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.
Would you recommend to people at some point in their lives to have this experience of taking retreat?
Well, I can't judge whether or not it's necessary, but I think it's terribly helpful. Spending time in the monastery even today is tremendously helpful to me as a monk, and as someone who feels the need for a certain spiritual grounding.
To live among people who have devoted their lives to their spiritual development, where that is the main focus on their lives, definitely helps you remain focused. For a monk, of course, remaining in that environment is wonderful. I think monks on the whole consider that one of the more effective things they can do for others is to work on themselves.
What does it mean to be a good monk?
I think it means to implement the things you are studying. Monks have certain hours, some rules, that they lead their lives by. You have to share in [New York City], but as a monk you have to be very clear about the limits of that sharing, and that's difficult because this environment is so appealing and accepting and voluptuous and embracing, but as a monk you have to remain on the outskirts of all that and focused on the inner, spiritual work.
Do you have an example of that in everyday life?
A monk shouldn't listen to music. I don't have a television at home. I don't have a CD player. I used to love opera. I don't go turning on operas anymore. Though I have a radio and follow the news. Not indulging those kinds of desires, you have to really appreciate what being a monk provides. That's what gives you the strength to happily restrain from all the pleasures in life that most people pursue.
For those who aren't monks, how can we maintain a spiritual center without all those boundaries?
The spiritual work is diminishing the tendency towards selfishness and developing the tendency towards helping others. It's hardly something that is limited to being a monk. You can be a lawyer or a stockbroker or a waiter or someone working at a laundry. If your motivation is to serve others and to be helpful, it's a spiritual act. If your goal is to get rich and be important, it's not. And that's a mind-shift that you don't just click into. You have to really work at it.
How does one strengthen that muscle?
Each spiritual and faith tradition has its own way of doing that and there are a lot of overlapping ways, which is really important. Analytical meditation would be the most effective way [in Buddhism]—where you take a concept and think about it.
Let's say you're dealing with the development of patience. We all get angry and we all recognize that anger is terrible,, but people start with the premise that "I'm angry, that's the way I am." First of all you have to be interested in diminishing your anger, and then you analyze how monstrous it is, how that moment of anger that you recently experienced is so awful it made it impossible for you to sleep that night, and all the people around you really, really dislike you.
Looking at yourself calmly makes you recognize how ugly anger is—and as we study the laws of cause and effect and the laws of karma, every moment of anger leads you to more anger. You're more prone to lose your temper as you let go of that muscle of patience. You can get angry more and more easily. It makes you unhappy, it makes your environment unhappy, it makes people not really want to be friendly with you. As the Dalai Lama says, your digestive system starts to go and all sorts of problems arise.
We cannot expect to control our anger when we are confronted, but we can work on it when we're calm. The development of the muscle in that situation enables us to actually restrain ourselves. Our threshold has been moved to another place. We just don't get angry.
In India, you wait in line. There are often situations where you have to wait, and it's funny, it's life, you enjoy it, you have a cup of tea while you're waiting for something. And you come back to America and you see people incapable of waiting for things and you realize that by means of experience, you've become a little more patient. And if you can think about those little things, that in itself shows you that patience is not a given, but it's something we can actually work on.
What's the difference between learning not to react angrily and repressing anger?
We're not talking about repressing it at all. If you can hold back from really lashing out at someone, it would definitely enable you to maybe eventually become friends again, because we all know there are situations where our temper destroyed something.
What I just described has nothing to do with bubbling up anger, it has to do with dissipating anger, not being angry. The point is not to get our way, the point is to make the situation comfortable. It's something living in India really helped me with. India does not bend to one's needs, but the Indian experience teaches us bending in order to accommodate, finding happiness by accommodating, so anger is something that we have to diminish and eventually uproot totally and we're happy and it does come from tolerating. We have to remember that by compromising, by accepting things as they are, we benefit. If I was terribly upset by the fact that the wrong color white was applied to the walls here, I'd be miserable. But by accepting, wonderful! I'm happy here.
Besides analytical meditation, what other Buddhist tools are there for us to look at ourselves?
In developing love and compassion, we have to work towards smiling. You can't just give to our friends and the ones that smile back. It's really just developing a positive attitude towards everyone and eventually towards flies and mosquitoes. Buddhists put a lot of emphasis on recognizing the suffering that we all experience. There's the suffering of sickness, old age, death. Then there's the suffering of change, which is that every happy moment ends, every union finishes, every life ends. And with the ending of every happy moment is the presence of unhappiness. And then there's a third level of suffering, which is this all-pervasive suffering that is the state of life within the cycle of life.
Sitting on the subway, looking at all the people there, we're all experiencing that second kind of suffering, we're all experiencing the third, and out of recognizing that, we feel compassion, a wish to remove suffering from others. Then, still seated on the subway, you develop this appreciation for all the people who have helped the subway system, all the hard work that has gone into making this extraordinary array of tunnels under New York City by which we can zip around from this side to that side and these trains, it's amazing the whole thing, and every part of it has been thought of, has been made. Usually we're standing there saying, "Ugh. The subway hasn't arrived. I've got to get to my appointment." That shift makes the whole thing so extraordinary.
What are the greatest lessons you've learned from the Dalai Lama?
I think that something that he really conveys is his absolute practicality, his down-to-earthness. We're not talking about some ethereal, spiritual frivolity. He is practical and that practicality is accessible to us, and it is a shift in our attitude to our situation that enables us to behave in positive ways, and he shows us how to do this, he does it, he lives his life absolutely according to what he preaches, and he inspires that practical element.
He has the ability to make use of each and every moment in a positive way. We have invited him here, really The Tibet Center and Healing the Divide, to give a teaching on the subject of emptiness. We've invited him not to try to convert anyone to Buddhism, but to introduce the quickest way by which one brings about happiness in one's life. Not the idea that you would have to leave your faith tradition in order to practice or embrace this, but rather something that might be helpful in the practice of your own religion.
We believe that we have all sorts of afflictions, mainly desire/attachment and aversion—we really have this wish to satisfy ourselves and protect ourselves from anything that challenges our happiness. The root of those two afflictions is ignorance. Ignorance perceives there to be some sort of self, me, an independently existing form. Out of that grasping self, all the other things like pride and jealousy, arises from that self. So we have invited His Holiness to New York to teach about the concept of emptiness, the lack of self, and how to work at cultivating that feeling, how to develop awareness, a realization, of that lack of self.
So we've requested His Holiness give a teaching on a sutra, a sutra being a work or a word of the Buddha, and requested that he teach the Diamond Cutter Sutra. Among the sutras there are those that teach how to lead one's life, how to develop virtue, how to diminish non-virtue, and then there are those sutras called the wisdom sutras that teach on the ultimate truth of emptiness—the Diamond Cutter Sutra is one of those.
Now why is this all relevant? What's the point of knowing about emptiness? We consider that [it's only being] empty of self that any spiritual development is possible. The more we recognize that lack of self, the more we loosen the knot of self-cherishing and enable love, compassion, generosity, patience to arise.