How Richard Gere Changed My Life

Originally published in The Times

Richard Gere with the Dalai Lama

A few years ago, I was sent to interview the Hollywood star Richard Gere about Buddhism.

I wasn’t thrilled, because I’d heard he wasn’t an easy person to interview.

And that’s how it turned out.

Immediately, he launched into a speech about the nature of reality.

I must have looked baffled, because he stopped and sighed.

“You will never print this,” he said wearily. “I’ve been doing interviews for so long… For 25 years. You’ll never use this.”

To his credit – and my relief – he started again, telling me about Zen meditation.

“The core is to sit and follow the breathing,” he said patiently. “Concentrate on the breathing. Count to ten, count the exhalations to ten. If you lose count then catch yourself and say, ‘Oh, I’m thinking again.’ And bring yourself back to the breathing. Eventually you get to the point where you are just breathing.

Almost all forms of meditation are a form of looking at the mind. In the beginning you are almost amazed how much noise is going on there. You have no idea how much monkey stuff is going on, how cluttered it is. You look at that and you’re acknowledging what the mind is, you’re taming it, and when you have done that you have learned the power of concentration.

I was intrigued, and afterwards decided to find out more, and looked up Buddhism online, and in bookshops.

But I couldn’t get my head round the differences between the many different traditions – Zen, Pure Land, Theravada, and many more; or indeed the seemingly endless ideas that were categorised, presumably for somebody’s convenience, by number.

So far as I could tell, adherents recognised Two Truths, Three Dharma Seals, Three Doors of Liberation, Four Noble Truths, Five Aggregates, Six Paramitas, Seven Factors of Awakening, a Noble Eightfold Path, and Twelve Links of Independent Co-Arising, whatever that was.

As for the famously baffling Zen koans – “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” – they left me cold.

But then I found a book by a man I’d never heard of, Thich Nhat Hanh.

There was a quote on the jacket: “Thich Nhat Hanh is a holy man, for he is humble and devout. He is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity.”

Those words were written by Martin Luther King, nominating Nhat Hanh, a monk from Vietnam, for the Nobel Peace Prize more than 40 years ago.

It could hardly hurt to try his book – it only had 140 pages, and the print was fairly large too.

So I did, and I was blown away by the simplicity of what Nhat Hanh wrote, urging readers gently and warmly to enjoy the here and now.

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