Web-Exclusive Interview with Author Roland Merullo

Web-exclusive interview with Rolan Merullo, author of Breakfast with Buddha, on writing about spirituality.

Andrea Miller
27 October 2008

Web-exclusive interview with Rolan Merullo, author of Breakfast with Buddha, on writing about spirituality.

Just out in paperback, Roland Merullo’s novel Breakfast with Buddha recounts the journey of discovery that two very different characters share while on a road trip. Merullo wrote the book without an outline, completing most of the first draft while on a road trip himself. After a few decades of writing, he says, he now has the confidence to let the words just flow at first and then rework the material later. In addition to Breakfast with Buddha, Merullo has seven other books under his belt, including his newest novel American Savior: A Novel of Divine Politics. What follows is the conversation I had with Merullo.

I understand that you have a Buddhist/Christian meditation practice with a little bit if Hindu and Sufi mixed in. Can you tell me a little about why you combine all of these traditions?

Well, it’s more Buddhist than anything else. But I do read widely across the religious spectrum and I do believe that the more mystical and contemplative types in many religions are really all talking about the same thing, although in different words. I wouldn’t want to completely blur the distinctions, but, for example, the idea of purgatory I grew up with as a boy in a devout Catholic family sounds an awful lot like being reborn until we learn what it is we are supposed to learn. The idea of hell sounds a lot like a bad next life that seems endless while you are in it and saying a rosary sounds similar to types of meditations where words or phrases are repeated. I am more the kind of person who looks for common ground rather than differences. My actual practice is daily meditation from a Dzogchen tradition. I do some tonglen to start—trying to take the troubles away from people in my life or in the world and trying to give them (or sometimes it’s me) love and peace. Then I just sit for half an hour or sometimes more trying to quiet the mind. Often, before this meditation, I will read a little from Christian, Hindu, Sufi, or Buddhist works. I have been doing this for thirty years. I’ve also gone on a number of retreats, short stints with Sogyal Rinpoche, Soen Sahn, Surya Das, but also a Catholic centering prayer retreat years ago, a couple of solitary retreats for a week or a weekend, etc. Now, I have two young children, and my commitment to them is the most important thing in my life and part of my practice, so I do not go away much. Not that I see my children as merely material for my enlightenment; rather, my meditation practice helps me love them better, be more patient and understanding with them, and with my wife and with myself. These people close to me are constantly offering teachings, and I try to miss as little of that as I can.

If the fictional Rinpoche in Breakfast with Buddha lived in the real world, would you consider being his student?

Sure I would. Absolutely. I do not have a teacher or guru, and some day I hope to. My belief is that the right one will come into my life at the right time, which is what happened with my characters Otto and Rinpoche. In the meantime, I try, within the confines of ordinary family life and the ordinary struggles of making a living, to make time for practice, and to try to live in a way that moves me closer to God or enlightenment or self-realization, or whatever word best describes that mysterious place to which we are all headed. When I was at the Providence Zen Center, I remember Soen Sahn Nim saying, “Try, just try.”

The Boston Sunday Globe said that in Breakfast with Buddha, “enlightenment meets On the Road.” Was Jack Kerouac an inspiration to you and your novel?

Only in the sense that all the books I have read and loved—including On the Road and Dharma Bums—have contributed to the person I am and to the words I put on the page. I would not want to emulate Kerouac’s life. But one of the wonderful mysteries of life, to my mind, is that even people who lead troubled lives can have a pocket of enlightenment that they pass on to others. We are all teaching each other, some more directly, more obviously, even more purely, but part of our linkage is that we all pass knowledge to each other. If a reader gets a little something important or useful from what I write, then that gift comes through me, but can be traced back to Kerouac, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Robert Stone, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Merton, Ram Dass, Eric Fromm, Paramhansa Yogananda, Hazrat Inayat Khan, and countless others, including my grandmother, a kid who gave me a hard time in eighth grade, a friend who was disloyal, friends who were generous and kind, and a bus driver who once told me that everything happens for a reason, in such a voice that I really heard it. It’s a nice system, this mutual enlightening, though difficult sometimes—painful, exhilarating, puzzling.

What would you say is the most important lesson that protagonist Otto Ringling learns during the course of
Breakfast with Buddha?

That he can pay more attention to his interior life, and that he can do more than just try to be a good guy and say a prayer now and again. I grew up in a tradition in which some people felt that once they had attended mass on Sunday they had done not only everything they had to do, spiritually, but everything they could do. Luckily for me, I saw others in that tradition who understood what Otto comes to understand—that there are more opportunities than that. These are people whose example we can really learn from.

Many of your books deal with spirituality. Are there any perils or pitfalls in combining spirituality with fiction?

It’s a kind of minefield. If you sound like you are preaching, the novel dies a quick death. If you sound like you are trying to convert a reader to this or that belief system, you’re finished. A novel is a piece of entertainment, not a tract, and if you forget that you are entertaining, that you are telling a story first and foremost, then the whole thing falls apart as fast as a house with weak beams. That’s why I try, in my more overtly spiritual or philosophical novels especially (Golfing with God, Breakfast with Buddha, American Savior), to use as much humor as I can. Humor is a kind of universal language, if you get it right—and it is not easy to get right—it is a big ingredient in humility. In my books I try to present an aspect of life, to provoke some thinking maybe, to ask for a moment of examination of the way the world is. But I work hard—and don’t always succeed—to make the characters and the story primary and the ideas a kind of frosting on the cake.

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.