tricycle: the buddhist review
Richard Gere, actor, free-Tibet activist, and co-founder of Tibet House, New
York, was interviewed for Tricycle by
Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who writes for The New York Times and
is the author of Emotional Intelligence. Also interviewing Gere was Tara Bennett-Goleman,
a psychotherapist who is writing a book on the integration of mindfulness and
tricycle: You just finished a two-week retreat. What did you
gere: It was Tibetan deity yoga practice, mostly mantra and
visualizations. It's quite an intricate practice. Certainly to this point, I
don't know how to do it perfectly, and probably won't for many years. It's
like playing the piano: you have to keep doing it and keep doing it.
tricycle: Did you devote most of the day to practice
gere: Yes. When my teacher was laying out the parameters for me, he
said it would probably take me about three weeks to do it. But unfortunately I
had some other commitments and had to get this done in two weeks. So I was
practicing about 10-12 hours a day. I was pushing pretty hard. There was one
really bad long day where I was totally haywire--what Tibetans call the "winds"
--had gone nuts. I didn't know where I was. I was lost, didn't know what to
do. And unfortunately my teacher was in India at the time.
tricycle: There was no one to talk to?
gere: I talked to a monk friend, and he said basically, you're
pushing too hard, just relax, just drop it, right now, drop everything. Take
the rest of the night off. I was doing practice until two in the morning. On
most retreats they say to make your practice sessions and your days the shape
of a barley seed: you start kind of short and easy, and as you get into it,
it's thicker and longer and heavier and more meaty, and toward the end you
taper it off to come down to this life again.
tricycle: You didn't have a come-down time?
gere: I didn't have a come-up time or a come-down time. I
started like-wham! twelve hours a day and it was way too much.
tricycle: How did you feel after the retreat ended?
gere: There was a very interesting moment afterward on the way to the
airport. I was doing the practice, doing the mantras, and I burst into tears,
just spontaneously. As soon as I said the first mantra in that sequence, I was
just-just swimming-after what I had gone through these past years. I had to
relive every moment of the marriage in this retreat-every moment.
tricycle: How does your practice affect your emotional life?
gere: I'm assuming that one day I'll be able to clear myself and expand
myself and become everything I want to be-become a Buddha. But even then I
would still be able to retrieve all these negative moments-moments of pain,
moments of anger born of attachment and born of all the defilements-just the
way an actor does. I'm pretty clear about using emotions as an actor. They're
what allows me to be human. The same is true for highly evolved beings. I
don't know any teacher who is devoid of those emotions, but the attachment to
them is absent. They're not used to bludgeon or to harm. But they're
absolutely there and they're used skillfully. I don't think a teacher could be
skillful without having use of all the full range of human emotions in the same
way that Manjushri [Bodhisattva of Wisdom] manifests himself as Yamantaka
[Subduer of the Lord of Death] skillfully.
tricycle: Doesn't an actor do that, too ?
gere: Well, that's the gig. I've talked to His Holiness [the Dalai
Lama] about this many times, and he's asked if those are real emotions I feel
when I'm acting. Once I said that ultimately it's better work when you're
really feeling, meaning when emotions come spontaneously and mysteriously and
fully. They're real. You believe they're real.
He looked very deeply into my eyes for what seemed like a very long time, and
he just started laughing. He thought it was the funniest thing.
tricycle: What was the joke for him?
gere: Well, I still wonder about that. I think it's the illusory nature
of emotions that he was amused by. How funny to think they're real. Even in
this bogus context of acting, I'm aware that I am making these emotions happen.
I'm the magician who's making these emotions appear, and yet I still think
they're real. That's the difference between me and an enlightened person: an
enlightened person always knows.
There is a peculiar thing that happens with acting: there's a watcher element
as one's feeling something. There's a side of an actor that is absolutely
aware that you're wired into something good. You know you're where you want to
be and this character is expressing himself and you're riding that crest with
this character and you're watching it and being exhilarated by being carried
along by the ride. And obviously there are other times when you know the
character isn't there and you've got to manufacture the whole thing and hope
that you're a good enough magician and that people are going to buy it, which
is most of the time.
tricycle: So you're saying that at the same time that you're riding
it, you 're also watching it happen.
gere: There is a part of consciousness that is aware of it happening as
it's happening and can comment in some way, that can feel the exhilaration of
it and can feel the flood of energy of what an actor takes to be the "reality"
of it; the pure reality of reality is exhilarating and filled with heat and
tricycle: Has practice changed anything about acting for you, or has
acting changed anything in your practice?
gere: It's possible that acting has made practice a little easier for
me. The imaginative process, the visualization process, is what I do for a
living. My nervous system is attuned to that. It's the same way you dive into
a yidam [deity yoga practice]. My nervous system and my mind are used
to playing in this way. In fact, I remember very clearly one of the first
Tantric initiations I ever went to-a Kalachakra [wheel of time]. This would
have been the early eighties. And Alex Berzin [American teacher/translator]
was describing this process to people who had never been around Tantra before.
He was giving these little classes to help Westerners who didn't know anything
about it, describing it very much like a rehearsal process in the theater. You
rehearse this role of deity, of the yidam, in great detail, and then there
comes an opening night. And on that opening night, you're out there, and you
think, "This isn't rehearsal anymore. I'm doing it."
tricycle: Does it feel like you're doing it, or like it's being
gere: There's a certain joy in feeling you're doing it. It's a sense of
accomplishment. It's important in all practice to realize that you're the one
that's creating the ground for it to happen. Not that you are it, or that your
ego identifies with it, but that you can take responsibility for having created
the fertile ground for this thing to happen. You know, the correct theatrical
lights and costumes and feeding it with the right energy so that the magic
happens. I think that's important, to take credit for it. It adds confidence
and strength to the practice.
tricycle: But at the same time, ultimately, it's not really
gere: No, absolutely not. It has nothing to do with your ego. But the
irony is that you can feed your ego positively, I think-your sense of who you
are and what your accomplishments are and who you want to become. Confidence
is very important.
tricycle: How did a kid from Syracuse, New York, end up doing this
gere: Every time I sit down and wrap my legs up over my knees, I see
this image of myself, and I say, "Where the fuck did this come from?" I have no idea.
tricycle: Did you have a first book that influenced you, or some
teacher or lecture you heard?
gere: It was about philosophy I was interested in Jean-Paul Sartre when
I was a teenager. Who knows why. Carrying around Being and Nothingness
under my arm. I probably didn't even read more than one chapter. But
somehow it was important for me to identify with that exploration, that
adventure of figuring out what is existence, what is being, what is reality.
A book that meant a lot to me was Crack in the Cosmic Egg, about one's
assumptions about reality. There was also a philosopher named Bishop Berkeley,
whose thesis was subjective idealism. Essentially, subjective idea-ism, the
subjectivity of reality, of mind itself, the fluidity of reality.
So my mind was working in that direction before dharma ever came near me,
before I was ever aware of it. I was intrigued, but emotionally I was
desperately unhappy. I was fucked, totally fucked, and I didn't know how to
make it stop. So I started seeking, saying, "Why am I unhappy and how can I
get out of this?" You know the First Noble Truth actually works
I was in a pretty desperate situation and couldn't find any way out, and the
Eastern things started making sense to me. I was seeing them magically,
frankly. The idea of emptiness, shunyata --that I was going to
disappear--was a positive thing to me. I would be negated and there would be
no more pain because there would be no me. And, I think I'm still hoping that
will happen [laughs], but I see it in a slightly different way now. It was
suicide, essentially, that I was looking for: a way just to get out.
The payback is to do the practice. That's the payback to your teacher, to the
Buddha, to your brothers and sisters. Do the practice.
I was going to bookstores in the West Village a lot: reading Hindu stuff, Sufi
stuff, Buddhist stuff, Jain stuff, Charles Tart, Castaneda-almost anything.
And it was exciting. I started doing T'ai Chi. I had this tiny loft, a big
motorcycle, and a leather jacket. It was kind of a strange combination.
tricycle: Was Tibetan Buddhism your first practice?
gere: The first practice I did was actually TM-transcendental
meditation. I went to some classes. But then I looked around and said these
are all beginners and there aren't any real teachers. There were facilitators
and people who passed on certain information, but not real teachers. But it
gave a touch of actually having some kind of a practice, some kind of
discipline for entering the stream of dharma. Then I became more interested in
what I thought was more serious stuff, more associated with teachers who have
real wisdom, and Zen was really what turned me on.
tricycle: Who was your first Zen teacher?
gere: The First Zen Institute of America in New York was the first place
I did formal sitting in a group and where I got used to the sounds and rhythms
of doing practice. It was nice, doing practice in a group like that. I miss
that quiet group sitting, which I haven't found in the Tibetan tradition. Then
I got serious and did a sesshin [intensive practice period] with Sasaki
Roshi in L.A. I must have been about twenty-four at the time. It was a
tricycle: What style was it? With koan, or shikan-taza, just
gere: Both. it was zazen: shikantaza, koan. Every day you go in
for dokusan [face-to-face study with the master], and there would be
four or five people who would be rushing to do dokusan. They all had
something to tell the roshi, and I would think, Oh, fuck, I've got nothing,
absolutely nothing. The first time I started mumbling, and he just stopped me
and said, "More zazen" and threw me out of there [laughing]. And then
the next day it was the same thing. Another twelve hours go by, and I'm
starting to break down. My back's killing, my legs are killing, my
everything's killing-I mean screaming. That was a rough process. Dealing with
my brain at that point was very painful. So I don't want to go in there
[laughing] because I've got nothing. I'm stupid and I'm fucked and I'm
lost and I've got no right to be here and I'm scum. So I start crying. I want
him to really like me and think I'm sensitive. So I cry. And he laughs and
tells me to go out and do more zazen. Anyway, you try every possible thing
that you could to get out of the fact that your brain cannot wrap itself around
this. Eventually, like the third day in, I didn't want to go in. They made me
go in and I did my prostrations and I went in and I was so lost I just sat
there silently and he sat there with me and said, "Okay, now we can begin."
tricycle: Do you do a daily sit?
gere: Since I was twenty-four, for a minimum of forty-five minutes maybe
two hours if I've got a lot of time that day. Even when I'm making a movie,
it's a minimum of forty-five minutes to an hour.
tricycle: So you just make sure that you have the time.
gere: Or I'll say fuck everything else and I'll be late for everything.
I could probably count the two or three, maybe four times in the last
twenty-two years that I've missed it because I was too drunk, too fucked-up, or
whatever in the morning that I didn't do it. And of course my day ended up
worse because I didn't do it.
tricycle: Have you added your Tibetan practice on top of your Zen
gere: Yes. Zen is really good for just emptying the mind, putting it
down into the hara. It helped me to become very centered and focused,
and extremely powerful at times, but it was very dry-I was feeling dry.
tricycle: It was centered in the hara, not the heart?
gere: Yeah. I think it's a typical thing for people who work with Zen.
Your sense of detachment becomes very powerful. Your sense of focus becomes
very powerful. Then when I met the Tibetans that energy was brought up into
tricycle: What was that first encounter?
gere: With Dudjom Rinpoche. Then in the early eighties I was drawn to
Tibet. I went to Dharmsala and I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I really
didn't know much about him, other than the title and the mystique. I was still
in this Zen mode-everything had to be Japanese.
tricycle: What was it like to meet him?
gere: [long pause] I felt safe. For me it wasn't
anoverpowering experience of meeting someone who is coming at you with all
their spiritual development, all their lights flashing. I met a genuinely
wonderful man who has everything, but he's not pushing any of it. And he very
subtly destroys all your expectations of his as a god figure who's going to
make all your problems go away. He is truly a spiritual friend who wants
nothing other than your happiness. In many ways, he was more patient with me
in that first discussion than he's ever been since.
tricycle: How doyou mean?
gere: It was kind of a falling-in-love moment. It's creating some kind
of an energy bond on which things can ride. And if you pick up on the energy,
it becomes something else. Pretty quickly with me it became something else.
Although we've had easy conversations, it's much more focused when we see each
tricycle: How does your connection with him affect your practice and
gere: It's all gone to the heart. Every bit of the practice that I've
done with the Tibetans is bodhichitta [mind of enlightenment].
Everything's about the heart and unashamedly so. I love that. It's right up
front. The love word is really it for Tibetans: compassion, kindness,
bodhichitta, selflessness. It's really bold in a way that the Japanese
maybe aren't willing to be bold. Open your heart. You've got nothing to lose.
Just go ahead and do it.
tricycle: Didyou immediately feel that the Dalai Lama was your
gere: I wasn't under any illusion that he could be my day-to-day
teacher, but certainly, in my practice, he has a central place in all
visualizations. He's the root guru, no question about it.
tricycle: Does he give you practice instruction ?
gere: Yes, he's been very tough with me. He's been very loving with me,
but he can be quite tough also. He also can be very fatherly in the best
sense, the arm-over-the-shoulder kind of fatherly. And he can be like a
brother, very loose and colloquial. He also has been very blunt with me about
my expectations of what I can accomplish in this lifetime.
tricycle: What's happening when he plays that fierce role with
gere: I haven't figured that out yet. I feel privileged that he
really doesn't pull punches with me. I think he takes me seriously as a
practitioner, so he takes his role as teacher seriously. I'm very thankful for
tricycle: And in your work with Tibet?
gere: I spend a lot of time around His Holiness doing political
work and cultural work and helping out with financial things. There are a lot
of teachings in all these activities. It's a bit confusing sometimes when one
would rather be the practitioner and just see him as the deity-rather than
planning and organizing. But, ultimately, it's all teaching when you're around
a teacher. It's inspiring.
There's no one who gets into dharma who doesn't think, "Shouldn't I be a monk
or a nun?" We all go through a stage saying, "I want to be Milarepa, or the
female equivalent of Milarepa. I should be in a cave. I should get out and do
this heavy work. And the only place I can really do it is by myself in a
cave," whatever that cave is. But more and more I realize that it's important
for us Westerners to do it within life, within activity, because we have a lot
to do here. We're very young at this, at practice, and we have to do the
physical, actual thing of transforming our culture and our society. My own
sense about Westerners is that we have so much karma because we are such active
people that we have to work it through. I think most of us would end up with
brain cancer if we went into caves, because our karma has to express itself.
Not many of us are far along enough to have spiritualized our mindstreams
enough to handle a cave.
tricycle: Yet you do try to take the time to go to India for several
months ayear, don't you?
gere: This was a good year. Because of my busted marriage and all that,
I needed the help, frankly. So with India and Mongolia and everyplace else, I
think it was four or five months this year.
tricycle: Hasyour practice changed your relationship to
gere: Life is dharma, is teacher. When you're younger and something
horrible happens to you, it's the end. You assume you're always going to be in
that horrible state. You don't know there's going to be an end moment to that
and then you're going to be someplace else. Now I'll just ride out the bad
things because I know they're going to change.
tricycle: Do you feel there's a kind of payback obligation in this
gere: Oh yeah. The payback is to do the practice. That's the payback
to your teacher, to the Buddha, to your brothers and sisters. Do the
tricycle: Do you feel that in your political work for Tibet there's
also some expression of this debt?
gere: Absolutely. No question about it. His Holiness asked me to do it.
I had no interest in talking publicly about dharma, about my Buddhist
practice-the little I know. The great amount that I do know about this whole
movie star celebrity thing-I didn't want to get into that circus around
Buddhism. It was too important to me, too private, to mess with, and I didn't
feel capable of handling it, frankly-keeping it clean. And then there came a
point when His Holiness said, "We need help."
tricycle: Has anything about the practice or the teachings helpcd
you with being a celebrity?
gere: Yes. There are some great lines in the Guru Puja. It's
almost directly written for people who are celebrities:
Should even the myriad beings of the Three Realms without exception,
Become angry at us, humiliate, criticize, threaten or even kill us,
We seek your blessings to complete the perfection of patience not to be
But to work for their benefit in response to their harm.
In other words, although people will slander you, lie about you, wish you
harm, death, throw things at you, you must remember that they are ill beings
and only wish them happiness. And obviously the fact is that your internal
reality, the truth of you, cannot be touched by any of that. It's kid stuff
and nothing more.
Certainly a spiritual teacher has more to lose from such gossip than a movie
celebrity or a politician or someone like that. He has to watch himself more
carefully because it's really his life. It's his whole life. My job is,
I'm an actor. It's pretty low on the scale of spiritual things. You know, no
one expects much of an actor [laughing].
tricycle: Actually, people expect the worst.
gere: [Laughing] Thank you very much for clarifying that! No, but
it's true-it's all a bit peculiar being an actor anyhow because you know that
you play with illusory realities constantly. In many ways, if you allow
yourself some degree of emotional maturity in the process of just getting
older, then you're able to see it for what it is and not be so buffeted by the
winds of fortune and change.
Geshe Potawa said we are subject to eight worldly concerns: seeking material
things and then feeling bad when you lose them, seeking fame and then being
depressed when you don't have it, and so on. In many ways I'm very fortunate
to be able to play with those things.