By Roland Merullo
After their parents unexpectedly die in a car crash, Otto and his sister Cecilia plan to drive from the east coast to their family farm in the middle of nowhere, North Dakota, to settle the estate. Simple and straightforward, except when Otto arrives to pick up his sister and she informs him that she is sending a monk in her place. Cecilia wants to give her portion of the land to Volya Rinpoche so he can establish a retreat center in North Dakota. Otto grudgingly obliges and sets off with his unexpected travel companion. Once he becomes accustomed to his new arrangements, Otto resolves to show Rinpoche as much of American life as possible on their route. Part adventure, part misadventure, Otto shows Rinpoche wonders from Americana that include theme parks, bowling, and gastric delights. At the same time, Rinpoche shares his world with the skeptical Otto, but not without invitation. Self-described as Protestant (and not looking to change that), Otto asks questions about Rinpoche’s spiritual traditions, provocatively at first, then gradually with more thoughtfulness and reflection. As Rinpoche’s understanding of the United States shifts, so does Otto’s world and outlook. By the end of the trip, neither man is quite the same as the two that set out together.
“Breakfast with Buddha” by Roland Merullo tackles broad spiritual questions in the context of modern life in the United States, from the edge of New Jersey to the Center of North Dakota. While Rinpoche shows a consistent character throughout the novel (mirthful laughter at the slightest provocation),e he becomes increasingly complex as the interactions between him and Otto deepen. Otto, meanwhile, experiences profound transformation as the story progresses, reaping rewards from his willingness to entertain (rather than mock and discard) ideas from Rinpoche. through the non-native English of Rinpoche, Merullo offers koan-esque yet accessible answers to the questions posed by Otto. Rinpoche also brings a fresh set of eyes to the aspects of U.S. life shown to him by Otto, helping Otto and the reader to rethink and reexamine the habits, assumptions, and cultural conditioning of life in the United States. All along the way, Merullo describes in exquisite detail their travel path, documenting everything form hotels and restaurants to locals and landscapes, and even the content of talk radio shows. He gives just enough detail at jus the right time to emphasize the ironic yet perfect timing of Rinpoche’s lessons.
I quite enjoyed this book. At the start of the novel, I felt the same skepticism as Otto, but as Rinpoche became a more significant character in the story, I found myself very engaged with the ideas put forward. I loved that I could rely on him for laughter, mystery, reflection, and a degree of challenging my beliefs that was just on the uncomfortable side of familiar. Merullo also provides a long list of other written works that in some way inspired this novel, so now my reading list has been greatly lengthened. I recommend this one.