Dinner with Buddha

A Novel


By Roland Merullo

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“We, like Otto, find our cynicism worn away by Rinpoche’s gentle instruction in the simple but terribly difficult art of letting go, living each moment to the fullest, seeing the sacred in the everyday . . . This brave, meditative author has carved a unique niche in American literature.” —Kirkus Reviews starred review
If life is a journey–with detours, paths from which to choose, and myriad roadblocks to overcome–then Otto Ringling is most certainly on the journey of a lifetime. The first fifty or so years of his journey were pretty good. He felt that he had it all, until one day he didn’t.

Looking for answers, he calls on his brother-in-law, Volya Rinpoche, a wise man and spiritual leader. A man who accepts the world as it comes to him; a man without pride or vanity. Someone who, as it turns out, is experiencing his own time of doubt. So, in hopes of finding answers to life’s mysteries, the two embark on a journey through America, a road trip that becomes a lesson in love and gratitude.
“Merullo offers keen insight into and intelligent assessments of modern American life, but it is his compassionate portrait of a grieving Otto in search of inner tranquility that is most affecting.” Booklist
“Otto is such a full human, which is why we can empathize with his questions and immerse ourselves in his experiences. In the end, we are all humanized by the spiritual journey of Dinner with Buddha.—Spirituality and Practice
“Merullo masterfully depicts the struggles of practicing mindfulness moment by moment . . . [The] novel is full of nuanced, thoughtful prose and is an immensely satisfying conclusion to the series.”Publishers Weekly



"I had a dream last night," my sister said, and I knew, by virtue of some mysterious sibling intuition, that I was about to enter a territory of great risk.

I had just arrived from the airport in Fargo—rental car cooling in the driveway, bags not yet unpacked. Seese and I were sitting on the porch of what had once been our parents' house, a wood-frame, white-clapboard structure that overlooked two thousand acres of prime North Dakota farmland. It was nearly dusk, the high-plains August heat had eased a bit, and we were relaxing in wicker rockers on the shade of that old porch, sipping from glasses of my sister's magnificent mint lemonade, and gazing across the acreage, leased now, that still produced durum wheat with a vibrancy the gods themselves envied. We had been speaking of her daughter, my niece, a seven-year-old girl named Shelsa. According to my sister, Shelsa was a great spiritual being who'd been born in this time and place to save the world from cataclysm. Other people—sane, good, intelligent people—seemed to believe this as well. As for her uncle, yours truly, Otto Ringling of Bronxville, New York, I preferred a compassionate neutrality on the subject. Shelsa was a wonder of a child, yes. Beautiful, quick-witted, graceful, often mature beyond her years, and she loved me with a pure love I clearly didn't deserve. But a great spiritual incarnation? A kind of saint? A female Dalai Lama of the American Midwest? I simply could not make myself go there.

Much as I loved her—adored her might be a truer word—and as much as I loved my sister and her famous guru husband, Volya Rinpoche (RIN-po-shay), there were limits to my open-mindedness. When it came to my sister, especially, there were limits to the kinds of words I liked to hear, the kinds of food I would eat, the kinds of ideas I'd allow into the cluttered manger of my mind. I did not, for example, believe in one of her many specialties: past-life regression. I respected vegans and vegetarians but knew I'd never join them. Thanks to Rinpoche's kind tutelage, I had been a diligent meditator for a period of eight years, and, even with everything that had happened to me in that time, I still clung to the meditation practice as if it were a tree branch in a stormy lake and I was a novice swimmer. But in almost every other way I'd made a sharp turn away from the disciplined life. During those years there had been several emotional and psychological body blows—I'll go into detail a little later—and I'd started keeping irregular hours, gained weight, wandered off the spiritual path into an All-American backwater of TV watching and semi-indolence, a therapy of game shows, take-out meals, and bottles of red wine. It was a dark night of the soul, maybe. Or maybe just a kind of tiredness that left me living inside an old shell of decency, devoted fatherhood, and a sophisticated cynicism I associate with greater Manhattan. I wasn't sure, any longer, that there were answers to the big questions: why we suffer, why we die, why we're born in the first place. I wasn't sure there were answers, and wasn't even sure I wanted to ask the questions.

In a series of handwritten letters sent over a period of many months, my brother-in-law had assured me that my difficulties represented nothing more than one stage on a long spiritual journey. Perhaps I should have embraced that idea. The spiritual life, was, after all, his profession. But some pouty childish voice in my "thought stream," as he called it, proudly resisted. Whatever the benefits might be, I did not want, just then, to do any more interior "work." I wanted to laze in the Jacuzzi of the well-fed life. I wanted mindless, harmless distraction. I deserved, I told myself, some rest.

"It was an amazing dream, Otto," Seese was saying. "Some kind of spirit—it had no face or body but seemed to be a woman spirit—was speaking to me. She had a strong accent. Her voice was gentle and absolutely certain, quiet, like a breeze across grass, but there was nothing conceited about it. She was just absolutely sure, unbearably kind. She was speaking to me the way a loving mother would speak to her daughter."

I took a long draft of lemonade, swallowed, nodded agreeably, watched the tips of the wheat shudder in the evening breeze. "What was the woman saying?" I asked, to humor her. I knew, from my sister's tone of voice and from other conversations in our long history together, that all this was leading someplace. And I suspected it was someplace I didn't want to go. I was having a psychic moment. I was reading the aura of her words. My hopes for a restful North Dakota vacation were, something told me, about to be sent up the well-known creek.

Seese (also known as Cecelia or Celia) hesitated, made a quiet humming sound, lay her head back against the top of the chair, and smiled. "She was telling me that Shelsa was destined to meet one of the other great spirits who's on the earth at this time. She was saying—it was so convincing, brother—that Shels and this spirit were going to meet very soon. Actually, we are supposed to help them meet."

"We . . . meaning you and I?"

"You and Rinpoche, I'm sure—almost sure—were the people she had in mind. But the important part was that they had to meet. Very soon. The world's in crisis."

"I've noticed."

"And the two of them are supposed to help lead us out of the danger zone and into a new era."

"What does the new era look like? Did the woman say?"

"Are you making fun?"

"Not at all."

"She didn't say. But I could feel it. They'll usher in a world with less violence done to each other, and to the earth. Less divisiveness, less hatred and greed. Not paradise, exactly. Just . . . something better, kinder. Maybe some sort of new religion with one commandment: Don't hurt other people. I'm not sure."

I rocked back and forth, trying hard to imagine Seese's kinder universe, trying, through the curtain of my well-honed, East Coast cynicism, to picture a world without torture and war, an America that didn't have hungry children and billionaires living within a mile of each other, an international agreement to spend massive sums on medical research and education rather than on weapons systems, a planet that was nurtured rather than poisoned.

It didn't work. I watched the tips of the wheat, our own amber waves of grain, shiver and go still. It seemed to me that it was precisely the news of the world, this harsh, real world, that had chased me from New York to North Dakota for what I told myself would be a restful three-week summer vacation on the old homestead. From every direction came reports of shootings and sexual abuse, extremism, corruption, political stalemate at the expense of the poorest among us. Two Americas, as a famously disgraced presidential candidate had once said. The rich getting richer, the schools in trouble, the environment in ruins, the NSA listening in, bombs at the Boston marathon, plus radical Islamists killing people in Africa and the Middle East, in the name of their vengeful God. . . . Sadness on all fronts, it seemed.

Of course, that was and always had been part of the human condition, and I was a fool to think I could escape it, even for three weeks. If North Dakota had ever been a refuge of the quiet life, all that had gone away with the discovery of a method of squeezing oil and gas from the stone that lay beneath its surfaces. If our childhood home had ever been a paradise of small-town safety, of neighborliness and simple faith, much of that was gone now. I'd stopped for a leg-stretching stroll in Dickinson, the nearest city, and it had seemed hot and dead—bars, empty storefronts, chain restaurants peddling unhealthy food. Now, during every hour of the day and night, much of North Dakota was kept awake by enormous trucks carrying away the lifeblood of the Bakken oil fields. Tough men and hard women had invaded the Peace Garden State. We could feel the change all around us: bright lights on the prairie at night, traffic clotting the roads, prostitution, fistfights on the street, no eggs on the grocery shelf, a stabbing in Bismarck, people locking doors that hadn't been locked in generations.

"It sounds good," I said to my sister. "A world like that."

"I can tell you don't believe in it."

"I'd like to believe in it. I really would. There's just so much evidence to the contrary."

"That's why we're here," she said. "That's why you and I met Rinpoche. That's why Shelsa was born."

I clung to a diplomatic silence. I loved my sister, I did. I loved her very much.

"This woman spirit said you needed to go into the mountains," Celia went on. "It was so clear, Otto. She said it several times. The mountains. You have to go to the mountains and find this person who's going to help Shelsa change the world."

More silence. Though I wanted to, I couldn't quite look at her. I could feel a roar—NO!—forming in the space between my lungs. I didn't want to go to the mountains. What did the mountains have to offer? Serpentine roads, provincial mindset, poor Internet reception, and an absence of pad Thai. I didn't want to go anywhere. I could feel her looking at me but I kept my eyes forward, fixed on our fields. At last, after considering and abandoning several harsher remarks, I said, " 'The mountains' is not exactly a precise destination. There are mountains everywhere, all over the world."

"I know," Cecelia agreed, sadly.

I waited.

She said, "I think you and Rinpoche are supposed to start with the closest ones and go from there."

"Why don't you and Rinpoche go? He's your husband. Shelsa is your daughter."

Now it was my sister's turn at silence. I could feel a refutation forming inside her. It would be more or less fact based, impossible to contradict. At last she said, "Maybe Shelsa and I could join you at some point, when you find the person. But you're Rinpoche's . . . disciple. Really, that's the only word for it. Disciple. You have a destiny to fulfill, something you've never really been able to accept about yourself. You're special. I'm just his wife."

As predicted.

I heard voices and lifted my eyes. On the dirt road that ran past one of our outbuildings I saw, above a line of bushes, a young face, dark hair, joyous eyes. Shelsa seemed to be riding on horseback, bouncing up and down, but all I could see were her eyes, forehead, and hair. Then the beautiful smile. Then her slim shoulders, one arm waving. "Uncle Ott!" she was calling. "We are coming to kiss you, Uncle Ott!"

A dog barked, their beloved Jasper Junior, named after my own lost friend.

Another two seconds and it became clear that Shelsa was perched, not on the backbone of a horse, but on her father's shoulders. I heard Rinpoche's laugh, a throaty bellow. I saw his face—wide, deeply tanned, hairless—then his big shoulders and arms. He was built, this eccentric Russian monk, like a noseguard on a very good division three college football team. Five-seven or five-eight, square as a block of quarried stone, and yet somehow as limber as a ballerina. He was dressed, as always, in his traditional maroon robe with gold trim, and he was laughing and bouncing his daughter as if all the world's troubles had blown north on the evening breeze, as if fracking, civil war, arms dealers, and drug cartels could never touch people like us. He might have been forty and he might have been seventy; no one seemed to know. Rinpoche seemed not to care. But he was in tremendous condition. With Jasper prancing happily at his feet, Rinpoche jogged the last twenty yards with his daughter on his shoulders, then swung her down in a sweeping motion so she landed lightly in front of him. "Otto, my friend!" he called out happily. "My brother-and-waw! I'm good to see you!"

I set down my glass and stepped off the porch into our yard, and the affection I received there—Jasper's warm muzzle, Shelsa's tender hug, and then Rinpoche's, the grasp of a grizzly—was almost enough to alter the world for me. Almost enough to make me believe in my sister's finer universe and the promise of Shelsa's miraculous future, almost enough to shake me out of the skin I'd lived in for fifty-one years, the assumptions about what was real and not real, about why we had been born and what we might expect to find here, in our cauldron of pain and trouble.


While this joyous reunion was taking place, my twenty-three-year-old daughter, Natasha, was out running errands in Dickinson. It had been four months since I'd seen her, and though we spoke on the phone two or three times a week and passed e-mails and other digital burps back and forth through the ether on a daily basis, I missed her terribly. My son, Anthony, was in college on the East Coast—there already for preseason football—and during the school year I made a point of driving up to Maine to see him every third weekend or so. I'd take him and a friend out to dinner. We might attend a track meet or baseball game. We'd joke and catch up, talk sports and classes, and I'd give him a firm handshake and a hug, slip a twenty into his hand, and get in my car and head back to my empty life in Bronxville.

But things were different with Tasha; they had always been different. We'd always had a particularly close relationship, and from the time she was about four, I'd felt, strangely enough, that she'd arrived in my life to teach me things that no one else could teach me. Jeannie, her mother, felt the same way, and we'd had many conversations about that. I am not a humble man, but I am humble enough to recognize, in my twice-tattooed and occasionally moody eldest child, a strength and wisdom I do not possess. Two years ago, when her mother—and my beloved wife—passed away, Natasha had dealt with that blow not by overeating and watching too much TV, not by losing faith in the possibility of some Divine Explanation, but in just the opposite fashion: She left school before the start of her junior year at Brown and moved out here, to the retreat center run by Rinpoche and Celia, and devoted herself to the spiritual search. She told me she wanted to understand what had happened with her mother—why such things happened—before settling into a more traditional life—career, marriage, children. In short, while her father was floating away from the big questions, clinging to his meditation lifesaver, she was swimming a hard crawl stroke right into them.

A quarter hour after the hugfest, Natasha arrived in the retreat center's antique pickup, nicknamed Uma, raising a plume of dust behind her as she came. There were more warm embraces. A few minutes of packing away groceries and making small talk, and then, while Shelsa fed the dog, and while Seese prepared some kind of tofu burgers with miso mustard on top and made a salad composed of leaves and stems no one in my circle of friends had ever heard of, never mind eaten, Tash and I went out for a stroll. We did this by instinct, without having planned it, and without discussing it. There were no meditation retreats in the month of August, no earnest strangers wandering the grounds where Seese and I had played and done chores as children and where our parents had worked and sweated, no sound of the meditation bell or Rinpoche's basso chants echoing across the wheat fields. A beautiful silence had settled over our land, a curtain of quiet broken only by the crunch of our footsteps on the gravel road and the occasional happy burst of song from a meadowlark. For a little while then it was the North Dakota of my imagination.

"Things good, Dad?" my daughter asked, in her cheerful, hopeful way. She had my mother's northern European aspect—the wide-set pale eyes, the pale freckled skin—and her own mother's mouth, a heartbreaking mouth that stretched effortlessly into the saddest of all smiles and flexed into frown when she was troubled. She was tall, slim, athletic, beautiful to my eye, capable of great things, and I worried almost constantly that she'd wither away here in this dusty outback, remain single and unhappy, sprinting down a dead-end road into middle age.

"Good," I fibbed. "Fine. And with you?"

"Nice. I have what you'd probably call 'a love interest.' "

"Wonderful! Good guy?"

"Older," she said. "Kind. Really into meditation."

What leapt to my lips was: How much older? But I'd learned long ago to tread lightly when it came to Natasha's love interests. I was happy she'd found someone, but she had, in this arena, a genetic similarity to her Aunt Cecelia: Both of them had loved their way through a string of unusual boyfriends—the wild, the nerdy, the addicted and arrested, handsome and not so handsome, tall, thin, stocky, short, brilliant and rather slow; men, young and not so young, who inhabited the fringes of the masculine netherworld. I'd learned to accept it and hoped now only for one outcome: that my daughter's romantic explorations would end up where my sister's had, with a good man who treated her well.

So instead of probing I said, "And how's that going? The meditation, I mean."

"Rinpoche's guiding me. He says I'm making progress but it doesn't feel like progress. It just feels like a gradual, I don't know, a gradual becoming more myself. I'm not afraid of the things I used to be afraid of."

"Such as?"

"Such as Bakken creeps coming on to me in the market. Such as going out for long walks on the farm roads at night. Such as being out on my bike in a thunderstorm."

Keep going, I thought. Soon it will be not afraid of getting into cars with strangers, not afraid of jumping out of airplanes, not afraid of working as a guard in the state prison, not afraid of. . . . I said, "As a fearful man, I have to say I'm jealous."

"Little things, Dad, but it's nice. And it's because of the meditation. Are you keeping up with your practice?"

"Sure," I said. "It's the last bastion of discipline for me. I sometimes think that, without it, I'd drown in a sea of wine and television."

"You've gotten fat."


"Are you still working out?"

"Not as much."

"Are you depressed, Dad?"

"Not so much."

"What do you do all day?"

"Oh, you know. I meditate for twenty minutes or half an hour, morning and night. In the middle of the day I keep busy. A little tennis. Reading. TV. Seeing friends."

"You're depressed."


"You should come out here and live with us. Rinpoche's an expert on depression."

"And never experienced it a day in his life, I bet."

"No, but still."

"It's good to be here, hon. Nice to see you in the flesh, to see Rinpoche and Aunt Seese and Shelsa. But after all these years of city life, being here is like downshifting from fourth to second. It's very pleasant, refreshing. But it's not the life for me, Tash. I left this life a long time ago. I can't go back."

"And Aunt Seese drives you nuts, right?"

"I love Aunt Seese. I admire her. I'm happy to see her so happy."

"But . . ."

"But she can drive me crazy, still, yes."

"Have you ever really looked into that, Dad?"

"As a matter of fact, I have. Many times."


"I think it's because she refuses to see the world as it actually is. She believes that if she eats carefully and prays a lot and is devoted to Rinpoche and Shelsa—all good things, by the way—then she'll escape pain and death, she'll somehow come to inhabit another earth where people don't cheat and murder. We were just talking about it, as a matter of fact. She dreams of a different world, which is all fine and good, except that, as far as any rational person knows, that world doesn't exist. She's been that way since she was a girl. She hasn't changed."

"She thinks," my daughter said, in a measured, thoughtful tone that was new to her, "that if she clears her mind down to the deepest level then three things will happen: she'll never be afraid; it will be easier to love people; and it will be easier to die."

This, coming from a girl who'd recently watched her own mother die, stopped me in my tracks. Not literally—we kept walking; we were going past the solitary retreat cabins now, tidy and small, with unpainted wood siding and metal roofs. In my better days—only a few years earlier—I'd made a three-day retreat in one of them. I marked that as the end of my optimism, the high point of my spiritual attainment. Since then I'd been gliding down, slowly, almost without noticing. Down and down. My dog had died. I'd grown a belly. Even with the meditation practice, on certain days, in certain difficult hours, my mind was a circus of despair.

"You say that," I told Natasha, then I paused, "you say that in a way that's different from Aunt Seese. She sounds like she hopes it's true, you sound like you know it's true. Is that just what Rinpoche tells you, or—"

"Rinpoche is enlightened, you know that, Dad, right?"

"I believe I do, yes. I'm not sure what it means, but I believe it."

"It means that he doesn't identify with his body and his personality, his I. His mind has exploded out into something much bigger. In Christian terms it's like Jesus saying, 'Not I, but the Father who lives in me.' "

"I can feel something like that from him. I've always felt it. I just don't see it happening to me. Your aunt calls me his 'disciple.' I think that's absurd. I'm his brother-in-law, his friend, his admirer. Period."

"Enlightenment happens in stages, Dad. You have your ups and downs and then, if you keep trying, it comes over you when you least expect it."

"Even if you don't pursue what you call 'the spiritual life'?"

"Eventually. Sure. Just living makes it happen. The act of being alive is, in and of itself, spiritual evolution, unless a person purposely resists it. All the pain and pleasure, it's all a lesson. But a spiritual practice is like . . ." she twisted her lips to one side the way I'd seen her do five thousand times. "It's like the difference between a kid who goes to school and learns and a kid who goes to school and learns and comes home to parents who are reading to her and talking to her about the world, showing her things, teaching by their actions. Like what you and Mom did for us."

I couldn't speak.

"It's the difference between somebody who wants to be a good tennis player and goes out and plays once a week and somebody else who wants to be a good tennis player and takes lessons, practices, reads up on the sport, plays a lot."

"Maybe I'm too lazy for that, hon."

"I don't want you to be."


"Why didn't you want me to hang out with Judy Millen when we were little?"

"Because her parents were racist homophobes who believed God loved them and hated your mother and me because we didn't go to church on Sunday and sometimes voted for women."

"Why didn't you want me to binge drink in college and sleep with just anybody?"

"For obvious reasons, and I don't see the link between binge drinking and the spiritual life."

"If you love somebody you want what's good for them, that's the link. I don't want to see my father fat and depressed—sorry, Dad—and giving up on life. Mom wouldn't want her death to do that to you. I don't want you to grow old and die that way. I want you to really understand what a great person you are, which is something you've resisted all your life. I think there's some weird, I-can't-possibly-be-special, North Dakota fake humility there. Have you ever looked at that?"

I didn't answer. We walked along. On the heels of her loving assault I tried to think of something funny to say, some wise remark, some deflection. Natasha had always been able to pierce that artfully constructed armor of mine, an armor that worked so well with my New York friends. At the office, at parties, meeting a neighbor at a café in town or on the front lawn during leaf-raking season, we had a repartee, my acquaintances and I, a hail-fellow-well-met bravado, in some cases a pattern of minor-league jousting. Harmless, to be sure, but an armor all the same. Here, in a few sentences, she'd pierced it again. I felt raw, unguarded, shaken up, afraid of something I couldn't name. We went along for another while and then—again, without talking about it—turned around and headed back. Only a weak yellowish light remained in the western sky, the last promise of day. Finally, when we were again within sight of the farmhouse, I said, "So tell me about this new boyfriend. Name. Age. Characteristics."

I could feel her smiling next to me. I remembered what it felt like to smile at the mention of a lover. I remembered, so well, saying the word "Jeannie" to my friends and the warm feeling it raised in me. I remembered it as if it were yesterday.

"His name is Warren," Natasha said. "And he's got some of that same North Dakota neohumility I was just talking about."

"It has a good side."

"Sure it does. I love you, I love him. It's just that sometimes I can clearly see those self-imposed limits and it makes me nuts. He's thirty-eight but he looks much younger. He's six-seven, 240 pounds. He played tight end at UND until he got hurt. He's a woodworker, a great one. He has a little furniture shop in Bismarck. He used to have a drug problem, long ago, after the injury, and he went to jail for a few months—just the county jail, just for shoplifting. But he's way, way past that now. He comes here on retreats three or four times a year and is a huge, huge fan of Rinpoche. He's going to be staying here to help us out while you and Rinpoche are traveling."

I thought: Thirty-eight! Very nearly twice your age! My daughter involved with an ex-con giant with drug problems! Walking alone on the country roads! Fending off Bakken creeps! Bike riding in thunderstorms!

I said, "How did you know we'd be traveling?"

"It was all set up," she said guilelessly. "Aunt Seese has been seeing you in dreams, on the road with Rinpoche. She's been having the dreams for months now. She planned this a long time ago, at least in a loose way. Now she's trying to set up some speaking engagements for him, too, I think, so it all works out."


  • “Diners, truck stops, Indian reservations, national landmarks, Las Vegas--all lead the duo down the road to both prayerful seeking and hilarious adventure. Otto's first-person narration lends a memoir-like tone, and references to current events (Pope Francis, the 2016 election, fracking) offer a sense of immediacy. Likable Otto and wise Rinpochet lead readers on a thoughtful and memorable journey.” —Shelf Awareness for Readers, starred review

    “With six unconventionally religious novels to date, this brave, meditative author has carved a unique niche in American literature.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

    “Merullo offers keen insight into and intelligent assessments of modern American life, but it is his compassionate portrait of a grieving Otto in search of inner tranquility that is most affecting.” —Booklist

    “Merullo masterfully depicts the struggles of practicing mindfulness moment by moment . . . [the] novel is  full of nuanced, thoughtful prose and is an immensely satisfying conclusion to the series.”—Publishers Weekly

    “Otto is such a full human, which is why we can empathize with his questions and immerse ourselves in his experiences. In the end, we are all humanized by the spiritual journey of Dinner with Buddda.” —Spirituality and Practice


On Sale
Jun 2, 2015
Page Count
320 pages
Algonquin Books

Roland Merullo

Roland Merullo

About the Author

Roland Merullo is the critically acclaimed author of five books of nonfiction and twelve novels, including the Revere Beach Trilogy, Golfing with God, Breakfast with Buddha, The Vatican Waltz, and Dinner with Buddha. He lives with his wife and children in Massachusetts. His website is http://www.rolandmerullo.com.

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