Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Janet Frame and Buddhism

Photograph: Some Buddhism-related books
from Janet Frame's personal library

A couple of months ago I received a query about Janet Frame in the form of a comment on a blog post. The questioner wanted to know whether any "books she left after her death" might confirm the "hypothesis" that Janet Frame had an interest in Buddhism.

In my reply comment I was able to confirm, from almost fifty years of close relationship with Janet Frame, that yes indeed, she had an interest in Buddhism. In fact, she had at one time identified as a Buddhist. I of course do not need to refer to any of Janet's books as 'evidence' for a fact I know about one of my closest friends from personal experience and from the countless conversations we had over the years, on religious and philosophical topics. But I got the idea from that enquiry, that it might be quite nice to pick out some of Janet's books from time to time and feature them on this blog. I decided to start with two or three of her Buddhist books. I can't believe that it is 2 months later and I haven't had a moment to devote to this little exercise until now! I hope to make this a regular item for the pleasure of Frame fans as I'm often asked what Janet liked to read. (The short answer is "everything". I have never known such a voracious and intelligent reader. And she didn't skim: she read constantly, steadily, and retained the information too. But of course she did have favourite books that she regularly reread - eg Pepys Diary - so I do hope to be able to feature some of these.)
As well as her own interest in Buddhism which began at least during her university years in Dunedin in the 1940s, Janet had more than a handful of close friends who were Buddhists or Buddhist sympathisers: notably Peter (EP) Dawson and Ruth Dallas. (There are several other of her friends with Buddhist leanings still living, whose privacy I do not wish to disturb by naming them here.)

Whenever the topic of Buddhism was raised, as it often was, because I myself also have identified as a Buddhist, or at least as a sympathiser, Janet would remind me: "I used to be a Buddhist." And at least once in her last years she continued, "And I suppose in a way I still am."

Janet and I often discussed religion and philosophy - we studied Catholicism together in the late 1970s - and we did agree that it was possible to be aligned to Buddhism as well as adhering to another religion or philosophy. So at one stage I referred to myself as a "Zen Catholic".

If one needs proof for the beginnings of Frame's interest in Buddhism during her student years at the University of Otago in Dunedin, try Chapter 3 of her second volume of autobiography AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE:

"I had explained to Aunt Isy that I ate very little, I was a vegetarian (I had been studying Buddhism)"

Janet often said that it was while she was living in London in the early 1960s that she was most serious about identifying as "a Buddhist". Her copy of the Penguin Classic BUDDHIST SCRIPTURES (pictured above) was printed in 1960 and still has the bookmark from the shop where it was bought, in Norfolk, near where Janet's pacifist friend Peter (Elizabeth) Dawson lived.

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