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A Glaswegian turned Buddhist: “Buddha Da” book review

Buddha Da cover. “Although the story has a linear plot, each chapter stands perfectly well on its own.” From NQBooks.

Buddha Da was published in 2003 and was the first novel by Scottish Author Anne Donovan. It was shortlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize and the 2003 Whitbread Book Award.

“When you dae sumpn and then sumpn else happens – it’s meant tae be.”

This is the Buddhist concept of karma as explained by Jimmy, a man from Glasgow who has recently turned Buddhist. Or, if this version isn’t Glaswegian enough for you, we also have Jimmy’s mother’s saying:  ‘whit’s fur you’ll no go by you’.

If you are now expecting a translation, you’re in for a disappointment. The novel was written by a Glaswegian in her words, and unless you are familiar with Scots you will struggle a little at first. But don’t let this put you are off, because within a few pages a whole world will open itself up to you, and the lives of characters who may come from a country quite different to yours will become a tangible reality. Indeed, give it a little time and you will suddenly find that you too can speak Scotts.

Author Anne Donovan. From Reid’s Readings.

A great way of sampling the novel would be to pick one of the chapters at the beginning of the book and read it all the way through. Indeed, although the story has a linear plot, each chapter stands perfectly well on its own. This is perhaps not so surprising given that the author had previously specialized in short story fiction. In fact, Buddha Da was initially meant to be a short story written from the point of view of twelve year old Anne Marie. Yet what started out as a young girl’s account quickly turned into a novel narrated by all three members of the family, with the focal point being Jimmy’s new involvement with Buddhism and the effect this has on each character.

In an online interview for Barcelona Review, Donovan explains that she had no intention of writing about Buddhism or meditation – it simply happened. The first paragraph of the novel starts with Anne Marie saying that her da will do anything for a laugh, even walking to the shops with a pair of knickers on his head. But, she says, that’s nothing compared to what he’s done now: ‘He’s turned intae a Buddhist’. And from this simple line, a whole story unfolds that intertwines Buddhist concepts of inner purity, impermanence and compassion.

“I think that often happens when you’re writing – the unconscious, or the things that have been on the back burner in your mind, take over. I hadn’t been consciously thinking about the meditation or Buddhism but here it was” (Donovan, Barcelona Review).

Like in meditation, where one simply watches thoughts as they come and go, so Donovan kept her hand open and receptive to whatever was there. And the result is potent, because the characters and relationships that were conjured up through this practice are so realistic that, until I researched the book, I believed the events to be based on a true story.

What this bittersweet tale captures perfectly, in my opinion, are the difficulties that arise when a person embarks on a path of deep self-reflection. For how can Jimmy reconcile a typically Glaswegian past of goofing around and drinking with a desire to build a wholesome way of life, and what effect will this have on his relationships? This conundrum will be familiar not only to newly turned Buddhists, but to anyone who is actively seeking to make positive changes to their lives, only to find that this inevitably comes with drawbacks. It will also ring true to the friends of such people, who may feel betrayed and watch helplessly as their loved ones grow apart from them.

Buddha Da offers no simple solution to this dilemma. After all, while Donovan does not call herself a Buddhist, she has experience in meditation and is familiar with Buddhist teachings – and her story reveals that she is well aware such insight can only come with practice. Yet her writing reflects a helpful approach to pondering the deeper questions in life, because it is imbued with a quality that is both truly Buddhist and Glaswegian: the ability to approach serious matters with a sense of humour. After all, as Buddha Da suggests, while we may deeply appreciate taking a moment to simply sit, the experience of walking to the shops with a pair of knickers on our heads can be just as rewarding. 

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