I saw the Dali Lama at the Tillamook.
It’s true. Several years ago I took my little sister on a tour of the Oregon coast, which naturally included the Tillamook Cheese Factory. My family loves to tour factories. Maybe it’s because we grew up in suburbia where we used these household items every day and are fascinated to see where these products come from.
We walked into the viewing room, and I can’t remember if he was there first or if he entered the area, but I recognized him right away with my profound knowledge gleaned from watching Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. I also knew that he was in the Northwest at the time. I was astounded. There was no entourage like the Pope would have had and no special golf cart, just an American tour guide with a camera. It was very low-key with no one cooing over him.
I wasn’t the only one to recognize him. A woman asked to take her picture with him, and he graciously agreed. Just before the picture snapped, he grinned, “Cheese factory,” he said in an accent. That phrase with that accent is seared into my memory. I left my camera in the car, thinking there were no valuable photo ops of cheese. I kicked myself.
I watched him the whole visit. If you are wondering if I talked to him, no, I didn’t. I was too embarrassed to walk up and ask, “Excuse me, are you the Dali Lama?” And if he said yes, then what would I say? I didn’t have any conversation topics, and I don’t like bugging the famous even if they happen to be spiritual leaders.
He was all I talked about on the ride home.
He was my conversation topic to my friends and family who appropriately ooed and awed with me.
One day, while launching into the story … again … my brother said, “You know, that wasn’t really the Dali Lama, it was just a monk.” I was outraged. I protested and looked to my sister to back me up, only she agreed with my brother.
In an instant I doubted myself. Could they be right? I guess maybe it was a monk. But, no, it didn’t seem like just a monk. Later I thought of my trip to Cambodia and how the Buddhist monks had to wait for civilians to give them money or food just to survive the day. And they were always in groups of three or more. How could a lone monk afford to take a trip to Oregon? Doubt can be cruel. Once introduced, the faith that used to be there sometimes never fully comes back.
But here was my brother, discounting my belief in what I saw. I wondered why he didn’t believe me? Is it because it is too fantastic, too strange to be real? Is this what life is? The mundane is close to the heart, but the spectacular is a mistake? I don’t want to live in a world like that. I want the unusual. I want the uncommon. I want the Dali Lama and not just a monk.
I thought about the most spectacular thing in my life, God, and wondered if I treated him like a mere monk. Has He grown ordinary to me? Or is He that almost mythical God of the Old Testament that did all those interesting miracles? I can’t handle a common god. I need the One who still does miracles in my life. I don’t want to settle for less. I don’t care how foolish I sound; I want the jaw-dropping life.
Why do people say that I don’t need to aspire to do anything great, but can be ordinary and affect the people around me? Of course they are right, but shouldn’t I at least try to reach for the Brother Andrew-type life? How can we show God’s power if we don’t do audacious stunts that beg for God to help us out, like selling all our belongings and going to Uganda. That’s a life that I can look at and get fired up. That is a life that has stories to tell.
When telling my own story, I won’t hesitate with a weak version of visiting a cheese factory that ignores even the mention of an imitation of the real thing.
Even if people don’t believe me: I saw the Dali Lama at the Tillamook Cheese Factory.