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#3475 - Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - Editor: Gloria Lee
The Nonduality Highlights

Peter Holleran has written a new article about Paul Brunton for the "Biographies and Awakening Accounts" section of his website. Along with a summary of Brunton's pivotal place in introducing the mysterious East to the West, there are glimpses of what it was like to know the man. Because, at his best, Paul Brunton had a way of disappearing from his own writing, so that only his subject would stand out. The two excerpts given here are from the beginning and end. The entire article may be read online:  


Paul Brunton - Architect of a 21st Century Philosophy

by Peter Holleran

Paul Brunton (1898-1981) was one of the first westerners to visit Sri Ramana Maharshi in the 1930’s. He arrived at the sage’s abode after a long search that led him to the feet of many faqirs, yogis, and saints. (1) His extensive journeys were chronicled in the books A Search in Secret Egypt and A Search in Secret India, where many westerners were introduced to the fascination and allure of the east and its teachings, and perhaps most importantly, that of Ramana Maharshi. In his later years "PB" went far beyond the scope of his early writings, rejuvenating the ancient meaning of the term "Philosophy" for the modern age. This article will briefly try to condense the major themes in PB's thought and offer a fresh appreciation.

   Brunton wrote that he was no stranger to mystic rapture as a child. A burning desire for truth caused him to set aside his position as a journalist, while yet in his thirties, and travel the world in pursuit of the higher wisdom. His passion was intense, and he once even considered suicide. Lucky for us he did not go through with it, as he went on to write thirteen books between 1935 and 1952 converting a wealth of ancient doctrines into forms understandable by modern men and woman. His historical significance was that of being one of the original East-West bridges, putting traditional religious and philosophic teachings into a contemporary form consistent with science and a global world-view, and, in the opinion of many, for making a creative reinterpretation of the perennial wisdom teaching which had only existed in incomplete fragments in both the East and the West at the time.

    Brunton’s experiences with Ramana as detailed in A Search in Secret India culminated with an episode of mystical absorption under Maharshi’s influence in which he was drawn into the heart and experienced an infinite expanse of supra-physical light. This appears to have been an exhalted form of savikalpa samadhi, or transcendental consciousness where the subject-object distinction persists. (His experience was later clarified by Ramana who said

   "Since the experience is through the mind only, it first appears as a blaze of light. The mental predispositions are not yet destroyed. The mind is, however, functioning in its infinite capacity in this experience...When you wake up from sleep a light appears, which is the light of the Self, passing through Mahatattva. It is called cosmic consciousness. That is arupa
(formless). The light falls on the ego and is reflected therefrom." (2)

   Brunton later went on to write about the further realization of the spiritual heart, the inner source of attention, in jnana or jnana-nirvikalpa samadhi (the transcendental subject, exclusive of body and world, which he termed the Overself), in The Quest of the Overself and supra-mystical realizations beyond that, in The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga, but it was this first contact with Maharshi that revolutionized his quest. He acknowledged Ramana as the inspiration behind much of his early writing efforts, and affirmed years later that his inner link with the sage had remained unbroken. While Ramana remained his "root" guru, he had many other teachers and influences who elaborated different aspects of the higher teachings to him and "filled in the gaps" or intellectual blind spots that his experience with Ramana did not provide. Among these were the sage
Atmananda (Shree Krishna Menon), the Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram, and vedantist V.S. Iyer, the latter whom Brunton referred to as "my teacher" and said "made the scales fall from my eyes." Indeed, it is impossible to fully appreciate the writings of PB without studying those of Iyer, and the reader is heartily welcomed to delve into them. Iyer was both a scholar and realizer who was also influential in the lives of important Ramakrishna monks Nikhilinanda and Siddeswarananda. He actually tried to get PB to stop meditating, so he could move on to the more complete realization of Sahaj samadhi, wherein one "understands the world through the mind's intelligence," as Atmananda once said. For Iyer, meditation was only useful for two reasons: one, to gain the ability to concentrate, and two, for the attainment of rest or refreshment (i.e., Ramakrishna continued his trance states out of habit even after he had achieved gnan). To Iyer, one first had to observe the world and understand that it was an idea; this effectively dissolved it into the mind, leading to gnan nirvikalpa - which is distinct from yogic nirvikalpa or trance. Then one was fit to further realize that the world was Brahman, thus fulfilling the ancient formula of Sankara: "the world is an illusion (idea); Brahman is real; the world is Brahman."

    Brunton once confessed that his stars were dark and brooding, and, much as he wished, he could not give up playing the wise old owl. The more mature form of his teaching did not begin to emerge until the release of The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga and The Wisdom of the Overself. These monumental books introduced the philosophy of “mentalism”, in which Brunton argued in great, even tedious, detail that all phenomena (thoughts as well as objects) are mental creations. By the term mentalism he meant that everything manifest arises in Consciousness or Mind. There are no objective entities at all, but only subjective perceptions or experience. To those who argue for the existence of material things Brunton’s answer is that they are only guessing, for no one has ever actually experienced anything apart from their consciousness of it.

    Therefore, similar to but not identical to Bishop Berkeley, Brunton proposed a subjective idealism in which a master world-image is projected or manifested by a World-Mind (i.e.,God) and in which an infinite number of individual minds participate. It is not that a tree, for instance, ceases to exist because I do not see it (i.e., solipsism), for someone else may also be seeing it, because the World-Mind is projecting the idea of that tree into all minds. Epistemologically, however, we do not know that for sure; all we can say is that the tree is never known other than as an idea (sensation, perception, or thought) in the mind. We cannot even know that there are many minds or just one, many selves or only one. The fundamental truth of our experience, on inquiry, is that it is conscious in nature and that at the heart of it lies a conscious Self which can be realized. The goal proposed in The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga was for the quester to realize this consciousness as the Overself in the heart. This established in many readers the idea that PB was advocating mysticism alone. Brunton then argued in The Wisdom of the Overself, however, that one should carry this realization into the fully projected waking state and realize the heart without retreating into trance samadhi. He affirmed the superiority of such open-eyed awakening to the exclusiveness of interior yogic realization. Thus the philosophy of mentalism solved certain metaphysical problems not readily explainable by conventional mysticism or yoga: the world is not merely maya or illusion, or some kind of trap, but a manifestation of God and the divine Self. Nor is it something to be radically avoided or separated from in order to achieve liberation or enlightenment. Consciousness is not in the body, as lesser forms of yoga maintain, rather the body and world arise in consciousness. The sage knows his bodily identity just as the ordinary man, only in the case of the sage he is not exclusively identified with it, but sees all arising as non-separate from himself.

    Brunton's mature philosophy, essentially non-dual, can be characterized perhaps as a form of vedanta known as Parinama-vada, which holds that the world(s) are a modification of Brahman projecting out as stadia or levels of being. As expressed in The Wisdom of the Overself, can be succinctly although inadequately stated as follows: Ultimate Reality is Mind. Mind’s first expression is the Void. The Void’s first expression is the World-Mind (God or Logos), then the World Idea, and finally, through a series of stepped-down emanations, the world itself. The individual can not know Mind, as such, but he can commune with the World-Mind through union with his individual Overself (Divine Soul). The Overself is individual, but not personal. It is the Conscious Self, beyond ego.

   Brunton originally advised one to experience or realize the Overself, Soul, or Self-Consciousness, first in the heart (as jnana samadhi), and then to bring that into the waking state until a greater, intuitive realization, the “lightning flash” (“open eyes”, “everyday mind”, or sahaj samadhi) reveals or stabilizes itself. He later revised this to say that the initial experience of trance was not absolutely necessary in every case.

   “..the Overself is with him here and now. It has never left him at any time. It sits everlastingly in the heart. It is indeed his innermost being, his truest self. Were it something different and apart from him, were it a thing to be gained and added to what he already is or has, he would stand the risk of losing it again. For whatever may be added to him may also be subtracted from. Therefore, the real task of this quest is less to seek anxiously to possess it than to become aware that it already and always possesses him.” (3)

   Of the first stage of realization, the culmination of the mystic path, that of absorption or recognition of the divine Overself in the heart, the ultimate subject, prior to the world appearance, Brunton spoke in this manner:

   "The actual experience alone can settle this argument. This is what I found: The ego vanished; the everyday "I" which the world knew and which knew the world, was no longer there. But a new and diviner individuality appeared in its place, a consciousness which could say "I AM" and which I recognized to have been my real self all along. It was not lost, merged, or dissolved: it was fully and vividly conscious that it was a point in universal Mind and so not apart from that Mind itself. Only the lower self, the false self, was gone but that was a loss for which to be immeasurably grateful." (4)

   Of the second and ultimate stage, that of sahaj samadhi, or realization of the oneness of the individual Overself with the Absolute Soul or World Mind, he wrote these beautiful lines:

   "The Glimpse, even at its fullest extent, as in the Hindu nirvikalpa and the Japanese satori, is only intermittent. If it becomes continuous, an established fact during the working and resting states, both, only then is it completed...The awareness of truth is constant and perennial. It cannot be merely glimpsed; one must be born into it, in Jesus' words, again and again, and receive it permanently. One must be identified with it."

   "It is easier to glimpse the truth than to stay in it. For the first, it is often enough to win a single battle; for the second, it is necessary to win a whole war."

   "When you awaken to truth as it really is, you will have no occult vision, you will have no "astral" experience, no ravishing ecstasy. You will awaken to it in a state of utter stillness, and you will realize truth was
always there within you and that reality was always there around you. Truth was not something which has grown and developed through your efforts. it is not something which has been achieved or attained by laboriously adding up those efforts. it is not something which has to be made more and more perfect each year. And once your mental eyes are opened to truth they can never be closed again."

[............]   Excerpt Two   Perhaps the most intimate and heartfelt account of time spent with P.B. in the last few months of his life is Reflections on Paul Brunton by Paul Cash. In particular, two incidences are worthy of note. Once PB asked Paul what his idea of what it is like being a sage. Paul answered that he thought one thing would be that one loves everybody. PB answered, "I'm not that advanced; I don't love everybody." Another time the question of omniscience came up:

   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."

   [for Iyer, omniscience from the vedantic point of view means simply knowing everything as Brahman, not "knowing all there is."].

   "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 of 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."

    In spite of all this Brunton vigorously denied being a guru, accepted no disciples, and did not even accept formal students. When questioned of his realization he would often demur, saying quietly, “I’m not a sage, just a writer.” Yet those who heard him utter those words felt the power of the Self behind them. No common man could have penned his words, particularly the posthumous
Notebooks series, with volume after volume of lucid and elegant writing with insight on innumerable aspects and subtleties of the path. See excerpts.  


For a definitive scholarly thesis on Brunton's life and thought see
Part One and Part Two of "Paul Brunton: A Bridge Between India and the West" by Annie Cahn Fung.    (from the Wisdom's Goldenrod website).

Also see
Paul Brunton for links to several articles and first-person accounts of the sage.

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