Novelist, screenwriter and alumnus Eddy Canfor-Dumas threw aside Oxonian scepticism and opened a door within.

 

By Eddy Canfor-Dumas (New College, 1975)

In September 1982, flushed with success from writing and performing in a hit comedy show at the Edinburgh Festival, I embarked on a part-time screenwriting course in London. Ten weeks later I was well on the way to becoming a fully-fledged, practising Buddhist — and no one could have been more surprised than me.

Three things had happened in those ten weeks. First, the course had been brilliant — a down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts explanation of how to tell a story on screen: how to create believable characters, write convincing dialogue, build suspense, spring surprises and stay at least one step ahead of the audience. It was a revelation and laid the foundation for my subsequent years writing TV drama.

Second, a friendship had grown between me and the tutor, a whisky-drinking, Gitanes-smoking, dirty-joke-telling filmmaker and writer called Jan Hillgruber. I liked him a lot, not only because he was a brilliant teacher but because he had something about him: easy charm, worldly wisdom and a hint of the exotic. He was German and had worked for the legendary UFA film studios in Berlin.

But what floored me was when Jan revealed at the end of the course that everything he’d taught had been based on Buddhism. What’s more, that he was himself a practising Buddhist.

I was amazed.

My image of Buddhism was of shaved, saffron-clad monks meditating on mountain-tops, burning incense and ringing finger-bells; of opaque doctrines that seemed designed to baffle and bewilder; and of a life of withdrawal, separation and self-denial. In short, the very opposite of everything Jan embodied and had shared in the previous ten weeks.

Buddhism, writing and me

I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. But as much as I read, and as attractive as I found the philosophy, I couldn’t get over my resistance to the actual practice. Buddhism takes many forms and its practice often involves some kind of meditation. Jan’s school of Buddhism is based on a chanting meditation, which to me seemed — well, just weird. This was back in 1982, remember, long before mindfulness became mainstream and even yoga was looked on as outré.

But one morning I was working on a film outline and found myself completely stuck. I’d steered my story into a dead end and simply didn’t know how to get out of it. Then I remembered Jan saying that whenever he got stuck with his writing he chanted. So, temporarily laying aside my Oxford-trained scepticism — and after making sure I was indeed alone in the house I was sharing — I gave it a go.

The result was astonishing. Ideas and images bubbled into my mind, and within a few minutes I’d completely unblocked the problem that had been hobbling my story. It was if I’d prised open a secret door to my creative self.

It would be no exaggeration to say that those few minutes changed my life. Over the past thirty-plus years Buddhism and writing have for me been inextricably linked. For most of that time my practice has functioned unseen to underpin my TV writing,  supporting my creativity and, just as importantly, sustaining my spirits in the face of the inevitable rejection that comes with any creative endeavour.

But in 2005 I came out of the Buddhist closet with a novel that dealt more directly with my practice, The Buddha, Geoff and Me, and last year followed it with a sequel, Bodhisattva Blues.

Buddhism, writing and me

In a way these are deeply unfashionable works. A lot of people have little time for religion, and contemporary creative writing that explores the subject (except to trash it) is a rare beast.  But, paradoxically, this could be precisely why fiction that ventures into this territory from a Buddhist viewpoint (‘Is it religion, is it philosophy?’) has found a readership; more than half of all sales of Geoffhave been in Catholic Italy.

And I’m not alone, of course. The Buddhist novel may be a very particular niche in world literature but – as the list on Buddhist Fiction Blog shows – it’s growing fast. The granddaddy of them all is Herman Hesse’s Siddartha (1922), followed by Robert M Pirsig’s 1974 cult hit Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – two very different approaches to the challenge of trying to bottle the essence of Buddhism in literary form.

So how have I responded to that challenge? Well, in the standard story-teller’s way, I hope – by trying to grab the reader’s attention, keep him or her engaged throughout and then delivering a satisfying ending.  Yes, I’m a fan of Buddhism and think it’s generally a good thing, but as the late, great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky once said, ‘First you have to make the audience care. Only then can you bother them with facts.’ For which, with Buddhism, read theory, principles, speculation, philosophising, preaching even. In other words, if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, especially the main characters, and/or the story doesn’t ring true, nothing else will register.

It’s a bit like me and that screenwriting course. If it had been no good, or Jan had been a useless teacher or an unlikeable human being, I doubt that I would ever have explored this extraordinary practice; maybe I would never have opened that unknown door to my creativity. The world might not have been any worse off as result. But I know I would have been.

Eddy Canfor-Dumas read English at New College (1975) and has written for Not the Nine O’Clock News and a number of TV drama series including The Bill, Wycliffe and Kavanagh QC. He also co-scripted the Bafta-nominated Pompeii: The Last Day and Supervolcano for the BBC. In addition to his Buddhist novels he ghosted Richard Causton’s The Buddha in Daily Life (Rider: 1988).

Main image © Anna Jurkovska via Shutterstock.com. Author photo courtesy of Eddy Canfor-Dumas. Book jacket © Rider Books.

Comments

By Lucy H James
on

A friend shared this with me because I have been writing a contemporary Buddhist meditation blog, kadampalife.org, for a few years now, on how to apply meditation to regular lives.

I appreciate what Eddy Canfor-Dumas is saying about Buddhist meditation opening doors to creativity. For the past 33 years (and in 1981 indeed meditation was considered outlandish!) I have found this to be the case over and over again in all aspects of my life. I hope his article encourages more people to explore the riches of Buddhism.

By Lance Reynolds
on

It is still unclear to me how (and I know it is not karma as I understand it) that I, a Wadham 1958 chemist, got introduced to Buddhism 44 years later in a salsa aerobics class in Oakland CA, but am delighted that it is flourishing in Oxford in the person of Canfor-Dumas. Buddhism's many manifestations on the "Left" coast and have been well covered in Inquiring Mind, www.inquiringmind.com, now sadly ceasing publication after 31 years with its coming spring edition. Ajahn Amaro, Abbot of Amaravati Monastery in the Chilterns, wrote for Inquiring Mind when he was co-Abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery up the road in Ukiah. He came to Buddhism after London University when he found it in Thailand as more satisfying than "sex, drugs and rock n'roll".

By David Hare
on

Fascinating story Eddy. Thank you! I had all the same misgivings about Buddhism in my young academic days. It has taken me 30 years of Buddhist practice to realise that the world needs wise hearts even more than clever brains and Eddy's books have been key to that realisation. Eddy will be too modest to admit it, but The Buddha, Geoff & Me has set hundreds or thousands of people on the path to transforming themselves and the world around them & so I think that Jan Hillgruber would be very proud of his seeking student! Here's a review on my blog of Eddy's latest novel: http://thankingthespoon.com/2014/08/29/book-review-bodhisattva-blues/

By Robert Wilson Thomas
on

I remember you Eddie when, in 1986 we shared a room in Tokyo. You insisted that I lead morning prayers (possibly the first time that I had 'lead') and shared with my your generous spirit. It was a pleasure to catch up with you through 'Geoff' and its attendant publicity. BTW I miss Jan too (I was in his Chapter when I started to practice some 30 years ago (almost). Happy dreams, happy days now back to the matters in hand.

By Anja
on

Thank you Eddy! Both books have helped me with my own practice (there are lots of underlined passages!) and are, above all, highly enjoyable reads!

By Dr. Ahmed Dahir...
on

Thank you for this article. Having had the great opportunity to study both at Cambridge and Oxford and working in the neuroscience field, I never expected to practice Buddhism but towards the end of my DPhil at Oxford I met the practice there and I can tell you it changed my life and my research direction. I know research into the Neuroscience of Mindfulness in Young Adolescents. I have not read Eddy's books but I have heard from many people that they are very good so I am looking forward to reading them.

By Francisco J. Garrido
on

Buddhism has meant a complete change of my life and completely renovated in letting me get a mental peace and invaluable personal and professional growth.

By Alfreda
on

I had the privilege of being in the same Chapter with Eddy for more than a decade and did not miss his study lectures once. Absolutely inspirational! My gratitude, Eddy, your explicit lectures enhanced my growth in Buddhism. We miss you!

By Alex Wilding
on

"Oxonian scepticism"? It is a paradox. Having been close, although perhaps only on a physical level, to the religious heart of Oxford (Christ Church 1967) I am well aware that some kind of religious faith is still very much alive, yet I am equally well aware of the sceptical atmosphere of the University's intellectual sphere.

In my undergraduate days I had acquired a handful of books about Buddhism, but it was not until four years after coming down that I "took refuge" – became, so to speak, officially committed – since when I have practised as best I can in vajrayana traditions. Meanwhile, for better or worse, the library has grown to a catalogue of some 500 and I added an MPhil in the field to my name.

Back then, it was indeed still considered odd, but there has not been a day in the intervening 40+ years that I have not drawn strength from both the Buddhist view and from Buddhist practice.

Add new comment