Friday, June 19, 2009

June Book Club: Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo

Tuesday was my monthly book club meeting and Breakfast with Buddha was the book we read. Several months after his parents are killed by a drunk driver, Otto Ringling, an average, working man living in the Connecticut suburbs, plans to return to his childhood home in North Dakota to finish family business.

Otto invites his sister on the trip but she dupes him into taking Volya Rinpoche, her spiritual guru and boyfriend. Thus begins a week-long trip of cultural and spiritual immersion for both men, especially Otto. In the beginning, Otto is furious at his sister and wary of Rinpoche, whom he suspects is nothing more than a quack. But as the days pass along with the miles, Otto's walls of distrust begin to dissolve. A friendship blooms between Otto and Rinpoche and Otto begins to find the answers to his questions about life.

The author gently guides the reader through a smattering of beliefs held by Christians, Hindus and Buddists. The author does not quote from any holy books, but rather he mentions the teachings of Jesus Christ and Buddha. He delves into the subjects of meditation, reincarnation, prayers, morality and the "golden rule".

Merullo uses vivid imagery to describe physical surroundings ("There is no feeling like walking through the old cement bowels of a place like Wrigley or Fenway or the House That Ruth Built, then emerging into the artificial light, seeing the flat, perfect emerald city of the playing field, the players themselves like gods in their white uniforms..."), Otto's internal conflicts (..."I was a well-off white man in a poor black neighborhood, my social standing stamped on my car, clothes, face and posture as clearly as any mark of poverty, and I felt disliked, guilty, and vulnerable." "...With their empty interiors and dirty plywood eyes, the fine old stone buildings on Youngstown's main drag somehow seemed to mirror me: nice enough on the outside, architecturally pleasing and structurally sound, but with some hollowed out places where the rats ran."), and memories invoked by simple encounters.

The loss of Otto's parents remains in the background of the story, but Merullo does a good job of linking Otto's parent's death with his resulting spiritual crisis. The book does not preach religion at you, rather it invites you to probe your personal spiritual beliefs. The story is not heavy nor is it overly light hearted. I highly recommend the book.

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