Dinner with Buddha by Roland Merullo
Published by Algonquin Books, $16, 368 pages
Our narrator Otto Ringling is a widower, a New York suburbanite who’s lost his wife, his job and his dog. The series’ third installment finds him in North Dakota visiting his sister Seese, who’s married to the famous guru Rinpoche. Seese believes that their 7-year-old daughter, Shelsa, has an important spiritual calling, possibly involving reincarnation; dreams have hinted that her daughter’s role will be revealed by someone Rinpoche and Otto meet in the mountains. Before long, our unlikely duo head out for a cross-country road trip, one of them wearing a robe.
Very different yet fond of each other, the two men have many adventures that illuminate their views. When they stop to change a woman’s tire, she invites them home for pie, whereupon the “bad dad” comes home and violently attacks Otto. Otto is duly alarmed; the mysterious Rinpoche secretly leaves the man a wad of money. In another episode, Rinpoche arrives late to his lecture, then uses the audience’s irritation to invite them to contemplate the meaning—and uselessness—of anger.
Rinpoche’s half-amused meditative acceptance contrasts with Otto’s more skeptical views; his boots are on the worldly ground. Merullo—author of Breakfast with Buddha and Lunch with Buddha—puts their contrasting outlooks to thought-provoking use, giving Otto the chance to admire and protest from his Western mindset while learning new ways to see things. And Rinpoche, a lovable, almost boyish soul, learns from his friend in return. Their trip culminates in, of all places, Vegas, where all is revealed—and it’s surprising!
From Page 118: Maybe the more we crammed into a day the less we actually experienced. Maybe the addictive hurry was all a kind of racing away from our existential predicament, as if we could outrun old age and death, as though, if we kept busy enough, kept moving, traveled farther, checked more items off the to-do list on any given day, then, like astronauts in orbit, we’d escape the bonds of ordinary time.