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Richard Gere: In film, we're playing with something that literally fragments reality, and being aware of the fragmentation of time and space I think lends itself to the practice, to loosening the mind. There is nothing real about film. Nothing. Even the light particles that project the film can't be proven to exist. Nothing is there. We know that when we're making it; we're the magicians doing the trick. But even we get caught up in thinking that it is all real—that these emotions are real, that this object really exists, that the camera is picking up some reality.
On the other hand, there is some magical sense that the camera sees more than our eyes do. It sees into people in a way that we don't normally. So there's a vulnerability to being in front of the camera that one doesn't have to endure in normal life. There's a certain amount of pressure and stress in that. You are being seen, you are really being seen, and there is no place to hide.
Melvin McLeod: But there's no way you actually work with the product to...?
Richard Gere: You mean teaching through that? Well, I think these things are far too mysterious to ever do that consciously, no. Undoubtedly, as ill-equipped to be a good student as I am, I've had a lot of teachings, and some have stuck. Somehow they do communicate-not because of me, but despite me. So I think there is value there. It's the same as everyone: whatever positive energies have touched them in myriad lifetimes are going to come through somehow. When you look into their eyes, when the camera comes in for a closeup, there's something there that is mysterious. There's no way you can write it, there's no way you can plan it, but a camera will pick it up in a different way than someone does sitting across the table.
Melvin McLeod: How comfortable are you with your role as the spokesman for the dharma?
Richard Gere: For the dharma? I've never, ever accepted that, and I never will. I'm not a spokesman for dharma. I lack the necessary qualities.
Melvin McLeod: But you are always being asked in public about being a Buddhist.
Richard Gere: I can talk about that only as a practitioner, from the limited point of view that I have. Although it's been many years since I started, I can't say that I know any more now than I did then. I can't say I have control over my emotions; I don't know my mind. I'm lost like everyone else. So I'm certainly not a leader. In the actual course of things, I talk about these things, but only in the sense that this is what my teachers have given me. Nothing from me.
Melvin McLeod: When you are asked about Buddhism, are there certain themes you return to that you feel are helpful, such as compassion?
Richard Gere: Absolutely. I will probably discuss wisdom and compassion in some form, that there are two poles we are here to explore—expanding our minds and expanding our hearts. At some point hopefully being able to encompass the entire universe inside mind, and the same thing with heart, with compassion, hopefully both at the same time. Inseparable.
Melvin McLeod: When you say that, I'm reminded of something that struck me when I saw the Dalai Lama speak. He was teaching about compassion, as he so often does, but I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if he spoke more to a wider audience about the Buddhist understanding of wisdom, that is, emptiness. I just wondered what would happen if this revered spiritual leader said to the world, well, you know, all of this doesn't really exist in any substantive way.
Richard Gere: Well, the Buddha had many turnings of the wheel of dharma, and I think His Holiness functions in the same way. If we are so lost in our animal natures, the best way to start to get out of that is to learn to be kind. Someone asked His Holiness, how can you teach a child to care about and respect living things? He said, see if you can get them to love and respect an insect, something we instinctively are repulsed by. If they can see its basic sentience, its potential, the fullness of what it is, with basic kindness, then that's a huge step.
Melvin McLeod: I was just reading where the Dalai Lama said that he thinks mother's love is the best symbol for love and compassion, because it is totally disinterested.
Richard Gere: Nectar. Nectar is that! [In vajrayana practice, spiritual blessings are visualized as nectar descending on the meditator.] That's mother's milk; that's coming right from mom. Absolutely.
Melvin McLeod: Although you are cautious in speaking about the dharma, you are a passionate spokesman on the issue of freedom for Tibet.
Richard Gere: I've gone through a lot of different phases with that. The anger that I might have felt twenty years ago is quite different now. We're all in the same boat here, all of us—Hitler, the Chinese, you, me, what we did in Central America. No one is devoid of the ignorance that causes all these problems. If anything, the Chinese are just creating the cause of horrendous future lifetimes for themselves, and one cannot fail to be compassionate towards them for that.
When I talk to Tibetans who were in solitary confinement for twenty or twenty-five years, they say to me, totally from their heart, that the issue is larger than what they suffered at the hands of their torturer, and that they feel pity and compassion for this person who was acting out animal nature. To be in the presence of that kind of wisdom of heart and mind—you can never go back after that.
Melvin McLeod: It is remarkable that an entire people, generally, is imbued with a spirit like that.
Richard Gere: I'm convinced that it is because it was state-oriented. Obviously, problems come with that, with no separation of church and state. But I am convinced that the great dharma kings manifested to actually create a society based on these ideas. Their institutions were designed to create good-hearted people; everything in the society was there to feed it. That became decadent—there were bad periods, there were good periods, whatever. But the gist of the society was to create good-hearted people, bodhisattvas, to create a very strong environment where people could achieve enlightenment. Imagine that in America! I mean, we have no structure for enlightenment. We have a very strong Christian heritage and Jewish heritage, one of compassion, one of altruism. Good people. But we have very little that encourages enlightenment—total liberation.
Melvin McLeod: Looking at how human rights violations have come to the forefront of world consciousness, such as in Tibet and South Africa before that, the work of celebrities such as yourself who have been able to use their fame skillfully has been an important factor.