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Authors: Roland Merullo

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BOOK: Dinner with Buddha
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Rinpoche clapped a hand down on my thigh. “Maybe,” he said, “not to worry too much, okay?”

“Sure.”

“Chinese, maybe a little bit trouble, but not to worry too much.”

“Okay,” I said, but the conversation had already watered my little seed of concern. The army of my protective instincts—paternal, fraternal, avuncular—was suddenly at attention, weapons cleaned and at the ready. I was not, as they say, a New Yorker for nothing.

We went inside, where Rinpoche had more casino misfortune. On only his third spin the bells went off—he won forty-seven dollars.

“A wise man would walk out now,” I counseled from the neighboring machine.

“Win maybe one more time, okay?”

“Sure, then dinner.”

But, naturally, he won once, then twice, then a third time, while my machine swallowed money with the appetite of an underfed hen. I don't believe there was any kind of spiritual magic involved. It was simply, as the expression goes, dumb luck, and I was sure that, in time, according to the unalterable calculus of gambling, the machine would turn against him. Or maybe it wouldn't. Maybe my brother-in-law was immune to the casino calculus, the way he was clearly immune to things like the common cold, anger, and America's vast array of material and physical temptations. Part of me worried, though, that gambling was the chink in his armor, the Achilles' heel, and that, if I didn't take him by the arm and drag him into sunlight again, as I'd done in western Minnesota, he'd be ruined. Another part of me wanted to see, not his ruin of course, but a stretch of bad luck. Let him be human; let him lose; let him learn his lesson and give up gambling forever.

And a third part of me wondered if this, too, was a trick, if he might be trying to impart some new pearl of wisdom as he sometimes did, without words.

Bing! Bing! Bing!
Rinpoche was up sixty-four dollars, up eighty, up one hundred and twelve.

“I like this wery much!” he exclaimed loudly, raising an arm to encompass the entire casino and attracting stares from all directions. He had to be joking, feigning, teaching. Had to be. He gave me a sly look, eyes shifted right, hint of a devilish grin.

“There's some lesson here, isn't there.”

“Everywhere the wessons,” he said, yanking on the black ball with particular enthusiasm. He lost three spins in a row, betting the maximum, and then,
Clang! Clang! Clang!
Another sixty dollars.

“What is it? That money doesn't really matter to a spiritual man?”

“Matters, sure.”

“That we're always wanting more?”

Rinpoche stopped playing suddenly, looked for a few seconds at what he'd won, then gathered up his coins, and led me, like an experienced casino rat, straight to the cashier's window. He hadn't answered the question but I could see an answer forming in his eyes. “I like it so much, the gambling,” he said, as we headed toward the entrance. “The feeling when you win, how you say it?”

“The thrill.”

“Trill. Wery nice, this trill. Like the sex maybe a little bit. Like the happy feeling inside when you see your child smile.”

“Like the first taste of a great meal,” I said.

He laughed with his head thrown back and clapped me on the shoulder. “Like the candy. The ice cream, the how you say? Fadge brownie!”

“Fudge.”

“Fadge.”

“The sugar high.”

“The nice feeling makes you want more nice!”

“Absolutely. Always.”

“In your mind,” he tapped his right temple, “like a bells ringing, lights. The trill. This casino just like a mind with a trill inside it. Just the same.”

“It's designed that way.”

“Wery smart!”

“It's actually insidious,” I said. “It's all set up to make you happy for a while, then take away your money.” But Rinpoche had gone to one of those places he went. He was beside me, fully present as always, but I knew him well enough by then to be able to detect a certain light in his eyes. As if in possession of some cosmic radar, he'd locked onto a pure truth and was trying to figure the right way of showing it to someone with limited vision.

“You now, I think, having to give up the sugar, the cake, the ice cream, the candy bras.”

“Candy
bars.

“Give up now, my smart friend. Three weeks, maybe four.”

“Why, because I'm fat?”

“No, no!”

“Because I'm at an age when I need to start worrying about dental hygiene?”

“Because I want that you see the open space when there's no trill.”

“What's in there?”

“Ha!” he said, his one-syllable laugh. “This is the big question! . . . You anytime see the wery small smile on Buddha's face?”

“Sure. Plenty of times.”

He wrapped an arm around me and pulled me close against his shoulder. “That's what's in there, man!”

Seven

From that conversation we proceeded directly to dinner. I should interject here that whenever I left greater New York in those days I almost always experienced a dark and haunting trepidation, the fear of a restricted diet, the deep worry that I wouldn't be able to eat the kinds of food I was accustomed to eating. Mexican, real Italian on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, French, Thai, dim sum on Mott Street, Japanese, Brazilian, Malaysian, Indian, and so on. Unlike several of the other married men I knew, I'd been perfectly content to make love with one woman. Beyond the occasional twinge of lust brought on by some Manhattan beauty, I felt very little urge to sleep around. Jeannie was beautiful to my eye, imaginative in conversation and in bed, and I had, with her, the kind of soul connection that no amount of passionate one-night stands could equal. I was content. I felt lucky, blessed to have her.

With food, however, it was precisely the opposite: I craved variety. Vietnamese, Burmese, Afghani, Nepali—New York offered eateries that spanned the entire global spectrum, and two or three times a week I took advantage of that. It was medicine for me. I was afraid to be without it.

By and large, to my way of thinking, the American West was a culinary desert. There were exceptions, yes, spots of color in a vast gray smock of beef and starch. But the settlers thereabouts were white people with pronounceable names, and such people—my own family among them—preferred a diet as steady and solid as their habits of work. A decent marinara was, to quote my mother, “spicy,” which was a code word for
inferior.
A nice hot chana masala, say, or a good Moroccan stew—these pleasures were seen, by the longtime inhabitants of the American West, in something like the way the
Kama Sutra
would be seen by missionaries. Sinful, unpatriotic, spiritually perilous.

I confess that I've blocked out the name of the restaurant where the four of us ate dinner in Deadwood, Colorado. There was salmon on the menu, I remember that, and flies everywhere—not uncommon in the West in summer. And I remember, too, that when I asked our waitress if it was fresh salmon or frozen she looked at me as if I were her guest at a dude ranch and I'd asked if geldings had testicles. “Hon,” she said, by way of an answer, “this is South Dakota.”

“The pork chop then, please.”

I noticed on that first visit to our table that she was flirting with Rinpoche. “I'm a woman who likes a smooth head,” was one line, and “You're Sioux, I bet. I've always found that Sioux men fit me nicely.”

Apparently, they didn't get many Rinpoches in Deadwood, and apparently she thought Seese and I were a married couple (we both wore rings; Rinpoche did not), parents of Shelsa, and Rinpoche was an honorary uncle visiting from the reservation. It's possible she'd been drinking. On subsequent trips to our table she put a hand on Rinpoche's shoulder, touched his arm. He seemed not to notice. Neither did Cecelia.

“Did you gamble?” Seese asked her husband in what sounded like a worried tone.

“With the machine,” Rinpoche admitted sheepishly. He pantomimed a man pulling a slot lever and made a sad clown's face.

I expected my sister to ask if he'd won or lost, or to chastise him, but she said only, “I've been having all these dreams about casinos lately. It's so weird!”

“Dreams lead you to secrets,” Shelsa chimed in, and I shall always remember her saying that and always remember that we “adulted” her, as Tasha used to say when she was a girl. Meaning, we looked at her and smiled but gave no weight at all to her words.

“Can I ask if you have any idea where Rinpoche and I are supposed to go once you and Shels head back?” I said, almost adding,
Have you had any recent visions? Dreams with maps in them?
In my defense, I didn't speak those sentences. Also in my defense, I was hungry.

“Nebraska,” Seese said, without so much as a blink.

“Into the famous Nebraskan mountains?”

Her smirk. My quick apology.

“Does he have a talk scheduled there or something?”

“We have a friend in the sandhills,” she said. “A man I started a food co-op with many years ago, in Berkeley. Alton Smithson. He comes to the Center three or four times a year and does work for us instead of paying the residency fees. Alton's a computer specialist, a great one. He's become friends with Natasha, hasn't she mentioned him?”

“Not that I recall, no.”

“Well, I had a dream last night that you should go see him. I sent him a note this morning. He's expecting you. It's less than a day's drive.”

“In the wrong direction,” I said. “You had a vision about mountains. The mountains are west of here. Nebraska's east.”

“I know my geography, thank you, brother. It's just for one night.”

“I think there's something you're not telling me.”

Seese looked at her husband—Rinpoche was carving the last bits of the white flesh of a baked potato from its skin, with great care. Shelsa had finished her chicken fingers and was playing some kind of game with Topo Gigio, tilting his head left, then right, saying things like, “Tomorrow we ride the bus, Topo, but don't be afraid, okay? There won't be cats on the bus. I'll stay close to you. I'll protect you, okay? It's important not to be afraid. Your karma protects you, okay?”

The waitress checked in, sent a salacious smile toward the object of her affection, and, swinging her hips in an exaggerated way, disappeared again.

Rinpoche and Shelsa headed off toward the bathrooms and, when the bill arrived, my lovely sister said she wanted to pay and added—another moment I shall never forget—“Shels might be the next Dalai Lama.”

I blinked once, slowly, holding my eyes closed to keep myself from reacting. I understood at that moment, in the fly-ridden restaurant in Deadwood, Colorado, with part of a pork chop still uneaten on my plate, that my sister was a mad egotist. Other parents, more traditional American fathers and mothers, salved the wound of their own insecurities by making their sons out to be the next Joe DiMaggio, Michael Jordan, or Peyton Manning, their daughters the next Oprah, Beyoncé, or Maria Sharapova. Jeannie and I had run into them countless times at Natasha's soccer games and Anthony's football games. There was a particular kind of desperate urgency to the way they cheered for their kids, as if, suckled on the worship of celebrity as they themselves had been, they couldn't quite bear the thought that their Jimmy or Vanessa might turn out to be just a pretty good tight end or midfielder. My sister wasn't into sports or music; she was into spirituality. She was married to the Kobe Bryant of the spiritual world. So she'd convinced herself that, not only was her daughter spiritually gifted, the girl was special, extraordinary, the holiest of holies.

“Seese,” I said, with as much restraint as I could manage, “the Dalai Lama is always a man. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't the present Dalai have to pass on before a new one is selected?”

“It could be different this time, Otto. There could be a man
and
a woman,” Seese said. “They'd share the duties.”

“Says who?”

“Someone in His Holiness's inner circle.”

“He told you all this?”


Hinted.
In a talk I read about, not face-to-face. But it's a she, not a he.”

“Then why don't you all just fly off to Dharamsala?”

“Because we're not sure. I said
might be.
And in any case we'd have to wait for a formal invitation.”

“Why are we on this wild goose chase, then?”

“Because it came to me in a vision and because the woman who gave that talk—a very famous Rinpoche—said they're still looking for the other person, the one who'll be Shelsa's partner.”

“Do you realize how this sounds?”

“To whom?”

“To the average sane person.”

“The average sane person wouldn't even believe in the way the Dalai Lama is chosen. The average sane person—as you call it—would never believe Jesus rose from the dead, or that the Buddha was enlightened, or that prayers have any effect whatsoever, or that dreams mean anything.”

The waitress came back with the little leather book that held my sister's credit card. She looked at us and nodded, as if she'd stumbled upon yet another married couple in the midst of a post-prandial spat. Rinpoche and Shelsa returned just in time for the waitress to shoot him a call-me glance. I half expected to see her phone number scribbled on the receipt.

Rinpoche appeared to sense that we'd been discussing a difficult issue but he only sat there, hands folded, watching us as if he were a graduate student taking notes for a thesis on sibling conflict.

“Rinpoche,” I said, perhaps too forcefully. “I'd appreciate it now if you'd tell me my sister isn't crazy. I want to hear you say those words.”

My brother-in-law looked at me without expression, the muscles of his face firm and unmoving, the eyes steady, a shaft of overhead light reflecting from his bald head. He said, “I like wery much the potato here.”

I wondered at that moment if both of them had been mentally crippled by their years of isolation on the farm. With its endless winters and long distances between towns, North Dakota could do that to people. A friend of my parents, one George “Buster” Fynch, was widowed in midlife, kept farming his five hundred acres alone, but then took to nudism. He could sometimes be seen on his tractor, naked as the Good Lord made him, singing church hymns and plowing circles on flat land.

I decided I'd keep an eye on Rinpoche as we traveled, see if there'd been any change, any slippage. We left our difficult conversation at the table and strolled the sidewalks of Deadwood for a little while. There was a series of interesting historical plaques—in the late 1800s the city's Jewish mayor, Sol Star, had made sure, during hard times, that no one in town went hungry; in 1876, Wild Bill Hickok had been killed while holding a great poker hand; Calamity Jane was buried next to him; the buildings of the original gold rush town had burned to ash in 1879, and had been rebuilt in brick. The place had a Disney-esque feel, families licking ice cream cones, shops selling T-shirts, couples in motorcycle leather holding hands, a yuppie in a Yale cap taking photos with his iPad while his stern-faced wife and tow-headed twins trailed along behind.

It seemed somehow fitting when, at a little shop on that main drag, a waitress with a Sanskrit
OM
symbol tattooed on her neck sold Shelsa a strawberry ice cream cone. In a weary travelers' silence we walked back and climbed the four flights of stairs to our Silverado-Franklin suite. We had two bedrooms with forest-green carpet, torn wallpaper, an upright piano, and a huge TV in the sitting room. A framed, yellowed newspaper clipping on one wall claimed that Jack Dempsey, the famous boxer, had once slept here. This made zero impression on Rinpoche and Seese. They did their before-bed meditation with Shelsa, and I joined them there, beside the cot on which she'd sleep. Under the good monk's guidance we all envisioned a blue lake, the surface of the water ruffled at first by a small wind, and then growing calmer and calmer until it was perfectly flat and still, like the mind in deepest meditation. “Little wind blow on across this water now,” Rinpoche said quietly, resting a hand on his daughter's forehead, “and then he go still again. Flat. Blue. Sleep now, beautiful child. Sleep with wrapped around you like a blanket our love.”

I peeked once. Shelsa was sitting cross-legged on the pillow, eyelids steady, face set in an expression of the most perfect peace. I closed my eyes again and instead of envisioning the lake, I thought:
What would our world be like if every child were put to sleep this way?

The prayer completed, I hugged my niece warmly and went into the sitting room so they could have a last few minutes of family time.
The Godfather
was on the TV. Part I. I turned the volume low and watched. Luca Brasi, the vicious enforcer, was handing an envelope of money to Don Corleone and saying, “And I hope that their first child will be a masculine child.”

I turned off the set and sat on the worn leather couch in a small stew of anxiety. What if Rinpoche's bloodline, with its history of purified souls,
had
produced a kind of anti-Godfather, a blessed heir, and the line of Buddhist spiritual leaders would now switch genders? Why, in the modern world, was such a thing impossible? And then, close on the heels of that idea: What if, instead of power madness and envy leading to the assassination of a mafia figure, it led to the assassination of a spiritual figure? My niece, to be exact. Wouldn't it be better for her to keep a low profile, if she turned out, as her mother claimed, to be this special spirit?

Seese emerged from the bedroom, long hair falling on her Scottish plaid sleeping shirt, which did not go at all well with her red-checked pajama pants. She closed the door quietly behind her and came and sat opposite me. “I don't like to upset you,” she said.

BOOK: Dinner with Buddha
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