Last week I read “Lunch with Buddha”, the current bestseller by Roland Merullo. Merullo, a Massachusetts resident, was a writer in residence at North Shore Community College and is the author of “Revere Beach Boulevard.” You may also have seen his occasional columns in the Boston Globe.
Merullo is a thoughtful guy and “Lunch with Buddha” is a novel that examines three questions that crop up sooner or later for many (most?) of us.
These questions are not necessarily sequential; and they may or may not be interrelated.
One question is: How do – or should – we live? What posture and attitudes do we maintain or adopt?
Another question is: What is the meaning of it all?
Another is: How do we attain individual inner peace, or equanimity?
Often, these questions come up during or after a crisis in one’s life, or in reaction to some extreme event that may appear safely beyond our world but yet may indeed cause us to reflect, doubt, assess.
In Merullo’s novel, the protagonist, Otto, is afflicted by all three questions after his young wife dies of cancer. Already a grateful, humble, reflective man – before his wife dies – he cannot make sense of the tragedy and injustice and randomness of her death.
In hopes of defeating his now-oversized uncertainties, and finding some orienting emotional and intellectual narratives, he embarks on a long, slow road trip in an old pickup truck, accompanied by his brother-in-law, Volya, who is a type of Buddhist monk.
Although, predictably, Volya’s wise lectures, and coaching in meditation techniques, are helpful to Otto’s search for answers, it is the variety of people they meet – and the attitudes that those individuals carry – that are what provide Otto with the evidence and reminders and motivation to decide to live a certain way.
He meets a couple who are convinced that homosexuals are sinners, and that gays can reverse their sexual preferences if they want to. The couple is quite sure of their position, and Otto realizes that they cannot even hear his calm disagreement with them.
He picks up a hitchhiker who tells him that a local, vegetarian, retreat center is really an Islamic, terrorist training camp. Otto happens to know the center, know the owners, and so he tries to reassure the hiker. The man swears at Otto and – with absolute certainty – tells him he is wrong.
He encounters other people who are filled with anger, intolerance, judgements, ego, hate, and certainty – always unshakeable certainty. He realizes that certainty, especially when combined with negativity, can be a poison and a tyranny that divides people, destroys imagination, and makes compromise – and ultimately society – impossible.
He quotes Schopenhauer: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” He vows to have gratitude for life, and not to spread hate and certainty.
Reading Merullo’s novel, I couldn’t help but think of the themes in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman – their great reverence for independent, passionate, non-conformist thought – the different drummer – but never without the accompanying respect for it in others.
I thought too of recent and current wars in Bosnia, Syria, Darfur, Mali, and Gaza. What is it other than certainty – religious, ethnic, economic, or political – that is at war?
I thought too of the United States. We are a country increasingly divided by certainties. Look at our Congress, paralyzed partly by politicians who brag about their unwillingness to compromise.
And many of our citizens are either modeling or mimicking this certainty. Look at the Internet blogs, talk radio, cable TV, or much ordinary discussion. The nastiness and disrespect, and the preponderance of black and white thinking, betray a way of living – a posture and attitudes – too directed by ego, underdevelopment, and parochialism.
What if we awoke tomorrow in Aleppo, or Waziristan? Surrounded by real dueling hatreds, actual violent certainties, and visible threats to life and freedom, what would we think then of our domestic politics and attitudes?
What Otto sees clearly is all the hurt done to others in the world; and he realizes that its source is all the hurt and pain, and dysfunction, and intolerance within people all over the world. His own pain enlightens him, and he vows not to “pour hurt into an already overfull world.” The real work, he recognizes, is for each of us to clean the poison out of ourselves – to remove the unexaminable sureness from our own lives.
The way the mind works, says Merullo, is that it returns to inspect its bruises again and again and again. Childhood humiliation, physical abuse, trauma, loss, argument, injustice, all sorts of injuries – the mind goes back repeatedly, to check. It is what we do with those traumas that can give us our postures and attitudes, can give us our emotional profile.
How we respond to that challenge may inform the meaning we find in life, and it almost surely will often affect others around us.
Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.