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And If He Sees His Shadow…

Filmmaker Harold Ramis created an underground Buddhist classic with Groundhog Day. After a chance meeting, author Perry Garfinkel embarks on a mission to find out what makes him tick.

So there I am at a literary cocktail party on Martha’s Vineyard, and this man who looks like a Vineyarder I know comes up to our small circle of writers. Just as I’m about to say, “Hi Fred,” he extends his hand and says, “I’m Harold Ramis.” I know the name, but can’t quite remember from where. I say, “Wow, you look like someone who looks just like Harold Ramis.” A lame opener, but it gets a chuckle. 

I do a double take when he rattles off the four noble truths and the eightfold path during a brief chat with our circle. “This guy knows his Buddhism,” I say to the group.

“Not really,” Ramis smiles sheepishly. The man who brought us such rollicking comedies as Animal House, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day, wants to make it clear that he is not a Buddhist.

“I don’t want to be the Buddha,” he says, with what I would come to learn is his typical self-effacement and a you’re-in-on-the-joke smirk. “I just want to admire him.”

Ramis seems so sincere, thoughtful and intelligent in this short encounter that I realize he is someone I would really like to know. Months later, we arrange to get together.

Groundhog Day, the 1993 film Ramis directed and co-wrote with Danny Rubin, became an underground Buddhist classic, despite the fact that the words “Buddhist” or “Buddha” never appear in the script, or that neither Ramis nor Rubin intended it to be Buddhist or Christian or Jewish or any of the other denominations that say it speaks to them and for them. And despite the fact that the film is, after all, a comedy. A comedic take on Buddhism? That alone could earn merit points these days when many Buddhist meditators and scholars seem to have forgotten the light touch of numerous teachers over the centuries.

“There seems to be some stigma lately against joking about Buddhism, as though the so-called three precious jewels are too precious to poke a little fun at,” said Wes Nisker, a longtime vipassana meditation teacher, Buddhist stand-up comedian and author of several books on Buddhism.

“But there are longstanding traditions and practices of doing exactly that,” Nisker said, offering a few prominent examples: Drukpa Kunley, a.k.a. the Divine Madman, the fifteenth century Tibetan rascal saint who blessed fornicators, beggars, and drunkards; Padmasambhava, the Indian teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet and was known for his trickster qualities; and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, widely acknowledged for introducing American Buddhist practitioners to “crazy wisdom.”

“Harold Ramis should be considered a revered lineage holder in the crazy wisdom tradition of the Tibetans,” Nisker said.

“The primary rule of Buddhist humor is that you never laugh at someone else’s expense. But, rather, laughter arises when we realize our futile attempts to escape the first noble truth. Pointing to our common bumbling deluded nature—with humor—apparently relieves some of the suffering. Ramis has done that in most of his films, but especially in Groundhog Day, where he seems to be saying, ‘This is what it’s like. Every day is the same thing; we make the same mistakes over and over.’ Ramis is always trying to shatter our ordinary take on reality, to reveal hidden dimensions. He is trying to create what Buddhists would call ‘beginner's mind.’”

When I ask Ramis for his take on Buddhism, he recites, from memory, something he had written when he and his wife helped sponsor the Dalai Lama’s visit to Chicago in May, 2008: “The universe is in a constant state of becoming—an ongoing miraculous creation. Every day we awaken to that miracle with gratitude, respect, and compassion for all who share the gift of being.”

“To me,” he says, “that felt like a nice distillation. I thought it was good enough to remember.”

Harold Ramis was born in 1944 to a Jewish couple of modest means but rich in love. At age twelve, he started working in his father’s grocery and liquor store, in a largely African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. He attributes his humor to his father, who would critique comedians on TV like Groucho Marx, Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, and Red Skelton. “Dad would point me to the good stuff,” he said. “Red—‘too cloying, too sentimental.’ Steve Allen—‘funny, intelligent.’ Sid Caesar—‘great stuff.’ I grew up going to movies: Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and of course the Marx Brothers.”

When I was twelve, I read the line, ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’ I took it seriously to heart. And literally. Like it was a requirement in life, akin to the Buddha’s suggestion that we maintain ‘sufficiently inquiring minds.’ ”

By sixteen, they’d moved to Rogers Park, a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. He got his first peek into the world of journalism when he was hired by the Chicago Tribune as a messenger for its ad department. He was editor of his high school yearbook, and thought his logical career step would be ad copywriter. But the seeds of a growing interest in entertainment were planted when he took ukulele lessons from a friend, and found he could sing.

His life, as he puts it, has been a study in “coincidences that in retrospect were probably what you would call karma.”

And, as if to underscore that, we discover during an interview that his ukulele teacher was, years later, a friend of mine when I lived in San Francisco. Ramis hadn’t talked to him in twenty years, so I called him, and when Ramis got off the phone he patted his heart. “I feel warm,” he beamed.

He went on to sing with folk groups, covering songs from the likes of the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters. He sang in the high school chorus, was selected for all-city chorus, and performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“All of these experiences were peepholes into worlds that were heretofore alien to me,” he said. “But it helped demystify things. At that time, I was part beatnik folksinger, part choirboy, and part entertainer.”

At Washington University in St. Louis, he was still trying to decide between writing and showbiz when he became friends with fellow student Michael Shamberg, whom he described as an “extraordinarily confident, snide and brilliant guy who was a sort of spiritual brother and creative co-conspirator.” He and Shamberg wrote skits and performed them on campus.

“Michael and I made a pact and shook hands on it,” Ramis said. “We agreed to never take work that wasn’t fun, to do only what we wanted to, and never take a job that we had to dress up for.”

Shamberg went on to become a Hollywood producer of such films as Erin Brockovich, A Fish Called Wanda, and Pulp Fiction.

“Harold is my most enlightened friend,” Shamberg said. “I always thought he was funny, but the reason I was drawn to him was he was smart, honest, and had a generosity of spirit. As far as I understand Buddhism, it’s a system of seeing things with clarity and realism. It turns out, great filmmaking is a way of seeing things clearly. The essence of comedy is seeing things clearly when others do not, and playing with the disparity between what people perceive and reality. Harold does that so well because he, like director Oliver Stone, who describes himself as a practicing Buddhist, is willing to entertain diametrically opposite ideas at the same time to get to the truth.”

After college, Ramis said, he “drifted.” He spent some time in San Francisco, then went to graduate school, lasting only two weeks. He worked in a psychiatric ward for seven months, got married, moved back to Chicago, drove a cab and worked as a substitute teacher. Around the same time, he started freelance writing for the Chicago Daily News, and enrolled in acting workshops at Second City, the improvisational comedy troupe that launched the careers of stars such as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Martin Short, and Gilda Radner.

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