Before Nicholas Vreeland became the first Western abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, he was many things: an assistant to the photographer Irving Penn; a Tibetan monk; a recipient of a geshe degree. He has longest been, however, a photographer. When Vreeland held his first camera, he was a lonely teen in boarding school. These days, he takes portraits of the Dalai Lama. As a photographer, Vreeland says, “I try to keep in mind the fact that there is no inherently existent harmonious quality to a photograph. 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.”

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, making him the first Westerner ever appointed as abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

This portfolio features a selection of photographs from the “Photos for Rato” exhibition. Prints are available at

You can read Tricycle‘s interview with Vreeland here