Always looking at the sky, an interview with Richard Gere.
by Bill Bruzy
Richard Gere, actor and practicing Buddhist, has generously supported the cause of Tibetan freedom for a number of years. His foundation, The Gere Foundation, contributes directly to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community-in-exile. I recently had a chance to talk with Richard about his relationship to Buddhist practice and the Dalai Lama’s teachings.
Bill Bruzy I’m always curious about what draws people to certain paths in life. Looking back on childhood can you see a predisposition to this kind-of inquiry into life you’ve developed? Did you have a philosophical nature or did some major event propel you into inquiry?
Richard Gere Actually I remember always looking up into the sky. (laughter) That’s about all I can say.
BB The night sky? The day sky?
BB So you had some kind of longing, but how did Buddhism specifically, become a path for this longing?
RG I felt all the philosophical systems I was aware of felt inadequate. I think there was a lack of courage in most systems.
BB In what way, a lack of courage?
RG Most Western systems, there may be some I don’t know about, but all that I know about mostly start with a basic premise and then build a philosophical argument beyond that. In Buddhism I find there is no premise. There is no first statement the argument is built on. It’s the nature of the inquiry itself to be the mind looking at the mind. I think the ultimate courage of that, to me, is just breathtaking, to challenge the existence of the mind itself. The mind challenging it’s own existence.
BB So I’m still curious about beginnings here. Was it a beginning in not knowing?
RG The beginning of anything, probably the source of all movement, is suffering. (laughter) You know, anything to get away from suffering. It’s the first Noble Truth of the four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering. All things are of the nature of suffering, of frustration or pain, whatever you want to call it. Being aware of that truth, not knowing why that existed led to questions for me. Was personal to me? Did others feet the same way? Are we were doomed to this? Is it part of the fabric of reality itself? Is it part of mind itself? Could it ever be eradicated? Those are all questions I was curious about.
BB You’ve made quite an effort to bring the Tibetan Buddhist teachings to the West. What does Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism in particular, have to offer to the West? Actually this is two questions because I want to ask you about what it has to offer to the Western mind, and also the Western heart?
RG I think the heart teachings, the compassion side of Tibetan Buddhism, certainly has easy comradeship with most Western religions. I remember my parents were, and still, are good Methodists. Their sense of being good to their neighbors and treating others as they would want to be treated is something that is a strong part of their motivation. It’s obviously really important stuff, to any religion, this basic love, compassion and kindness.
I think what we are lacking, certainly in my inquiries as a kid and having a kid’s mind, was wisdom. That wisdom being that mind that explores the nature of existence, the nature of reality, the nature of mind. There was no context for that. Even for the inquiry into it, much less the answer to those questions in the Christian context I grew up in.
I think the Judaic system, although I don’t know it well, is certainly more open to that. That’s one reason the Jewish mind really makes a great Buddhist. Some of our greatest Western Buddhists are Jews. They are used to that kind of inquiry, that kind of courageous non-superstitious view of philosophy, psychology, religion, metaphysics, mind.
So I think what the Tibetans have to offer here is a wisdom context in which to see things as they really are, not as they appear to be. With an understanding and embracing of that wisdom, ultimately, allows for an infinitely greater amount of quality of compassion.
BB It would seem to be a hard-sell though, this inquiry, in the West. Not that anyone is particularly trying to sell it, but the Western mind thrives on what Buddhism considers the false self, the self that doesn’t really exist. So even for a student there will be pretty sturdy Western conditioning.
RG Well, even from a Tibetan teacher’s point of view, they like Western students. Western students are very motivated. They take a lot of notes. His Holiness is always talking about, kind-of chastising the thousand monks in front of him. He says, look at the Westerners over there. They are all taking notes, you guys are falling asleep. So they like Western students, the kind of energy they bring to it.
I think a part of that is it is new and fresh. When we hear it we hear it for the first time. It’s still potent. I think there are some ways for example, Chinese Christians are better Christians than we are. They hear it for the first time. They get more resonance from it. It’s kind-of dead to us.
The Western mind, I think, is well suited to a Tibetan form of Buddhism in many ways. The nature of the inquiry for example. But I think we are not well suited emotionally though. I think it’s real hard for us to give up self-cherishing. It’s real hard for us to surrender to a teacher. Those emotional issues are extremely difficult for us.
BB That makes a lot of sense, the emotional issues being difficult. You have a unique window on the emotional issues though and I’d like you to say something about that. You’ve had three sources for emotional information and experience that are very different, your acting, The Buddhist path, and of course your own life. How have these different directions informed you about emotional life?
RG The first discussion His Holiness and I had was about emotions. Specifically we talked about an actor’s use of emotions. Look, as an actor I am a magician with emotions. I manufacture them on demand. I should know that there is an unreal aspect of emotions. And on a rational level I do know that. But on an emotional level I don’t. I’m carried away like everyone else.
Within the context of a piece, a play, a film, I am well aware of witnessing as it’s happening and kind-of seeing the wisdom at the center of the emotion. In my own life, by habit, through infinite lifetimes, I am not able to see that.
Now as I get older I am a little more able to see it. With the specific tools that I have been taught, with the grace of my teachers, I am able to see my emotions emerge, the beginnings of them emerge, and deal with them before they hurt anybody, including myself. Certainly I do that much more than when I was a kid.
BB And dealing with emotion means?
RG Transforming. Transforming, for example, anger into patience, love, generosity.
BB You literally transform the energy of that?
RG Yes, I think at this point in my practice it is not about renunciating the emotion. It is about renunciating the attachment to the emotion.
BB That sounds like work.
RG Twenty-four hours a day.
BB Let’s turn to teachers. Did you have a desire for a teacher when you started out looking into this inquiry into the nature of life? Did you feel a longing to have someone grab you and shake you, teach you?
RG Yes. When you start reading Zen stories or whatever, the biographies, autobiographies, I really respond to those relationships between a student and a teacher. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
You can learn a lot from just reading a book but the book can’t really put up a mirror in front of you. You really need a teacher who knows you specifically. They can be a mirror for you.
BB How do you come to recognize someone is your teacher? Were you drafted?
RG I’ve never seen a teacher who just reached out and grabbed someone and said ‘you’re my student.’ I think it’s a somewhat of a falling in love experience. Somewhat mysterious. Like that.
At the same time it has to have something of a rational basis. His Holiness always warns about that. Don’t move too quickly into this student-teacher relationship. He quotes scriptures about waiting eight years, eight years of serious exploration and thought about it, really weighing it before you make that decision.
It’s a vital decision in one’s evolution and path. I consider myself infinitly-infinitly-lucky to have the teachers I do. They are totally trustworthy.
BB How did you come to establish a relationship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama? I mean the internal relationship, not just on the outside.
RG There are specific practices. The mind is a very powerful thing. If you start focusing on that, and giving yourself to it, and doing the visualizations inherent in the practices then if there is a real connection it will be enhanced. It’s like playing the piano, the more you practice the better you get and the more spontaneous it becomes. The more joyous, multi-layered, artistic it becomes. The more creative it becomes.
BB So you can feel at ease and spontaneous, creative, around His Holiness?
RG Yes but I can also be very anxious and nervous, which I usually am.
BB Ever get sleepy? (laughter)
RG I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep. (Richard turned to someone in the room and asked them if they’ve ever fallen asleep in His Holiness presence.) No, but I have to say I have seen Tibetans fall asleep. (laughter) But we say they are getting ‘special teachings’ during their sleep time.
BB In my counseling I’ve found, especially for men, that to work with emotions it often helps, much like you say about Buddhist practice, to have a good cognitive structure to create some safety and stability…
RG You know, I had a good therapist. It had noting to do with Buddhism but I was dealing with a specific issue. Frankly, it was around the time I was getting divorced. Basically this was a very good therapist who basically said I was wallowing in it! (laughing) They said let’s just talk about it factually. It immediately transformed my relationship to the emotion.
BB So analytical understanding provides a basis of trust?
RG That’s very Tibetan. It is very much His Holiness, who is primarily out of the school of the great large learning monasteries, the scholars. He’s adamant about having a solid, rational, basis for practice. It is always something to fall back on. When the emotions go wild, hormones go wild, whatever is going on that take things off in some crazy direction you can always go back to your rational understanding.
BB It’s a grounding actually.
RG Yes and if you do it correctly, which Tibetans do over and over and over again, it is totally trustworthy. You’ve done the work to really follow the argument out and you can always bring yourself back to it and find the truth of it.
BB So how has this practice of Buddhism effected you?
RG I can’t say there are any kind-of leaps and starts to it. I remember there was a story about Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco. He wrote Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. At one point he had a student who came to him and said “Sensei, I think I had kenshoe!” And Roshi said “great, can you tell me about it because I haven’t had it yet.” (laughing)
I think my own practice has been plodding. It’s been little steps and it’s practice every day. I’m not the kind-of Buddhist Yogi who makes huge breakthroughs. It’s little by little.
BB So let’s close by talking about the choice of teachings His Holiness will be bringing to New York. You made a suggestion?
RG Originally Khyongla Rato Rinpoche and I requested His Holiness to give an emptiness teaching. When we realized the number of people who would want to come and see His Holiness we began to feel it was a little advanced.
Perhaps a lojong teaching specifically on meditation would be more applicable. So we discussed it with His Holiness and he decided to do Kamalashila’s Middle Length Stages of Meditation. This is a teaching that I had several years ago. It’s a very powerful and beautiful teaching. That will be over three days at The Beacon Theatre and the other teaching, in Central Park, is also a lojong teaching, the Eight Verses of Training the Mind. This is part of the Dalai Lama’s own personal practice. His commentary on those stanzas will be from a very personal point of view. This is for the Central Park event. We wanted to create a venue where as many people as wanted to come could be accommodated.
Bill Bruzy is a writer and counselor with the Austin Men’s Center in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at (512) 477-9595 or you can view the AMC website at www.austinmenscenter.com