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.
So it sounds like you’re advocating the Middle Way, which is not boycotting, but not business as usual.
Well, I would leave boycott as a possibility. And it’s really up to the Chinese. They’re under the illusion that they could keep the genie in the bottle and suggest to the world that they would be open to journalistic scrutiny. And we’ve just seen that they’ve totally locked up Tibet. They had previously locked up Mount Everest. There’s now not going to be any live coverage in Tiananmen Square. There may not be live coverage of the Olympics itself.
I think they’re a little naïve, thinking that they can control these things. I was talking to friends who deal with Chinese officials quite a bit, and they’re just so amazed that they are asked these tough questions by international journalists. They’re so habituated to controlling everything that the idea of freedom is so alien, they don’t even know what it is, nor do they see the strength that is inherent in a free press and free discussion of peoples.
So it remains to be seen a little bit what will happen in the next couple of months.
If there is a continued "cultural genocide" with Tibetan Buddhism, how does that affect people around the world who practice Tibetan Buddhism?
Well, the institutions are strong outside of Tibet. All the major monasteries have been rebuilt in India and in Nepal. And they’re thriving to the degree they can as an exiled community. Tibetan teachers are around the world right now. Part of their pain and suffering has been the joy and happiness of the rest of the world as Tibetan Lamas and Tibetans move freely. Having great teachers amongst us has been extraordinary for us. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
[But] Tibet is a cradle. Would it be like Jerusalem for a Christian being blown up and lost forever? It’s just unthinkable. And it’s still filled with possibility. It’s still relatively untouched in terms of environment, and architecture--outside of the major cities. There are vast areas of Tibet that are still Tibet, and they can be saved.
There are some problems on this planet that seem to be intractable. This one does not. It could change overnight. And it doesn’t have to change a lot. You know, it’s only a few degrees of difference to allow the Chinese to enter into serious talks with the Dalai Lama. And very quickly, this whole thing could be over.
So the letters that we write to the president, the letters we write to our senators and congresspersons, this is real stuff. They need to be encouraged. I spend a lot of time in Washington, and I know that, basically, that entire city is on the side of the Tibetans, on the side of the Dalai Lama. But they certainly can use the encouragement.
Well, there’s a tendency to tread lightly with the Chinese.
That’s true, but, as we saw with the Congressional gold medal in October, the Chinese lobbied very heavily for that not to happen. They were furious. The president was courageous to actually give the medal, in public, to the Dalai Lama and speak very forcefully, as he did.
Can you talk about your Buddhist practice outside of this?
You’re getting into territory that is so vast.
What do you mean?
Well, a daily practice is not just that. It’s all of the teachings you’ve ever had. You know, it certainly entails sitting meditation, but it’s various levels of watching your mind, being present with the mind.
The last words of the Buddha were, "Tame your mind." It doesn't mean destroy the mind, but tame it so it can be used properly.
How many minutes do you meditate a day?
Well, that’s also a complex question because there’s sitting meditation, there are all kinds of other meditations.
What about sitting?
Sitting, at least an hour.
Do you have any particular sutras that especially inspire you and keep you present and centered?
I don’t have a practice that doesn’t. I tend to be more taken with the teachings that have to do with Bodhichitta, because they’re so emotional, whereas the Shantideva, the Bodhicaryavatara, you know, there’s a great lama, Kuno Lama, who wrote an amazing piece called "In Praise of Bodhichitta."
His Holiness spoke for a few days on it. And it was impossible not to weep and hear these words illuminated by someone like the Dalai Lama.
Are there any passages that you remember as inspiring?
Well, they’re all about motivation: "I will release all sentient beings from pain, set them all in final bliss. To do that I will generate the purest mind of Bodhichitta."
Are you in communication with the Dalai Lama right now?
No, I haven’t spoken to His Holiness, but I've spoken several times with his representatives in New York.
What’s your sense of how he’s doing?
He’s in great pain, not only for the Tibetans who are suffering now, but for the Chinese as well. He takes no pleasure in this violence. At the same time, I think he is realistic that the Chinese have to understand that this is real, what’s happening, and that it’s coming out of a lot of pain and suffering in the Tibetan experience. And [the Chinese] have it within their ability to change it. And he himself would love to be part of that change and help it happen for both sides.
What do you see as the future for all of this?
The visionary portrait is that this is the year the Chinese look at themselves. My positive image is that Time magazine would have a picture of Hu Jintao and the Dalai Lama shaking hands on the cover as Men of the Year, and the both of them would get the Nobel Peace Prize. And what a positive outcome for China and for Hu Jintao and his legacy. And it’s right there. It’s right there for him to have.
And on a personal spiritual level, do you ever find yourself getting kind of overwhelmed with the task?
No. Being around His Holiness, you realize there’s a commitment to release all sentient beings in all universes from pain and suffering. There’s no time limit to that. So you just keep moving. That kind of a motivation gives boundless energy.
You said sitting is not the only way you meditate--how else do you bring mindfulness into your life?
Well, mindfulness is a quality that’s always there. It's an illusion that there’s a meditation and post-meditation period, which I always find amusing, because you’re either mindful or you’re not. The meditation is just taking different forms. But it’s always watching the mind. It’s always watching the mind.
Watching the mind while you’re saying "Always watching the mind."
It never leaves you. It’s the quality. Now, there’s a certain point when one has achieved enlightenment, that there’s no longer a watching quality. The dualism is gone. Since I’ve never been there, I wouldn’t know how to characterize that. But until that happens, watching the mind, yes.
And is there anything else that would be important for people to know?
I don’t want another 20 years to go by before this builds up again. This is a decisive moment. And, as we started this conversation, what hurts me the most is to see Tibetans who have no resort except violence.
The loss to us on this planet, the loss to us personally that this culture be destroyed, it’s unthinkable. It’s unthinkable. I don’t know what would happen to us. There’s not an ancient wisdom culture that’s still alive, that still is transforming all the negative emotions into love and compassion. Now, to see them start to lose it inside of Tibet is truly heartbreaking.
It’s up to all of us to keep this alive and not wait until there’s another explosion, but keeping working on this, because this is something that can be solved, especially this year when the Chinese care so much about what people think about them.