Top 10 celebrity Buddhists

Tina Turner

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, Uma, 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 also:

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.

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104 Comments. Leave new

  • Danie de Waal
    May 31, 2012 6:44 am

    Very informative and entertaining. There is often the misconception that because someone is a celebrity, the moment they claim affiliation to any religion/philosophy; that they must become the ‘poster child’ or example of such a group. We seem to forget that these people are celebrities due to their acting abilities/musical talent etc.

    Like all of us, these celebrities use the teachings to become fully what they are, and just like us they did not turn into a Buddha the moment they started following the teachings of the Buddha. I take my hat of to the celebrities who have many, many years more practice than me and they did this in an environment which I am certain does not make it very easy for them to practice.

    May we all benefit from our won and also their practice.

  • Ven. Dhamma Rakkhita
    August 14, 2012 2:32 am

    Great list, but I think Dr. Ambedkar is a great Buddhist leader in India should be here. For an entire generation untouchable he is father of them and he is one of the most recognizable and leader of Buddhists. He make freedom to all untouchable people from Brahmin tortured. and he is the Author of Constitution in India. he is a great Buddhist.

  • When I read your message, Dhammarakkhita, my first thought was that Babasaheb, although he was an important Buddhist, wouldn’t have enough hits on Google to qualify. And I think that’s actually the case. But when I do an update of this column, and that may be today, I’ll certainly include him and see if he makes the top ten.

  • Thank you for posting this article. I switched to Buddhism a while ago and it is amazing how many celebrities have too

  • Saying “I’m not a Buddhist” does not mean you’re not. It may be like saying “I’m not someone.” Both, or neither, may spring from what’s true.

  • it is good to see that many of the celebrities becoming buddhist ,in my opinin buddhism is the best religion in the world,if u can follow it……………………only in buddhist has the method of self controlling ………… it is good to be…………..

  • I am so happy to read this news that many celeb’s follow Buddhism.

  • ven kondanna
    July 25, 2013 1:58 am

    As i am being a Buddhist..i am completely happy to see the list of who is practicing Buddhist …………………..

    July 28, 2013 10:25 pm

    dear friend
    i am Buddhism from sri lanka , i can’t believe the god if there is a god in the world why lo-top people are suffering some people dont have food , water medical also war , god is superior but he can’t provide every thing people think about it deeply you come Buddhism it is only view not to religion we are going with nature we respect our environment and all animals it has power to live without disturbing

  • Hi, Bodhipaksa. How are you?

    Nice info……….

    I have a Question………….

    What’s your religion?


  • Hy Bodhipaksa.
    it has been an amazing experience for me by reading this article.
    Actually, i am a Buddhist from Indonesia.
    The question is, if someone’s gonna convert into a Buddhist, they “have to” at least mention the vows to TriRatna ( Buddha, Dharma and Sangha ). is it different in western country ? ‘)

    • It’s the same here, Pika, at least as far as officially converting in the context of a sangha. Some people of course will simply decide for themselves that they are Buddhists without reciting the three refuges.

  • I am Buddhism from Burma I really wanna know Buddhists from other countries really understand infinity life cycle. And do you believe in that.

    • Hi, Kyaw.

      Many Buddhists in the west accept the teaching of samsara as the beginningless round of rebirth. Some are agnostic about it, neither accepting nor rejecting that teaching because they can’t confirm or deny it in their personal experience (which is, I think, a very ethical position to take, since the Buddha encouraged us not to state as the truth something that we can’t verify in our own experience). A small minority see rebirth as incompatible with a scientific viewpoint and reject it. But I think this is a very small number.

  • The same Tiger Woods being labelled as a serial cheater? Is that what a “Chosen One” does?

    • This article was published a long time before Woods’s serial infidelity came to light. And as I’m sure you spotted, the tone of the writing is rather tongue-in-cheek.

  • […]  Famous African American who were brave enough to unchain themselves from the religion that kept th… […]

  • Hi Bodhipaksa, I think I would have never cared to read a listing like this if it were on any other site. But since I have a huge respect for you, I did go through it to see if there was something more indented by putting up this article on your site.

    I have a question:
    Wouldn’t giving undue importance to what is popular amongst people (number of hits) lead us to wrong way of viewing the world, condition our thinking in a wrong ways? Aim for glamour/popularity/fame – is it not against what Buddha told to strive. Doesn’t giving undue importance to these things encourage people to be in the list?
    You are very much aware what is popular amongst general people. You know what most popular videos in general are like. Does popularity in any way equate to reality, what is beneficial, important, etc? Should we bother about what is popular coz what is glamorous/attractive is what is popular?

    I would advise you not to update such listings further and may be take this down too if you realise that this does put the reputation of the site go down (but I wont say much coz of the fear that you might feel bad and discouraged).

    PS: even the picture on top is not very modest. Sorry if u think I am too conservative here but the whole page doesn’t leave a good vibe and impression

    • I doubt very much whether anyone is going to be seduced by the lure of fame because of reading about a list of Buddhist celebrities :)

      I found writing the article to be rather inspiring, but I suppose we all focus on different things…

  • notimportant
    June 22, 2015 8:46 pm

    Yes Bodhipaksa, if one’s focus is on fame/popularity/glamour/beauty, one can get inspired by these people.

    But, delusion does have its drawbacks. What happens to your inspiration when tomorrow, such people give a bad example of practice like your 1st ranker or disparage meditation due to lack of understanding like your 2nd ranker or someone new comes up with more “unbelievable legs” than your 3rd ranker criticises dharma?

    If one ‘makes’ or ‘breaks’ his confidence in dharma based on such insignificant things, it is as unstable and these things.

    The real confidence develops in dharma by seeing the truth and results of practice on our own. Probably, you have not yet seen enough results yet so that you don’t have to rely on these things. I wish you all the best with your practice of dhrama.

    Its good to get your inspiration from the Buddha and the Sangha.

    With love and kindness

    • It’s surprising how ready people who have never met me are to tell me about the deficiencies in my practice and in my attainment.

      “Let none find fault with others; let none see the omissions and commissions of others. But let one see one’s own acts, done and undone.”

      I find inspiration in the life of every person who practices Dharma, however falteringly they may do so. To suggest that this somehow replaces my faith in the Buddha and Dharma is frankly ridiculous, so the question of my inspiration being affected by the revelation that any given practitioner is a flawed human being simply doesn’t arise. If I hear that some Dharma practitioner, whether famous or not, has behaved badly, I feel compassion for their suffering and for the suffering of those they have hurt. My confidence in the Buddha and Dharma isn’t affected in the slightest. Why should it be?

      “He who seeks another’s faults, who is ever censorious — his cankers grow. He is far from destruction of the cankers.”

      May I respectfully suggest that there may be better uses of your time that being concerned about whether I might be Going for Refuge to Tiger Woods rather than to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha?

  • notimportant
    June 23, 2015 1:28 am

    Bodhipaksa, in my view, when this page was created (in the way it was created), the mind-state involved was imbued with much of delusion, which is neither good for the creator nor for the readers who get influenced.

    Therefore, when I commented, I only had the intension to direct the mind of viewers to the “Right View”.

    I believe “the friend who gives good counsel” is an attribute of a good friend.

    • To believe that you have direct knowledge of the mind states of others is a delusion and a projection.

  • notimportant
    June 23, 2015 4:08 am

    Hi Bodhipaksa, I just realised that I have caused enough hurt to you (which defeats my purpose anyway). Therefore, I sincerely apologise.

  • […] loss of beloved celebrities such as David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, Florence Henderson, and Leonard Cohen, to name but a […]

  • Gopinath narsude
    January 19, 2017 6:45 am

    I am a Indian govt. Servant ,I like the busdhhist principal of thinking of current life rather than past bhutama etc..and equality principal .

  • As time goes on I feel Christianity may not be the best Philosophy. Buddhism at least deals with reality.

  • Soka gakki is a cult.I was in it for long time so I have first hand experience
    It is just a corporation lead by an egomaniac that wanted to be in charge of the world and has lured many vulnerable people into trap.They target youth and college students.They believe that they get benifit from recruiting others.They chant to a piece of paper to get stuff.It is total mind control under facade of world peace.It is a multibillion dollar corporation scam.


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