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It completely changed my life the first time I was in the presence of His Holiness. No question about it. It wasn't like I felt, "Oh, I'm going to give away all my possessions and go to the monastery now," but it quite naturally felt that this was what I was supposed to do—work with these teachers, work within this lineage, learn whatever I could, bring myself to it. In spite of varying degrees of seriousness and commitment since then, I haven't really fallen out of that path.
Melvin McLeod: Does His Holiness work with you personally, cutting your neuroses in the many ways that Buddhist teachers do, or does he teach you more by the example of his being?
Richard Gere: There's no question that His Holiness is my root guru, and he's been quite tough with me at times. I've had to explain to people who sometimes have quite a romantic vision of His Holiness that at times he's been cross with me, but it was very skillful. At the moment he did it, I'm not saying it was pleasant for me, but there was no ego attachment from his side. I'm very thankful that he trusts me enough to be the mirror for me and not pull any punches. Mind you, the first meetings were not that way; I think he was aware how fragile I was and was being very careful. Now I think he senses that my seriousness about the teachings has increased and my own strength within the teachings has increased. He can be much tougher on me.
Melvin McLeod: The Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism puts a strong emphasis on analysis. What drew you to the more intellectual approach?
Richard Gere: Yeah, it's funny. I think what I probably would have been drawn to instinctively was Dzogchen [the Great Perfection teachings of the Nyingma school]. I think the instinct that drew me to Zen is the same one that would have taken me to Dzogchen.
Melvin McLeod: Space.
Richard Gere: The non-conceptual. Just go right to the non-conceptual space. Recently I've had some Dzogchen teachers who've been kind enough to help me, and I see how Dzogchen empowers much of the other forms of meditation that I practice. Many times Dzogchen has really zapped me into a fresh vision and allowed me to see a kind of limited track that I was falling into through conditioning and basic laziness.
But overall, I think the wiser choice for me is to work with the Gelugpas, although space is space wherever it is. I think the analytical approach—kind of finding the non-boundaries of that space—is important. In a way, one gets stability from being able to order the rational mind. When space is not there for you, the intellectual work will still keep you buoyed up. I still find myself in situations where my emotions are out of control and the anger comes up, and it's very difficult to enter pure white space at that point. So the analytical approach to working with the mind is enormously helpful. It's something very clear to fall back on and very stabilizing.
Melvin McLeod: What was the progression of practices for you, to the extent that you can talk about it, after you entered the vajrayana path?
Richard Gere: I'm a little hesitant to talk about this because, one, I don't claim to know much, and two, being a celebrity these things get quoted out of context and sometimes it's not beneficial. I can say that whatever forms of meditation I've taken on, they still involve the basic forms of refuge, generation of bodhicitta [awakened mind and heart] and dedication of merit to others. Whatever level of the teachings that my teachers allow me to hear, they still involve these basic forms.
Overall, tantra has become less romantic to me. It seems more familiar. That's an interesting stage in the process, when that particular version of reality becomes more normal. I'm not saying it's normal, in the sense of ordinary or mundane, but I can sense it being as normal as what I took to be reality before. I can trust that.
Melvin McLeod: What dharma books have meant a lot to you?
Richard Gere: People are always asking me what Buddhist books I would recommend. I always suggest Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind to someone who says, "How can I start?" I'll always include something by His Holiness. His book Kindness, Clarity and Compassion is extraordinarily good. There's wonderful stuff in there. Jeffrey Hopkins' The Tantric Distinction is very helpful. There are so many.
Melvin McLeod: You go to India often. Does that give you the opportunity to practice in a less distracted environment?
Richard Gere: Actually it's probably more distracting! When I go there, I'm just a simple student like everyone else, but I'm also this guy who can help. When I'm in India there are a lot of people who require help and it's very difficult to say no. So it's not the quietest time in my life, but just being in an environment where everyone is focusing on the dharma and where His Holiness is the center of that focus is extraordinary.
Melvin McLeod: When you're in Dharmsala do you have the opportunity to study with the Dalai Lama or other teachers there?
Richard Gere: I'll try to catch up with all my teachers. Some of them are hermits up in the hills, but they come down when His Holiness gives teachings. It's a time to catch up on all of it, and just remember. For me, it means remembering. Life here is an incredible distraction and it's very easy to get off track. Going there is an opportunity to remember, literally, what the mission is, why we're here.
Melvin McLeod: Here you're involved in a world of film-making that people think of as extremely consuming, high-powered, even cut-throat.
Richard Gere: That's all true. But it's like everyone else's life, too. It just gets into the papers, that's all. It's the same emotions. The same suffering. The same issues. No difference.
Melvin McLeod: Do you find that you have a slightly split quality to your life, going back and forth between these worlds?
Richard Gere: I find that more and more my involvement in a career, in a normal householder life, is a great challenge for deepening the teachings inside of me. If I weren't out in the marketplace, there's no way I would be able to really face the nooks and crannies and darkness inside of me. I just wouldn't see it. I'm not that tough; I'm not that smart. I need life telling me who I am, showing me my mind constantly. I wouldn't see it in a cave. The problem with me is I would probably just find some blissful state, if I could, and stay there. That would be death. I don't want that. As I said, I'm not an extraordinary practitioner. I know pretty much who I am. It's good for me to be in the world.
Melvin McLeod: Are there any specific ways you try to bring dharma into your work, beyond working with your mind and trying to be a decent human being?
Richard Gere: Well, that's a lot! That's serious shit.
Melvin McLeod: That's true. But those are the challenges we all face. I was just wondering if you try to bring a Buddhist perspective to the specific world of film?