John-Paul Flintoff

How Richard Gere Changed My Life

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. The secret was to approach all of life like meditation – including the bits we think of as boring or unpleasant. “Every act is a rite,” he says at one point.

“While washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. If while washing dishes we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes”. What’s more we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realising the miracle of life while standing at the sink.

“If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and incapable of actually living one minute of life.”

This was more like it: washing dishes, and drinking tea, were a lot easier to get my head round. I read that book in one sitting, then read it again, then went out and bought several others. (He’s still alive, and has published a lot.)

Since then, old friends have expressed surprise that I’m interested in religion (they obviously haven’t read this, about Christianity, or this, about Islam.)

But I sometimes wonder whether Buddhism is really a religion at all. You don’t need to believe in God, for instance. Perhaps it’s more like a school of psychology: modern, “scientific” disciplines like cognitive behavioural therapy, and life-coaching, appear to have lifted a huge amount from the ancient teachings. (That said, there is also the matter of reincarnation.)

For instance, a professor of psychology once taught me to expel tension by imagining that my outbreath was coloured red, and would gradually fade as I relaxed. It seemed to work – and that’s no surprise, because Buddhists have used this kind of visualisation for 25 centuries.

From another Buddhist writer, Pema Chodron, I learned to spread “loving-kindness” by imagining as I breathe that I’m inhaling black clouds from deep inside somebody I know to be suffering – then to breathe back at them a healing stream of clear light. It felt a bit contrived to begin with, but I soon got the hang of it. I realise that the practice mostly benefits the person doing it – like praying for someone, come to think of it – but if it won’t do any harm to the person I’m thinking of, why not? (Given a moment of quiet, the technique fairly quickly reconciles me to my wife after she’s given me a wigging for something or other, so it can’t be all bad.)

I’ve even come to some kind of accommodation with the idea of reincarnation, which previously seemed impossibly potty. And without using that word, I appear to have passed on my understanding of it to my young daughter. At a party recently she told a relative cheerfully that when I die she will bury me so that I become a worm. And when the worm is captured, I’ll become a bird. And so on. Which is fine by me.

When I tell people about this, they often ask if I’m a Buddhist. Since I’ve never joined anything – not even a meditation class – I’m not sure that I can be. But I’m a big fan of Thich Nhat Hanh, and very grateful to have met Richard Gere.

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