An essay on Paul Brunton, his books and his advocates
The title of this essay is a continuation of an earlier one on a collector of my art, but it seems even more apropos here, as the title is taken from a book by Gurdjieff and subsequent movie about the philosopher/spiritualist. And as the subjects of this essay are proponents, practitioners, archivists, students, teachers and publishers of the philosopher/author Paul Brunton, (PB) and as that they are all quite remarkable in many ways- it further underscores the pertinence of the title.
My initial impetus for this essay was to recap and make a review of my readings and study of the work of Paul Brunton. It naturally segued into including studies of PB's students, so the following could be thought of as profiles in philosophy. Where to start? Well, starting back in the early1980s is a good place as that is when I first became acquainted with his work. I had a kiosk at this time in Center Ithaca, back when it first opened as an open air market place, where I drew portraits and had a small gallery of other pieces of my art too. I came in for the Christmas season in 1981 and ended up staying around 4 years. So I was quite visible and eventually met a few members of Wisdom’s Goldenrod, a philosophy and meditation center in Valois, NY. I began hearing about Plotinus and the Sabian Symbols and study groups which piqued my interest. There was also a wonderful bookstore on the Ithaca Commons, called New Alexandrian Books, which I would visit and where I would sometimes take astrology classes. Those classes were presented by Tim Smith, his late wife Devon Smith and Linda Ruth, with occasional guest teachers. The bookstore was at three different locations as I recall, all near the Chanticleer. One was in the second floor space, which I think is the same place as where the Lot 10 café is now. That café for about 12 years served as jazz and dance venue were I was a regular. Location, location, location. I did visit the W.G. Center in Valois on a couple of occasions to attend lectures back in the early 1980s and that is where I first Anthony Damiani speak.
Also around the same time I was commissioned to do a book cover by Larson Publications for a personal remembrance of PB by his son Kenneth Hurst. The cover was directed by Anne Kilgore and loosely conceived to suggest the lead-in to the PBS show, Masterpiece Theatre. That intro featured a close-up pan of photos and desktop items in a Victorian interior setting.
Also at this time, a movie had just been released, The Razor's Edge, that was rumored to be based somewhat on the life of PB. I went to the State Theatre here in Ithaca with a WG member and viewed Bill Murray’s first feature role after his Saturday Night Live fame. The Razor’s Edge was based on a 1944 novel by Somerset Maugham and this 1980s film version was in turn a remake of a 1947 movie starring Tyrone Power.
Truth be told, I was a late comer to this philosophic and meditation scene as many people had been involved with this philosophical pursuit and study for many years. However, I had been reading authors of similar subjects, such as Ram Dass, Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti, Alan Watts and others. I had also been practicing TM, so meditation was not new to me either. And when I first read PB’s work (PB is how Paul Brunton is affectionately known to his students) I was not immediately enthralled. I’ve learned from others including one of the men interviewed for this essay, that he and others also were equally nonplussed. His style of writing seemed somewhat ponderous with the penchant for what struck me as hitting the same nail over and over again. Then again, we are sometimes slow learners and wisdom can take years if not multiple incarnations to grasp.
But in recent years, I’ve come back to his books and I have been appreciative and amazed at his wisdom, insight and shear breadth of vision. The compilations of his observations that I am referring to are: The Short Path to Enlightenment, Instructions for Spiritual Living and Realizing Soul, which are pithy collections that are rich in relevance from one who has an immense breadth of experience. I would say that there probably is no one else in the spiritual realm who can equal the wide-ranging and balanced approach that Brunton presents. I have read several of his works several times and these books are replete with my underscorings and marginalia. Still, I have barely scratched the surface and there are many volumes to go. This is inspiring in a way, knowing that such writings as PB’s present an inexhaustible source of wisdom.
For this essay I had the honor and good fortune to interview at length two of PB’s main proponents, Tim Smith and Paul Cash. These men have served to further PB’s accessibility through their work as publishers, archivist and teachers.
I’ll start with Tim as I have had more involvement with him, primarily through his astrological work and teachings but also as a student in his classes on various spiritual and philosophical works. And indeed a compelling and engaging figure he is. Listening to Tim’s recollection of his early years and time with PB captivated me for any number of reasons, including his early precociousness and early interest in poetry and philosophy. His parents were fundamentalist Christians in Colorado where Tim grew up. However his maternal grandmother was psychic and he attributes some of his gifts to her, maybe skipping a generation. Tim was learning French in grade school and by the fourth grade he’d read Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton and John Bunyan. He was accepted at Cornell when he was in the 9th grade as a result, in part, of a poem he wrote. The main reason Tim was accepted at Cornell was because of his terse application and being a national merit scholar- with the applicants from Colorado being low that year also contributing. (His high school English teacher thought the poem only deserving of F as it didn’t rhyme.)
Tim came to learn about PB’s work through a bookstore on State Street run by one of PB’s students, Anthony Damiani. Damiani also was the founder and driving force behind Wisdom’s Goldenrod (WG). Many of the WG people eventually found their way to Switzerland through Anthony’s encouragement where PB lived. Tim and Paul both served as his personal secretaries and helped with the organization of the volumes of writings and recordings. These efforts eventually led to the compilation and publishing of these works. And it must have been a Herculean effort of editing, organizing and researching. In regards to this job, Tim recalls that PB expected resourcefulness. As readers and students of these works we are indeed fortunate and blessed.
It was interesting to hear of many first-hand impressions of PB that were gleaned by Tim and Paul during their months spent in Switzerland. For example Tim characterized PB as being at times jovial and relaxed but with formidable presence. According to Tim, PB could also be scary, and unnerving, which at times made some feel as if their lives were at stake. He had a tremendous aura- which could be impersonal as well.
Tim has peppered his lectures over the years with PB anecdotes but the ones shared last week offered a new window and presented PB as being more human and less ivory tower-ish perhaps. Tim characterized PB as being bohemian as he was part of literary sub-culture between the wars. PB had friendships with raucous characters like Henry Miller and with Ford Maddox Ford. PB knew the literati of the era. According to Tim, PB never met Somerset Maugham but they corresponded and conversed on the phone. The entire Razor’s Edge brouhaha was a result of a conflation with another fellow in Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in India, Christian Humphries. As PB was better known, the public assumed the book was about him.
In the few books that I have read of PB’s work I have wondered why I had encountered no mention of astrology. So I asked Tim about this. He explained that during the extreme strife after World War I there was a devastating impact to the spirit of those in Europe and America who had endured the horrendous war. So according to Tim there was a need or a susceptibility to all kinds of methods of spiritual healing. Unfortunately many of these were charlatan in nature and not concerned with the collective benefit. PB probably felt the same way and regarded many such practices with disdain. Yet, at the same time he did explore and research many of these. When asked if PB condoned his own career choice as an astrologer, the answer was yes. In fact PB suggested it would be beneficial to Tim to balance his own life with real human need as well as being for the benefit of many others.
All these anecdotes and remembrances serve to offer a greater context for PB while countering the tendency from certain quarters to idealize. And for myself, I just find them interesting and engaging.
Paul Cash is the director of Larson Publications, which publishes the books of PB and many other notables from Stephen Levine to Emerson, Joseph Campbell and many more.
Paul shared with me some of his experiences when he first came to Ithaca as a Cornell student of engineering, which later, in his sophomore year segued into the arts in English and poetry. His mentor at the time was Archie Ammons, the poet in residence at Cornell, who initiated Paul into writing free verse poetry.
Paul discovered a bookstore operated by Anthony Damiani called the Americana Brahmin Bookstore, which was located on lower State Street here in Ithaca. Paul was making a film for a course he was taking and during that endeavor he noticed a Buddha statue in the window. Around 1969 Anthony gave Paul a book by PB, titled “In Search of Secret Egypt.” Anthony stocked his bookstore with his own library and often would lend out books or even offer them as gifts.
In 1977 PB came to the US and visited Anthony and his students in Hector, NY. PB stayed with Tim and Devon Smith in the same house where Tim lives now (and where the above portrait of Tim is set). Interviews were arranged, with PB usually conducting the "interview" according to Paul. Eventually Anthony arranged for Paul to visit PB in Switzerland and his trip was eventually sponsored in large part by another PB student, Richard Witter of Columbus, Ohio.
Both Tim’s and Paul’s journeys to Switzerland included prequels in London, elsewhere in the UK and Paris. They both had interesting and fortuitous forays into the Tate Museum in London as well. When Tim was searching for the museum, he happened to meet the director of the museum on a bus who let him enter two hours before the general public was allowed in. This gave Tim uninterrupted time to absorb the many Turner paintings. Whereas Paul's time in the Tate focused on the work of William Blake with whom he was already familiar. Paul also had the fortuitous discovery of a coffee shop that Blake frequented. His hotel room was above the shop. Tim also had spent some quality time at the British Museum Library where he did research and came back with 400 new titles. There was also an interesting foray for Tim to the remote isle of Iona that was recommended by PB. Iona is a small island off the west coast of Scotland, south of the Hebrides. Unbeknownst to to Tim and maybe to PB there was a group of philosphy students there that focused on the work of PB.
Paul recalled upon my prompting what was on the walls in PB’s apartment in La Tour de Peilz, Switzerland and shared some other recollections. There were a couple of floor-to- ceiling scrolls of the Chinese cosmologist/philospher/writer Chou Tun-I along with one of Bodhidharma and various exquisite sculptural works. Tim also recalls PB having a couple or prints of Turner's light-filled works.
Most remarkable to me was a reflection of Paul’s that characterized PB as serving as mirror for one’s Overself. This suggests a spiritual mentor who knows how to assist in bringing out the highest aspiration in his students. The Overself is a spiritual concept of PB’s that could be thought of as one’s soul, higher self or spiritual essence. The Overself is the subject of two books by PB and referred to and explicated numerous times elsewhere. So it is a term that can hardly be explained or exhausted in short order. Here is a quote from PB's book, The Short Path To Enlightenment that will she some on light on the meaning of the Overself:
"The ego self is the creature born out of man's own doing and thinking, slowly changing and growing. The Overself is the image of God, perfect, finished and changeless. What he has to do to fulfil himself, is let one shine through the other."
Another one of Paul’s recollections of PB’s teaching was to see the body as an idea. An intriguing concept that goes along with PB’s penchant and purpose to underscore the spiritual aspects of our lives while undermining the materialism prevalent in so much of worldly endeavors.
When Anthony arranged for Paul to work for PB in February of 1981 in Switzerland it was with the understanding that PB was nearing death. And indeed Paul was with PB as he passed in late July of that year.
Eventually Paul oversaw the publication of the 16 volumes of the Notebooks of PB’s work. The tasks of this project were somewhat shared with Paul serving as editor-in-chief and popularizing the works, while Tim's role has been that of preservation. This work for Paul included the organizing of proofreaders, copy editors and typists who assisted in preparing the work. When asked if there was a challenge with motivating the team in this huge endeavor, Paul said the opposite was the case. People were eager to work on the project and brought plenty of motivation of their own.
There is talk or consideration of a biography of PB and it would certainly seem to be a welcome addition. It is surprising to me that there has not been one. Most recently, Tim has made trips to Maine to meet with PB’s wife, Evangeline Glass to collect her diaries of her years with PB. They are now archived at Cornell but there are no plans for publication.
All in all, many people world-wide are fortunate for the courageous life of PB in bringing the wisdom of the East to us and bridging the gap to show the relevance to western spiritual traditions. He is as fond of quoting Jesus Christ as the Buddha. And by extension we are indebted to the work of Tim and Paul for invigorating and continuing these efforts. Others of course have preceded PB in this endeavor like Emerson and the Transcendentalists or Herman Hesse and others. Still, the breadth and vision of PB is probably without parallel.
I want to close with a few observations about my own study of these works of PB and others. I think one of the main aspects of his teaching that has spoken to me is the spiritualization of meditation. By this I mean regarding meditation as a practice to seek God or deity. There is an adage sometimes mentioned in classes and in PB’s writings that we are fortunate when life can be lived with the realization of the Overself or in continual prayer. Prayer and meditation in this sense are closely linked and akin to affirmation and contemplation. I mention this spiritualization of practice as there is another wise admonition – which is not to expect too much of meditation. In other words, what I am hearing, from the Zen Buddhist approach is to acknowledge “what is” rather than imposing or seeking an ideal. Maybe this bifurcation is overstated, as the two may not be that polarized.
PB frequently rails against atheism in his books and offers an alternative path to the materialism and banality of modern life. So there is a continual thread of the transcendent and deity in his work. Tim has an interesting comment in relation to this, it goes something like this: "The amount of time you spend with God now is commensurate with the amount of time God will spend with you after death."
I think of PB’s work also in comparison to other teachers like Pema Chodron, whose work I’ve read and lectures I’ve attended to be incredibly relevant. PB’s on the other hand appeared at first to be concerned with too many irrelevancies. Now, however- there are rewards and connections.
So I write the above in my blog essay to introduce these books and ideas to my readers in part because I think that Paul Brunton may be unfamiliar to them. Even though his work has been published and known world-wide for many decades, he is not exactly an author who is on many bookshelves. These essays are also a way to get in touch and articulate some rather inchoate aspects of my study and practice.
To learn more about Paul Brunton, go to the Paul Brunton Foundation website: