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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.
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; the New 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.”
Image: One of Nicholas Vreeland's photos of H.H. the Dalai Lama.