Alan Ginsberg famously encountered Walt Whitman while he was grocery shopping, but today I think I did him one better. For I found the Dalai Lama in my neighborhood grocery store in a town in North Carolina.
There was no particular warning that this would be a transformative shopping experience. I had bought what I could at a chilly Farmers Market and went by my favorite chain grocery to supplement what isn’t growing in North Carolina in February (which is quite a lot). I picked out the peppers for our chili, the onion for our soup, and the mixed vegetables for our stir fry. I was checking out, thinking about the other errands I had to do before returning home to see how my son was doing on the paper he had to turn in this evening, when a voice interrupted my reveries:
“I suppose this is an acquired taste?” the young man who was checking me out asked in a somewhat doubtful voice, picking up a package of prosciutto that my son had been asking to try, since he has never had prosciutto. “I tried it once, but I didn’t really like it. But my friend said it was an acquired taste.”
“Perhaps,” I replied. Honestly, it had been so long since I’ve had prosciutto that I can’t really remember what it tastes like. It was just that my son had been asking for it, and it was $2 off that week, so I thought I would humor his request. “My son wants to try it. I’ll see what he thinks,” I told the man.
He nodded, deftly scanning my items across his bar code reader. “Oh, now here’s something I like,” he announced more enthusiastically as he picked up an organic tropical fruit smoothie. “These are really good. I have one every morning for breakfast.”
I smiled and admitted, “That is also for my son. Actually, most of this food is. He eats more than my husband and I combined.”
The young man nodded and smiled a knowing smile that seemed to acknowledge he might be guilty of the same charge. As he proceeded to check out my food items, I started to check him out more closely. He was young– perhaps a high school student who spent his Saturday mornings making money instead of doing his homework or participating in sports or whatever other ways teenagers spend their weekend these days. He was tall (over 6 feet, I would guess) with broad shoulders and an attractive, smiling face with Asian features. So while he clearly came from another ethnic background, his accent and attitude mirrored any typical “American” teen.
I read his name tag and inquired, “What culture does the name ‘Tenzing’ come from? Is that a Chinese name?”
“Tibetan,” he informed me.
“Really? Is that where your family is from originally?”
“Yes,” he told me.
I wondered how a family makes its way half around the world from Tibet to a town in the US South, but didn’t want to pry while he was doing his work. “That’s really interesting. I’m actually reading a book by the Dalai Lama right now.”
His eyebrows shot up and he responded, “Really? What book is that?
So I told him about The Book of Joy and some of the wisdom I had been learning from the man whose birth name was only a letter off from his (Tenzin Gyatso is the Dalai Lama’s “normal” name). We chatted about the book as I paid up and he loaded my stuff into my cart. As I prepared to leave, he wished me a good day and closed with “And I hope that the book gives you a new attitude about life.”
I smiled and reassured him, “It already has. And thank you for bring some extra joy into my morning.”
As I pushed my cart to my car, I was glowing inside. I know I had gotten a real gift from this young man. In the section of the book I had read the night before, the Dalai Lama had been talking about how humans are social creatures and how we need to connect to each other on a simple heart-t0-heart basis. But as so often the case, I read the words, agreed with their wisdom, and went on doing the same thing I have always done.
In our original interaction, I didn’t connect with Tenzing. I didn’t even acknowledge him as human. He was just like a machine to me, there to complete my transaction as swiftly as possible so I could get on to all the other oh-so-important tasks in my busy, busy life. But he made the effort to connect to me. He made a simple admission, and soon we were bonding over food and teenage appetites and ultimately the need to treat each other with compassion and humanity. I was many years his senior, but he was my teacher.
And really, the more I thought about it, the more he resembled the Dalai Lama in more than the letters of their names. Tenzing was in service to me. He was friendly and down to earth and unpretentious. He cared about me and my food and my reading and my life, really. He trusted me. And so I trusted him. And I’m so very grateful that he woke me up from my unconsciousness. His interaction with me made me feel more alive.
That reminded me of what the Dalai Lama had stated in last night’s reading:
Genuine friendship is entirely based on trust. If you really feel a sense of concern for the well-being of others, then trust will come. That’s the basis of friendship. We are social animals. We need friends. I think, from the time of our birth till our death, friends are very important.
So I may never get to meet the Dalai Lama. But I got to meet Tenzing. And for today, at least, that is close enough.
Note: Quote is from p. 74, The Book of Love, Dalai Lama, Desmond Tuto, and Douglas Abrams, 2016.