Teaching Mister Ordinary

On the road with Volvo Rinpoche

Joan Duncan Oliver

Breakfast With Buddha: A Novel
Roland Merullo Chapel Hill: Algonquin, October 2007
323 pages; $23.95 (cloth)

A half century after publication, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road remains the quintessential “road trip” novel. Roland Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha, also chronicling a rolling voyage à deux, shares some of the same antic spirit. But here the mood is less Beat Generation and more Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt—one traveler comically pompous, the other one wise.

Merullo’s odd couple consists of a 44-year-old New York food-book editor and a Tibetan Buddhist master of Siberian origin and indeterminate age. Which is the pompous one, which the wise, is clear from the start, but the wonder of how they wind up—and stay—in the same car is the crux of the book’s considerable charm.

The driver—and narrator of the tale—is Otto Ringling, a self-styled “Mr. Ordinary” with the predictable marks of a well-fed life: nice house in a posh suburb, happy marriage, two well-adjusted teens, “an affectionate mixed-breed dog.” Six months before we meet Otto, however, his parents were killed in an auto accident, and the veil of complacency was abruptly lifted: “the ordinary chores and pleasures of life were now set against a backdrop of wondering. The purpose, the plan, the deeper meaning—who could I trust to tell me?”

Now Otto has decided to drive west to his childhood home in rural North Dakota, to chew on the question and settle his parents’ affairs. His sister Cecilia agrees to ride along. “Seese,” as we learn in one of Otto’s many culinary asides, “is as flaky as a good spanakopita crust.” (She ekes out a living doing tarot readings and past-life regressions.) When Otto arrives to collect her, Seese suddenly announces she’s not making the trip after all but is sending her teacher, Volya Rinpoche, instead. In fact, Seese has promised Rinpoche her share of the family farm, to open a meditation retreat center.

Otto greets the news darkly. Eyeing the impassive figure in maroon robes strapped into the seat beside him, he rethinks his plans: he’ll drive straight through to North Dakota, deposit the monk, take care of business, “then enjoy a leisurely drive home, complete with fine meals and maybe a modest adventure that I could take back as material for office conversations.”

But even before he hits the Interstate, Otto sabotages his own plans. A wrong turn lands the pair in rural Pennsylvania, thereby setting the journey—and Otto’s life—on a very different course.

It’s just as well. Freeways don’t lend themselves to good road tales—or, for that matter, to self-awareness. Meandering the back roads gives Otto a fresh look at Middle America—and a not always flattering look at himself—as well as a close-up view of “Volvo” Rinpoche, as he privately calls him. Despite Otto’s best efforts to unsettle his traveling companion, he soon finds the monk is not only unfazed by his childish tantrums and rants on religion but is pretty good company to boot. While Otto teaches Rinpoche about America, Rinpoche teaches Otto about life.

Otto’s curriculum keeps to the low road: a tour of the Hershey chocolate factory in Pennsylvania; an evening of bowling in Indiana; a cutthroat round of miniature golf in Minnesota—and, wherever possible, a meal. An unabashed gourmand, Otto marvels at Rinpoche’s restraint when Volya cradles an open bag of chocolate kisses in his lap for more than hour without dipping in.

Rinpoche’s “wife wessons,” on the other hand, challenge Otto’s self-satisfaction at every turn. When Volya invites him to pose a question each morning at breakfast—hence the title—Otto snaps, “Teach me? A bit presumptuous of you, isn’t it?” before capitulating: “Fine. What is the meaning of life?”

Rinpoche merely empties a handful of dirt into Otto’s water glass. “What is this, some kind of Zen trick?” Otto grouses. Ignoring the sarcasm, Volya lets the dirt settle. It’s the start of an ongoing lesson on the defilements: “Sex, food, anger, violence, greed. Dirt in the glass.” To see life as it really is, Volya tells Otto, he must purify the mind, make the water clean.

As the miles roll on, Rinpoche unspools the dharma so gently yet adroitly that Otto’s resistance melts. In one of the book’s funnier passages, he recounts in detail his first stab at meditation—two tempestuous hours in which a “circus/symphony/rock concert” plays on in his head. Still, the lessons stick. At one point, Otto suddenly thinks better of lecturing Volya on the history of the Great Plains, blah, blah, blah—and allows himself to rest in companionable silence.

By the time the travelers reach their destination, Otto has come to an important realization: he alone is master of his spiritual condition, but this odd little monk who enjoys television, bowling, ice cream, and sex just might hold the key to the questions simmering beneath the surface of his life.

If I had the courage to reach down beyond all my strategies, my pride, my clever humor, my busyness and wants and penchant for distraction and judgment . . . I would have to admit to myself that Volya Rinpoche knew a secret about living and dying in peace and might be able to pass that secret on to me. . . . The only question now was: What did I intend to do about it?

Our regret is that we can’t accompany Otto on the journey home. It’s likely we’d have Rinpoche’s voice echoing in our heads: “Easy life this time, Otto. Do not waste, okay?”

Contributing editor Joan Duncan Oliver is the author, most recently, of Coffee with the Buddha.

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