Tricycle‘s Fall 2012 issue features the stunning, black-and-white photos of Nicholas Vreeland: a monk, professional photographer, and newly-appointed abbot of Rato Dratsang monastery. (He also happens to be the grandson of fashion icon Diana Vreeland.) The first Westerner to be appointed abbot of a Tibetan monastery, H.H. the Dalai Lama told him upon his appointment that “his special duty was to be a bridge between the Tibetan tradition and the Western world.” Born to diplomat parents in Geneva, Switzerland, and subsequently dividing his childhood among Germany, Morocco, and the United States, Vreeland is a unique bridge, indeed.
In 2010, “Photos for Rato,” a worldwide exhibition of Vreeland’s photographs, helped to fund the $500,000 reconstruction of Rato Dratsang monastery, a Tibetan monastery founded in the 14th century, currently being rebuilt in the south Indian state of Karnataka. In March 2012, Vreeland was appointed abbot of Rato Dratsang.
Where are you from originally? I was born in Geneva. Then my family went to Berlin, which was at that time in the middle of East Germany. And then we went to Bonn, which was the capital of West Germany, and then to Morocco. And then we came to live in America when I was 13. So, an honest answer to where do you come from is “all of the above.”
What was your first introduction to Buddhism? In Geneva, when I was born, my parents had a young Indian diplomat friend—my father was a diplomat—who went on to become the political officer in what was then a little country called Sikkim; now it’s a state of India. I went to visit him when I was in college. I was living in Paris at the time and spent a couple of months really traveling around northeastern India; Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal. That was my introduction to Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism. But I think I should really give the credit to the Belgian author Herge, who created Tintin.
As in Tintin in Tibet? Yes. I went to a French school first and Tintin was very much a part of
French culture in the early ‘60s. And he’s still wonderful.
Were you drawn to Tibetan Buddhism right away or was it more of a process? My visit to India was in 1972, and a good five years later friends brought me to the Tibet Center, Kunkhyab Thardo Ling, where Khyongla Rato Rinpoche was teaching Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Though I didn’t understand him very well, what I did understand introduced an idea of the spiritual path that was totally different from what I had expected. Rinpoche was talking about the importance of diminishing self-cherishing, diminishing negative tendencies and developing concern for others, and love, and compassion…it touched something in me and I kept going back. I loved that Rinpoche seemed to reflect what he was teaching; he seemed to practice what he was teaching.
When did you decide to become a monk? I think it was 1980. When I discussed it with Khyongla Rinpoche he told me that that was wonderful but that I should test my decision over time. He pretty much kept me back from becoming a monk for about three years. He told me not to tell anyone. And then after three years he told me to request His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s opinion. I had an audience with His Holiness where he told me that yes, I’m a monk, and that I should go to India and join a monastery and study, not with the idea of remaining in India for the rest of my life but that I should spend some years there and then
return to this country to practice. He said that it was the responsibility of Westerners to practice Buddhism in this Western culture.
Were you the only Western monk at Rato Monastery when you joined? I was the only Western monk in the Tibetan settlement. And, you know, it’s interesting, because sometimes I bump into Tibetans here who have known me—there’s one young woman, a Tibetan woman whom I said hello to once. After I asked her where she was from, she said she was from the Tibetan refugee settlement in Mundgod. So I said, “Oh I’m from Mundgod too,” because that’s where Rato is. And she said, “I know. I’ve known you all my life. I’ve seen you since I was a tiny little girl. You were the first foreigner I had ever seen.” And so, it’s a community that when I joined had about 20,000 people. And yes, I was the only Western person there for a long time.
Was that strange for you? I didn’t really notice it because everyone was incredibly kind. My classmates, when I was studying, were so supportive of me. When I arrived I didn’t speak a word of Tibetan and I’d have to go debate. I knew the terms necessary for debating but I didn’t know how to chat and they would help me along. So, I was very, very nicely and kindly helped along. Was it hard? Yes, but I didn’t notice it. I didn’t really notice the difficulties.
But also, at the time, India was far more remote than it is today. And the Tibetan settlements within India were far more remote than they are today. I am aware of the fact that the idea of becoming a monk is not to go live in a foreign country. The Buddhist concept of becoming a monk is to devote yourself to your spiritual path, to remove yourself from society and from worldly concerns and to devote yourself to your spiritual practice. Nowhere in there is the idea that you should adopt a new cultural environment and cultural ways. So going off to India and living in India is an added challenge to becoming a monk. And I was aware that most of my fellow monks did not accept or even understand the concept that the earth revolved around the sun and that the moon revolved around the earth and that the earth was round; they had a totally different understanding of cosmology. One once said to me, “I suppose that when you hear thunder you don’t believe that there is a dragon in the sky?”
How did you answer him? I was stunned. But maybe there is a dragon in the sky!
How do you handle it now, being in a liminal cultural space between having an adopted Tibetan culture but also being from several western cultures? One of the most precious things that my teacher advised me to do was to really maintain my ways of doing things. I think that for a western monk going to live in a Tibetan monastery, the tendency initially is always to try to be Tibetan, to try to do it as Tibetans would. I’ve watched a lot of my fellow western monks really burn out in their attempt to be Tibetan. It was my tendency too. To a certain extent, I pushed too hard in that direction and found myself really having to take it easy. But since I had the support of my teacher and the support of my fellow monks, I was very fortunate. I had the luxury of being able to just go a little bit easy and do things at my pace and do things, as I say, my way. What does that actually mean? I had to do what monks have to do. I had to go to prayers. I had to go to debates. I had to study. I had to memorize. I had to do all those things…but I would pace myself. I think it’s a question of pacing, not pushing, that really helped me.
Do you find that your methods of practicing Buddhism change slightly depending on what cultural context you’re in? They change between being in the monastery and out of the monastery. I think that if I’m in New Delhi or Bombay or Bangalore or New York or Paris it’s pretty much the same. I’m sure that if I spent time in a Buddhist country like Sri Lanka, it would be different. But being in a monastery, it’s interesting. I always wear my robes. And when you’re in a situation where everyone is in robes and where the discipline or the daily routine is supportive of monasticism, that’s one feeling, that’s one environment. When I’m here [in New York], when I walk around, I stand out. That’s also very useful, that’s also very important. When we wear our robes, we are then aware of our difference from others. And when others are aware of that difference, that helps us to remain as monks; that helps us remain aware of the fact that we have made a decision to be a monastic.
When the Dalai Lama appointed you abbot of Rato Monastery, he said that your special duty was to be a bridge between the Tibetan tradition and the Western world. What does that mean for you? I’m not sure that I can answer that question right now. I think that His Holiness has given me a responsibility, a duty, as he said, and it will take time for me to understand just what that means. He was specific about wanting me to speak up at annual meetings of abbots. He does want me to express my views that are definitely influenced by my Western upbringing, education, and experiences. And he specifically expressed that it was important that these great Tibetan monastic institutions, which have so wonderfully preserved ancient traditions of study and ancient knowledge, be open to new western ideas. He hoped that whatever I might be able to contribute to that I actually do. He was basically saying, “Open your mouth and say something!” But of course, in order to do that you have to have something to say.
What I would like to say for now is that it’s rather humbling to have gone to the Tibet Center without knowing anything about Buddhism to now becoming the abbot of the monastery from where my teacher came. I’ve tried very hard never to be considered “the teacher” or “a teacher” at the Tibet Center. I feel that as a Buddhist monk and as a Buddhist practitioner that I’m always a student, that I’m working at learning. There is a great danger in assuming the role of being a teacher, especially in our society, since people imbue all sorts of holiness on people who are regarded as teachers. I feel that we have been extremely fortunate at the Tibet Center to have a truly qualified teacher leading us and I felt that it was important to maintain that awareness of the people who come from the Tibet Center. There’s no way that I can fill that place or should fill that place. That place is for Khyongla Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he comes here to teach. I say all this because I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that becoming the abbot of the monastery is becoming a teacher or a guru or something like that. I remain a disciple of Khyongla Rinpoche, of His Holiness, and of my other teacher. That doesn’t change at all.
Let’s talk about your passion for photography. When did you start taking photos? I was 13 years old. I was sent to boarding school where I was pretty miserable until I started taking pictures. I was very happy when I was taking pictures or working in the dark room. In the summers I would go to work for photographers here in the city.
Do you think there’s any interplay between being a photographer and your Buddhist practice? Do they affect one another? Oh, they definitely affect one another, and sometimes quite negatively. I definitely find myself pulled away from practice by my wish to indulge in photography.
When I’m photographing, I find that I look for the place where all the physical elements come together in a harmonious way. As I’ve watched myself do this, I’ve tried to catch myself to think about the fact that there is no actual place of harmony—no objective place of harmony. It’s purely subjective. When I was in Tibet in the early ‘90s with Richard Gere, we both went with the same kind of little camera. He said, “I have a new camera.” And I pulled mine out and it was the same—it was a Contax T2. We found ourselves as we traveled approaching the same situation to photograph from totally different angles. I would look for that center where everything came together, but he was interested in angles. One day I even found myself—this was actually in Dharamsala—saying “No, no, no, Richard. You want to be here.” And he moved to where I had shown and then he looked at me and said, “No, this is your photograph.” And then he took a photograph that’s one of my favorites of his pictures. So I try to keep in mind the fact that there is no inherently existent harmonious quality to a photograph and that once you begin to explore that, then the taking of a photograph becomes part of the practice of exploring and becoming familiar with the whole notion of emptiness.
Now, in terms of the value that photography has, if one is working at developing compassion or love or these qualities in respect to the world and others, I don’t know that photography is helpful. Where it can be destructive is that there is a little materialistic aspect of photography that can so easily consume one; it can become a virus within you. Especially these days, within the evolution of digital photography, there is this horrible thing called “planned obsolescence,” where you’re constantly trying to determine what the right equipment should be for taking photographs rather than just taking photographs. And that is definitely a challenge to the spiritual work of being content with what you have and diminishing attachment to possessions.
You’ve photographed the Dalai Lama several times and the Tibet Center has a relationship with him; theNew York Times once called you his “point man” in New York. Were you nervous meeting him for the first time? Yes, I was particularly nervous. I met him for the first time in 1979. I was photographing him with this big wooden view camera. I was told that I only had a very short amount of time to take the photo, and there was very, very little light. Due to the kind of film I was using and the equipment I was using, I realized that the exposure was going to have to be very long; it was going to have to be a minute. A minute is a long time to sit absolutely still!
So I set everything up and I chose a chair that His Holiness would sit in so that he would not be able to move. His Holiness came in and sat and I explained the situation. I’d take the slide out and then click the shutter and after about 40 seconds His Holiness would start to swivel in his chair and we would have to do another and another and another. Finally, His Holiness burst into laughter and it totally diffused the situation. I asked if he would stand against a wall instead and I took my picture; in one minute His Holiness did not move at all.
So the tension that had developed produced this whole other situation many years later when I photographed His Holiness at Rato Monastery in 2002. I was all ready this time; His Holiness stood there and I took my picture. I moved a little closer. I had been asked to take a photograph of His Holiness without his glasses, in profile. When I made that request His Holiness looked at me and said, “I know you’re trying to photograph my nose. But it’ll never be as big as yours.”
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