I first discovered Roland Merullo after reading Breakfast with Buddha. He has now published two sequels. Lunch with Buddha continues the story of the relationship between Otto Ringling and his sister Cecelia, who has now married Volya Rinpoche. They have a daughter, Shelsa. In Breakfast, Cecelia urges Otto to allow the Rinpoche to ride with him to North Dakota to settle the estate of his parents killed in an automobile collision with an intoxicated driver. Otto is a skeptic of the first order, and is suspicious of Volya’s intentions toward his sister. However, Otto begins to understand them during that trip.
In Lunch with Buddha, the family gathers in Seattle to scatter the ashes of Otto’s recently deceased wife, Jeannie. Many parts of this novel deal with Otto’s handling his grief. On the return trip, Otto and Volya take delivery of a used truck, which an admirer has donated to Volya for use at his retreat house in North Dakota. Cececlia convinced Otto to donate the farm in North Dakota to Volya.
On the drive from Washington State to North Dakota, Otto and Volya meet a wide variety of characters, from seers and fortune tellers, to oil field workers, to bigots, who assume Otto and Volya are some sort of couple. Otto has begun a three-quarters-hearted attempt at meditation, and is much more open to Volya’s teachings, despite the fact he fails to understand some aspects of his philosophy.
At one point, Volya compliments Otto on his parenting. Volya says, “‘All the goodness has power with it, see?’ // ‘No.’ [Otto says.] // He threw back his head like a man laughing, but he didn’t laugh. There was a small smile there, a wrinkle of a smile, almost a wince. ‘Walk now,’ he said, ‘with me.’ // In his tone, in the suggestion, I recognized the start of one of what I thought of as his ‘mini-lessons.’ And I wanted a mini-lesson then. More than anything I wanted some new word, some serving of wisdom to change the way the world seemed to me at that moment. If it really were true that Shelsa was in danger, or would be down the road – and I wasn’t completely convinced -- then it was just more evidence of the unfairness of this life. A good woman, a mother, dying at age forty-eight. An innocent girl, hated by ‘bad men.’ Crucifixions, assassinations, bigotry in a thousand reptilian forms. Why didn’t good prevail? Why, if a person did, indeed, accumulate some power from being a good father, a good soul, or a great teacher, why didn’t that protect him or her from the hatred that grew everywhere on this planet like weeds in a hot lake?” (110-111). Ah, yes, the problem of evil. The insoluble mystery which has haunted Homo Sapiens for hundreds of millennia.
I have taken many long trips, and experienced some of the same wonder at the beauty of our country – the land, the mountains, the lakes, and the landscape. Otto and I share such an experience. Merullo writes, “what often happens when I’ve made a long drive into the later hours is that my body cranks itself to stay awake, and then needs some cranking-down time. There was a bar at the Bighorn, a modest little place with sports on the raised TV and a small selection of local beers. I decided I’d have one solitary Moose Drool, watch fifteen minutes of the Olympics, and head upstairs to the room” (241). Otto is approached by a woman, and they begin a conversation. She invites him to her home, and he declines. He reviews this incident a couple of times in the novel, and I found his penchant for introspection highly interesting.
Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo is a thought-provoking, insightful, wonderful examination of the journey we are all on. The third volume in this series, Dinner with Buddha is near the top of my TBR pile. 5 stars.