Richard Gere sees his work for the Tibetan community in India as part of his practice on the Buddhist path. “The way to freedom is working through this,” he says.
Two years ago, a four-year-old boy was left at the offices of an HIV care and prevention organization in New Delhi called Naz. Both of the boy’s parents had died from AIDS, it turned out, and the boy was infected. Though his extended family had adopted his older brother, who wasn’t infected, they didn’t want the sick boy.
“The child was left on our office premises,” says Anjeli Gopalan of Naz, “and I went completely nuts.” Gopolan became the boy’s legal guardian, and, inspired by that child, started the HIV/AIDS Care Home for Women and Children, the only residential home in all of India for the growing population of women dying of AIDS and their sick and/or orphaned children.
The Care Home is funded, for the most part, by Richard Gere’s Initiatives Foundation, the new public affiliate of the ten-year-old, private Gere Foundation. On the day that I spoke to Gopalan, she had just, for the first time, sat down with Gere in person. What she learned from him was that she would now have the funds to expand the home from ten beds to sixteen. Furthermore, Naz (Urdu for “pride”) would be able to rent a second home, where the children can live when they were feeling well.
“When they’re sick, they can come back to the Care Home,” Gopalan says, great excitement in her voice. “Otherwise they can live in their own home. You know?!” She laughs, delighted. “Now with this money coming in, I can do that. It’s such a relief!”
It is estimated that millions of children orphaned by AIDS will be homeless in India by the year 2010. The hope is that Naz’s HIV/AIDS Care Home will be a model, something that other foundations can replicate. This is the idea behind all of the projects that Gere is funding, and hoping to get others to help him fund: that they’ll serve as models, as the blueprints that local communities can work from, not only in India but in all developing countries.
About Richard Gere, Gopalan says, laughing, “Today what really resonated for me was that he’s so down to earth, so in touch with himself. That made me feel absolutely energized.” Gopalan, her load lightened, laughs again. “I was like, ‘Thank God there are people like this.’ It keeps your faith in human beings. I just think someone like him shouldn’t be like this—such a kind person. There’s no reason for someone to be like this.”
The first time I met Richard Gere I was sitting on a park bench outside a train station in a picturesque small town I’d never been to in upstate New York. It was nine months before my phone call with Anjeli Gopalan. I’d never met Gere and I didn’t expect to, even though we are both Buddhists, and even though I’d made my living as a celebrity journalist. I was, in any case, waiting for a ride to a dharma center, Karmê Chöling, five hours north, from a woman named Betty whom I hardly knew. Betty was 45 minutes late. It was a gorgeous fall morning, though—the day strikingly vivid and clear—so I didn’t mind waiting much. Then, as should always happen on particularly splendid day like that one, Richard Gere walked up and introduced himself. It’s true: he just walked up out of nowhere, in a baseball cap, smiling, very handsome, and said, “Are you Patricia?”
Well, I am Patricia, though nobody but my mother calls me that. In any case, I said yes, and he held out his hand and said, “I’m Richard.”
O.K. Sometimes life goes this way: tides of magic suddenly roll in. His face matched the day: full of cheer. I thought, how extraordinary that Betty would send Richard Gere to pick me up. The morning was perfect and getting more that way. He said, “You ready?” and I said, “Sure,” and he took my duffel bag and we walked to his shiny red pickup parked down the street.
Why was Richard Gere picking me up? Certainly he had better things to do. I said, “Are you going to Karmê Chöling?”
We were already in the truck, both of us still smiling, happy, it seemed, to be there on that day, and he put the key in the ignition. He looked at me, started up the truck, said, “No,” and put the thing in gear. I nodded. We started to roll backward, him looking in the rearview mirror to make sure there was no one behind him. Everything was easy, really nice. Still, I said, “But—you know Betty, don’t you?”
He stopped this time, and looked at me. His eyes were friendly, kind. “No,” he said.
We sat there then, two Buddhists, looking at each other, the day barely less perfect than before, just slightly stranger.
Then he said, “Are you a massage therapist?” I thought, oh shit. “No,” I said. There was a moment of silence, the sun shone through the trees, a bird sang, a person or two walked by. He said, “I was coming to pick up a massage therapist named Patricia for my wife.” There were so many possible replies, but I just said, “That’s not me.”
Thinking back on that day now, I don’t know what we did then—whether we smiled, or shook our heads or didn’t. I just know that it felt good to be sitting there with him, despite the grand faux pas. He said, “Here, I’ll help you with your bag,” and we stepped out of the truck, and he came around to my side and flipped my duffle out of the flatbed and onto the sidewalk. Together we walked back to the bench, where a woman was waiting. I said to her, “Is your name Patricia?” and she said, “Yes,” and she turned to him and he to her and that was that. They walked away. Betty eventually showed up.
When we met again, eight months later, there was no way to let him know I was the one showing up; all he knew was that a journalist was coming to his Manhattan offices to interview him about his new Initiatives Foundation. So the first thing he said as he stepped up to greet me was, “We’ve met,” and I could see him trying to remember where, figure it out. I reminded him: lovely town, fall day, park bench, massage therapist. He took three steps back fast and laughed.
Though it was sweltering in New York, it was cool and pleasant in the anteroom of his production company and foundation offices, which had photographs of His Holiness the Dalai Lama all around, and dharma books. He was wearing a green, thin-wailed corduroy, jean-style jacket over a white T-shirt, and a pair of black pants. “That was you,” he said. I said yeah, and shrugged, and he said, “You must be very trusting, to get in a truck with a stranger like that.”
I didn’t say, “You aren’t a stranger,” because that would have been too complicated at that moment to explain: It wasn’t just that I’ve seen his films, and so he seemed, on that fall day, very familiar to me. It was also that the depth of his Buddhist study and practice, his devotion to his teachers, and his adherence to the Buddhist view, made him no stranger. A fellow practitioner had come to get me from the park bench by the station. That was obvious.
“I met Richard in Bodhgaya in 1986,” says Rinchen Dharlo, president of the Tibet Fund, “during a teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And a year later I was transferred to New York to be the Dalai Lama’s representative and to head the Office of Tibet here. The People’s Republic of China, which is a strong member of the security council, with veto power, never allowed the question of Tibet to be raised in any forums of the United Nations. I remember that when you told people where you came from, they would say, ‘Tibet? Where is it?’ But that was the situation in those days.
“The situation has changed since then, mainly because of the visits of His Holiness the Dalai Lama around the world, the release of major motion pictures, resolutions adopted by the U.N., Congress and parliaments worldwide, and newly established and expanded Tibet support groups and dharma centers throughout the world. And part of the credit should go to Richard Gere, who remained so steady, who remained like an eloquent tree, in terms of campaigning and supporting the Tibetan culture.”
In 1987 Gere co-founded Tibet House in New York, where the full spectrum of Tibetan culture could be displayed in one location. According to Rinchen Dharlo, it was Gere who proposed that 1991 be the “International Year of Tibet,” and spearheaded a campaign of a thousand programs worldwide, including public talks, film festivals, conferences on Tibet, performances and cultural programs. Gere funded several important teachings during that time, including the Kalachakra initiation given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New York. At the same time Gere was working hard to raise money for AIDS research, as well as doing what he could to raise public awareness about human-rights violations around the world.
Since then Gere, now the Chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, has funded traveling surgical camps in Tibet to save the sight of Tibetans blinded by cataracts. He provided emergency relief in both India and Tibet after snowstorms killed much livestock. He has paid for the publication of important Buddhist books, including Dzogchen master Tulku Ugyen’s two-volume masterpiece, As It Is, Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s Carefree Dignity, and many volumes by his own teacher, the Dalai Lama. He also supported the publication of Sorrow Mountain, the heroic, heartbreaking story of the late Ani Pachen, known as Tibet’s warrior-nun.
Gere’s own office has to be the size of two or three standard New York living rooms. We are sitting in two of the old stuffed chairs that are set around a low table far from his desk. I am complaining about the heat in New York and the crowds, and he tells me about something the Buddhist scholar Jeffrey Hopkins’ teacher once said. “You know how most of us,” Gere says, “when we’re doing our meditation, and we hear a sound, or a human voice, or someone’s knocking on the door, we go, ‘Fuck!‘?” He laughs, and so do I. “Well, Hopkins’ teacher’s first impulse was…” here Gere snaps his fingers once—”Ah, a sentient being! Ah! A sentient being!”
When Gere talks to you, he looks straight into your eyes. He’s gentle, but also clearly fierce—fierce about the dharma, about what it takes to maintain the view, about admitting when you are, as he says, “bullshitting” yourself when it comes to your practice.
This is what he keeps coming back to, over and over again: that he is lazy, that he’s fooling himself if he thinks he’s actually going to get somewhere on this path. He talks about the benefits of humility and humbleness, but this constant, unforgiving look at himself is not in the service of either humility or humbleness: it’s just that Gere is very hard on himself. There is no doubt that he has studied his own mind and knows what a Herculean task it is to work with it.
Lodi Gyari, emissary of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Washington, who has known Gere for twenty years, says that Gere is extraordinarily happy to have come into the dharma, because his path is so exceptionally difficult.
“You see all these very famous people, and they are the most unhappy. They suffer so much because of their self-importance, because of their ego. And there’s Richard, so very happy because he’s Richard Gere—he’s famous. But at the same time he can really lead a life that is free from what many of his peers in Hollywood suffer from on a daily basis.” Gyari says that Gere is a very serious student—so serious that he has come to some ‘realization.’ Rinchen Dharlo concurs, saying that though Gere doesn’t claim to be one, he is “a great Buddhist scholar, like any of the well-known Buddhist professors.” Not only that, but Gere has an in-depth knowledge of Tibetan culture, understanding, Dharlo says, that it’s in danger of being “lost forever.”
“In this country,” Dharlo says, “very often people adopt causes and then continue for one or two years, and then jump to another cause. Richard is not someone like that. He’s doing this with his full heart. He is very compassionate. The Buddhist teaching has changed him a lot.”
Sitting in his office, Gere talks about a teaching he loves—”Heart-Spoon,” by Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche—and he says, “Basically, it says, tell yourself the truth because you’re totally full of shit on this. You’re just playing with this. You want liberation? You’re so cowardly, you’re so full of shit.” He leans in again, talking to me. “You think you’re so smug, and you know a little dharma, you read a few books, you have a few teachers—you’re full of shit. Totally ridiculous. Totally selfish. Totally self-cherishing. Totally uncommitted. There’s no real wisdom. The wind blows and you’re blown all over the place.” I shrink in my seat and he laughs hard, and falls back in his. “I’m talking about me here,” he says.
I tell him I find all that he’s said somewhat discouraging, and he says, “It’s the ultimate loving-kindness—the truth. And, wow, you can do it. If you can get the courage up. I mean, one of my most important meditations for myself is for courage and determination. Is for the guts to be able to do what’s been done, what has to be done.”
It’s hard not to think of the time, just after September 11, 2001, when Gere got up at a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden for the families of New York City police and firemen killed on that day. He called for compassion for the perpetrators too, for they would have to suffer the karma of what they had done, and he was booed off the stage. That took guts.
You can imagine Gere as a suffering young man, living in a ratty apartment in New York, nearly suicidal (he doesn’t talk about why), reading philosophy to try to figure out why life hurts so much, and stumbling upon Evans-Wentz’s The Life of Milarepa. You can imagine him starting to mediate at 24, finding a Zen teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, and stepping onto the path with as much ambition as it must have taken to become an American movie star—like his hair was on fire and there was a snake on his lap, both.
You can imagine him, in this state, going to India and meeting the man who would become his root guru, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, someone whom Gere says is “the most genuinely generous person I will ever meet.
“And not in an obvious way,” he continues. “It is just there. In his presence. The only reason that he’s there, is to help you” he laughs, amazed, “to help you reach happiness. And he’s very skillful. You know, in the few moments that he can fit you in, in a day of a hundred other people he may be seeing, something happens. And you feel that commitment from him immediately—there’s nothing in it for him.” Gere moves closer as he says, “Phew.” He laughs. Then he says, “That’s hard. Always, always, his impulse is, ‘How can I help you? Yes, how can I help you?!'”
For the past four years, the Gere Foundation has bought health insurance for a thousand destitute monks and nuns in Tibetan settlements in southern India, in the hopes that these men and women will be able to teach for another twenty or thirty years. But the Dalai Lama has made it clear to Gere that he wants all Tibetans in exile to be covered. “So we want to expand the model,” Gere says, “that has been working in the monasteries and convents, to the lay population as well.
“I realize that no matter how many movies I make,” he continues, “I’m not going to have enough money to pay for these things. So the Initiative Foundation really needs other help and other expertise, to have a larger vision—much larger than what I can do by myself.”
Another ambitious project is an environmental clean-up in the northern Indian town of Dharmsala, home of the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Thousands of Tibetan refugees and international pilgrims pass through the tiny hill station every year and the environment has become taxed: there is no real solid waste management, there’s chemical and microbial water contamination, and the soil in the forests around Dharmsala is eroding.
So Gere and his people found a Swiss agency, SANDEC, that went to Dharmsala last year, gratis, studied the environmental conditions, and developed an environmental action plan for the Tibetan Department of Welfare. The first phase is solid-waste planning: the local community is being trained in how to separate solid from organic waste, schoolchildren have been recruited to help clean up the town, sanitation trucks have been purchased, and an agreement has been negotiated with the Indian municipal government to collect the area’s waste.
The Initiatives Foundation has provided seed funding for the action plan and is trying to find partners so the model can be expanded to other Tibetan settlements. The Welfare Office is providing the operating infrastructure and the overall development of the project is being facilitated by the Dalai Lama’s sister, Jetsun Pema, who’s the head of the Tibetan Children’s Village.
According to Robyn Brentano, director of the Initiatives Foundation, the environmental action plan is state-of-the-art as far as international aid is concerned. “It’s not just about bringing technology in and imposing it on the local situation,” Brentano says, “but about seeing how the resources that exist at the local level can be developed.” If the Indian municipal government can make money collecting solid waste, then there is hope that the program will be able to sustain itself, rather than foundations like Initiatives having to support it indefinitely.
I wonder out loud, in my conversation with Gere: I thought suffering was alleviated by understanding emptiness, no-self. Isn’t this work, I ask him, only alleviating the suffering of a few human beings temporarily?
He says, “On a practical level, if people are starving, if people are being politically abused and tortured, if there is no freedom, what space is there for them to even consider the nature of self, consider emptiness, consider a view?” He looks at me, smiling. “Look,” he says, “ultimately, this is all for everyone. Because until everyone has been removed from suffering, none of us is. Right? We’re that connected.”
Talking dharma with a movie star is so rare that it’s almost ridiculously exciting. I want to jump up and down in my seat and clap. I’ve talked to scores of celebrities for my work, and not one has ever mentioned interdependent origination.
“So even if we want our own security,” he goes on, “we have to make everyone else happy. That’s a very selfish way of looking at the dharma. But at least it’s a smart way—smart selfish.”
Of supreme importance to Gere is a project to collect, authenticate, digitally catalogue and archive all existing and future material’speeches, lectures, religious teachings, photographs and so on—pertaining to the life, teachings and activities of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
“When you consider,” Gere says, “we have such a being in our presence now—and there exists an enormous amount of material in his lifetime’to have that protected becomes incredibly important work for future generations.”
One of the first donations Gere made to this particular cause was the purchase of a new microphone, years ago, for the Dalai Lama’s translator. “He had one little microphone,” Gere says, “with kind of an FM cord, and it fit on this thing with tape around it. It had been soldered and resoldered a hundred times. And I said, ‘When did you get that?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, some German gave it to me about five years ago, but it broke so many times.’ So I said, ‘Can I offer you one?’ He said, ‘Yes, please.’ So we gave him some new equipment. The fact that he could now translate direct Tibetan teachings to foreigners—to the thousands and thousands of us who have gone through that path—is astonishing. And all it took was a couple-of-hundred-dollar FM transmitter.”
The initial monies from the Initiatives Foundation for the Central Archive of His Holiness the Dalai Lama will go for temperature control of the temporary space where the archives will be kept, and toward a staff.
“Is there some kind of vault,” I ask, and he laughs and says, “No. There’s nothing. It’s probably just in boxes out on the terrace—who knows? They don’t have any way to care for it properly.”
There’s a long way to go with the Central Archive, but eventually Gere wants all of his teacher’s work to be available for free on the Internet so that anyone—including “a nomad in Kham with a solar cell and a laptop”—can access it. In order to do this, Gere is gathering the help of Buddhists all over the world who’ve been working separately, often not even aware of each other’s efforts. Helping people work together, helping avoid duplication: connection is what Gere feels he can best offer.
“We’ve had amazing meetings in this room,” he says. “Extraordinary people. Connecting,” Gere snaps his fingers again five times—snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. “Yeah, we can do something. Many personality types who want to be with other people who will…”—he claps his hands together once, loud—”get things done.”
One company Gere managed to connect with, maybe not one you’d expect to participate in the liberation of all sentient beings, was America Online. Last year, when Gere hosted the Dalai Lama in New York, AOL agreed to flash His Holiness’ face on the computer screens of all AOL members as they signed on to their internet accounts. This went on for five days.
“We were promoting the event,” he says, “but it worked on another level which was totally non-conceptual, just…”—here Gere makes the sound of a rocket tearing through space—”phoosh!” he says, “enlightened being. Whether you know it or not. Plug in and ‘phoosh!‘ Even if you wanted to turn it off, it’s already happened. Zapped by an enlightened being.”
That event, which Gere thought might attract 15,000 people, brought in 200,000.
There was a rumor going around a couple of years ago that Gere was going to leave his acting career and become a monk. It would, after all, make sense, considering how hard he is on himself about the time he spends or doesn’t spend on his practice, and his concomitant impulse to practice more. When I ask him if he ever considered leaving acting and just practicing, he laughs hard, and then sits in silence. “Yeah, sure,” he finally says. “I don’t think anyone who’s ever been touched by a teacher doesn’t feel…” He looks at me, then, and says that when “the Tibetans” heard the rumor about him becoming a monk, they were very, very upset. “Many of them came to me and said, “Please don’t. We need you so much.” He laughs again. “Not that I was going to become a monk. But it was clear that I was of value in the role that I’m playing now.
“And the truth is, the way to freedom is working through this.” He opens his hands to the room he’s sitting in. “It’s so easy for us to have a retreat in whatever version of a cave there is—it’s very easy to escape your mind somehow. So I find—especially for a lazy person like me—that continually interacting with people, where anger comes up…”—he snaps his fingers—”impatience comes up…”—snap, snap, snap—”all that is a really good way for me to learn, to see my mind. Which, if I were in retreat, most likely I wouldn’t see. It’d be too pleasant.
“It’s hard not to be responsible,” Gere says finally. “And I do feel responsible. To squander this would be a horrible thing.”
He is walking me to the elevator after our meeting. He is one step behind me in the hallway, walking so stealthily I hardly know he’s there, when suddenly I feel him slapping me between the shoulder blades with his fingers, hard. I look back at him, and he’s slightly crouched, like an old monk walking behind me, and he’s laughing. “My name is Patricia,” he says almost incredulously, thinking about our first meeting, his face creased with smiling. “My name is Patricia.”
I put my hand back over my shoulder to stop him from doing it, but he slaps one last time, hard.