Paul Brunton

Notes to Poem:

What a Soap Box Taught Me
About Sage & Sin

Robert Pinsky's
Poetry Workshop
Terrace Room,
Margaret Jacks Hall
Stanford University
Sunday, March 4, 2007

By Peter Y. Chou

Preface: When I was working on my doctorate thesis in biochemistry at Cornell, I read much about creativity so I could do better scientific research. I also began studying Buddhism and meditation to be enlightened. A student told me to visit the American Brahman Bookstore in downtown Ithaca to learn more on these subjects. It was April 5, 1968 when I met Anthony Damiani, the proprietor of the bookshop. He was so much in love with philosophy and the perennial wisdom traditions that he offered free Wednesday seminars on the subject at his bookshop. Along with a dozen students and two Cornell math professors, we participated in these discourses on wisdom of enlightenment. Anthony used Paul Brunton's The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga and Wisdom of the Overself as texts on epistemology and metaphysics. But he also quoted profusely from Plato, Plotinus, and sages from Taoism, Confucianism, Sufism, Advaita Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, and Zen. Anthony revered Paul Brunton as a sage with cosmic consciousness living a hermit life in Switzerland. Anthony said a sage can enlighten students by touch, gaze, or telepathy. Thus I was eager to meet a sage and experience cosmic consciousness. I did get to meet Paul Brunton on my first trip to Europe and felt blessed in the presence of an enlightened being. This poem is about an epiphany moment in Frascati a week before I met him on August 30, 1972 in Montreux.

OED on sage: 1. A man of profound wisdom; esp. one of those persons of ancient history or legend who were traditionally famous as the wisest of mankind; hence, one whose exceptional wisdom entitles him to a degree of veneration like that which was accorded to these. In early use sometimes with weaker sense, a wise man. The 'seven sages of Greece' were Thales, Solon, Periander, Cleobulus, Chilon, Bias, and Pittacus, to each of whom some wise maxim is attributed by ancient writers. The 'seven sages of Rome' are the personages of a romance, of Oriental origin, which was popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. 'Eastern sages': often applied in hymns (after Milton) to the 'three Magi'.

OED on sin: 1. a. An act which is regarded as a transgression of the divine law and an offence against God; a violation (esp. wilful or deliberate) of some religious or moral principle. 2. a. Violation of divine law; action or conduct characterized by this; a state of transgression against God or His commands.

Frascati, Italy Frascati is 20 km (12.5 miles) from Rome. After his Ph.D. at Princeton, my brother-in-law David Cheng went to Frascati, Italy, for his post-doctoral research in high-energy physics using storage rings. My sister, a graphic design artist graduate from Pratt Institute, spent the year studying art and visiting museums in Rome and Florence, as well as taking care of their 2-year old son André. They brought him for Mom to baby-sit in New York, when we went on our trip through Europe in August 1972.

Paul Brunton living in Switzerland
The British writer Paul Brunton (1898-1981) published 11 books on yoga and meditation (1934-1952) that were translated into 17 languages. He lived like a hermit-sage in Switzerland, and moved frequently because he didn't want to be a guru or desired followers. I learned about him from Anthony Damiani in April 1968 when I was at Cornell working on my doctorate in chemistry. Anthony was the proprietor of American Brahman, a used bookstore at 118 West State Street in downtown Ithaca. He would give free weekly seminars in his store that attracted some dozen Cornell students and two math professors. Anthony used PB's Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga and Wisdom of the Overself as texts in epistemology and metaphysics. But he would quote profusely from Plato, the Neoplatonists, Sufi and Zen Masters, Chinese and Hindu sages, in teaching us the perennial philosophy of spiritual enlightenment.

Tony told me "PB is a sage..."
In one of Anthony Damiani's seminars on enlightenment, the subject of sage came up. Anthony said a sage is not some wise old man, but a manifestation of cosmic consciousness. He said "Paul Brunton is a sage, always in communion with the World Mind." When I phoned Tony and requested PB's address as I was going to Europe, Tony said, "PB has cancelled all interviews. He did not see several Cornell students visiting Switzerland during the last three years. Write a letter from your heart requesting an interview. PB can read your mind at a distance. He knows whether you're a curiosity seeker or a sincere student on the Path. I'll forward your letter, and put in a good word for you. But don't blame me if he does not see you. PB rarely write letters. A sage operates telepathically. You may receive the answer to your queries in the form of a life experience some 15 years down the line." I thought that somewhat strange, but after sending my letter to PB via Tony, I began meditating more seriously. I imagined myself as Parzival, purifying my mind in quest of the Holy Grail.

Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico (1395-1455) was a Dominican friar in the monastery at Fiesole. The convent of San Marco was taken over by his Order in 1436. He was commissioned to decorate the friar's cells with frescoes painted directly on to wet plaster walls. I felt at peace visiting San Marco in Florence and fell in love with many of Fra Angelico's paintings. His "Annunciation" spoke volumes about holy communion between the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. The painting invokes a feeling of divine grace that imbues one's life when one is in a state of contemplation. I also learned much from his Noli Me Tangere (left) when Christ told Mary Magdalene not to touch him after his resurrection (John XX.17). It dawned upon me that Christ was no longer in his physical body but in his astral or subtle body, which may vanish upon human contact.

on top of Mt. Lao
I went up Mt. Lao, Cortina d'Ampesso, Italy (August 1972) on a cable car, and climbed a short distance to the peak (2930 m = 9613 ft). The view was awe-inspiring and majestic. I sat down to meditate on enlightenment. Upon closing my eyes, I saw a sky-blue circle with a golden circumference and a green dot in the center. This image came to me spontaneously without effort. Suddenly, I recalled seeing this golden-blue circle before falling asleep when I was a boy in Shanghai many years ago. But I've never seen it in my four years of meditation back then. I don't know whether this was due to the mountain peak's rarefied atmosphere or progress in meditation in purifying my mind.

Augsburg Cathedral
Augsburg Dom of the Holy Virgin Cathedral was begun in 944 AD and given a partial Gothic update in the 14th century. The cathedral's Romanesque stained-glass windows date from the 12th century. Located in the south transept, they depict Old Testament prophets Jonas, Daniel, Hosea and Moses in a severe but colorful style. The cathedral's interior, restored in 1934, contains side altars with altarpieces by Hans Holbein the Elder and Christoph Amberger. The 11th-century bronze doors, leading into the three-aisle nave, are adorned with bas-reliefs of a mixture of biblical and mythological characters. When I learned that Leopold Mozart was born in Augsburg, and the young Mozart performed in this Cathedral, I stood under the Dome of the Cathedral in the center aisle and closed my eyes in meditation (August 1972). Soon I saw a pale blue circle surrounded by a ring of gold. In the center was a sparkling green dot. This inner mandala was similar to the one that appeared to me on the peak of Mt. Lao, a week earlier. I attributed it to Mozart's presence which aided my meditation.

PB's postcard
PB's postcard said that although he had cancelled all interviews, he has made an exception in my case. He would grant me an interview and that I should phone him to confirm a date for our meeting. I noticed that he had moved from Lugano (where he lived 4 years ago) to Montreux. When I phoned him, and he answered, I stuttered "Is this P-a-u-l Brun-ton?" I was more nervous than phoning for my first date. I requested August 28 as it was the birthday of Goethe, my spiritual mentor. PB said he was busy that day, so I picked August 30. He told me to confirm by postcard. I felt on Cloud 9 and couldn't believe my good fortune.

"Sconto 100 Lire"
Sconto in Italian means discount, but I didn't know this at the time. I figured the "s" was an Italian prefix for "not", so sconto means "not counting". Since I was expecting soon to meet PB, a sage who lives in cosmic consciousness, I naturally thought a sage is someone whose wisdom is ageless, whose mind is beyond time, dwelling always on the Eternal. Then, I equated this "s" prefix in English as "not" and applied it to "sin" as meaning "not-in". This juggling of "s" prefixes in Italian and English to mean "not" is of course linguistically incorrect. But it gave me an insight on sin, especially the original sin of Adam (see notes below). I had just seen Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, and his "Expulsion from the Garden" at the Vatican, and had an insight on the true meaning of the Tree of Life. When we "sin", we're "not in" or in conflict with or true self. Then we're thrown out of the Garden of Bliss and Tranquillity. If we're in harmony with our conscience, then no god or angel can toss us out of Paradise. The sage is always in paradise because his mind is one with the universe. When our mind is diverse or in doubt, then we're experiencing hell on earth.

Adam eating the apple in the Garden
Genesis III tells the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden eating the forbidden fruit (apple). The concept of original sin goes back to succumbing to the serpent's temptation. For this transgression, they were cast out of the Garden, and condemned to die (Romans, V.12). Why does God have so much vengeance and so little compassion? Would a parent throw out their children out of the house, if they have stolen a cookie saved for some dinner guests? Let's read Genesis III.22 closely: "And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever... So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they gained discernment of good and evil. They became ashamed and clothed themselves instead of running around naked like the other animals. But what is the Tree of Life, whose fruit will grant them immortality? I surmise that the Tree of Knowledge represents human consciousness and the Tree of Life, cosmic consciousness. The serpent in the Garden is not Satan, but the kundalini force or serpent energy of the spinal cord in Oriental metaphysics. When awakened through prayer or meditation, it rises from the lower three chakras (animal instincts of survival, sex, and food) to the heart chakra (compassion) to the crown chakra (Buddha or Christ or cosmic consciousness). The physician's logo, the winged caduceus reminds us of this serpent power within us. It becomes winged when awakened and we can say with Christ John X.30: "I and my Father are one." (Engraving: Albert Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504)

naked like Saint Francis
When Francis was 24 years old (October 1206), his father Pietro Bernardone pursued his son to the entral piazza of the city and demanded repayment for all that Francis had squandered in his generosity to the poor, and for the money Francis had spent in his restoration of the tiny church in San Damiano. Before all the townspeople gathered there, Francis stripped himself naked, renounced his hereditary rights, and gave his fine clothes back to his astonished father. The Bishop of Assisi, who had witnessed the dramatic gesture, wrapped his cloak around the young man, who thereafter dressed himself in a simple flaxen tunic tied at the waist with a cord. Hence Francis solemnized his "wedding" with his beloved spouse, the Lady Poverty, under whose name he surrendered all worldly goods, honors, and privileges. I saw this scene in Franco Zeffirelli's film Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972). I recall that Dad had taken my sister to see a movie about Saint Francis many years earlier when she went to Mt. Saint Mary High School.

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