Richard Gere was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and grew up in Syracuse, New York.
Gere was raised as a Methodist, but there was something missing for him. He said about the religion of his youth,
I found [Christianity] to be incredibly compassionate. . . but when you ask difficult questions about the origin of the universe, about the nature of the self. . . there didn't seem to be a basis for discussion in Christianity.
He first encountered Buddhism in college as a philosophy major, and it was an appealing alternative to the existential angst he felt in his twenties. This led him to study with several teachers, including the Dalai Lama, and to serious practice and meditation.
Talking about his first Zen meditation class, he said,
I had a kind of magical experience with [my first teacher], a reality experience. I realized, this is work, this is work. It's not about flying through the air; it's not about any of the magic or the romance. It's serious work on your mind. That was an important part of the path for me.
Now he's a celebrity spokesman of sorts for Buddhism, although he doesn't have any interest in that title. When asked if he was comfortable with that role, he said,
I've never, ever accepted that, and I never will. I'm not a spokesman for dharma. I lack the necessary qualities. . . . I can talk about that only as a practitioner, from the limited point of view that I have.
But working in the film industry, inevitably we all seem to be looking to him for his opinions. And he seems to be knowledgeable enough to at least gain the practice some exposure.
A Buddhist for Tibetan Independence
Gere's political activism is deeply connected to his practice of Buddhism. He's an avid supporter of Tibetan independence from China. He is a founding member of two charities that work to support Tibetans. And incidentally, in 1993, he was banned from being a presenter at the Academy Awards after he used that role to denounce the Chinese government. He also called for a boycott of the Chinese Olympics in 2008– not that he could have gone himself anyway. The government there has banned Gere from entering the country.
He also spent time visiting refugee camps in South America in the 1980's following American-backed wars in several countries, and visited refugees in Kosovo during the war there. One of his foundations also supports HIV/AIDS issues in India.
Not surprisingly, when he enters American politics, he's a Democrat. He has donated over $13,000 to Democratic candidates (only $1,000 to a Republican), and nearly $5,000 of that was to Obama's 2008 campaign for president. Although he says the president could have been tougher with China in regards to Tibet, he still thinks Obama will "go down as one of our great presidents."
He may be another Hollywood liberal, but it definitely doesn't look like he's just following the pack.