Buddhism is hard to explain. Sometimes I think it is best explained by talking about something else, as the Zen masters are fond of doing. Roland Merullo succeeds in that approach in Breakfast with Buddha.
Otto Ringling is proud of himself. He is content with his nice job as a senior editor at a publishing house, with his nice kids, nice wife, and nice life. Except he’s not content, really, and he doesn’t know why. After the sudden death of his aging parents he begins wondering about “…the purpose, the plan, the deeper meaning.” Enter his ‘flakey’ sister, who sneakily arranges for him to drive her friend, Volya Rinpoche (a Buddhist holy man), from New Jersey to North Dakota to turn over her portion of their newly inherited farm to him for use as a spiritual retreat. As he and the Rinpoche travel together, Otto’s cherished image of himself starts to wear thin in spots, and, despite his best efforts, the Rinpoche’s kind (but brief) words, strange eating habits, odd silences, and unfailing patience begin to break down Otto’s firm hold on his own version of religious skepticism.
Two men, radically different, trapped in a car for a week on road trip across America is a funny premise, and it gets funnier, in the hands of Merullo. As Otto smugly enlightens the Rinpoche to the finer points of American cuisine, bowling, and miniature golf, the Rinpoche in return convinces Otto (reluctantly) to try yoga, meditation, and fasting. The funniest moments come from the genuine delivery of these well scripted imagined cultural exchanges. Anyone who has ever appreciated a good yoga class will appreciate the fury with which Otto Ringling makes it through his first one, sweating and swearing his way along. “It was hard, wasn’t it?” the instructor asks afterward. “Hard? It was like being inside of a washing machine,” Otto answers. But he allows himself to also experience a few moments of peace, and we know there is hope for him. Murello is not afraid to go deep, as well, as in this impromptu lesson from the Rinpoche when Otto asks him about the nature of good and evil: “This is the world and always this world…Inside the big world that you cannot control, you have the small world of you that you can control.” There’s no attempt to turn anyone into a Buddhist here, just exposure to some simple Buddhist ideas in bite-sized pieces, as seen through the eyes of a newly perceptive Everyman.
Breakfast with Buddha is light hearted and sweet, free of heavy handed religious dogma. Merullo is in turn hilarious and tender as he writes his way across an American landscape that brings out the worst and, in the end, the best, of Otto Ringling. It’s not just Otto that comes to some sort of revelation about himself somewhere in the Heartland of America, it’s the reader, too. If Otto were a little more likable at his worst, this book would be nearly perfect, but I still highly recommend it to anyone who leans slightly to the left and still has a “window left open” in the back corners of their mind as far as their own spirituality goes. Oh, and to anyone who wants to laugh so hard they embarrass themselves in airport waiting areas. It really is that funny.
Breakfast With Buddha
Author: Roland Merullo
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill,2008