When we started putting this list together it seemed like it was going to be nothing more than a shallow, trivial — although perhaps welcome — distraction from all the news about disastrous wars and sordid political scandals, but as we dug deeper into the web we found that we felt at times inspired by reading about the practice of famous Buddhists, some of whom have had their trials. We hope that you too will be inspired — and entertained — by Wildmind’s Top Ten List of Celebrity Buddhists.
Our criteria were simple. To be a celebrity Buddhist a nominee had to be alive, a celebrity, and — wait for it — a Buddhist (more on that later). And our voting process was simplicity itself; we counted the hits returned for an exact search on each name on Google. Well, that’s not too unscientific.
But to give ourselves some credit for our hard work and research abilities, it’s not always that easy to work out if a celebrity Buddhist is actually a Buddhist. Lots of websites may say that Keanu or JLo are practicing Buddhists, but the truth is far harder to pin down. We didn’t accept that a celebrity was a Buddhist unless we could find they’d said so themselves. And we discovered that in fact some much lauded “celebrity Buddhists” have explicitly said that they are not Buddhist practitioners (e.g. Uma Thurman: “When asked if I consider myself Buddhist, the answer is, Not really,” and Keanu Reeves: “I’m not Buddhist.”)
Joining Keanu and Jenny on the not-really-a-Buddhist list were martial arts actor Jackie Chan, and rocker/poet Patti Smith. And although they’re serious practitioners, not quite making the top ten because of lack of hits of Google were avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson (1,110,000 hits), jazzman Wayne Shorter (1,100,000 hits), and REM frontman Michael Stipe (with a mere 813,000 hits). Guys, better luck next time.
Anyway, we know you’re dying to know who’s in and who’s not, so without further ado let’s introduce the top ten in reverse order.
10. Aung San Suu Kyi (1,170,000 hits)
With impeccably non-frivolous credentials we start with nonviolent pro-democracy activist, leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar (Burma), and noted prisoner of conscience, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, Suu Kyi campaigned for the democratization of Burma, which was (and is) under a military dictatorship, and in 1989 she was placed under house arrest. In 1991 Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her peaceful and non-violent struggle under a military dictatorship. She has been in and out of house arrest since then and has been sustained in her long confinement, during which she was not allowed to meet her dying husband, by her vipassana meditation practice. Commenting on her long isolation, she said “Isolation is not difficult for me. Maybe it’s because of my Buddhist upbringing.”
9. Steven Seagal (1,340,000 hits)
The Buddhist world was, to put it mildly, in a state of deep, deep bemusement when Hollywood star Steven Seagal announced in 1997 that he had been recognized as a Tibetan incarnate lama, or tulku. “Wait,” we said. “That Steven Segal? The action-movie hero who specializes in toting powerful guns and blowing stuff up?” It seemed as bizarre as it would today if the Pope were to appoint Paris Hilton as a bishop, and many of us checked the calendar to make sure it wasn’t the first of April. And yet the other shoe failed, resoundingly, to drop. In fact His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, a respected Lama, indeed publicly confirmed that he had recognized Seagal’s tulku-hood.
It turns out that Segal has a long history of practice. Hemoved to Japan at age 17 to study martial arts, acupuncture, and Zen, and he spent 15 years there before returning to the US. While in Asia he had significant contact with Tibetan lamas escaping China, whose torture-induced traumas he treated with acupuncture. Seagal himself tends to be a little coy about his practice: “I have been doing serious meditation in my own pitiful way for probably twenty-seven years.”
8. Kate Bosworth (1,390,000 hits)
At last we hit some real frivolity, with the delightful Ms. Bosworth of Blue Crush and Superman Returns fame. Or do we? Are we being harsh in thinking Bosworth only started practicing because then-boyfriend, Orlando Bloom, was into Nichiren Buddhism? Perhaps. And yet we’re happy to welcome Bosworth into the top ten, even though she and Orlando broke up (“He snores and is cheap”) and she may well have moved onto romantic and spiritual pastures new.
Still, while it lasted Bosworth’s affair with the Buddhadharma really seemed to mean something: “It’s just a really incredible state of mind. It’s just a beautiful place to try and be at. It’s basically about constantly growing and making yourself a better person and focusing on what you want for yourself and the world and really putting it out there. It’s amazing.” To which we can only say, “Awesome!”
7. Richard Gere (1,560,000 hits)
For many he’ll be the first celeb Buddhist to spring to mind, but Pretty Woman and Chicago heart-throb Richard Gere isn’t even in the top five — and that’s despite a friendship with the Dalai Lama.
Gere is a passionate advocate for human rights in Tibet; he is a co-founder of the Tibet House, creator of The Gere Foundation, and he is Chairman of the Board of Directors for the International Campaign for Tibet. Because of his support for the Tibetan cause he’s banned from the People’s Republic of China — and he’s also banned as an Academy Award presenter because of using the podium to denounce the Chinese government. Richard, you’re always welcome here.
Gere scores high marks for sincerity of practice, and meditates daily. “It helps me set my motivation for the day,” he says.
6. Herbie Hancock (1,590,000 hits)
One of the most revered contributors to modern jazz and former collaborator with Miles Davis, Hancock is a longstanding practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism, which has a heavy emphasis on chanting as a form of meditation. Hancock is a member of the Japanese Buddhist movement, Soka Gakkai International, which also counts Tina Turner and Wayne Shorter among its members.
Hancock became a Buddhist after seeing the effect it had on the performing abilities on bassist Buster Williams, and reckons that his own practice has been integral to his artistic development: “Buddhism opened me up to being out of my comfort zone — to exploring things and being courageous enough to try new things.”
5. Leonard Cohen (1,620,000 hits)
Doyen of despair, godfather of gloom, master of misery, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre could be seen as an ongoing exploration of the Buddhist teaching that life is inherently suffering. But there’s much more to Cohen’s practice than that.
Following an interest in Buddhism that started in the early 1970’s, Cohen was ordained in 1996 as a Zen monk at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, on a mountain-top overlooking San Bernadino, California, and was given the Dharma name, “Jikan.” Because his teacher doesn’t know much English Cohen is a bit vague about what the name means. Apparently it’s something to do with silence — “ordinary silence, normal silence” — something like that anyway.
Zen practice helped steer Cohen away from a long-term drug problem and, to his great surprise, helped dispel the gloom that had pervaded his life: “When you stop thinking about yourself all the time, a certain sense of repose overtakes you. It happened to me by imperceptible degrees and I could not really believe it; I could not really claim it for some time. I thought there must be something wrong.” Yes, being happy can be so unsettling.
4. The Dalai Lama (1,640,000 hits)
Uniquely on our list of Buddhist celebs, His Holiness is a Buddhist first and celebrity second. He may not croon into a mike or emote on a sound-set, but the Dalai Lama can certainly pack (and wow) an auditorium, and stars like Richard Gere and Keanu Reeves are eager to share the stage with the supreme head of Tibetan Buddhism, leader of the Tibetan Government in Exile, and incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
And top marks for length of practice: His Holiness is currently in his 14th documented incarnation as a lama, easily beating our other celebs who have at best only one lifetime of practice each — although admittedly in His Holiness’s sixth incarnation he refused to become a monk and spent much of his time chasing the ladies (ah, those youthful indiscretions!). The Dalai Lama also gets top marks for modesty: His Holiness describes himself as being “a simple Buddhist monk.”
His Holiness says, “Many of our problems stem from attitudes like putting ourselves first at all costs. I know from my own experience that it is possible to change these attitudes and improve the human mind.”
Well, we can only say that we’re sure that in his next lifetime His Holiness will at least make the top three.
3. Tina Turner (1,710,000 hits)
The “Queen of Rock and Roll” has an instantly recognizable voice, a career dating back to 1960, unbelievable legs, and a serious Buddhist practice. As shown in the biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It, it was Turner’s Buddhist practice that gave her the strength to leave her abusive marriage to Ike Turner in the 70’s, which in turn made her an icon for abused women everywhere. Turner is another practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism and famously chanted Nam Moho Rengye Kyo on Larry King Live (see video, below).
Turner said: “I had to teach myself because I didn’t have the freedom to go to actually go to meetings or for people to come to me … and it changed my life.”
2. Orlando Bloom (3,710,000 hits)
The dashing star of The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean turned to Buddhist practice because “The philosophies behind it are very current today and are a way of finding some sort of peace,” but also because it helped keep him from the self-destructive path he was always in danger of carving out for himself.
Bloom stresses that his Nichiren practice is very practical: “The philosophy that I’ve embraced isn’t about sitting under a tree and studying my navel, it’s about studying what is going on in my daily life and using that as fuel to go and live a bigger life.”
We wish Orlando well as he swashbuckles his way to Full and Perfect Enlightenment.
1. Tiger Woods (5,850,000 hits)[See “Tiger Woods and Buddhism” for an update].
Yes, with close to six million hits on Google he’s bigger than Richard Gere, more popular even than the Dalai Lama. Maybe even God. But then one prophet did foretell, “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity … He is the Chosen One.” (That was Earl, Tiger’s dad). And another seer spake thus: “He can hold everyone together. He is the Universal Child.” (Yes, that was Koltida, his mom).
And in case you think that quasi-religious adoration of Tiger is limited to his doting parents, here’s Michael Jordan’s take: “I really do believe he was put here for a bigger reason than just to play golf. I don’t think that he is a god, but I do believe that he was sent by one.”
Despite these accolades, we’re not entirely sure whether to regard Tiger as a Buddhist. He’s said, “I believe in Buddhism … not every aspect, but most of it. So I take bits and pieces,” which could make him sounds like a dilettante, but then even the Dalai Lama has expressed similar sentiments so we’re giving Tiger the benefit of the doubt.
Woods has also said, “I don’t practice Buddhism on a day-to-day basis, just when I feel like it.” So on the bad side he’s not a consistent practitioner, while on the good side he does practice. Again, that counts him in. That practice and background (mom Koltida is a Thai Buddhist) have helped Tiger become the almost inscrutably equanimous player he’s become: “Buddhism has been a major role in my life. It has given me an inner peace and calmness that I think I wouldn’t have achieved at such an early age.”
In 1996 Tiger and his father launched the Tiger Woods Foundation, which through personal enrichment programs, scholarships, direct grants, junior golf teams and the new Tiger Woods Learning Center, is helping millions of children reach their dreams. Tiger takes his status as a youth role model seriously: “I am not trying to preach to them that this is ‘a sport for you.’ I’m saying, ‘This is an opportunity for you to grow as a person.’ I think that is what really matters.”
So there we have it. Tiger Woods — Guru of Golf, Zen master of the fairway, first prophet of putting, dare we say even “demigod of the green” — is the world’s most famous celebrity Buddhist. More power to your putting, Tiger — and to your practice.