Friday, February 17, 2012

Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo

In 1993, at age 45, I packed up my car and moved to Texas to attend grad school at Baylor University. Over the years, I have made about 40 round trips driving to and from Philadelphia. I always enjoyed those rides as a time to relax and unwind after a long semester teaching. I listened to music or a book on tapes or CDs, I stopped when and where I wanted for a rest, to eat, or perhaps an antique store, flea market, or historical site. Most of the time, I traveled alone, but I always found the trips refreshing.

Roland Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha tells the story of Otto Ringling, 45, whose parents have died in an automobile accident in North Dakota. He loads up his car, says his goodbyes to his wife, Jeannie, and two children, and heads to his sister’s home in New Jersey. He expects to have Cecelia as a passenger for the trip, but she convinces Otto to take Volya Rinpoche, her spiritual adviser instead.

Otto, who works as a book editor for a small publishing house, is in no mood for nonsense. Initially, he resists interacting with Rinpoche, but gradually comes under the sage’s spell. Rinpoche is a Tibetan honorific, which means “precious one,” and it is usually applied to a respected teacher.

The story more than held my interest all the way to the end. Through attempts at Yoga, riddles, and stories, Otto eventually began to appreciate what Rinpoche had to offer. Otto declares himself a Christian without regular church attendance. He finds repellant Christians who believe what “ails us is more and stricter rules, more narrow-mindedness, more hatred, more sectioning off of the society, and it has always seemed to me that, if Christ’s message could be distilled down to one line, that line would have to do with kindness and inclusiveness, not rules and divisiveness.” (153) My sentiments precisely!

The last couple of chapters sum up what Otto has gained on the journey. The reluctant “hero” of the story really learns a lot about himself and his life. He always insists he has a good life, with a loving wife, two great kids, and a good job he loved, but Rinpoche pushes him to experience more. Merullo writes,

“Something was changing us with each breath, each second. The delusion of youth was that you believed you’d never reach middle age, and the delusion of middle age made you believe you could go on more or less indefinitely the way things were. Yes, the kids would grow up. Yes, you’d grow old and eventually pass away. But, really, there were so many pleasures to be had between now and then, so many tennis games, so many meals, so many weeks at the Cape and the ski lodge, so tremendously much to do before that other stage of life eventually set in.” (315)

Published by Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha is a pleasant and thought-provoking read. I have collected novels from this publisher for almost 30 years, and this one convinces me, yet again, I have done the right thing. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 2/13/12

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