Actor and activist Richard Gere talks about his teacher the Dalai Lama, the warm heart of the Tibetan people, and how humanity can benefit from the values of Tibetan culture.
Melvin McLeod: How did you first make your connection to the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet?
Richard Gere: Well, it’s a long story, as most of these are long stories, but I’ll make it as brief as I can. In my early twenties, I was searching to make sense of myself in the world. Zen was what captured my imagination. I was a student of Zen for many years and had a regular practice that came from that.
When I was in my late twenties, I went to Asia for the first time. My first film was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I took the opportunity after Cannes to go to India and Nepal. That was the first time I met Tibetans, in a refugee camp outside of Pokhara in Nepal.
I was struck by the utter normalcy of His Holiness, and how quickly he was able to get past my defenses and my romanticism.
I was kind of floored by the experience. I felt it was otherworldly, but really it’s not otherworldly. It’s the world. We’re the ones who are otherworldly. We live in a hallucinated view of the world, while I saw that these people seem to be completely centered in the world that they inhabit. It was a different feeling than around my Japanese Zen teachers and fellow students, as incredibly profound to me as Zen was. Something else was going on there.
A few years later, I had a strong impulse to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I didn’t know anything about the political situation—I thought you could just go to Tibet and if you were really lucky, you got to meet the Dalai Lama. But my friend John Avedon, who had just finished his book In Exile from the Land of Snows, said, look, if you want to meet the Dalai Lama, he’s not in Tibet anymore. He’s in India.
So I went to Dharamsala. This was in the early eighties. I had met the great Nyingma teacher Dudjom Rinpoche in New York before that, and was profoundly moved by him. I had some letters of introduction, and eventually, after a couple of weeks during the monsoon in Dharamsala, I got to see His Holiness.
I saw him for maybe half an hour, forty-five minutes, but it felt simultaneously like it was one minute and ten hours, because it was so, so dense. I was struck by the utter normalcy of His Holiness, and how quickly he was able to get past my defenses and my romanticism. I pretty much changed my life at that point. I left Dharamsala and went right on a long trek through Ladakh and Zanskar. And I’ve been kind of on a trek ever since.
What is it like having the Dalai Lama of Tibet, the world’s best known Buddhist, one of the great spiritual figures of our time, as your personal teacher?
You said you were going to ask me this, and I started thinking about it and how I’ve had to navigate many different relationships with His Holiness. Clearly my favorite relationship is as a student of his, a very humble student. But I’m also an organizer for him. I do political work, I do cultural work with him, we organize teachings, we do a lot of different things. It’s been kind of a challenge to navigate all these different types of relationships with His Holiness and know him from these different angles, and I still stumble once in awhile.
But if anyone goes to a teaching by His Holiness, they’ll also encounter all these different possibilities of how to engage his mind and his heart. He’s definitely involved in the world—he wants the world to be genuine and peaceful and egalitarian and fair. He’s involved with human rights and civil rights and how we behave toward each other.
But equally—I would say even more so—as a Buddhist teacher he’s primarily concered with liberation. That’s the goal. And there are two sides of that. You have relative bodhichitta, compassion, and absolute bodhichitta, wisdom, which you are working on constantly. I’ve never seen anyone on this planet, in this time, who is able to do both so completely as the Dalai Lama—to be involved in the world in a rational, sane way, and also be completely transcendent.
The wonderful irony of the situation is that what we do for others to make them happy is what will make us happy.
Starting with your first experience of the Tibetan people in the refugee camp outside Pokara, and then through your many years knowing the Dalai Lama, what have you seen as the most important value or lesson the rest of the world can learn from His Holiness and Tibetan culture?
That the best way to navigate the world we live in, samsara, is through a sense of universal responsibility. That there’s no one outside of our concern. There’s no thing outside of our concern. To the extent that we are able to develop ourselves, we are responsible for the whole universe. Once, I was really tired from doing a lot of work in Washington and around the world, and I said to His Holiness, “Can I stop now?” He replied: “Yes. When I stop.”
Of course, he’s a bodhisattva, so he’s not going to stop until every being is liberated, and that feeling has completely saturated Tibetan culture. You know, they didn’t have roads in Tibet because they were so careful about the insects in the ground. Digging for the roads took forever because every spoonful of dirt had to be examined to make sure there were no insects who were going to be hurt or killed in the process.
I mean, that’s deep concern. That’s not pretend. You know, we’re basically good people. We call ourselves good people. And we care about each other. But it’s a pretty surface responsibility we have. This deep sense that we are all deeply connected and deeply responsible for each other is something that over the centuries, certainly since the introduction of Buddhism in the seventh century, has saturated Tibetan culture and life. It’s palpable. You feel it.
And according to Buddhist teachers like the Dalai Lama, this universal concern for the well-being of others is not only the key to a happy and sustainable society, it’s actually the secret to our own happiness. Which is not usually the way we think.
Every once in a while I go back to to reread and rethink the basics of Buddhism. I was reading a book recently by one of my teachers, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, on the basic things that we get wrong. One mistake is that what we take to be happiness is really just pleasure. It’s the sugar rush of sensual pleasure, or an imagined sense that if we have more money we’re happier or more secure, whatever those things may be. But these are very surface, short-lived things we are all caught up in. The wonderful irony of the situation is that what we do for others to make them happy is what will make us happy. In the fullness way beyond time, that’s what will make us happy.
To what extent do you think that the values His Holiness teaches and embodies, that you’ve seen in the Tibetan people, are a direct reflection of Tibet as a Buddhist culture, or are there other influences or cultural factors at play? Is Tibet an example to the world of what the values of a Buddhist society would be?
I think for sure. You see slight differences in approach, but all Buddhist cultures have these things in common. I think what is unique, or particularly special, is the equal balance of wisdom and compassion that is taught in Tibetan Buddhism. I have felt the incredible, warm, expansive heart of the Tibetan experience in almost all the Tibetan teachers that I’ve met. And of course His Holiness is the pinnacle of that.
In Mahayana Buddhism, there are three basic aspects of enlightenment, which are personified by three primordial bodhisattvas. Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion, love, and altruism, the infinite yearning to remove the suffering of all beings. Manjushri represents the wisdom of all the buddhas who really get it—what reality is, what the nature of the self is, what this universe is. That’s Manjushri. And the third one is Vajrapani, who is the strength and power and skill of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas.
His Holiness has all of these aspects, all of them in spades. I mean, it’s extraordinary. And you see that in other Tibetan teachers, and you see it in Tibetan culture. The calamity of Tibet, the Tibetan diaspora, has been in our good fortune because all of these teachings and great teachers have been moving around the world since 1959. All of my teachers are in exile. We wouldn’t even have known about them if this calamity hadn’t befallen the Tibetan people. It is their great generosity of spirit, even in their calamity, that they’re going to bring this truth, this excellence, this transcendent wisdom and compassion, to the rest of the world.
Ultimate happiness is liberation.
They’ve brought the world the gift of the dharma, particularly the power of the dharma as taught in Tibet, which millions of people around the world have drawn on in their own spiritual practice. But I think people may be less aware of the lessons we can learn from Tibetan society’s deep commitment to values like peace, nonviolence, and environmental sustainability, things on which our future depends.
Let’s look at it through the filter of happiness. My friend Dan Goleman, the psychologist and author, uses the word “success” because it works better in the Western world. So he talks about success, but ultimately what he’s talking about is happiness, big H happiness.
Ultimate happiness is liberation. It’s liberation from self-cherishing and the poisons that are part of self-cherishing. That is the thing that keeps us as individuals and as societies locked into the violence, the conflicts, and the lack we feel in our own lives and the societies we live in.
Tibet wasn’t perfect, for sure. They had bad guys. A Western friend of mine went to study in a Tibetan monastery, and I asked him what it was like. He started laughing and said, “It’s the same as everywhere. We’ve got a bully here. Every time he passes me in the hallway he sticks his shoulder and elbow in my face.”
So you know, we’re predominantly, predictably the same everywhere. But the systems that evolved in Tibet were not primarily to make money. They were to make bodhisattvas. That’s a huge difference. They didn’t have universities where people learned how to make money. It was about how to become a bodhisattva, how to tame the ego, how to expand the mind, how to use these incredible techniques, which are way beyond our psychiatric techniques, to go deeper and deeper, ever deeper into mind, to remove all of the poisons.
We have to create the institutions that will allow the values and example of Tibet’s people and culture to continue.
You are one of the best-known supporters of the Tibetan people. You work very hard to protect their culture, support their cause, and ease their suffering. What are ways the rest of us can help if we truly recognize what the Tibetan people have suffered, both in exile and inside Tibet, and the great value of Tibetan culture to the world?
Well, as His Holiness would say, working on yourself is ultimately the best way you can help the universe. Work on your own wisdom and your own compassion. Lessen your own anger, for sure.
I think we’re in a unique situation now in which people in China are extremely skeptical of the Communist party. They have quite a mercantile culture that’s evolving there right now. People have not made as much money as they thought they would, which had allowed them to selectively not see the human rights abuses and civil rights abuses that have been part of the structure of the Communist party control of China. China obviously has a vast and incredible history, including a Buddhist history that’s still part of their culture. But the Communist party has really been systematically destroying everything of value that has to do with spirit and mind.
We at the International Campaign for Tibet have been very successful over the last thirty years in the U.S. Congress. I’ve been talking to people on both sides of the aisle, in the Senate and the House. We were recently able to get enacted into law a very important addendum to the Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2002 that addresses the succession of the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese government is obviously waiting for the current Dalai Lama to die, and they have various puppets ready to go to fill that vacuum when he does. It’s very important that the international community comes right out in front and says, no, it’s not up to the Communist party to name the next Dalai Lama. It’s up to the Tibetan people to decide who the next Dalai Lama will be, if in fact they want one.
This is now official American policy because of the work we’ve been doing, and hopefully other countries around the world will take this position. It needs to be universally recognized that this is a decisive point in whether Tibetan culture will survive or not.
Without the Dalai Lama right now, it’s hard to imagine that Tibetan culture as a unity, as a living, breathing being, would survive. He’s such an outsized, extraordinary figure. It’s really only once in many centuries that someone like this comes along. We can’t be sure that someone like this will come again soon.
So we have to create the institutions that will allow the values and example of Tibet’s people and culture to continue. This incredible heart. This incredible sense of not only forgiveness, but a vision of what we might be as individuals and as societies. This ability to touch the deepest part of love and compassion and being. However this dream of reality evolves, we must work to ensure that these ideas and values are central on all levels of society and are never lost or forgotten.
Richard Gere, thank you very much for joining us. I want to thank you for your heartfelt support for the Tibetan people, and for the good dharma you have offered us.
Thanks, Melvin. I’ve had good teachers. Take care.