Paul Brunton

Can a cow be Self-realized?

Conversation with Paul Brunton
Corseaux sur Vevey, Switzerland
on October 26, 1978

By Peter Y. Chou

Preface: While writing Notes to the poem "Soul Weight" concerning animals having a soul and Joshu's koan "Does a dog have Buddha nature?", I recalled a conversation with PB (Paul Brunton) at his home in Switzerland in 1978. I took notes soon afterwards and typed it up with references upon returning to Boston. I found that one page transcript in one of my folders recently, and am linking it to my Notes on "Soul Weight". I've also added images of all the enlightened sages I've cited when PB pressured me to come up with a fresh answer to our dialogue. PB writes about his own experience of enlightenment with Ramana Maharshi (pp. 303-313) in A Search in Secret India (1934). However, PB told me his experience with Ramana was only the first step on the spiritual path. It would takes more years before his final awakening. I was surprised that PB did not accept the authority of the great Vedantic sage Shankara, but liked a similar answer by the Chinese sage Mencius. When I asked PB in 1972 at his home in Montreux why he had tankas of four Chinese sages (Lao Tzu, Confucius, Chou Tun-yi, Wang Yang Ming) on his walls but not a single Hindu sage, he told me that the Hindu mystics were too speculative, being absorbed in their inner visions. The Chinese sages were more practical and engaged in the world of everyday life. That's why he admired them more. (See Kakuan's Ten Bulls: "The Sage in the Marketplace")

Ramana Maharshi

Can a cow be Self-realized?
The Sanskrit word moksha and mukti mean liberation,
Self-realization, or enlightenment. It is thought that
one who has attained liberation is absorbed with the
Universal Spirit or Brahman, and has no need for rebirth.

Arthur Osborne's book Ramana Maharshi (1954)
tells about Ramana liberating his mother
on May 19, 1922 and the cow Lakshmi
on June 17, 1948 (pp. 78 & 118).
Ramana confirmed that their hearts were pure and
free from all vasanas (latent recurring tendencies),
so that they will not be reborn again.

I mentioned the above story to PB saying that Ramana
had liberated his mother and the ashram cow Lakshmi.

PB: How come Ramana didn't liberate
        any of his disciples, since when
        he died [April 14, 1950], there
        was no guru to lead the ashram.

PC: If only Lakshmi were alive,
        the cow could have been
        their Guru!

PB: Peter, can a cow be Self-realized?

Ramana with his cow Lakshmi

Joshu (778-897)
PC: This is like Joshu's Zen koan—
        "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" and
        Joshu's reply was "No!" to the surprise
        of all the monks who thought that all
        sentient beings have Buddha nature
        [see Mumonkan's koan #1]

PB: Forget about what Joshu [778-897]
        said hundreds of years ago.
        What do you say now?

[Note: PB is reprimanding me for quoting the ancients like Lao Tzu rebuking Confucius in their meeting: "The men about whom you talk are dead, and their bones are mouldered to dust." On the subject of immortality, Emerson wrote: "I notice that as soon as writers broach this question they begin to quote. I hate quotation. Tell me what you know." (Journal, May 1849). Back in 1978, I still had little experience on enlightenment, and relied on the words of sages. Ramana Maharshi and Shankara are considered the greatest Hindu sages. Mencius is regarded as the second greatest Chinese sage after Confucius. Hui-Neng and Joshu are the greatest Zen Masters.
I also misinterpreted Joshu's "Mu" as meaning "No"— that a dog does not have Buddha nature or a soul like human beings. Now, I realized that Joshu's "Mu" is more than "No", but beyond our intellectual conceptualization.]

PC: No, a cow cannot be Self-realized.
        [See poem: "And Nothing But the Moo" written 12 years later. Just found
        this Ramana story that Lakshmi is in Samadhi, so a cow can be enlightened.]

PB: Then you don't believe in Ramana?

PC: I believe in Shankara [686-718] who said that only
        in a human embodiment can one be Self-realized.
        That's the first miracle. The longing for liberation
        is the second miracle, and finding an illumined
        Teacher who will enlighten us is the third miracle.
        [See Shankara's Vivekachudamani
        or Crest Jewel of Discernment, Chapter I.
        Also Plato's view on metempsychosis that the soul
        transmigrate for 10,000 years and enters the human form
        when it seeks for wisdom... "the soul of the philosopher
        alone should recover her wings"
Phaedrus, 248c]

Shankara (686-718)
PB: You'll have to be more convincing.

[Note: I was surprised that PB was not convinced by Shankara whom he spoke with great reverence in his A Search in Secret India (1934): "Shankara is the greatest of the historical Brahmain sages. He might be described as a rational mystics, and as a philosopher of first rank. His intellect was so acute that usually, he was more than a match for those he met... This remarkable man died at the early age of thirty-two, though one legend has it that he simply disappeared." (pp. 114-115)]

(371 B.C.-289 B.C.)
PC: Well, would you believe Mencius [371 B.C.-289 B.C.]?
        He said: "How happy I am that
        the sages and I are of the same species.
        Now with striving, I too can be enlightened."

        [see Works of Mencius, 6A:7]

PB: Very good! Mencius knew. But Mrs. Lee from Hong Kong
        sent me a story (an old or new Buddhist tale) about
        a certain question which perplexed everyone.
        However an animal cried out the correct answer.

PC: How about Clever Hans, the horse who
        knew the answers to math problems.

PB: It was a clever horse, he knew through
        his master. [In 1907, psychologist Oskar
        Pfungst showed that the horse was not
        actually performing these mental tasks,
        but was watching the reaction of his
        human observers.] Mrs. Pierpoint's
        daughter works with horses in the
        stables and knows horse language,
        and can communicate with them.
        [See Horse Whisperer]

Wilhelm von Osten & his horse Clever Hans

Hui-Neng (638-713)
PC: When a boy called Ramana a Maharishi (great sage),
        Ramana's reply was "Why call me a Maharishi?
        Everyone I see is a Maharishi."
[October 1, 1936,
        in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, 1968, p. 215].
        Zen Master Hui-Neng [638-713] said the same thing:
        "To the ordinary man, even Buddha is ordinary.
        But to a Buddha, everyone is a Buddha."

        [see Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Ch. 2].
        So Ramana didn't have to liberate his cow
        or his mother. From his viewpoint,
        they were already liberated.

PB: Yes, like wu wei!

  — Peter Y. Chou
       Corseaux sur Vevey, 10-26-1978
       formatted Stanford Library, 8-20-2008

Additional Notes:I was invited to a Protein Folding Conference at the Abbey of Prémontrés at Pont-à-Mousson, University of Nancy, France (October 16-18, 1978) where I presented a paper "Future Developments in Protein Conformation Predictions". I also presented a seminar on "Search for Intermolecular Contact Sites in Sickle Cell Hemoglobin" at the University of Münster, Germany (Oct. 20, 1978). I phoned Anthony Damiani expressing interest to visit PB while in Europe. Anthony informed me to write to Claire Pierpont in Switzerland who knows PB's current address. I wrote to PB c/o Claire Pierpont telling about my Protein lectures in France and Germany, including phone numbers of the professors for contact. Finally on October 22, Professor Heinz Rüterjans said someone phoned his lab at the University of Münster and left a number. I phoned and reached PB who told me that the Swedish publisher as well as the translator of his books are with him for the week. He would not have individual time with me, but if I was interested in his busy work sessions, I was welcome. Of course I said yes. I arrived at Corseaux on Monday, October 23, 1978 and stayed till Sunday, October 29, 1978. The above conversation with PB occurred on Thursday, October 26, 1978 sometime after lunch in PB's apartment. Present at PB's apartment were Anna Bornstein (translator of several of PB's books into Swedish), Robert Larson (publisher of PB's Notebooks and PB's books in Swedish) and his wife Brigitte, and a Finnish mystic whose name I'd forgotten. On Sunday, October 29, 1978, PB took us to a Tibetan monastery on top of Mt. Pèlerin where we had a fruitful session with Geshe Rabten Rinpoche, who had instructed the Dalai Lama. Afterwards, I returned with PB to his Corseaux apartment in the evening. PB told me that Wei Wu Wei would be visiting him from Monaco the following day and asked me to help him clean his apartment. I told PB that Wei Wu Wei's book Open Secret got me interested in Ramana Maharshi. When I told PB that Anthony said Wei Wu Wei is an American, and his real name is Terence Gray, PB said: "No, Wei Wu Wei [1895-1986] is Irish, and he's three years older than I am. He was instantly enlightened without a guru like Ramana." Unfortunately, I couldn't stay an extra day, since I had teaching responsibilities at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a flight back to Boston from Geneva. I often wondered how those conversations between PB and Wei Wu Wei went— two enlightened sages with mirror minds reflecting infinite lights. It is interesting that PB ended his conversation with me with the words wu wei.

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (8-20-2008)