An interview with Nicholas Vreeland
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.