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Richard Gere: My Journey as a Buddhist
By Melvin McLeod
Richard Gere talks about his many years of Buddhist practice, his devotion to his teacher the Dalai Lama, and his work for Tibetan freedom.
I suppose it's a sign of our current cynicism that we find it hard to believe celebrities can also be serious people. The recent prominence of "celebrity Buddhists" has brought some snide comments in the press, and even among Buddhists, but personally I am very appreciative of the actors, directors, musicians and other public figures who have brought greater awareness to the cause of Tibetan freedom and the value of Buddhist practice. These are fine artists and thoughtful people, some Buddhists, some not, among them Martin Scorsese, Leonard Cohen, Adam Yauch, Michael Stipe, Patti Smith, and of course, Richard Gere. I met Gere at his office in New York recently, and we talked about his many years of Buddhist practice, his devotion to his teacher the Dalai Lama, and his work on behalf of the dharma and the cause of the Tibetan people.
Melvin McLeod: What was your first encounter with Buddhism?
Richard Gere: I have two flashes. One, when I actually encountered the written dharma, and two, when I met a teacher. But before that, I was engaged in philosophical pursuit in school. So I came to it through Western philosophers, basically Bishop Berkeley.
Melvin McLeod: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really happen?"
Richard Gere: Yes. Subjective idealism was his thesis—reality is a function of mind. It was basically the "mind only" school that he was preaching. Quite radical, especially for a priest. I was quite taken with him. The existentialists were also interesting to me. I remember carrying around a copy of Being and Nothingness, without knowing quite why I was doing it. Later I realized that "nothingness" was not the appropriate word. "Emptiness" was really what they were searching for—not a nihilistic view but a positive one.
My first encounter with Buddhist dharma would be in my early twenties. I think like most young men I was not particularly happy. I don't know if I was suicidal, but I was pretty unhappy, and I had questions like, "Why anything?" Realizing I was probably pushing the edges of my own sanity, I was exploring late-night bookshops reading everything I could, in many different directions. Evans-Wentz's books on Tibetan Buddhism had an enormous impact on me. I just devoured them.
Melvin McLeod: So many of us were inspired by those books. What did you find in them that appealed to you?
Richard Gere: They had all the romance of a good novel, so you could really bury yourself in them, but at the same time, they offered the possibility that you could live here and be free at the same time. I hadn't even considered that as a possibility—I just wanted out—so the idea that you could be here and be out at the same time—emptiness—was revolutionary.
So the Buddhist path, particularly the Tibetan approach, was obviously drawing me, but the first tradition that I became involved in was Zen. My first teacher was Sasaki Roshi. I remember going out to L.A. for a three day sesshin [Zen meditation program]. I prepared myself by stretching my legs for months and months so I could get through it.
I had a kind of magical experience with Sasaki Roshi, a reality experience. I realized, this is work, this is work. It's not about flying through the air; it's not about any of the magic or the romance. It's serious work on your mind. That was an important part of the path for me.
Sasaki Roshi was incredibly tough and very kind at the same time. I was a total neophyte and didn't know anything. I was cocky and insecure and fucked up. But within that I was serious about wanting to learn. It got to the point at the end of the sesshin where I wouldn't even go to the dokusan [interview with the Zen master]. I felt I was so ill-equipped to deal with the koans that they had to drag me in. Finally, it got to where I would just sit there, and I remember him smiling at that point. "Now we can start working," he said. There was nothing to say—no bullshit, nothing.
Melvin McLeod: When someone has such a strong intuitive connection, Buddhism suggests that it's because of karma, some past connection with the teachings.
Richard Gere: Well, I've asked teachers about that—you know, what led me to this? They'd just laugh at me, like I thought there was some decision to it or it was just chance. Well, karma doesn't work that way. Obviously there's some very clear and definite connection with the Tibetans or this would not have happened. My life would not have expressed itself this way.
I think I've always felt that practice was my real life. I remember when I was just starting to practice meditation—24 years old, trying to come to grips with my life. I was holed up in my shitty little apartment for months at a time, just doing tai chi and doing my best to do sitting practice. I had a very clear feeling that I'd always been in meditation, that I'd never left meditation. That it was a much more substantial reality than what we normally take to be reality. That was very clear to me even then, but it's taken me this long in my life to bring it out into the world more, through more time practicing, watching my mind, trying to generate bodhicitta.
Melvin McLeod: When did you meet the Dalai Lama for the first time?
Richard Gere: I had been a Zen student for five or six years before I met His Holiness in India. We started out with a little small talk and then he said, "Oh, so you're an actor?" He thought about that a second, and then he said, "So when you do this acting and you're angry, are you really angry? When you're acting sad, are you really sad? When you cry, are you really crying?" I gave him some kind of actor answer, like it was more effective if you really believed in the emotion that you were portraying. He looked very deeply into my eyes and just started laughing. Hysterically. He was laughing at the idea that I would believe emotions are real, that I would work very hard to believe in anger and hatred and sadness and pain and suffering.
That first meeting took place in Dharmsala in a room where I see him quite often now. I can't say that the feeling has changed drastically. I am still incredibly nervous and project all kinds of things on him, which he's used to at this point. He cuts through all that stuff very quickly, because his vows are so powerful, so all-encompassing, that he is very effective and skillful at getting to the point. Because the only reason anyone would want to see him is that they want to remove suffering from their consciousness.