Dinner with Buddha
A Novel
Roland Merullo
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
Otto Ringling's brother-in-law is a realised Buddhist master. And although Otto is as American as apple-pie (comes from New York City; sees the planet as endangered; worries when his niece goes out on the streets alone) he gets along just fine with Rinpoche. In fact, this is their second trip together, the previous covered in Lunch with Buddha.

They leave from North Dakota and spend a couple of months on the road, wondering (I meant to write "wandering," but the other will do fine) about the middle west, ending up in Las Vegas.

Rinpoche comes from Russia; Otto explains that his name means "precious one;" agrees, maybe, that

    he's been reincarnated so many times that he has a different view of life than the rest of us do. He's not afraid of dying, doesn't care about money, often skips dinner, usually rises at three a.m. to pray for a few hours.

The fun in Dinner with Buddha comes from the fact that these two are a perfect foil for each other; alone on the road together, they do what people always do when they are in a car, day after day, night after night. That is, begin to fathom each other --- to comprehend each other's strengths, weaknesses, foibles.

Rinpoche lives his life with relish (and oatmeal and tofu), finding America and Americans endlessly fascinating. In dialogue with the waiter at Trapper's Skillet Restaurant there outside their home in North Dakota, after the man thanks him for the big tip and tells him he is going up to Bakken so he can work fracking, Rinpoche says, "Good money, yes?"

"Bet your ass," says the waiter.

"Bet your ass," Rinpoche repeated.

    He seemed to be making a study of the local dialect . . . "Three grand a week, my friend."

    "What is this grand?" asks Rinpoche.

The Buddha master is thus the perfect innocent . . . listening, pondering the answers in an open, non-judgmental way. Yet, when directly questioned, he can be amusingly obtuse. Otto is worried because Rinpoche's wife, his sister, seems to think that her young daughter has had a special rebirth and is soon to become the next Dali Lama. They're in a roadside café, eating, a pork chop for Otto, French fries for the master, and Otto begin to question Rinpoche. "I'd appreciate it now if you'd tell me my sister isn't crazy . . . I want to hear you say those words."

    My brother-in-law looked at me without expression, the muscles of his face firm and unmoving, the eyes steady, a shaft of overhead light reflecting from his bald head. He said, "I like wery much the potato here."

Otto: "I wondered at that moment if both of them had been mentally crippled by their years of isolation on the farm. With its endless winters and long distances between towns, North Dakota could do that to people."

§   §   §

Dinner with Buddha is a helluva lot of fun. It is Travels with Charlie with a charming monk and a doubting Thomas instead of a dog and an egoistic writer; or, better, On the Road without that noisy Neal Cassady on crank. Some of the scenery they pass through makes the book read like a sales-pitch dreamed up by the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, almost made me think of taking another trip through parts of that state just to see the same vistas.

Rinpoche in the hands of a lesser writer could easily be a parody of East meets West, yet, he is, with his dotty ways and his weird accent ("brother-and-waw," wery good)," someone we'd like to know. The author has crafted a convincing character. He is world famous, and part of the trip is for him to meet with some of his followers in, for instance, Leadville, Colorado --- where he gives an off-the-wall speech to his fans.

Here, as elsewhere in the book, Rinpoche's everyday explanation of the tenets of Buddhism ring true because Merullo has done his homework. For instance, the master says that we use metaphor (he calls it "madaphor") for something as big as the wind or the moon because those concepts are just too large for our minds to handle; in the same way, each of us --- in our bodies --- are but a "madaphor" of "the Divine Intelligence." The need that some have to hurt or to kill is a result of our separation from this divine, the absence of this intelligence in our lives.

There is a fine dialogue with a straight-backed Christian who comes to the gathering merely to trip him up. She is full of faith in the hellfires of damnation, and says so. Instead of fighting her, as you or I might, Rinpoche agrees with her: that there is hell waiting for those who have sinned, however we may define it. "We believe almost he same," he says" "You think it goes for all time, and I think only lots of time."

    After lots of time maybe one million lifetimes, this person who hurt the other people so much or hurt this world, he starts to have a little space in the suffering. In that space, maybe he sees God's energy, that the Big Engineer has love there for him too. And in that life he starts to make a change.

"One million lifetimes." "A little space." "A little change."

§   §   §

The trick in Dinner with Buddha is to somehow win over Otto --- and the reader --- to his sister's certainty that her daughter will meet with a future master in the hills of Italy, and that the two of them will constitute a conjoined Dali Lama for the next century. This is a tall order for all, but the medium is the message, being, here, here a divine journey through the mountains and plains of the mid-west with Otto Ringling and Volya Rinpoche. Otto being Otto is convinced that when they pass through a town with slot machines that his brother-in-law is going to show his real weakness, to spend the rest of the day perched in front of one of those lit-up machines, forget that he is an Honored Master, and squander all their assets.

Rinpoche does nothing of the sort. He wins a huge wad, and, as befits his miraculously weird character; and what he does with his ill-gotten gains is equally as startling.

In Northern Colorado they get waylaid by a mother with two young boys who have a flat tire. After fixing it --- Rinpoche pausing to be fascinated with the car's "chack" --- mum insists they come home with her for pie. Once there, in the ratty trailer, in the dusty valley, as they are stuffing themselves with cherry pie and ice cream, Dad drives up, straight from work. He greets the visitors --- our middle-aged New York cynic and his bald friend in saffron robe --- with a cheerful "Get out . . . We don't need no religion bullshit in here."

Wife: "Ethan! If it wasn't for them we'd still be out at Bog's [restaurant]."

"Get out, queers," Dad said. He swings, hits Otto glancingly with a six-pack of beer he's carrying, at which point the two boys, one nine, the other thirteen, obviously used to the spazz routine, take Dad down, pin him to the floor: "they were punching, and he was swinging his arms." The older one slams him in the groin which slows him down, and Otto says,

    I watched the scene a few feet in front of me as if it were a film playing on the television and I'd slept on the couch after a night of drinking and had just awakened. From what I could tell, Dad was taking somewhat of a beating, through they made a point, it seemed, of not hitting him in the face. There was a great deal of cursing, an abundance of cursing, most of it from Dad's mouth. Edie [the wife] had started weeping in a pitiful way. Rinpoche had begun chanting --- a prayer for peace it must have been. I'd seen it work in the past, this time it didn't work, at all.

"The main problem, at that point, was logistical: The tangle of bodies, still writhing, though Dad had almost given up, stood between me and the door."

Dad is lying flat, glaring at the two visitors, cursing them. "Rinpoche stepped over them first but instead of heading right out the door he knelt down and put his mouth close to Dad's ear. I couldn't hear what he said, just wanting to get away from there before anything worse happened, before Edie came out of the bedroom with a gun, or the boys started to pull out their father's teeth." Finally, back in the car, Otto and Rinpoche roar away.

    Reconstructing the scene yet again I remembered the last thing Rinpoche had done before we hurried out the door. "What did you say to old Dad back there? I saw you whispering in his ear. Were you suggesting some chess moves for the after-supper game? Reciting the U.S. presidents in reverse alphabetical order?"

    Rinpoche either didn't hear the question and my goofiness or pretended not to hear it. It seemed to me that, in another moment, he was going to go into one of his nap-meditations, a kind of highway hypnosis with mantra.

    "You told him something."

    The good monk turned his head to me, then forward again. "Told him there was money under the dish. With the pie."


    "I put. I said, 'Look under the dish, man.'"

    "You put money there? When?"

    "When he say 'fuck' the first time."

    "How much?"

    A shrug. "Pretty much what I had."

    "Everything you had? That giant bankroll?""He scratched a thumbnail over a small ice cream stain on his robe. He said, "Looked like they could need it."

--- Pamela Wylie
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