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.
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.
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.