Richard Gere Is 'Always Watching the Mind'
The Buddhist actor talks to Beliefnet about Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and how his life is infused with mindfulness.
BY: Valerie Reiss
At this point, the iconic actor is probably as well known for his Buddhist activism as for his award-winning film roles. That's a huge boon to Tibetans and their compassionate practice exemplified by the Dalai Lama. His advocacy for a Tibet with freedom of religion has led Gere to become chairman of the board of directors for the International Campaign for Tibet, founder of the Gere Foundation, and a co-creator of the Tibet House.
Now he opens up to Beliefnet about his meditation practice, what we should do about the Olympics in China and his heartbreak at seeing the "compassionate, forgiving, patient" monks of Tibet "lose their center" and resort to violence in recent protests.
What’s your overall impression of what’s going on right now in Tibet?
What makes me the saddest about this is to see Tibetans so pushed up against the wall that violence is the only recourse. It’s very rare. This is not a place that they very easily go to, so one can assume that it’s that bad for them that they’ve started to lose their center as compassionate, forgiving, patient people. And it’s certainly not everyone there, but, clearly it looks like some people lost it.
How does that jell with the basic tenets of Buddhism?
Well, you’ve got to understand that the difference between Tibetans inside of Tibet who’ve been living under this very oppressive system, [is that] they’ve been totally marginalized for now almost 60 years. They’re very different emotionally. Their nervous systems are different than the ones who’ve grown up in exile. They’re very different people than you see in Dharamsala.
In what way?
Well, they’re depressed, they’re angry, they’re afraid, they’re hopeless in many ways. They seem to have lost a basic equanimity that is part of what we know of as Tibetans and we come in contact with outside of Tibet. The kind of mental illnesses and violence that’s emerging in Tibetans in Tibet is really unheard of. This is one of the saddest things.
And I would think even for the Chinese to see that Tibetans are left with this only avenue to express themselves, it's got to tell them that they have done something wrong. Their policies have been wholly destructive to the Tibetan mind and heart.
And how has this affected other Buddhists?
This uprising is not the majority of Tibetans, but it’s an indicator of what’s been happening to the Tibetans. And as skilled as they are at transforming pain and suffering into compassion, into love, into patience, there are elements who are lacking the ability in how to do that. It’s gotten that bad.
We know Tibetans that have spent 20 years, 25 years in solitary confinement, tortured almost every day by the Chinese, who have been able to transcend it in some extraordinary way. And they’ve seen the challenge as an incredible vehicle for their own transcendence. It gives them the ability to transcend the last vestiges of ego. But these are extraordinary people who can do that.
The Dalai Lama tells a story about an older monk who escaped Tibet not long ago, and he came to see him in Dharamsala, and he vaguely remembered him from the early ‘50s in one of the large monasteries in Lhasa. And he hadn’t remembered him as being a particularly good monk. An average monk. He started to talk to him about his experiences in Chinese prisons. The monk said, "I was in great danger." And His Holiness was expecting him to tell stories of being tortured. And he asked, "In danger of what? And the monk said, "Danger of becoming angry."
And at that point, His Holiness knew that it really was an extraordinary monk.
Because in a way that’s the worst thing that a Tibetan monk can do.
When I saw the pictures yesterday of the Jokhang Cathedral in Lhasa and the group of monks there, you could see the tears and the anxiety in these monks’ faces and in their voices, even--and they were speaking Tibetan and Mandarin. Not even understanding the languages, you certainly could feel this constriction in them, on the edge of hopelessness.
Is there anything that you’re doing differently right now?
I don’t know what any of us would do when we’re being tortured and how we would be able to maintain our vows. The Tibetans have been extraordinary that way. And one of the sad ironies of the situation is that the Tibetans have been very peaceful, and no one, really, has been paying any attention to them. It’s unfortunate that it takes violence to get the kind of news coverage to the situation. It’s truly unfortunate.
But I think for those of us who are capable of still encompassing our vows, the Chinese need our prayers as well. They’re acting out of ignorance and causing tremendous problems for their future and future lives. We have to be mindful of them.
Do you think that’s a good way for people to be able to contribute? With lovingkindness prayers?
Oh, there’s no question. In the realm of prayer, praying for the Chinese may be the most effective.
What kind of prayer would you say?
That their actions would be in line with a positive future, for happiness, that they would achieve happiness and the causes of happiness in the future. The only way you can do that is being altruistic, creating merit.
Their actions in Tibet are based on ignorance—a literal kind of ignorance, of not understanding the Tibetans, not understanding really what’s going on there.
This is an extraordinary opportunity for them right now to transform not only themselves but how they’re perceived in the world. And as such, you know, we all have to encourage them, whether we’re president of the United States or we’re doing our practice in our meditation rooms.
It is a crux moment. Clearly, the Chinese want to be respected in the world, and they deserve to have their greatness. But these kind of actions, and the actions of the last five, six decades is not going to achieve a lasting greatness for them. So, they need to break with their past and have a positive vision that encompasses truth, freedom, and compassion for all people.
What do you think it would take to have a shift like that occur?
Well, it’s hard to say because the people that are now running the country came up through the communist party. That does not foster free thinking.
It seems like the way this is going--because they seem to be so ill-equipped to make the kind of changes that are necessary to transform themselves--that this kind of violence is probably going to manifest again. Not just in Tibet, but we’ve seen it in China, as well. I think they’ve admitted to over 80,000 demonstrations of Chinese against the government last year. Now, if they admitted to 80-some thousand, you can imagine how many there really were.
You’d think that any sane leader would look at the situation and go, "Okay, we need to take a deep breath here, really look at ourselves, and look to the world."
And how can the U.S. and the general public use the Olympics to create peaceful change?
I’m of two minds about this. I don’t think that boycotting is a positive strategy, because I do think that just interaction of peoples brings change in a much more evenhanded way, natural, organic way.
But in a case like this, it’s very hard, in the midst of this kind of brutality and this kind of violence, to ignore it. And business as usual I don’t think is going to be appropriate this year.
It’s not enough to say that the Olympics is an athletic contest outside of politics, because it’s not. The Chinese clearly are using the Olympics to recreate how they are viewed in the world and how they view themselves. And they can’t have it both ways. If you want the spotlight, you’re going to have the spotlight.