I would not have chosen to read this book based on the title. I did end reading it because I want to make friends.
Reading a book may seem like an odd way to make friends (unless it is a book about making friends, which this is not). But when your pastimes are solitary activities like reading, doing puzzles, or crafts, it’s hard to make friends in the ordinary course of daily activity. So I had been thinking about trying to find a book club, or even start one.
Then someone told me about meetup.com – it sounds like it would be a dating site, but it’s an online tool to find people with similar interests in order to meet offline. I found a book club, and the book to be discussed this month is Breakfast with Buddha. So I got the book from the library and read it.
I was glad to find out it was a novel, rather than a book about Buddhism. There is plenty of spiritual teaching in it, but author Roland Merullo makes a deliberate effort to avoid being preachy. I don’t know how well an atheist would like it, but I find the spiritual teachings very interesting, even if I don’t agree with all of them.
The novel is told from the point of view of Otto Ringling, who thinks he has a pretty good life – good job, wonderful wife and kids. The recent death of his parents in a car accident has him thinking a bit more about the meaning of life, though. His “flaky” sister (think tarot cards and past-life regressions) persuades (tricks?) him into taking her “guru” with him a road trip in her place (to take care of selling their parent’s property). Otto is pretty skeptical, but over the course of the trip he opens up to a new way of looking at life.
The monk, Volya Rinpoche (Rinpoche is not his name, it is an honorific used in Tibetan Buddhism), claims to belong to all religions, not specifically Buddhism, but his approach to spiritual matters certainly draws more from Eastern traditions than Western. One (two-star) reader review at amazon.com calls it Eastern religion Lite. Rinpoche introduces Otto to meditation as a way to begin “cleansing” his mind.
While I don’t identify with Otto’s sense of how good his life is or his lack of interest in religion, I certainly can identify with his discomfort at spiritual teaching that does not seem to have a clear logical underpinning. He wants to know “Why do things work this way?” and “How do you know this is true?” But Rinpoche tells him that he needs to stop thinking just with his logical mind, and let another kind of mind emerge.
From what I have read, this is a difference more between Eastern and Western religion than between Buddhism and Christianity. Eastern Orthodox Christianity does not place the same premium on rational understanding of our faith that Western Christianity does. I have come to think, in the past decade or so, that the Evangelical Christian tradition I am most familiar with tends to go too far in trying to provide rational explanations and evidence for faith.
Not that I wouldn’t like to be able to use logic to convince myself (and anyone else) about what is true – but I no longer think that’s a realistic expectation. There is certainly a place for logic and reason in the context of faith, but when dealing with mystery – and so much of life and faith remains a mystery, no matter how much people try to reason it out – logic and reason are likely to lead to oversimplification. I want things to make sense, but I also want truth, and I don’t want truth obscured when it refuses to fit the logical categories we have created to explain it.
I have often heard the kind of meditation that Rinpoche teaches Otto criticized because it leads to “not thinking.” This creates a void, some Christians warn, that will be filled by false teaching or worse (evil spirits). The kind of Christian meditation I have been taught in most churches is a very focused kind of thinking, generally on a passage of Scripture or an attribute of God.
The impression I got from this book, however, was not of meditation where the rational mind is emptied of thought – thus allowing the wrong kind of thoughts to intrude – but where the rational mind is simply put on hold for a little while. I always used to identify my sense of who I really am with my rational mind, but as human beings we are far more than rational minds, we often don’t make the best decisions when we try to make all the rest of our being subservient to reason and logic.
There are forms of Christian prayer/meditation that are less focused on rational thought. I have tried to practice these, to a limited extent, but they take a measure of time and discipline that I have not often been willing to make a place for in my busy life. I can pray in a hurry (though certainly not as well), but I can’t meditate in a hurry.
One interesting aspect of Volya Rinpoche’s character is his joy in simple pleasures, and his openness to adding American pastimes such as bowling to those pleasures. The mental image I often have of an Eastern guru is someone who is detached, not only from anxiety and pain, but also from strong positive emotions and pleasures.
Rinpoche’s advocates moderation in even good things such as food and sex, because seeking them too much makes one too focused on those pleasures and less aware of many other things. But he laughs easily and takes great pleasure in simple things. Otto is trying to introduce Rinpoche to a variety of American places and activities, and they go bowling, swimming in a lake, playing miniature golf, and to a Cubs baseball game. Rinpoche greatly enjoys the bowling, swimming, and golf – and a nap in the stands of Wrigley Field because the baseball game seems very slow and he loses interest.
I look forward to discussing the novel with other members of the book club this Thursday – and to perhaps starting some new friendships.