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A monk’s mission

An exhibition of photographs by Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland could help save an ancient Tibetan monastery.

art and culture Updated: Jan 09, 2010 19:21 IST
Poonam Saxena

Nicholas Vreeland

It sounds quite unbelievable. The son of an American diplomat, and grandson of fashion icon Diana Vreeland, is a Buddhist monk?But that’s the fascinating story of Nicholas Vreeland, who became a full-time monk at the Tibetan Rato Dratsang monastery in Karnataka almost 25 years ago.

Vreeland grew up all over the world — Germany, Morocco, America and France. While studying in a boarding school in Massachusetts, he discovered he was happiest taking photographs and working in the darkroom printing them. During his summer holidays in New York, he worked in the studios of two great photographers as an assistant. “I was very fortunate to be able to work for Irving Penn when I was 15 years old,” says Vreeland. “He recommended that I go to work for Richard Avedon the next summer. I continued working for these two photographers whenever I was able to.”

Then the Vreelands moved to Paris in 1971, and Nicholas spent the first two years of college “mainly enjoying the wonders of that beautiful city.” He went to New York to study film at New York University, but after completing the course, he returned to his first love, still photography, and supported himself as a photographer.

So when did Buddhism happen?

The Indian experience

Vreeland first came to India in 1973. His parents had asked an Indian friend — diplomat Shankar Bajpai – to be his godfather (“He held me at my christening in Switzerland”) and when Bajpai was the political officer in Sikkim, he invited Vreeland to visit him. Vreeland, who was in college in Paris at the time, arrived in Sikkim and then went on to travel in Bhutan and Nepal. “That was my first introduction to India and to Tibetan culture,” he recalls.

It was Vreeland’s biggest passion — photography – which was instrumental in bringing him back to India in 1979. He was invited by the Indian Tourism Board to travel all over the country and take photographs. In the course of his travels (“a very inspiring time”), Vreeland went to Dharamshala and did a series of photographs – including pictures of His Holiness.

This was the trip that cemented Vreeland’s interest in Buddhism. When he returned to New York, Vreeland pursued his interest in a more serious manner. “Eventually, I had a clear idea that I wanted to study and practice Buddhism as a monk,” he says, “It took me four years to test my resolve. I simply watched that decision. I felt if I still had that resolve one, two, three years down the line, then it was a firm resolve.”

His teacher in New York was a reincarnation of one of the lamas of the Rato monastery, and so, when Vreeland finally took the decision to become a monk, he came to this particular monastery. “At that time there were only 12 monks here,” remembers Vreeland. Rato Dratsang was a monastery established in Tibet in the 14th century. But in 1959, when the Chinese crackdown in Tibet took place, a few of the monks from the Rato monastery managed to escape to India, along with many other Tibetans. In 1983 finally, the monks established their monastery in a Tibetan refugee settlement in Karnataka. Says Vreeland, “Over the years, other monks have also escaped and come here to pursue a monastic vocation in the freedom of India.” Today, the infrastructure of the monastery is woefully inadequate and Rato needs at least $500,000 for its reconstruction.

That’s where Vreeland’s love of photography enters the picture once again. Pictures that he’s taken over the last 25 years are up for sale at an exhibition to raise funds for the monastery. Each image, signed and numbered, is part of a limited edition of 25 photographs that will be on sale for $1,000 each.

Life in a monastery

The Rato monastery is devoted to the study of logic. Monks begin by studying basic logic. Then they apply that logic to scrutinize the validity of different philosophical views. “We have to memorise the texts that we study,” explains Vreeland. “Then we go to our teachers to have those texts explained. Then we debate. Many hours of the day are devoted to debating. One person is the defendant and the other is the challenger.”

Mornings are spent in memorising and praying. In the evenings, the monks pray and then debate till almost midnight. Twenty years of this curriculum of study prepares them for a life of meditation.

“I have a great love for India,” says Vreeland. “I receive training to be a monk. But simply living in India is an extraordinary training. India forces you to accept life as it is. You have to change yourself to be happy here. When you learn that lesson, India becomes wonderful.”

Does he miss his earlier life?

Vreeland’s answer is simple: “No.”

Nicholas Vreeland’s exhibition of photographs opens at 6.30 pm on the 13th January at the India International Centre Annexe in New Delhi. It will be on till the 18th January. For more information, log on to