When I talk to Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland, we're at the brand-new home of The Tibet Center, New York City's oldest Tibetan Buddhist organization. Though it seems odd to be chatting with a wine-robed monk in the middle of a trendy Brooklyn office building, it makes sense somehow. More than 20 years ago Vreeland, 53, was ordained by the Dalai Lama, a leader known for his down-to-earth, practical messages that seem relevant just about anywhere.
Vreeland's father was a diplomat, so the young Nicholas, or Nicky, as he's known, lived all over the world before he became the Dalai Lama's photographer during his first trip to America in 1979. And if his surname sounds familiar, it's because his grandmother was the influential fashion editor Diana Vreeland.
On a recent fall day, we sat on cushions and talked about His Holiness's visit to Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall next week (click here to enter to win tickets), the everyday life of a monk in the city, and how we non-monks can apply basic Buddhist lessons to transform suffering into happiness and compassion.
What was your first foray into Buddhism?
I used to be able to answer that very easily. Now I don't really know. I was raised Christian. I was sent to Sunday school and went to church and was sent to an Episcopalian boarding school where we went to chapel every day. And after college I began to look for my own spiritual way. What I don't know is why I had this interest in pursuing a spiritual path.
While in college, I went to India to see my godfather, who is Indian. I spent several months traveling around Sikkim, Bhutan, went to Nepal. And that was my introduction to that part of the world back in 1973. I visited Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.
Then I came to study film at NYU and when I finished that I began to look for a way, and my search was brought to the Tibet Center, where Kyongla Rinpoche was teaching—and I'm still coming to The Tibet Center where Kyongla Rinpoche is still teaching.
How long were you in India?
A few months. Then I went back in '79 and spent a few months. I was a photographer, and I went right up to Dharamsala. I have this big wooden view camera, and I was taking portraits of holy men. I photographed different Tibetan lamas, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And I think that everyone in his entourage was so impressed with this enormous wooden camera that they asked me if I might photograph His Holiness's first trip to America. So I did.
As a result of my studies and my practice, I developed a strong wish to devote myself to this path more totally. I developed the wish to become a monk in 1980, '81. And my teacher held me back for a few years and then eventually felt that I was ready and that I should go to India to join the monastery that he belonged to. So I went off in February of '85 and became a monk. I was ordained as a novice initially by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And then as a fully ordained monk. And remained there for 14 years.
Was that a daunting process?
No, no. It felt like one little step. One big little step.
Coming back to New York City, how you did you—and how does one—balance the spiritual world with a very secular one?
Well, I don't think that one does. It's really difficult to bring any kind of harmony between the two. That is one's work. I mean that you can't simply impose a spiritual discipline that works in this environment. One is constantly sucked into the material preoccupations of this society.
I was living in a Tibetan refugee settlement when I first arrived [in India], and we were pretty cut off from the whole world. There were no cars, there was no phone, but now, there are cyber-cafes in the monastery. People have cell phones. When I first arrived, if I had to make a phone call to America, I would leave my room in the monastery around 6 a.m., walk 25 minutes to the edge of the settlement, wait for the bus, which went from little town to little town, collecting people on their way to the big town—Hubli. And by the time I got there, it's maybe 9:30, and I would check into a little hotel and then do errands. And that evening before going to bed, I would book my call, go to sleep, and some time in the middle of the night the call would come through.
Wow, that's a 24-hour ordeal.
And now we can go out into the fields where you can get good reception on your cell phone.