Friday, August 20, 2010

Buddhist Personality : Nicholas Vreeland

Grandma Diana Vreeland was known for her moves in the high speed fashion world, but grandson, photographer-turned-monk, Nicholas Vreeland has found his peace in a spiritual garb

HE’S given up the plush, polished lifestyle he grew up in. He’s given up the fast cars and fast money. And he’s given up his once-upon-atime designer wardrobe. All this, to make a home in a monastery in Karnataka and live a simple life!

There’s a celestial aura around him, the monk who shunned materialism and preferred the spiritual red robe over the glitzy world of fashion. In fact, Vreeland wears the red robe with quiet dignity. “Life is so transient, and it doesn't take much to recognise that a preoccupation with worldly matters doesn’t lead to any kind of permanent happiness. It’s not as if I don’t feel successful. I’m on the ladder to success.”

Nicholas Vreeland, who is Dalai Lama’s pointsman in New York, is proud of his spiritual legacy. His love affair with India is something karmic. Besides being a monk, Nicholas is a spiritual photographer. “Initially, I just wanted to capture some stolen moments with my wooden camera at the monastery. There was a need to define my experiences as a monk, visually,” says the spiritual photographer, who lives between New York and Rato Dratsang monastery in Karnataka.

He recalls that he was all of 25 when he first took Dalai Lama’s photographs. “The Dalai Lama sat on a chair. I clicked. I asked him to stand, and it was a much better photograph.”

Nicholas is a powerful practitioner of everyday spirituality. His book, An Open Heart, was on the New York Times bestseller list and highlighted the power of being compassionate. “Try being more thoughtful of others and less preoccupied with oneself. Smile at someone, be pleasant, helpful, generous, actually do something the way someone else would like it done... be less selfish.”

Every year, Nicholas spends months in India at the Rato Dratsang monastery in Karnataka. In fact, he’s spent the last 14 years building the place. What attracted him to India? “I first came to India in 1973, when I was 18. I returned in 1979, spending time in Dharamsala where I had the opportunity to meet and photograph the Dalai Lama himself. His Holiness’ advice to me was to study Buddhism, which I returned to New York to do. And my path changed. Being a monk is a positive process.”

He’s a global citizen and speaks fluently in English, Italian, French, Spanish and Tibetan. So, what attracted him to photography? “I would say that I love taking photographs, and that I bring to my pictures something of who I am.”

Nicholas shaving his head came as a shock to his grandmother, Diana Vreeland, who was a noted fashion writer and magazine editor. In fact, she advised the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on her clothes, when John F Kennedy became US President. Diana shared a close friendship with Jackie till her last days. Style bonded them, as Diana was New York’s most recognisable fashion icon, her best friend was Oscar De La Renta. So, what was his relationship with his grandmother?

“She wanted me to become a lawyer. She was shocked when I’d shaved my head. My grandmother and I were very close. I lived with her when I went to New York to study film. I then returned to live with her for a few years before leaving for India to become a monk. She didn’t stop me. She respected me, though with loving concern.”

One of his best spiritual buddies is Richard Gere. “Richard and I accompanied our teacher, Khyongla Rinpoche, to Bodh Gaya in 1986, just a few years after I became a monk and joined my monastery. He was so supportive at this important moment. We also share a love for photography, though it is a joke between us that we compose our photographs completely differently: Where I will look for the most direct formal view of a subject, Richard tends to find a more oblique angle of view.”

In fact, even in fast-paced cities, he looks for spiritual spaces. “There is a tree in a park in New York that I particularly enjoy sitting under. It’s the tree beneath which Swami Prabhupada founded the Krishna Consciousness movement in the 60s. I also love Varanasi. These are places where I feel happy. I think that one can feel soulful anywhere one is at peace. And I think one can bring one’s own sense of peace and happiness to anywhere one goes!”

Recently, he had an exhibition of his photographs taken over the years in the monastery. “When I arrived in Karnataka, there were 12 monks, now there are 120.”

This protégé of Henri Cartier-Bresson went to New York Film School, has photographed Indian maharajas before monks became his muse. “The credit for this exhibition, Photos For Rato, goes to Martine Franck, Henri’s wife. My fellow monks helped me in my studies and monastic life. At first, I couldn’t speak to them, as I knew no Tibetan. However, over months and years, we have become a close family of monks.” Does he have cravings? “Oh yes, I often crave for cheese, chocolate and ice-cream.”

So, what’s his secret of being a spiritual photographer? “While photographing, I try not to take; I try to receive. Each photographer has his or her own way of taking a photograph of someone. I used to enjoy using a large wooden view camera, because it imposed a situation where the person being photographed had to give of himself or herself.”

Yet, Nicholas has a simple philosophy in life — of giving and being unselfish. Indeed, he’s a monk with a different view of the world!

Read more: Shutterbug monk! - People - Life & Style - The Times of India