those of others. He realized that throughout his dark years, the spiritual Presence had never abandoned him, but had silently awaited the time when his own efforts would reunite him with it. He drew from this the great lesson of the necessity of hope, and, more than that, felt charged with the task of communicating it to others who might feel discouraged by their lack of success on the quest.

Years of development and growth followed this second illumination. For many months during 1918, P.B. heard what he calls the “Interior Word”, realizing that the source of strength and wisdom was not to be sought anywhere but in one's innermost Self.

After the First World War, P.B. lived for a time in Bloomsbury. He shared a flat with Michael Juste, founder of the Atlantis Bookshop, in the very house that Virginia and Leonard Woolf would later make their home and that of the Hogarth Press. Having always been a natural, even a compulsive writer, P.B. now entered the world of journalism, and became a successful editor and writer of publicity material.

At the end of the 1920s P.B. embarked on intensive research on the Orient, carried on with the help of the Secretary of State for India's library. Thus prepared, he set out on his first journey to the East. During 1930-l he travelled in India, mixing with all classes and meeting yogis, fakirs, and holy men and women of every degree. The two for whom he felt the deepest kinship were the Shankaracharya of Kamakoti and Sri Ramana Maharshi, the Sage of Arunachala (not to be confused with Maharishee Mahesh Yogi). The Shankaracharya, spiritual head of South India and the inheritor of the Vedantic lineage founded by the first Shankara, was born in 1895. He has been seen in public darshan reading P.B.'s Notebooks. As the head of a public institution, he declined to take P.B. as a pupil, but suggested that he go to Arunachala, a holy mountain in the extreme south of India, and meet a sage who lived there. This was Ramana Maharshi, then virtually unknown, now celebrated as a rare modern representative of the purest Advaitin (non-dualist) school of philosophy and self-realization.

P.B.'s search for the spiritual treasures of India found its climax in the meeting with Ramana Maharshi. As he presents it in his book, A Search in Secret India, he then began an inward search under the sage's direction. Through meditation on the question “Who Am I?” he discovered that he was not the body; not the emotions; not the intellect. Eventually he was left with the thoughtless state of pure Being, that allowed a higher, unsuspected Self to take over. This alone was perfect freedom. In point of fact, as he tells us much later in the Notebooks, this was no new experience to P.B., but a renewed contact with the state he had known years before.

While in India, P.B. contracted blackwater fever which enervated him for two years. On his recovery he refused the many offers that came his way of lucrative editorial and publicity work and set out to turn his Indian experiences into a book. He settled in a quiet South Buckinghamshire village, staying in two rooms over the village inn until a cottage of his own was built. Nearby was a historic Friends' meeting-house, where P.B. would go each Sunday, finding among the Quakers and their worship qualities wanting in other Christian denominations.

A Search in Secret India presents its author as somewhat sceptical and naive, but it must be understood that this was a pose, consciously adopted to appeal to sceptical and naive readers of the 1930s. This was still the era of Empire, when colonialism and the Christian missionary movement had schooled the British to an ingrained contempt for the brown man and his religions. But here was a traveller who not only witnessed phenomena that baffled materialistic science, not only dared to praise Islam as a socially laudable and rational religion, but who ended up sitting awestruck at the feet of a loin-clothed yogi. For the Foreword, P.B. called on Sir Francis Younghusband, co-leader of the British expeditionary force that had invaded Tibet in 1904 and now in his retirement, devoted to the reconciliation of world religions. The book was enthusiastically received and sold a quarter of a million copies in several languages.

On two distinct occasions after his return from India P.B. received in meditation a solemn charge or mission. One summer evening on the bank of the Thames, he was plunged into deep trance and entered the presence of the Four Great Beings who watch over the spiritual welfare of the planet. A special task was given to him, both frightening and exalting. Again, in 1934, when about to leave on his second journey to the East, he received an urging from the sage he had known there to share with others his knowledge of the path that leads to the spiritual Self. Putting his travel arrangements aside, he responded by writing The Secret Path in only four weeks. Alice A. Bailey contributed a Foreword to it, and the book was published in 1935.

The Secret Path is a short manual of meditation, one of the first to appear in the modern West and the very first to explain the Self-enquiry method as taught by Ramana Maharshi. Here P.B. establishes one of his firmest principles: no matter how mystical or abstruse his material, always to explain it in plain English. One searches his works in vain for the learned footnotes, the untranslated Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan terms that adorn the scholarly literature and frighten away the non-academic reader. What P.B. learned from the Orient and from ancient tradition, he presents as a living wisdom, as precious to the factory worker as to the professor. This style of presentation naturally removed him from consideration by the academic world, while certain reviewers were moved to extremes of abuse. He reflects on this reception in the prefaces to some of his books.

P.B. began his second voyage with a period in Egypt, where he collected the materials and underwent the strange experiences chronicled in A Search in Secret Egypt. This is the most sensational of his works, touching on occult history and the Atlantean origins of Egyptian civilization and monuments as well as on present-day magicians. P.B. spent a night inside the Great Pyramid. Equipped with stronger nerves than most of his readers, he seems to have re-enacted the process of initiation which the Pyramid was originally intended to serve. This demonstrated to the neophyte, beyond all doubt, the immortality of his being and his ultimate freedom from the material world.

P.B.'s two “Searches” pay homage to the twin sources of modern esotericism. On the one hand there is Egypt, home of the Pyramid builders and of the Hermetic tradition: the Egypt which regarded the ancient Greeks as children, and to which their philosophers went for initiation. Alchemy, Gnosticism, Freemasonry, and the Western magical tradition all trace their roots to Egypt. On the other hand there is India, discovered by the West late in its history, source of the Vedas and of the Bhagavad Gita, home of Krishna and of Gautama the Buddha. The esoteric doctrines of India had come to the wider attention of the West with the Theosophical Society of the late nineteenth century. It was for P.B. to demystify them and to provide a practical adaptation of yoga (the way of becoming “yoked” to God – the root word is the same) for ordinary people.

Continuing his journey, P.B. sailed from Egypt to India and again reached the ashram of Ramana Maharshi before the end of 1935. One day, on climbing to the top of the sacred mountain of Arunachala, P.B felt prompted to address his fellows in the West, whom he could see spiralling ever downwards into a purposeless materialism. Forthwith he wrote down the substance of a short book, which like his later Notebooks is not a continuous argument or narrative but a series of loosely-connected paragraphs. A Message from Arunachala is a serious call to the Western world to attend to its soul. In later years, P.B. would regret that the tone of the book had been so negative but it well reflects the clouds that were gathering over Europe at the time of its writing.

In the summer of 1936, P.B. made a retreat in a small bungalow high in the Himalayas, as the guest of a Nepalese prince. Out of this came perhaps his most beautiful book, A Hermit in the Himalayas, which is full of his love of unspoilt nature and his kinship with the stars. Here he speaks most intimately to the reader, dropping the mask he created for the two “Searches” and showing himself living the simple and solitary life that he preferred, moving gradually, as he puts it, “into the courts of the Lord”.

The next summer it was the Maharajah of Mysore who offered P.B. hospitality and the conditions favourable for the writing of The Quest of the Overself. The Maharajah was a most enlightened ruler and a devotee of non-dualist Vedanta. His patronage of P.B., together with the friendship of the Maharajahs Reader in Philosophy, T Subrahmanya Iyer, and of T.M.P. Mahadevan, Professor of Philosophy at Madras University, gave the lie to P.B.'s Indian and Western critics who maintained that through writing popular books he had watered down or misrepresented Eastern doctrines. Often the motive behind such criticisms stemmed from P.B.'s refusal to endorse someone's favourite guru, or to lend his energies to political movements. Those who taught and lived the highest philosophy, like Ramana Maharshi, the Shankaracharya, and Sri Atmananda, instinctively accepted him as one of their own. The Quest of the Overself is a successor to The Secret Path, being a more detailed manual of meditation. It contains many exercises designed to appeal to people of different temperaments and needs.

It was also in 1937, and at the Maharajah of Mysore's behest, that P.B. made a special study of the echoes of Eastern wisdom in Western philosophy. This appeared as Indian Philosophy and Modern Culture, a short study that, alone among P.B.'s books, has not been reprinted for many years.

The last fruit of this Indian period was The Inner Reality (titled in its American edition Discover Yourself), written in 1938. The specific purpose of this book was to address Christians, and to introduce them to the deeper meanings of their religion and to the benefits of meditational practice. There are fascinating and original commentaries on the Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer, etc., in the light of the quest. It is from here that we draw P.B.'s words on Jesus as portrayed in St John's Gospel.

In 1938, P.B. left the East for the USA, where he spent some months. From the West Coast he sailed back to Asia, visiting China, Siam, and Cambodia before settling again in India for the duration of the Second World War. It was in 1939 that he came to the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia, once the seat of a high and spiritual civilization that had blended harmoniously Hinduism and Buddhism. PB. had gone there, like Madame Blavatsky before him, in order to receive a certain contact through meditation. But another contact was made there, in the flesh, that would be of great significance to him. This was with an exiled Mongolian lama, who was able to answer some important metaphysical questions. Thanks to the key furnished by this Mongolian, P.B. was able to embark on his philosophical masterwork.

The ambitious project of a two-volume work that would explain in plain language the highest philosophy and its concomitant practices was eventually divided, to P.B.'s regret, into two separate books, The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga and The Wisdom of the Overself. Many who had enjoyed the P.B. of the earlier writings were disappointed in them, for these books were, frankly, difficult reading. Those who persisted learned that beyond the rewards of religious devotion, beyond the ecstasies of mysticism, lies the realm of true Philosophy, a term to which P.B. restores its noble meaning of the “love of wisdom”. He explains why it is not sufficient to have psychic or even spiritual experiences: one must understand what one is experiencing, or else run the risk of the self-deception, the imbalance, or the dogmatism for which mysticism is no cure - indeed, to which psychics and mystics have often been given. The “hidden teaching beyond yoga” is the wisdom that knows why one practises yoga (or meditation, for P.B. almost never concerns himself with Hatha or physical yoga). It is cosmological wisdom that knows how the world comes into being; how we perceive it; and why the world is the way that it is.

The first volume, The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga, leads the reader step by minute step to the admission that the material world as it is commonly conceived simply cannot be said to exist. The second volume, The Wisdom of the Overself, supplies the solution to this impasse in the adoption of a purely “mentalistic” philosophy. It explains how our whole world is projected by our own minds, and how the greater world outside us is projected as a thought by the World-Mind. It is an achievement of a rare order to have expounded this subtle and revolutionary doctrine without jargon and without a plethora of difficult terms. P.B. reduces the uncontrolled richness of Eastern philosophy to a few monumental concepts, of which the most important ones are as follows: the Ego, the illusory and separate being which each of us thinks we are; the Overself which is our divine reality; the World-Mind, creator of all universes; and Mind in itself the silent and unmanifest ground of all being.

It is impossible to convey adequately the majesty of The Wisdom of the Overself; the poignancy of its chapters on suffering, death, and the current world war; the supreme value of the practical exercises in mental yoga, which are found nowhere else in Western literature. Above all, there is the transformative effect of its philosophy, like water to one dying of thirst in the desert of modern pseudo-philosophy.

P.B. finished The Wisdom of the Overself in December 1942. He had written ten books in less than ten years, and now he fell so silent that notices were published of his death. He left India at the end of the war, and his subsequent travels took him again around the world, though we cannot trace them more exactly. A man like P.B. is never idle, even though he may pass a year or more being seen to do nothing but eat a little, and sleep less. The quest continues in realms which we cannot imagine, and the burden of helping humanity, once accepted, may take strange and inward forms.

In1952 he broke his silence, publishing The Spiritual Crisis of Man. This was the first book since A Search in Secret India which he had been able to write at leisure, and the Notebooks contain hundreds of additional paragraphs that must come from this period. The “spiritual crisis” of the title is reducible to the question: Is the human race going to learn its lesson from two world wars, or is it going to plunge through ignorance into a third disaster even more terrible? The book is a reflection on the spiritual consequences of the Second World War and on the only direction in which future hope lies: that of humanity's return to moral and spiritual principles. More than that, it is a work of inspiration to the individual who has set foot on the path of return but is obliged to live among those who ignore or refuse it.

The Spiritual Crisis of Man was the last book that P.B. published in his lifetime. The following year, 1953, he himself went through a crisis. He had fallen ill of a tropical malady, contracted in the Far East, that threatened to end fatally. Falling into a coma, he encountered the astral figure of a well-known and well-loved Master, who gave him the choice between putting his body aside then and there or of recovering and continuing his earthly life for the benefit of his fellow humans. Out of pity for those who looked to him for help, P.B. reluctantly decided to return and complete his mission.

Always fated to be a wanderer, P.B. continued to travel. He stayed for two years in New Zealand; he spent time in Australia and the United States. He consistently refused invitations to set himself up as a public figure, or even to be made the focus of a private ashram as Ramana Maharshi had been. Eventually he settled in Switzerland, living mainly on the shores of Lake Lugano and Lake Geneva. He treasured his solitude and protected it from the importunities of the well-meaning and the half-crazy alike by maintaining only a postal address. Occasionally he would consent to give interviews, but only on condition that the seeker was not hoping to find in him a guru. Shopping and cooking for himself, facing the rigours of the Alpine winter - these became increasingly bur- densome as he neared his eighties. In his last years, friends ensured that he always had an assistant on call, to look after domestic chores and write letters for him.

Some of what P.B. had been doing during his silent years emerged when it was realized that he had written some seven thousand pages of notes, together with three thousand pages of related research materials, deliberately withholding them from publication until after his death. Apparently P.B. had scarcely passed a day without writing something, in obedience to his chosen profession and his lifelong habit. But far from being a connected discourse or treatise, these notes seemed to have been made at random, on every conceivable subject. They ranged from single sentences to substantial paragraphs; there were also a few essays of a page or more in length. In stark contrast to their physical nature - for they were often written on tiny scraps of paper or in cheap lined notebooks - the notes showed a deepening of the philosophy that had been expounded in the published books, reflecting the very considerable changes through which P.B. had gone since his silence.

When a few friends of P.B. learned of the existence of this material they were concerned that it should not be lost, besides being most eager to read what he referred to vaguely as his “Summing Up'” A group of Americans who had been introduced to his work by Anthony Damiani, founder of Wisdom's Goldenrod Philosophic Center, was permitted to start typing and sorting these notes with a view to their eventual publication. By the time P.B. died on 27 July 1981, he had established twenty-eight categories under which to classify this material. The manuscripts were removed to Valois, on Seneca Lake, New York, where intensive work on them went forward. A collection of essays, apparently dating from the 1940s and 1950s, was published in 1984 as Essays on the Quest, and the same year the first volume of the Notebooks, Perspectives, appeared under the imprint of Larson Publications. The singleminded devotion of a few dozen people and their financial supporters enabled the series of Notebooks to be published with unprecedented speed, the sixteenth and last volume appearing in 1989.

Paul Brunton was a sage: an enlightened or liberated man, or a jivan mukti if one prefers the precision of the Hindu term. Note, however, that the claim is ours, not his. It is not a false modesty that makes him steer carefully away from asserting his own enlightenment, while writing with unprecedented clarity about the state of consciousness of the man who has reached the goal of the human quest. It is inherent in the very thing that makes a man a sage: that he has permanently vanquished his ego, and has no longer any sense of personal identity beyond what he may assume for convenience or courtesy. He lives in union with the Overself; which has never achieved enlightenment for the simple reason that its eternal essence is enlightenment. From that standpoint, he is describing a process and a state of which he has no sense of possession. The knowledge that this is also the destiny of every one of us seems to be as essential as anything that can be got by reading.

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