Richard Gere on "Compassionate Action"

excerpted from an interview with Survival International (

Actor (and Buddhist) Richard Gere was recently interviewed by Survival International, the British-based activist group he actively supports, which is involved with trying to prevent primitive tribal peoples in South America, Africa and elsewhere from losing their ancient tribal lands (thus becoming extinct). In the interview, he talks about his concern not only for these tribal peoples, but also for the people of Tibet. What is most interesting are his personal reasons for becoming involved and active with these causes. His energy appears to come from a deeply experienced inner compassion.

When asked how his involvement began, Gere stated, "Well, I'll tell you where it started with me was in Central America. In the early 1980s I went to Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. In El Salvador this dirty war was still going on heavily. I went there with a doctor who had treated 'campesinos.' And I ended up in refugee camps across the border in Honduras where these kids were telling the most horrific stories of what had happened to their families, and to them. Some of them couldn't even speak: so traumatised that they couldn't relate the stories. Their therapy was to tell the story in the communities, and keep telling it; not to bury it, to get it out through drawings, paintings. We'd bring crayons and paper and they'd immediately start drawing these horrific things."

He also spoke about the ethical subtleties of international politics; that it's never a simple black and white/good vs. bad issue. Ultimately, and most illuminating, is that he himself personally is taking responsibility:

"You know, the thought from my side was that the U.S. was providing the expertise for this kind of horror and human rights abuse. And if it isn't the U.S., it's Argentina, or it's Britain, or it's the Israelis. It's not just the 'bad guys' who do this kind of thing. We are the bad guys too! And it made me feel a tremendous responsibility to do something about this. In fact, these are my tax dollars, as it were, funding these horrors. It reminded me of a concept the Quakers started, called 'witness to truth.' It is very important to all of us who have access to the truth, to speak about it, and mainly in defence of people who don't have access to a voice, who don't have access to a judicial system where they can take their grievances. It's really our responsibility to hold the hands of our younger brothers, you know, our less well-off brothers and sisters."

The key issue to Richard Gere is one of land ownership, not so much of preserving a primitive culture just because it's different from our industrial-technological culture:

"...the Survival International approach, of dealing specifically with land ownership, I think is a very wise one. The other issues can be dealt with as best we can in the process, as we learn more about the problems of tribal cultures interacting with industrial cultures. But the idea of ownership of land I think is very important. If people lose their land, they have nothing. And I've seen it with the Native Americans in my own country. You lose your land; you lose your culture; you lose self. People get lost: the drugs, alcohol and the rest starts then."

Gere also expressed a certain humility and respect for other people when asked what he thought we in the west could learn from tribal people:

"What we have to learn from them I think is really a directness. You know, the times that I've been with tribal peoples... it's their directness of heart, directness of expression, of feeling a more realistic approach to physical reality, and certainly to the whole idea of products and the consumer mind, which doesn't exist there because they don't have the resources for that. The richness of their life comes from interaction - with other people and with nature."

He also talked about his deep concern for the people of Tibet:

"...The first time I really met Tibetans was in Nepal, in 1978 I think it probably was. It was on my first trip to Asia, in a place which was then just a small dusty road with some shops on it. And there was a small Tibetan refugee camp outside the town and I hiked up through the woods with my girlfriend and we came upon this place...They obviously were having a very rough time. They had no way to make any money there; they were a refugee community. And this is the truth of the refugee: you start to sell off your possessions to feed your family, and it was very depressing to see people go through that."

"...Tibetans have great smiles, and through spiritual training they don't dwell on, or wallow in, their suffering and in their problems. They've got a lot of incredible energy that comes out of them. But below that surface is 40 years of being tortured, families murdered... exiled refugees. To this day they're not free to speak openly about anything. It's very hard for them to gain a livelihood for their families."

"...I spoke to many monks, lamas and nuns who had spent 20 years in jail without ever having been accused of anything - tortured. I spoke to one nun, who I would say was in her mid-thirties, and she was taking care of a country shrine along the road. And there was an older woman, 65 or 70 maybe - a nun, who was wandering around and was obviously mentally ill at this point. And I asked what had happened and she said that she'd been tortured so badly over the last 20 years that there was nothing left; she had retreated into herself where she couldn't be heard anymore. This other nun told me how she'd been arrested. She'd been part of a very small demonstration at her nunnery. They had a sign, 'Free Tibet', and they'd all been thrown into jail and tortured..."

When asked what we in the West could do, Gere first clarified that his "action" doesn't come from a typical moralistic conviction, but is instead the result of his being able to identify directly with these people, and thus is an example of compassionate action:

"Well I think the first thing is to feel. One has to feel. If you can feel the pain of another person, it is the same as my pain. When they're hungry I can relate it to the times I've been hungry. When someone has their mother cut into pieces and thrown into a pit and burnt, if you can imagine what that would be like in your own life - it can generate the same kind of outrage that you would feel, and the same kind of call to action....I think we have to deal from our hearts and say, no, I'm sorry, that's wrong. And we must demand that our governments act from our hearts since they are our representatives. I do this with the U.S. constantly."

Ultimately, Richard Gere's active involvement in these causes illustrates that the true gift of Buddhism is really compassion:

"This planet can't exist anymore unless all peoples are taken into account - if you suffer, ultimately I'm going to suffer. The suffering does not limit itself to one body; it goes through the entire body politic."

-Peter Hata

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